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Only the Gods are Merciful

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Sael dönz Menaük was discovering it was actually possible to disappear into his bed. All he had to do was hide under the pillows at the headboard and not make a sound when his valet, Jekh, came in. Or his master, Vönan Geilin. Or his brother, the Dekan of Harleh. All three of these men had been in his room to look for him that morning, and subsequently, that afternoon, and yet none had noticed pillows being slightly more over-stuffed than usual.

If Diven had come in, he’d definitely notice something was off about the pillows at the headboard, but thankfully, it hadn’t come to that point. But he knew it would. And soon.

He dreaded having to rip himself from the safe haven of his mattress and his room. He dreaded having to be thrust in front of his father, the Vek of the Eastern Kingdom, and having to explain just what had gone wrong.

But it wasn’t his fault!

Oh no. He had the best tutor. He’d studied fervently in the months leading up to yesterday. He’d even conducted his prayers with more zest than usual.

And yet…

And yet he hadn’t been initiated into the circle of fire mages. Yesterday, he was supposed to have become a vönen and today he was still an apprentice.

He remembered it perfectly. The sun beams shining through the temple and the vönen’s expectant eyes. But when he’d called on the magic, nothing happened. It was if the magic had just failed! But that didn’t happen. Magic didn’t just fail. There had to be something. Sael slammed his fist on the mattress, careful not to mess up the pillows.

“Ah, so that’s where you’ve been hiding,” came a familiar voice. Sael inwardly cursed himself for his emotions getting the best of him.

“We’d almost resorted to asking the ömem to use the Sight to find you. Of course, that wouldn’t have worked if you’d been hiding in here, which is what I suspected. You can come out now, by the way.”

Sael tried to burrow through the pillows so as not to destroy the mirage of a perfectly-made bed, but, just like yesterday, that failed too. The pillows tumbled to the floor, taking out the candle on the nightstand in the process.

“Hello, Master.” Sael sat up on the bed, almost unable to look at Geilin’s face.

“Good afternoon.” The reply was genial, but Sael guessed there was some sarcasm beneath that calm smile.

Geilin rose from his perch on the divan and passed a cup to Sael.

“Here,” he said. His cheeks made his eyes squint and his whole face seemed to puff up around his mischievous grin.

That usually meant trouble. For Sael.

“What is it?” Sael eyed it suspiciously. The cup seemed to contain a clear liquid, but one whiff of it told him it wasn’t water.

“A drink I made.”

“You made this?” He’d never known his master to be much of brewer, but from the fumes this thing was giving off, perhaps chemist was a better title.

“Well, recreated it, from a drink I read about in the archives.”

Now Sael was even more doubtful about drinking it. Surely, Geilin wasn’t trying to kill him. But now that Sael thought about it, he was thinking he would be better off dead anyway.

Without anymore chatter, Sael knocked his head back and drained the cup’s contents. Or at least, he tried to. The drink rebelled against him, making his throat burn and his eyes water. He coughed more of it up than he could hold down.

“Ugh,” Sael wiped his hand with his mouth. His entire face and esophagus felt like it’d been burned by a firebolt.

Geilin chuckled. “I trust you won’t be trying to gulp it down like that again. It’s not ale.”

“I’m aware of that now.”

“In fact, its alcohol content is perhaps ten times that of ale!” Geilin’s face radiated with pride. Sael thought he was going to be sick.

Still, he did take another precautionary sip from the nearly-drained cup. He would need this today, and a lot of it.

His father was coming from Worlen. That really wasn’t any surprise. His father often made trips between Worlen, the capital of the Eastern Kingdom, and Harleh, the city on the edge of that kingdom. And his two sons lived there, after all.

What was surprising, however, was that this time the Vek of Worlen wasn’t coming to engage in another political discussion with Sael’s brother, Seffni. The vek was coming because of Sael himself, and Sael, presently, was no one to make a day’s journey for.

After some time, Geilin leaned in and patted Sael’s shoulder. Perhaps he’d noticed the creeping dread on his face, or the dejection.

“It’s really nothing to get upset over.”

“Of course it is.” Sael sighed. “I’m a failure.”

He looked at his feet, hanging off the edge of the bed. They were every bit as pink and white as any noble’s feet. They were clean, too, which was more than most could say in all the Eastern and Western Kingdoms. And yet, the privilege, too, had failed to make a difference during the initiation ceremony. He recalled a peasant earning the right to call himself a vönan just days before his own ceremony.

