This scene contains drug-induced coercion, social abuse, psychological torment, disassociative episodes and other references to mental illness, and brief violence.
???? of the Aster’s Gloom?, 2030? D.C.E?
???? — ????
Mansa’s voice sounded almost mad with triumph. It was a sudden, sickening change.
“Oh how I have waited for this! I have wanted to snatch you from Daksha Kansal for so long, my innocent, beautiful Empress. The Zaidi barbarians ill deserve your grandeur.”
Around her eyes, the cloth was porous enough to see hints of light like stars within the darkness that otherwise blinded her. She could not see shadows or outlines of people, try as she might. However she could tell by his speech that Arthur Mansa was in front of her somewhere and that he was close. When he spoke, however, Madiha quickly lost her composure and sense of place. She reacted with unthinking, visceral disgust to him.
“You abducted me for this nonsense?” She shouted in defiance.
Madiha struggled, moving her arms, legs and torso and trying to force herself to stand; but her body was bound tight. She had her hands affixed to the wooden arms of a chair, as if condemned to electrocution, and her legs were similarly restrained. She pushed on her bonds to no avail, stressing her wrists and ankles as she attempted to escape.
Unable to physically extricate herself, Madiha mentally cried out for the flame.
She felt her own voice echo painfully within the recesses of her mind.
These exertions bore no fruit.
She felt a hollow place in her brain where she should have felt the power.
Her abilities had become a blurry memory.
As one who knew well the agony of memory loss she felt a jolt of panic.
Her anxiety shook through her body and she tried to force her bonds again to no effect.
“You will not escape from here, my Empress.” Mansa said. His voice had a mock sweetness to it. “I have sealed your inconvenient quirks. Please, do calm down.”
“Stop calling me that!”
Behind her she felt the Majini drawing an eldritch breath.
Every pull of its lungs seemed to steal air from her own. Her body was in distress and she was losing grip on her mind as well. She felt an urgent need to move that she could never satisfy; and she felt as though her mind were stretching beyond its reach to try to seize upon her power, but she was still unable to. It was as if one of her limbs had been cut. Whereas before she could move the power like a finger, she had none now.
Shortness of breath, dizziness, and a cold sweat that crept down her chest and back.
Her whole body was shaking and she could not help it at all.
She was just then starting to worry about her own safety.
As the illusion of burning out of this predicament dissipated, it dawned on her that she was trapped. She was in danger. She could be tortured or killed. Her heart squirmed.
In the darkness before her eyes, she heard Mansa’s voice again.
“I regret that it had to come to this, Madiha. I had truly hoped to take you under my wing and to slowly unveil the truth. Rangda could have been a second home to you under my careful watch. After you rejected me I tried to force you to return to the negotiating table, to swallow your pride or at least to react in a fashion that could lead us to a dialog. Unfortunately, the rot of Daksha Kansal’s ideology has wound its way too deep into your soul. Speech will not help. In order to begin to heal you, I will have to drain the abscess.”
She felt something sharp going through the nape of her neck.
“It will be shocking, painful, and sudden. It may not make sense to you. But it is right.”
Around the pinprick her sinews grew hot and tight. She started to cough.
“What are you doing to me?” She shouted.
“Opening your mind to the truth.” He replied. He sounded frighteningly elated.
Madiha quickly started to feel more disoriented than she once was. Though she once knew her feet to be touching the ground and her back to be upright, she no longer felt herself anchored by gravity. As the drug coursed through her body, she thought herself suspended in a void. What little light lay before her eyes danced and twisted in the dark. Sounds felt louder and harder to focus on. She felt as though her mind had been ripped from her body, and the world outside her was only disembodied voices speaking cruelly.
“Allow me to be frank, for everyone with us in this room. I know I will sound mad, but every genius who has seen truth in this world sounds mad. Madiha Nakar is the eldest child of Emperor Kanawe Ayvarta II and therefore first in line for the Imperial throne. Sarahastra Ayvarta is a pretender whose very birth was a grave crime against history.”
Between his words, Madiha thought she heard a woman-like voice protest, but she was soon muffled and inaudible, likely rendered so by whoever was assisting Mansa in this scheme. In her place, another participant rose to challenge Mansa’s reign over the room.
“Have you any evidence of these laughable claims, Councilman? Our alliance already supposes Ayvarta has a true Empress, and our operations are predicated on this fact.”
