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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Political · #1411792
Betrayal begets betrayal
*Star*Published in the November 2008 issue of Quantum Muse  

         His latest retinue of courtesans cooled the self-proclaimed Emperor of the Seven Tribes with fans of bamboo as he examined reports assuring his imminent victory over the ebony-skinned spearmen of Thri, proclaiming him Emperor of the Eight Tribes.

         The moniker caused a smile to crease his face, lasting until he unfurled the next papyrus scroll. Hands, calloused from swordsmanship training, shook with intemperate rage as he studied the details of the rebellious cult expanding its following back in his homeland. Sweat began to bead across his furrowed brow as he imagined field after golden field of wheat decimated at the hands of the fanatics, halting his infantry machine with their "purging of the unclean." Words detailing a diminutive man of noble birth leading the rabble caused him to pause in deep thought. Unshed tears filled his eyes as the report detailed the number of ravished women, the hundreds of men sacrificed to mythical gods, and the orphaned children brainwashed into new converts bearing the brand of one serpent feasting on another.

         The conqueror refused to weep, recalling the words of his long dead father for strength. He vowed vengeance for the fallen, and succor for the lost children. I will make things right.

         The young ruler shook himself from the daydream and found the scroll torn in two in his champagne colored hands.

         "Emperor Changli." A reed thin man sprinted from the corridor before him, violet kimono exposing leather greaves as he ran toward the throne. Katana wielding royal guardsmen, lining the throne room's boundary in front of massive columns, allowed the newcomer passage without a second glance.

         The message, already forgotten in a mind that always focuses on the present, floated toward the ivory floor. Changli assumed a regal pose upon the raised dais holding the Sunflower Throne, crossing one slim leg over the other, adjusting his amethyst kimono for the sake of decency as the messenger kneeled. "Geki-Kyoku. And what does my Minister of Intelligence have for me today?" Changli opened his palm, prompting a slave girl to place a steaming cup of chado in it. He inhaled the tea's aroma as the minister rose to speak.

         "My lord, Emperor Changli Forqum, Flower of the East, King of-"

         The ruler waved a hand for silence. "Get on with it, Kyoku. I've no patience for ceremony today."

         Kyoku's slim lips formed into a pout an instant before the official bowed with knees and back straight, hand upon his heart, as custom deemed proper.

         "What news from Acecune? You swore to have the rebels disbanded by now. 'Fleeing to the corners of the empire' were your words I believe. Yet I receive word that they continue to sack my caravans, burn my crops, subvert my subjects!" A drop of olive liquid splashed onto to the marble floor as Changli's hand shook with rage. A milk-skinned concubine from the northern islands of Glejls stepped from her appointed position on the dais to lick the stain, as custom deemed necessary. Forqum shoved the lithe girl aside with the heel of his silk sandals. "Leave it." Changli directed his withering gaze toward Kyoto, allowing the silence to express his displeasure in ways words could not.

         The minister cleared his throat, an audible swallow that seemed to echo about the marble monument. He bowed once more, and leaned toward the throne, covering his mouth with one hand as he whispered in a conspiring tone. "My emperor, the wind brings news but the leaves have ears to hear."

         Changli mustered all of his will to hide the irritation deep within him. He graced the Shogun standing beside the dais with a glance. The head of the royal guard issued a silent command from the horned mask concealing his features. The guards filed out of the throne room.

         Changli waved a manicured finger toward the slender woman stationed by his side, her expanding womb stretching the gossamer robe accentuating the curves he found stimulating. The leader of his mistresses ushered the women out of the room.

         The emperor descended the throne, embracing the aide as a brother, bestowing two kisses on each cheek, a ritual reserved for princes alone.

         Kyoto beamed at the gesture of trust. "I have news, my lord."

         "You dishonor me, call me Changli. Now, what does my spymaster have for me?"

         "A theory, my lo- Changli. This renegade faction has its roots in the village of your birth. If you permit me to journey there, perhaps I can discover this root and remove it for you. Pull the roots, the tree will die."

         "And how will you infiltrate these fanatics?"

          "With this!" Kyoto pulled the sleeve of his silk garment, exposing a tattoo of a serpent, its head fat with the corpse of another in its maw.

         Changli gasped, and cursed himself for the emotional outburst. "That is forbidden, and to bear its mark is heresy."

         "Changli, it is the only way. I've tried everything else. Let me do this for you. I will find their leader and end him, or die in the attempt."

         Forqum pondered the request, pacing along the velvet train running from the dais. A cough interrupted his musings, causing him to turn toward the intruder. A form, concealed beneath the shadow of a distant column, waited. Changli recognized the diminutive specter and smiled. "Excuse me, Kyoto." He walked away, the servant already forgotten.

         "Changli, the item we discussed?"