Sael sighed again. This time, his curled blonde hair swept over his eyes as he slouched. If Father were to see him now, he’d get such a chewing out.

Geilin clucked his tongue, as if to chastise him for his gloomy mood.

“I mean it, Master. I’m just not fit for… well… anything.” Had Father had his way, Sael would be in-training to be dekan of a small city. But as it stood, his Father had let him pick his own destiny. It had been Sael’s happiest day when the Vek of Worlen had agreed to his second son becoming a fire mage-in-training. Now, that destiny was shattered. Perhaps yesterday had been his worst day. No, Sael corrected himself. Yesterday, Father had still been in Worlen.

“You did everything you could have done, if it’s any condolence.” Then Geilin turned to the side and cupped his chin. He looked every bit the archetypal philosopher. The eye tattooed on his bald head, a representation of the Eye of Atnu, seemed to glow golden. “Still, it’s very curious why your magic just seemed to fail like that. Very curious. I shall have to look in the archives for similar such incidents.”

“You’ll be telling my father, won’t you?” Sael couldn’t get his voice to sound any stronger. It sounded petulant and lame, like a child who wasn’t getting his way and was sad for it.

“Yes, yes. I shall have to tell him.”

Deep in Sael’s heart, he knew his father would be overjoyed at the news that his son wouldn’t be becoming a vönan any time soon.

“But look at it this way,” Geilin turned to him, “at least you won’t have to shave your head.”

Sael made a face. “I wouldn’t have had to anyway.”

“Well, at least it’s for sure now.”

Most trainees had their heads shaved and their bodies tattooed after successfully initiating. Only members of the noblest families in the land were exempt from the practice of having their heads shaved. It had been explained that the gods always watched these nobles a little more closely, so there was little need to be an obvious target.

Sael was going to say how he hadn’t quite given up on magic. Although the time had come and gone for him to be in the higher circles, he still wanted to learn about it. Even though…

He would have said this to Geilin, but at that moment, there was a knock on the door and Sael was broken from his thoughts.

“Come in,” he called.

He thought Jekh would appear with a finely tailored outfit and a lunch tray. Instead, it was Devin, the head butler himself.

“Your Highness,” he said grimly, “there’s been an accident.”

-

If Koreh had been told he’d be incapacitating a young man the second he’d entered Harleh Keep, he would have turned straight back to gü-Khemed. Of course, he’d dreamed about this moment, just not this part. He dreamed of pushing the young man into the street. He hadn’t dreamt further than this, however. He hadn’t known that this would happen. In fact, he’d been expecting that the opposite would happen—that he’d somehow save the man from getting run over by a cart. As it stood, he’d pushed the man in the path of a cart and the poor fellow was now half-way pinned underneath it.

As he tried to lift the cart and help the poor man, his thoughts were screaming. Why him?

The answer came, as it always did, like a whisper in his ear, like images flashing through his head. It was necessary.

Really? Koreh almost lashed out at the voice in his head, however impossible that was.

But the voice did not come again. Koreh used all his strength and still the cart wouldn’t budge. It was at that moment, however, when he saw others making their way into the street to help him. It took about four of them to life it and another to drag the man out from underneath it and out of the street.

At least the man seemed conscious, albeit in a serious amount of pain.

Koreh followed the injured man and the person who carried him. There didn’t seem to be any need to, but he felt responsible for what had happened. And it was like the Taaweh were whispering again to him. Follow him.

The man who carried him was a muscular man. He seemed to be a farmer for a living, or something equally as labor intensive. His muscles bulged and the man had pushed seemed like a sack of flour in his grasp. He was even hanging off the man’s back like a sack of flour, too.

Koreh made his way through the streets, training the farmer. His name was Mak and he was a miller’s son. He’d seen someone was in the street and rushed to help.

“Ya needn’t follow, uh…”

“Koreh…”

“Koreh…” The name rolled on the man’s tongue like an exotic wine. “Ya from th’ West?”

“Yes,” was all Koreh said. “I just… I feel it was my fault he got injured.”

If the man hanging off of Mak’s back had heard Koreh, he showed no indication. His eyes were closed, as if he were in a deep, fitful sleep.