She recalled the voice that spoke the thoughts she wanted to vocalize, but could not in her growing stupor. It was Gaul Von Drachen, the elusive Cissean General among the Federation invasion force. He and Madiha had clashed in Bada Aso, and she had almost forgotten his existence since. She had last seen him beneath the flood rains. What was he doing here?
“Drachen, I am a sagacious man, I would not be potentially throwing my life away without proof. I have proof in forms short and long. Which do you desire first?”
“Well, first, I desire you refer to me as Von Drachen. Then you may continue your spiel however you wish. Though I warn you that your words are sounding rather dangerous.”
“Where you see danger, I see only opportunity, Von Drachen.”
Madiha heard footsteps that reverberated, maybe in the room, maybe only in her head.
The Councilman began to speak with an uncannily boisterous inflection.
“Since my youth, the fall of the Empire has been a subject of obsession for me. Such a powerful institution, so quickly destroyed; I have labored for decades to understand. In that time I have picked up a plethora of curious facts about our mutual acquaintance here. To begin with, I know the date of Madiha’s birth to be the 41st of the Postill’s Dew of 1999. It took place mere days after the death of Aubake Solstice IV, whose son you know well as the Ayvartan Emperor relevant to your lifespans: Kanawe Ayvarta II.”
Mansa’s voice rose high and grandiose as if preaching to a church audience.
“On this day Kanawe’s pregnant first wife, the stunning Genat of Tars, grew horribly ill and went suddenly into labor. She passed after a painful, premature birth. Alongside her died Kanawe’s firstborn child and future heir to the throne. On the eve of his coronation he was given the ashes of two bodies too many. For decades the instrument of Genat’s death was known to be poison. It was blamed on the growing political Left.”
Madiha’s head churned. She knew nothing of this history. She scarcely knew anything about the Emperor himself save for the cruelty he visited upon the people she loved.
She knew too that she had ended his life. She killed him; she killed her supposed father.
Yet she could almost make it out in the darkness. She saw the forms swelling and shrinking like images in smoke. She saw a woman, tall and beautiful and heavily pregnant, sick to death on a cushioned table, legs spread, her body covered in bloody silk. Several attendants in varying states of panic surrounded her. Her fine brown skin had gone pale and clammy. Her eyes rolled into her sockets. She convulsed sickeningly.
Around her the attendants broke into sobs. They extracted a child; but it was too late.
And yet, Madiha heard the cries in the room. Why would there be cries?
“Owing to the traumatic shock of losing his father, wife and child, the Emperor took a dark turn after his coronation.” Mansa continued. “He fell into mysticism, reviving an ancient imperial title — the once revered and forbidden name of the first Emperor, Ayvarta. Naming himself Ayvarta II, he styled himself a Warlord also, a folk hero, a fairy tale. He vowed to awaken a power that would crush his leftist opponents and create another mythical thousand-year reign; he spent his life on this meaningless errand.”
Kanawe Ayvarta II. His name was like nails in her skull. She could see him too.
She did not want to. She felt in her mind the desire to run though her body could not.
“After this tragedy, Kanawe’s third wife, conveniently pregnant at the time, bore her own fruit. Kanawe’s new heir was named Sarahastra Ayvarta, to the applause of the conspiracy that brought her into the world. Now the stage was set for the early 2000s D.C.E. There was a new royal line, a new royal name, and a chaotic future ahead for the Empire. I needn’t explain what happens next. You lived through it, after all, Madiha. The Zaidi rose, the Empire fell, and the White and Red armies fought for the scraps. The White Army was defeated and fled. The Socialist Dominances of Solstice were born.”
She could not escape the distorted images of her past no matter how much she fled.
Emperor Kanawe standing before his throne, surrounded by shadows he thought under his control. They lurked and waited and watched. Did they ever protect him? She struggled with the man. She was a child, and he was in the depths of some grandiose delusion; it could not rightly have been called a battle. And yet after the aimless violence of their clash he was dead. She had killed him. She saw his body crash into the earth.
There were eerie cheers and laughs as the light left the man. Was it the Majini?
Surrounded by the evil gloating shadows freed from his control, she summoned the fire in the most brutal, visceral way. Great consuming flames burst out of her body and reached, snake-like, for every Majini in attendance, seeking them wherever they fled. Thousands of these false lives she crushed in her unrestrained fury. Great snake-like heads of fire spread through the palace and burst through the windows and roofs and out the doors. She made the sky rain fire over the palace. She put Solstice to the torch.
Mansa’s voice disrupted the visions. He made the shapes change with his tongue.
He was laughing mad, speaking as if possessed by a spirit.
