The Empress of Xytae
Effie Calvin © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The Imperial Palace at Xyuluthe buzzed with anticipation. Empress Enessa had finally gone into labor, and the heir to the Xytan Empire would be born within a few hours. The archpriest of Adranus and the archpriestess of Pemele were both there to aid with the birth along with countless members of the imperial court who would bear witness to the historic event.
Reygmadra, Goddess of Warfare and Eighth of the Ten, waited just outside the empress’s chambers, unseen by all who passed. She would not deny she was beginning to grow impatient. She was only here to bless the child, the future empress. Then she would be on her way.
If the child ever arrived.
Reygmadra had no tolerance for children, nor for the tedious conversations that always surrounded a birth—discussions of size, weight, and bodily functions. She had left the empress’s room because she had grown tired of the pointless hysterical screaming, but this was undoubtably worse.
Unfortunately, she could not grant a blessing to a mortal until after it had taken its first breath. This was one of the rules she and her fellow gods had agreed upon when they’d first set out to create Inthya. Even Reygmadra could see the value in this one, for if babies could use magic in the womb, nobody would ever risk giving birth ever again.
Emperor Ionnes was occupied, as always, by his campaign in Masim. He would not return to meet his new daughter for several months. Some of the members of the court were muttering about this, but Reygmadra did not see the trouble. What help could Ionnes be right now? He would only be in the way if he tried to help. At least in Masim, he was serving his nation by leading the army.
She longed to be there, whispering ideas in his ear as he slept, soaking up the power she received when tens of thousands of warriors prayed to her in unison. Of course, the prayers would find her no matter where she was on the mortal realm of Inthya or in the celestial planes of Asterium. But there was nothing like experiencing it firsthand.
Babies seemed to bring out the stupidest, weakest aspects of mankind. One of the Xytans was now relaying a tale of someone else’s labor, and Reygmadra decided to take a walk before she lost her temper and stabbed someone.
She moved through the palace like a specter, her face unseen and heavy footsteps unheard. She was dressed as she usually did when she manifested on Inthya, as a common soldier with short sword and breastplate. If someone did somehow see her, they would think nothing of her.
One of the rooms led out into a garden, and Reygmadra decided she had been indoors for too long. She stepped out into the sunlight, into the fresh air.
Reygmadra didn’t think much of gardens—they were really just a waste of space—but this one was empty, so she would stay for a while. As she moved, she kept an ear to the palace, hoping she would soon hear distant cheers.
A woman dressed as a Xytan noble stood there among the flowers. She had olive-toned skin and long, wavy ebony hair, and her face was impossibly, supernaturally beautiful. The dress she wore was simple but elegant, all wine-colored silk that perfectly emphasized wide hips and a narrow waist. Despite her disguise as a mortal woman, Reygmadra recognized Dayluue—Goddess of Love and Seventh of the Ten.
“It will be a while yet,” said Reygmadra. “Why are you here?”
“I’m feeling neglected,” Dayluue said. “You haven’t come to see me in ages.”
“You’re always busy.” Crimson lips pressed together in a pout as Dayluue adjusted the neckline of her dress aggressively. “Maybe I should call on someone else. I wonder what Nara is doing.”
Possessive rage seized at Reygmadra, and Dayluue began to laugh. But the sound was cut short when Reygmadra grabbed her by the shoulders. A moment later, she had Dayluue pressed between the garden wall and her own body.
“I love it when you get jealous,” Dayluue said breathlessly. “Kiss me?”
Reygmadra brought her lips to Dayluue’s throat. Dayluue tilted her head back, hands clasping at Reygmadra’s hair, and laughed again. “I have missed you,” she said.
“I don’t believe you,” said Reygmadra because expecting strict monogamy from Dayluue was like expecting a bird to refrain from flight.
“I’ll prove it, then.” Dayluue’s eyes sparkled.
“No. I’m busy.”
“I never took you for the sort to get excited over a birth. Or are you finally realizing what I’ve been saying about the population—”
“No. I’m just giving her a blessing, and then I’m leaving.”
“It might be a while,” warned Dayluue. “Labor can last an entire day.”
Reygmadra shuddered. “Awful.”
“Well, they wouldn’t have to do it so often if you didn’t keep convincing them to kill one another.”
Reygmadra rolled her eyes. “Did you come here just to argue?”
Dayluue pressed her lips to Reygmadra’s. “Only if you really want to,” she murmured into her mouth. The scent of her mortal body, flowers and sweat and pheromones, was intoxicating.
They were antithesis to each other, and yet, there was an undeniable symmetry to their domains. They were two primal forces, mindless impulse given sentience. And sometimes the fiery lust Dayluue elicited from her felt identical to the thrill of battle.