         "Yes, yes- go." Changli waited for Kyoto to reach the exit. "And Kyoto" He relished the sight of his servant leaping at the sound of his voice echoing across the room and suppressed a smirk as he sprinted back. "I know your mission failed because you took on additional duties from my wife. The next time I receive word that you have been working at the behest of my wife," he waved a finger at the gaping maw of his spymaster, "I will cut out the eyes of your mother and give her to the barbarians along the northern front. Even those pigs will make sport of the old wench. Then I will allow her to beg in the streets of my capital and forbid you to give aid. Do we understand each other?"

         Mouth still ajar from the shock, the minister nodded before fleeing the palace.

         "You toss threats at festering maggots while the crows circle your corpse, boy."

         Turning to the hoarse voice no more than a whisper, the emperor smiled anew at the sickly old woman taking her leisure. "Ko-hahaoya."

         The ebony garbed woman sniffed at the nickname. "I'm not your old mother. I'd die before I birth a man as fool as you."

         Changli kissed each wrinkled cheek twice, and once across the old woman's dry lips. She sniffed once more, but failed to hide the blushing of her high cheeks. He hooked the frail woman's arm in his own, escorting her to the secret passageway she used to enter the throne room. "Very well, Priestess. And what does my spirit guide have for me today?"

         "Your generals meet in the war room without your presence. I warned you that politics and war do not mix. You should not have given them governorships over their lost fiefdoms."

         Holding the hidden panels open for the priestess, he followed her inside the narrow corridor, paper lamps along the floor lighting the way. "Your advice is noted, as it was when first given. Trust me, Ko-hahaoya, those bastards hate each other more than they hate serving me. They would suffer the death of their own mother before allowing a rival a leg up in the hierarchy I've established."

         "You trust too easily."

         Unable to hide his flaring temper, Changli turned her around to face him, gripping her withered hands in his own. "I have taken nations of cannibals and devil worshipers and sodomites who mate in the streets and forged them all into an empire. Why can you not see my success?"

         The old woman looked up at Changli with a stern countenance. "You think me blind, boy? Even I can see how that simpering clown Kyoto has betrayed you." With a strength belying her age, the Priestess snatched her hands from his.

         Failing to hide his shock, the emperor turned away, refusing to meet the Priestess' unwavering glare. "I don't believe you. There is a reason for everything."

         A dry sniff answered. "Of course you don't, because you fail to see the underlying conspiracy, the secret meetings with your wife, the request to travel to the heart of the insurrection. The traitor showed you the tattoo, did you notice how old and worn it looked? You are betrayed, Changli! Speak the words of your father!"

         Changli denied the request with a shake of his head, hiding uncontrolled emotions by stepping away from the light.

         The Priestess proved unrelenting, unsympathetic. "Say the words."

         His throat constricted to the point of pain, Changli uttered the mantra learned from his dieing father, a man poisoned by his mother, in a pained whisper, "Everywhere there are pitfalls and snares, and behind every trap lies death, only the strong will survive"

         A rough hand stroked his face, brushing tears away. "Now say the words of your Priestess."

         He grunted and smiled, even as the word's meaning burned before his eyes, allowing the emperor to see the hidden connection. He found the courage to stare into the Priestess' violet eyes, the color of his standard. "Never underestimate a scorned woman."

         She stepped closer, pressing her bony body against his. "And who have you scorned, Changli?"

         Thoughts drifted to his barren and useless wife before recalling the head of his harem fat with child. Breaking from her embrace, Changli paced the tight corridor, lost in a myriad of thoughts. "Every emperor has consorts. This is madness."

         The Priestess nodded. "Love is seldom sane, or rational, my emperor." The Priestess bowed, knees and back straight, hand upon heart. "And what are my lord's commands?"

         Changli paused to control the miasma of emotion distorting his focus. He breathed the stale air until his heart ceased racing, striving for the calm detachment learned from his father. "Take my treasonous wife, and cut out her eyes. Dump her near the border to Une and let fate run its course." With renewed purpose and vigor, Changli marched toward the exit leading to the war room. "Allow Kyoto to leave the city unharmed. The mark on his arm is very old. I believe him to be a senior member of their order. Follow him to his final destination and cut off the serpent's head."

         His spirit guide smiled as she nodded. A rare treat for the young ruler, approval from the one responsible for his rise to glory.

         Changli reached the door leading to the governors' secret meeting and paused, sparing his savior a parting smile before entering the den of circling crows. Harsh words met an abrupt end as the Flower of the East entered from an unassuming wall panel. The emperor met the eyes of seven deposed kings, fallen rulers sworn to him along the road of conquest. He felt the palatable hatred emanating from the monarchs, and steeled himself against further betrayal, repeating the words of his father-

          Everywhere there are pitfalls and snares-
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