“And all of this history could have easily been misread as written by the Imperial losers and the Communist victors, each with their own embellishment! Can you believe the injustice of it all? Can you believe the frailty of our works?” He continued, his cadence giving the illusion that every syllable had a calculated melody. “History was almost snuffed out, but the truth was still out there, flying on the wind-blown ash of the burning Solstice city. Only a person in the right place at the right time could piece it all together.”
“How can you be so sure?” Madiha said. She struggled to speak, and she felt Mansa’s words battering at her weakened mind. He was dragging her mind across the echoes of time and it hurt. She grew more afraid and cold and her senses swam all the more.
“I am sure because I am a man born of the confluence of the world’s four winds, Madiha. It is only here in Rangda that it becomes possible to make sense of your history. Listen: after the Zaidi revolution remnants of the lower Imperial Authority fled away from Solstice. Rangda was the most convenient place to escape. Low along the northern Ayvartan curve, and away from Solstice. Rangda was a gateway to the world and stalwartly remained so.”
Von Drachen was mysteriously silent as Mansa returned to his tale.
Madiha cursed the blindfold over her eyes. She needed to see the man speak. She needed to see his face making a disingenuous smirk. She wanted to see the lie in him.
Judging by his voice alone, he strongly believed everything he said.
“In the panic of the civil war, many treasures of the Empire traveled safely out of Rangda’s ports and out into the wider world. No monetary value can ever be placed on what was lost. Even with my influence, I managed to seize only an inkling for myself.”
Suddenly, through the blindfold, Madiha thought she saw an eerie glow.
“What is that? What exactly is happening here, Councilman?”
Von Drachen sounded more perplexed than fearful.
Mansa seemed to ignore Von Drachen and instead approached Madiha.
She knew he was coming closer because the glow was moving nearer to her eyes.
Von Drachen’s reaction told her that the glow and Mansa were somehow one.
And as the glow moved closer the Majini moved farther away.
She felt its distinct, unrestrained cold growing farther.
“Ultimately the communists would come. They made an example of Rangda. In the midst of the attack on Rangda, Madiha, I was almost killed. Almost — I was destined to discover the truth. You owe your present situation twice over to the woman whom I met there. A Messianic nun who refused to flee Rangda. She cared for the sick and the war-wounded to repent for her many sins before the Messiah. As I lay dying, she, sick of fleeing her past, tearfully confessed her crimes to a mind she thought would vanish.”
She could see it, floating in front of her with the light. She felt the heat of the burning city and saw into a half-collapsed building. A younger Mansa, lean and strong, black as the night from soot and burns, laying at death’s door on an improvised bed. Over him loomed the tearful young woman, hair a golden blonde, skin pale as a ghost, eyes blue as the sky the smoke prevented them from seeing. She was a woman who had seen too much death, entirely too much death; a woman who had perpetrated death herself.
“Messiah, am I doomed to be wicked? Is this why I cannot save anyone?”
Her knees buckled and she collapsed, her robes collecting the blood from Mansa’s wounds. Swallowed by sorrow she poured her heart out. She cried about the mother that she killed, swayed both by fear and temptation provided by the exotic luxury of the imperial court; she screamed about the child she stole and abandoned as she fled south into the unknown lands beyond Solstice. Her body quivered as she confessed the taint of her sin and how it prevented her still from achieving any meaningful redemption.
“I have erred, Messiah, oh I have erred! But I repent! I repent for the mother! I repent for the child! Please spare me the old flames, Messiah! Please let my hands heal just once!”
Rangda burned and the nun cried and Mansa, alive, listened.
One fateful meeting that would create the millionth turning point in their history.
“She had her wish. Despite all the death her hands had caused, she brought me to life. In her final act of faith, the woman ignited a curiosity I would hold for decades.”
Mansa’s words felt distant, as if spoken by a many-mouthed thing and not by a man. Madiha could not tell reality and fancy any longer. Her stomach turned and gurgled in her belly as if screaming to come out. Her feet felt like leaden, pendulous weights suspended in the air, dangling, seeking to stretch toward ground and rip her apart. She could not tell whether she was suspended in the air or standing on the ground or seated.
“Madiha, you are the true child of Kanawe Ayvarta II. You did not die on that day. You were saved by the conviction of Genat of Tars’ midwife, a Nochtish, Messianic woman who knew that condemning a child to death, no matter the bribe, would damn her soul to hell. She poisoned your mother, induced your birth; but she saved you. A premature child unsure to grow, but she could not bear to kill you with your mother. Using the gold she was given she fled from the eyes of the courtiers. Thus Sarahastra was poised to ascend to the throne, and her family with her. To escape their rising power and influence she took you to the only place she would go after fleeing the politics of Solstice: a convent in the opposite side of the continent from the internal warfare of the palace.”
