Suzehn 46 CC (Canthan calendar), Age of the Marmoset
Raijin Seritena spurred his horse to close in on the fleeing white hind. The cold, autumn air bit into his face as they gained speed. He leaned forward in the saddle and grabbed an arrow from the quiver on his side. Both the hind and horse were getting weary, but the distance and the terrain were appropriate for a clear shot. Raijin straightened his back up in the saddle, released the rein and pressed his feet into the stirrup as much as he could. The hunter swiftly nocked the arrow on the shortbow that he held in his hand since the sighting of the deer, then pulled back and released a moment later. The arrow whistled through the air before it pierced into the neck of the hind. The animal released one last cry before crashing into the ground as the limp body dragged on for several feet. The hunter rode next to the fallen prey and jumped down.
“Well, this hunting trip isn’t as bad as I expected.” Raijin murmured to himself as he crouched and drew out his knife to cut out the arrow. He was working on the hind when he heard two more horsemen approaching. He quickly finished strapping the animal’s legs then stood up to greet the other huntsmen.
“Boys, you are a bit tardy today.”
“Excuse us, my lord.” One of them apologized as he quickly bowed his head in respect. “You were already riding after the hind when we spotted it.”
“Never mind, it’s no trouble. We should get back to the camp with this deer. It’s getting dark and in a few more hours we won’t see a bit from the forest.”
Both huntsman jumped down and began working on a way to take the fallen deer back to camp. Raijin looked around and took a deep breath. He always enjoyed the silent, autumn forest during dusk.
Suddenly, he heard a bone-chilling shriek from somewhere close, followed by a frightened neigh of a horse. Silence again, only broken by the periodic chirping of a lonely songbird.
“By the Six! What was that sound?” One of the horsemen asked.
“Kei, Shinzo! Leave the hind here! Come with me, now!” Raijin ordered the other two as he jumped on his horse that also seemed a bit uneasy.
The three men rode with haste in the direction where swarms of frightened birds flew from. The place was about five minutes away from where Raijin brought down the deer. When they arrived they could already see a smaller commotion forming around something; however, a larger ring of multiple huntsmen and guardsmen stood around with weapons drawn. They were prying the area for hostiles, but the forest was just as silent and unmoving as before the shrieks. Two of them – a male and a female, – saluted Raijin as he rode up to them and jumped off of his horse.
“At ease. What happened here, soldier?”
“Sir, Prince Yian Zho ordered us to lead you to him as soon as you arrived.” The young female guard said. “I can’t tell you more, I’m sorry, sir.”
“Understood. Kei Jii, Shinzo!” Raijin turned to the riders he came with. “Reinforce this defensive ring!”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Well, soldier, please lead me to the Prince, then.”
The huntress beckoned Raijin to follow her through the area between the guards and the center group. As they were walking towards them, he tried to spy the faces of the courtiers and nobles surrounding the object of interest. Their expressions were a mixture of shock, confusion and anxiety.
“My Prince, General Seritena is here as you ordered.” The woman said as she knelt down.
“Oh, Takara, please.” A man said, brushing his way through the small crowd. Prince Yian Zho appeared before them in his elegant hunting clothes. He was a tall man with black hair that went halfway down his back. He usually let it down, but during sparring and hunting he wore it in horsetail. “I told you not to call me ‘your prince’. Not after those fiery nights we spent together.” He said with a complacent smirk, but his eyes showed only sorrow.
“I… Yes, my Pr-… Yian.” Takara stammered and bowed her head in embarrassment.
. You summoned me, yet I still don’t know what has happened.”
“Ah, excuse me, General. Well, I’d rather show you why I called to you.” With that he stepped aside and flapped his hands so the courtiers could understand to let Raijin have a clear look at the source of the commotion.
In the middle, Kaineng Tah, the Emperor of Cantha lay unmoving. His eyes were closed, his face was calm. From afar, it might have seemed that he merely lay down and fell asleep on the fallen, dry leaves.
Raijin’s heart skipped a beat when he saw that the Emperor was not breathing and moist blood was stuck to his grey beard. At the same moment he realized that his best friend for over forty years, the first Emperor of the Dragon, was dead.
It took Raijin a few moments to pick up himself from the shock.
“How… how did he…” But he couldn’t finish his question.
“Let us discuss that in private, General.” Yian Zho stared at the older man for a second, and then turned to a royal servant. “You there! Head back to the camp and tell them to bring a stretcher and a sheet to cover… this.”
“Everything is settled now.”
“Good, General. Very good.”
They had returned to camp an hour ago. Fortunately, in the dark of dusk no one had seen whose corpse they had brought back, but the absence of the Emperor and the grave look on the faces of the returning men and women were enough for some to figure that out alone. The whispers of the tragedy had spread and panic had nearly broken out. Raijin and his officers had to intervene and calm down everyone before things could have gotten even worse. But now that it was over, he could talk to the Prince in private.
“But how could this happen? I thought he was being escorted by a Dragonguard squad on every trip. Where were they now?”
“My father sneaked out without the guards’ notice. I bet he wanted to actually catch something today. He always told me that all the animals fled when he and his small iron-clad entourage marshaled into the woods.” Yian Zho stood behind the desk of his father’s, staring outside through the tent’s entrance and rubbing his shaved chin.
“And how did he die? It makes no sense, that horse was his favorite, and he personally trained it. It wouldn’t just throw off its owner unless it was terribly frightened.” Raijin stepped to face Yian Zho as well as to block his view – it irritated him he wasn’t wholly listening when discussing such a serious issue.