“Where are you taking him?” Koreh asked. They’d been walking for a while now, going up the streets as the city inclined. Surely, they must have passed an ömem by now.

“T’ th’ castle. I reckon this one’s a valet.”

“Valet?” Koreh had never heard the term before.

“Y’know, a bu’ler, a servan’.”

“Oh…” Now that Koreh inspected him closely, the man’s clothing seemed too fine for regular street clothes.

Koreh stared up at the looming castle. It wouldn’t be a long walk, but the way they were going, passing through the various gates, it might take a while. He dropped back a little and held his hand close to the man. When he was sure no one was looking, and under the cover of overhanging roofs, he used the healing magic the Taaweh had taught him. As the light blue sparks flowed over his body, the man seemed to adopt a more peaceful expression. The magic wouldn’t be able to heal him right away, but at least it would speed up the healing process.

By the time they reached the final gate, the man seemed to be sleeping calmly. The guards called for a cart, so that the man would could be escorted into the castle with ease. It still seemed ironic to Koreh, however. He tried to suppress a small grin and found the guards eyeing him with suspicion.

“Since he’s a member of the household,” the guard explained, “I’ll need one of you to give statements about what happened.”

Mak seemed to stiffen at those words. No doubt he was intimidated by these guards.

“I’ll do it,” Koreh offered.

“Righ’ you are.” Mak nodded. “Guess I’ll be goin’ then.”

They said their goodbyes and Mak invited him to an ale house. “Don’ ma’er the nigh’. I’ll be there.” With that he was walking down the hill, likely off to work again.

The guards then began to question him. He said all he could, which wasn’t much, except the part about pushing the poor valet.

To his surprise, the guards instructed him that he would be questioned shortly. Again, Koreh thought. Then he was being pushed into the castle’s gates by one of them. The feel was reminiscent of the guards back in gü-Khemed, and he shuddered. For a second, he expected to be pushed behind a bush and forced to submit to their will.

But that wouldn’t be the case. He was led into the castle and asked to sit in a waiting room.The chairs were upholstered in geometrical patterns of red and gold. The wooden furniture was shined like jewels. And the pairings showed the highest attention to detail, whether it was landscapes or portraits.

It was might have been more luxurious than anything Koreh had ever seen before. But he had seen it. This exact room. In a dream one night, he’d been here. A Taaweh had been there, too. She’d explained he’d need to convince the man who was to meet him that he wanted to work here. To be of service. To be—he now knew the word—a valet.

Ah, now it all made sense. The castle was now down one valet and who should step into his place but…

The door opened and an older looking man entered. He wore a similar uniform to the previous valet, and yet he had an air about him that seemed to scream important.

“Good afternoon, Sir.” The man greeted him.

Koreh jumped to his feet, not sure if he was meant to bow or not. Instead, he tilted his head slightly and muttered, “good afternoon.”

“I am Diven, head of His Lordship’s, The Dekan of Harleh’s, household staff. I understand you witnessed an incident containing one of our servants.”

“Y-yes.” Koreh related the incident—as he called it—once again, leaving out the fact that it was he who had pushed Jekh.

“I see,” the valet said. He had listened to the story without the slightest hint of emotion, which irked Koreh to no end.

Then, Diven held out a bag. Koreh heard the unmistakable clink of coin.

“His Highness would like to thank you for your troubles.”

Koreh held out his hand and felt the weight of the bag. He was awe-struck. This was probably more money than he’d had in his entire life. Still, he felt guilty about it. It was Mak who should have this money, not him.

“I will see to it that the guards escort you out.”

The valet began to turn, but Koreh yelled, “No! Wait!”

The man turned around slowly. “Is something wrong with the sum you’ve been compensated with?” He didn’t seem like he was willing to negotiate.

“Yes, in fact.” Koreh stood firm. “There was another man with me. He carried the valet, Jekh, here but needed to go back to work by the time we arrived at the castle. Really, you should be giving this to him.”

“And who is this man, Mak?”

“He’s um… a miller’s son. He says he’ll be at the Kikid Ale House tonight.”

“Very well. We shall see to it that the man is compensated as well.”

The valet was about to leave again when Koreh grabbed hold of his arm. “I uh… I don’t need this.” He dropped the coin purse into the man’s hand. “Give it to Mak.”

“To refuse an offer from His Lordship is most unwise.” Diven pursed his lips, the only facial expression he’d made the entire conversation.