“Did the woman mention a name by any chance?” Von Drachen solemnly interjected.
In front of her eyes the burning city was swallowed by darkness. There was only the little light that danced in front of her eyes and the voices that came from everywhere near.
“Of course not. At that point there was no name. But do you think it mere coincidence that Madiha was a mysterious child without parentage who spent her childhood confined to a convent, escaped into the street and grew to greatness in Bada Aso and Solstice, and went on to be protected and coddled by the communist party for years? Just luck that she became Kansal’s favored, invited to the battle for the throne itself? Nothing but circumstance that she bore witness to the death of the Empire with her own eyes? Can you follow the chain of events set off by the death of Solstice IV, and ignore it all? I have seen the vastness of the Archives in Solstice! I have spoken to the last of the historical characters left in this drama, Von Drachen! I have studied this past more than anyone!”
He was growing irate. He was raving now. His words started to lose all meaning.
And yet Madiha felt the dread of belief stabbing repeatedly at her sense of self.
She was but a doll hung up for the knives of a horrible truth to be thrown.
“Your proof is birth dates on Imperial ledgers, the grandiose sob story of a fallen nun, and that Nakar allegedly grew up in a convent? You are killing me.” Von Drachen said.
He ignored Von Drachen entirely now. He spoke only to her and only in terms she knew.
“I admit it seems like mere coincidence until now, Madiha. But there is one last thing.”
Mansa did something to the dim the light. Again the Majini moved closer.
“I needed to know who could be the first-born of Ayvarta II. What characteristic would such a child have to hint at its genealogy? I knew a few details. She was an Arjun girl. She would likely grow to have dark eyes and hair and medium-brown skin. Fair enough for the royalty but dark enough yet to be an Ayvartan. She would be tall as an adult, like both her mother and father. But that was too broad a spectrum still. For years since meeting that nun and years more since burying her I was fascinated by this question.”
She saw the eerie glow rise and fall, perhaps as Mansa waved the object around.
“I buried the question until the Akjer Treason. During this time I was finally pushed to clamp down hard on the smuggling and black markets in Rangda and Adjar. I must thank Daksha Kansal; her brazen foolishness has many times proven so convenient to me. I received the twin prizes of proportional representation and demilitarization for her naivety and procedural ignorance. And I received another gift as well. I confiscated several pieces I coveted in Rangda. One in particular was life-changing. It was like a mummy, wrapped in parchment, with a mask. I thought it was the remains of Ayvarta I. I was excited to have it. I wanted to have every piece of the Empire that I could find. I needed it; and I got it. Then it awakened, and I saw it. I saw the truth I hungered for.”
Long, slow hissing punctuated his every word. The Majini practically exuded malice.
Madiha saw Mansa, rippling like water in front of her eyes. Under the shadows of a Rangda night he had the treasure brought to him. Rangda, loyal to a fault, worshipful, rewarded their old hero and patron with his final prize. A smuggler was shot, a crate broken open. Nobody could understand the magnitude of what had returned to Ayvarta.
Before them stood a great slumbering brass mask surrounded by blood-red parchment.
Wrapped tight in chains of obsidian. It did something to those who bore witness.
Mansa, however, saw the root of his obsessions. Mansa, eyes wide as if taken by a sudden madness, had a vision. He told himself then that he knew then the source of the Zaidi’s power and the truth about the fall of the Empire. He knew where the real power lay. He released the being and as if on instinct, showed the creature a black fragment.
He spoke, commanded, and the creature begrudgingly woke and responded.
From his quivering lips she heard the older Mansa’s voice and the younger disappeared.
“Majini. You might not be able to hear its voice, Madiha, but it has much to say to me! I learned the plight of its people; the final clue that I had been long seeking. I saw the indivisible truth of this world and how it connected everything we know. Yet I knew could speak of this to no one. So I maneuvered, and maneuvered, scraping blindly in Solstice for any advantage, so that, perhaps, one day, I might be able to set right our tragedy.”
She heard the voices echoing in her mind until they faded. Her breath caught in her throat and her heartbeat slowed and she felt her brain twist. At the corners of her vision there was a different kind of darkness, one that started in her eyes rather than in front of them. Mansa continued to rave but Madiha lapsed out of whatever world she was once in.