He hadn’t stood face to face with the Prince for a couple of years now, as Yian Zho had spent most of his time in one of his summer retreats with one – or more – of his concubines, or in case he had returned to Raisu Palace it was the General who had been outside the capital due to military or private matters.
Raijin closely observed the Prince’s features: long cheek framed by the dark, long hair he now let down. It followed him like a shadow when he moved… an unpleasant person he was, but no one could deny that he commanded absolute respect where he appeared.
The two men glared at each other and Raijin saw the late emperor’s blue eyes looking back at him. But when Kaineng Tah’s gaze was caring, Yian Zho’s was calculating.
He inhaled deeply and decided to break the embarrassing silence.
“And by the way, what happened to the horse?”
“I don’t know the answers to those questions, General. I’ve just lost my father, yet I can’t mourn him properly right now or investigate his death. The Empire of the Dragon always needs an emperor to stay strong. We have to return to Raisu at once, bury my father, and have the crowning ceremony.”
“With respect, my Prince, we don’t know who the late emperor chose as his heir to the throne. I’m sure it is either you, or your sisters, but for as long as we don’t see Kaineng Tah’s last will, we cannot crown anyone.”
“You dare defy your Prince, General?!” Yian Zho was starting to lose his temper.
“Not at all, sire.” Raijin was just as calm as before, he didn’t show any sign of being terrified from the Prince’s veiled threat. “I concur that we should return to the palace as soon as possible, but I wouldn’t worry about the Empire being leaderless. Princess Niya and Raiya proved to be excellent governors in the past, when your father was on similar extended hunting expeditions.” He couldn’t help not smiling faintly at Zho’s growing frustration.
“Very well, General Seritena.” Yian Zho hissed as his fingers whitened from pressing the desk in suppressed anger. “Then I command you to strike camp and make preparations for the way back home.”
“As you wish, my Prince.” Raijin put his right fist on his chest and bowed his head.
Raijin didn’t sleep that night. Even if he’d had time to rest a little besides organizing the decampment, he wouldn’t have wanted to. Memories rushed his mind. Memories of how he met the man who fundamentally changed his life and the land they loved so much.
Back then Raijin was only 19 years old. He just lost his father in a raid of another warlord, and had to assume leadership of his own tribe. He remembered that he was full of grief and hatred, and as one of his first acts he wanted to destroy his father’s murderers – whose tribe and soldiers severely outnumbered his own. If it hadn’t been to the future emperor’s fateful appearance, the Seritena line and the people he was tasked to protect would have been utterly eradicated. Kaing, as Kaineng Tah was called then, arrived on the eve before Raijin’s planned assault on the hostile tribe. Although Kaing’s tribe was neutral to his, he always supported Kaing’s beliefs about unifying the warring Canthan tribes, and thus he gave shelter to Kaing’s armies in his own domain. On that night the wise lord convinced the young and brash Raijin to join his cause, and the next morning he swore his sword to the other tribe leader. Kaing honored his oath, and with their coalition of tribes they ended the treacherous warlord responsible for the death of his father. In that defining battle, he saved Kaing’s life, sealing their friendship forever.
“My lord…” A familiar voice brought Raijin back from his memories. Kei Jii stood behind him with bowed head.
“What is it, Kei? I thought you were relieved of duty.”
“Yes, I was, but I couldn’t rest, so I went back for the hind at dawn to bring it back. The deer was gone, probably a predator dragged it to its lair, but I found something else.” The young scout looked very excited.
“What did you find?” Raijin raised a grayish eyebrow.
“Follow me, my lord.”
The general and the soldier hastily crossed the busy camp and entered a larger tent that served as a stable. Raijin’s eyes grew wide from the sight. Before them stood Kaineng Tah’s jet-black stallion, blowing and anxiously pawing the ground with his hoof. Raijin wasn’t sure whether animals could show more complex emotions, but he could see terror in one of the horse’s eyes. The other eye, strangely, was blind.
“How… how did you bring it back?”
“He was very hungry. I think his hunger overcame his fear, and so I could lure him back with crumbs of food.” Kei Jii chuckled, but stopped quickly as he realized the situation wasn’t comical at all. Raijin cautiously went around and took a closer look at the horse. When he got to the rump something caught his eyes; four parallel wounds resembling the claw tracks of a wild animal. But something didn’t add up. The wounds were too shallow to fit the claw size of a larger beast, and even then, Kaineng Tah and this stallion encountered rabid wolves yet the horse never threw off his rider. And then there was the odd blindness of the right eye.
“This wasn’t just a terrible accident, Kei Jii.”
“Then what was it, General?” A furious voice sounded behind them. He spun around and saw Yian Zho with a few Imperial guardsmen. “You should have come to me immediately and reported your findings.”
“My Prince…” Kei Jii said as he knelt down. “It was my mistake. I told the gen-…”
“Silence! No one questioned you!”
“I wanted to see whether it was truly your father’s horse… my Prince.”
“Now that you’ve seen it is, I order you to take lead of the army and give marching order.”
“And what about you, sire?” Raijin said, clenching his fists. He didn’t like where the conversation was going.
“I’m going to stay behind with my personal guard for a little while. Don’t worry, General, by next nightfall we will see each other again.” Yian Zho said, flashing his smug grin.
“Understood.” Raijin quickly bowed then stormed towards the entrance. There he turned back and saw that Yian Zho was still glaring at him. For a moment their eyes locked, and then he stepped out of the stable.
“Come on, Kei. We have to return to Raisu posthaste.”