“I—I’m not refusing an offer. I want something else.”

“His Lordship will listen to your terms, within reason.”

Koreh offered to be hired on the spot, in exactly the way the Taaweh had told him to do it, forged documents and all.

Diven’s eyebrows seemed to reach his scalp, but he did not refuse him.

“Your Highness, as you are well aware, there will be a serious shortage of valets with the vek coming. And as it stands, Jekh will not be able to work for what the ömem say will be months,” Dekan was saying.

Sael hadn’t quite rid himself of his mopey mood. If anything, it was mopier. He sat in the study, poring over the archives with Geilin. So far, there had been no mention of a trainee’s magic simply disappearing.

His fingers let go of the scroll, that instantly rolled up again, snapping at his fingers like an angry bird.

“Months?”

“Yes, Your Highness. The injuries were severe, but thankfully, not fatal.”

Sael felt his heart sink. He was worried beyond imagining for Jekh. He’d employed him two years ago because the thought of having a handsome man as his valet had always intrigued him. Jekh, besides being exceptionally handsome, was also a wonderful servant. He’d always been able to anticipate Sael’s needs, sometimes better than Sael himself. Now he’d be without him. And on the day his father arrived, to top it all off.

For perhaps the tenth time that day, Sael found himself sighing. Everything was going wrong. Perhaps a holiday had been announced without his knowing. Torment Sael Day. It definitely seemed like something his father might take part in.

“But I have some good news.” Devin’s face did not show good news. Like always, it showed nothing at all. “A new valet has come under our employ.”

This perked Sael up. “A new valet?”

“Yes, Your Highness. He comes with excellent recommendations from a noble house in gü-Khemed.” If Devin seemed like he was pleased with himself, he didn’t show it. “He will serve as your valet in the interim.”

At least it couldn’t get any worse, Sael thought.

“He starts tomorrow. The staff is training him now.” Then Devin cleared his throat. “Also, word has been sent that the vek will arrive precisely at Namom, and I shall be your attendant this evening.”

No, it could get worse, Sael now knew. Why had he thought any different?

-

The Vek of Worlen had never been told he was an intimidating man. He knew he was. Since a young age, he’d been raised to show only the most severe side of himself. This had worked splendidly in political situations, even with the Emperor himself. But as far as other situations had gone, it hadn’t worked in his favor. Sure, Seffni, and his late wife, Nara, had never fallen for his facade. But Sael.

Sael was practically afraid of him and Worlen wasn’t sure just what to do about that.

His youngest son had seemed absolutely petrified when he’d walked in the hall. They hadn’t had much time to talk as Seffni caught him up with the latest dealings in the West. Harleh served as a gateway to the Emperor’s domain and it seemed the old croon was attempting to spread his influence even farther into the East. All ready, guards were defecting—yes, he thought of it as defecting although they were all technically one kingdom—to work in gü-Khemed. They had more privileges there, he’d been told, but if careening drunken in the streets was a privilege, the vek wanted none of it.

In the meantime, Sael had seemingly slipped away from them. No matter, Worlen thought, they’d talk soon enough.

-

Tonight, Sael had chosen a red wine instead of his customary white. Jekh might have shown an expression of surprise, but Devin had said nothing, whisking the white away and returning with a savory red.

The meal tonight was lamb served with springtime vegetables, along with an assortment of other seasonal dishes. Sael loved the smell of rosemary that radiated from the meat. He watched as it glistened under the light of the the three grand chandeliers.

In truth, he was famished. He’d hardly eaten anything the entire day because of the anxiety over having to talk with his father. Still, the lamb seemed too good to pass up, and he found himself indulging in little pieces. Red wine had been a good compliment, although the acidic taste stayed on his tongue longer than he was expecting it to.

He carefully eyed his father in the moment while he wasn’t eating. Worlen was engaged in a conversation with Seffni and Tanum. He was close enough to hear the words “children” and “heirs,” but he could quite catch the rest of it. Father always brought a lot of chatter with him, whether he intended to or not.

By the time dessert arrived, Sael could only manage a spoonful. The time would be soon when Worlen would talk to him and he knew he wasn’t ready. Perhaps he’d faint right then and there and have to be brought back by an ömem and her smelling salts. That, really, would be the best-case scenario. He hadn’t yet imagined what the worst would be.