Perhaps that was why Dayluue always returned to her. Perhaps that was why Reygmadra did not object to Dayluue’s wandering.
When they met like this in Asterium, it was a union of selves, of auras and magic, and two becoming one in the way none but their own kind could hope to understand. It was delightful to have Dayluue’s energy surging through her, to feel her own spirit within Dayluue. Reygmadra always came away from these unions feeling softer, lighter. But not weaker. Never weaker.
On Inthya, with warm bodies made of blood and flesh, things were different. On Inthya, Dayluue was in control, and Reygmadra was helpless under her expert fingers.
“Kiss me again,” said Dayluue. “But lower, this time.”
When Reygmadra opened her eyes, the sun hung low in the sky, and Dayluue rested against her chest, fingers tapping out a pattern on bare skin. Reygmadra ran her hand through Dayluue’s hair absently.
Somewhere, not too far away, a baby was crying.
The ridiculous paints Dayluue wore on her face should have been ruined, but, of course, they weren’t. She looked as perfect as ever with not even a curl out of place. Her silk dress was tangled in a rosebush a few meters away.
A baby was crying…
Panic shot through her as realization hit. She shoved Dayluue off and leapt to her feet, donning her armor as hastily as possible and leaving half the straps undone.
“Wait!” began Dayluue, but Reygmadra was not listening. There was no time to waste. With nothing more than a thought, she transported herself to the private chambers of Empress Enessa.
The room was dim, and the empress was asleep, her breathing soft and even. In the chair just beside her, an attendant fanned her face leisurely. Two guards stood on either side of the bed, silent and watchful. They did not react to Reygmadra. Their eyes slid over her, past her, through her, blank and uncomprehending.
And by the window a nurse hummed softly, rocking a small bundle in her arms.
Reygmadra peered down at the baby. It was wrinkled and red and dreadful, but at least it was quieting down, soothed by the nurse’s song.
“Let me see her,” Reygmadra commanded the nurse. The woman looked at her with unseeing, unquestioning eyes and held her arms out, tilting the child so Reygmadra had an unobstructed view of her.
Reygmadra brought the blessing to her hands. It manifested, as always, as rust-colored light. Carefully, she touched two fingertips to the baby’s heart, pressing the magic down.
But the magic was not taking. Reygmadra frowned and dismissed the blessing, only to call it again. This time, she jabbed the child in the chest so hard it began to whimper again. But the magic fell away as though the blessing had been repelled. And now that she paused, she could see the golden kernel of magic already embedded there.
Realization, cold and bitter, rose up in her throat like bile.
“Iolar!” she screamed, spinning away from the baby and the nurse. Nobody reacted; not the child, nor the guards, nor the empress. “Iolar! She was meant to be mine!”
“We had no agreement.” The voice came from directly behind her. She turned to see her brother standing in the doorway. Perhaps he had been there the whole time, watching silently. “But I understand your anger. You may have the next one, if you so choose.”
Reygmadra clenched her fists. “That is Ionnes’s heir! No second-born will make up for what you have stolen from me!”
“What I have stolen from you?” repeated Iolar. “Are you certain you wish to continue this line of conversation?”
“Just wait! You’ll regret this, I swear!”
“What will you do in retaliation? Push Xytae even further into darkness?” retorted Iolar. “Continue down this path, and these Men will turn on you before I even have a chance to act.”
“We shall see,” said Reygmadra. “You do not know the Xytan people as I do. They will not tolerate a soft, peace-loving empress.”
“Then you have nothing to fear, do you? Eran tells me Ionnes will have two more children before he leaves Inthya. Select either to be your champion, and we shall see who emerges victorious.”
Reygmadra did not dignify this with a response. She wanted to rend, to tear, to break, to destroy. She wanted to scream out her rage until the rest of the world felt what she felt. But there was nothing here she could fight. She shoved past her brother and stormed out into the hall where Dayluue waited.
There was sorrow in her face, but all Reygmadra could think was she would have much preferred to see pain.
“You’re allied with him now?” spat Reygmadra.
“I am allied with mankind,” said Dayluue. “I am allied with the millions of souls that trust us to protect them. Can’t you see what you’re doing isn’t sustainable? You’re going to destabilize the entire continent and—”
“Why won’t you listen to me?” There were tears in Dayluue’s eyes. “Why won’t you even acknowledge what I’m saying? Are you that desperate for power?”
“Why should I believe a single thing you say when you’ve just established yourself to be a liar?”
“I wasn’t lying,” said Dayluue. “I’ve missed you. Please, I don’t want to fight with you. Let’s just talk. Please.”
“No. No more of your games.” Reygmadra took a step backward. “Nothing can replace what you have taken from me.”