-
The vek was seated in a chair by the fireplace as Sael entered. He’d chosen his personal audience chamber to talk to his son. He’d also drawn the curtains, and no one else was present. This would be a private conversation.

“Do you remember, Sael, how you convinced me to have you train as an acolyte?”

“Yes, father.” Sael was astonished that his voice sounded so calm. “I argued that a vönan with a close alliance to our family would be invaluable.”

“And do you know why I agreed?’

“I…” Now Sael was losing his words. “I did not ask.”

“Because,” Worlen said, “the vönan, like the ömem, are only loyal to themselves, and I thought your brother may need a vönan who was loyal to him.”

“Yes, father.”

“So you see, Sael,” Worlen went on as if he hadn’t heard him, “you have not only failed yourself. You have also failed your brother and the future of the veikit.”

Sael could think of nothing to say to this. There were no excuses. As the vek always said, a Menaük did not lose, and here he was, losing his sense of honor and his words with it. He felt the faintest hint of dizziness and looked down.

“Sael!” His father’s voice boomed, so that he was forced to look up. “My patience with you is at an end. It is too late now to choose a different path, and yet you’ve blundered the one you’ve been on.” Worlen touched his forehead and pressed his eyes closed. “You do realize, as long as Seffni fails to produce an heir, you are the next in line for the tondekan of Harleh.”

“Yes, father.”

Worlen leaned back in his chair. It was the first time Sael had ever seen his father so tired. Not even in his worst negotiations with the Emperor had he had appeared so taxed. “Just tell me why you failed, Sael.”

“I.. I don’t know, Father.”

“Master Geilin has informed me your magic has stopped. Is that true?”

Sael took a long breath and felt tears begin to sting his eyes. “Y-yes.” He’d been avoiding that fact more ardently than he’d been dreading his father’s arrival. It was true. All that training and praying gone to waste. The reason he’d stayed in bed until midday was because there was no longer any reason to perform the ritualistic dances of Penent and Cabbon. He was completely powerless.

“And yet you still don’t know the cause of it?”

“I-I don’t, Father.” His voice was growing weaker. He knew he’d start shaking soon if the vek continued on like he was.

“Then I suggest you find the reason. Use any means necessary, within reason. You are the heir apparent to Harleh and perhaps all of the East. You must find the cause and you must have that lead you to the solution.”

Worlen’s voice was so strong he was practically yelling. But Sael knew, somehow, that his father was trying to sound encouraging.

“I will, Father!” Sael felt his strength renewed. Perhaps if his father believed in him, then…

“Then there’s no time to waste. Master Geilin has sent for more scrolls. I expect you to help him first thing in the morning.”

“I’ll start right now.”

“Yes, good.” Worlen nodded.

Sael was soon dismissed. In truth, he still felt terrible. His powers were gone, seemingly vanished. And yet, he had a purpose again. He could almost rejoice. The doors to the vek’s chamber shut just before he could hear the whisper, “have both my sons been cursed by the gods?”

-

Koreh had, of course, lied about the reference or ever having been a valet. The training that afternoon had been exhausting and was relieved to be on a cot in the servant’s quarters right now. Did the Taaweh actually think he could pass for a valet? Sure, he was a quick learner, if learning Taaweh magic was anything to go by, but manners were another thing. He’d been raised as a peasant, a prospective farmer, and it would take a very long time before he resembled anything like a proper valet.

As things were going now, he had until tomorrow. Koreh rolled over in the cot. It wasn’t uncomfortable, and it beat sleeping on the ground as he had done for the many years after his parents had died. Still, he might have preferred the moss bed he’d found in the Taaweh ruins to the rickety old thing.

He wasn’t surprised when he started dreaming. The dreams always came, along with the Taaweh messengers, ready to teach him a new magic or show his a piece of the future.

There was no Taaweh in this dream, however. He dreamed he was in a luxurious bed. One much grander than the one he currently occupied. He might have snuggled into it, only there was someone else in it. Underneath him.

The boy was beautiful. His hair was the golden that reminded Koreh of wheat fields and sunshine. And his eyes were verdant green, almost too bright to be real. And, there was another thing about him that made Koreh’s heart flutter. The boy was completely naked.

No, this wasn’t a Taaweh dream at all.

Just before the dream drifted off, Koreh heard himself moan something.

“Sael…”