A Zenros Short: The Legacy Series
By Felix Marlowe-Cain
Claret eyes heavy with the burden of memory gazed over the frame of darkened spectacles. He sat forward in the armchair, both long hands balancing against the crystal top of his gentleman’s cane. A fedora, decorated with a shimmering opal and a large peacock feather rested jaunty upon a long sheet of perfectly white hair. His clothes were adorned with all the trappings of a man obscenely wealthy; the tunic set was entirely fashionable but for the colour. Tones of black and silver were a morbid choice for so bright and eccentric a man. Yet, as setting summer sun painted the rom in shades of gold, Lord Simion Ollini sat with uncharacteristic stoicism. All his usual charm and charisma seemed buried behind the trauma of the past.
“I fathered five children with Marithia Tala,” he began, speaking to an empty stately room. “The great warrior-princess of the Faustian people. Four are daughters, all now grown into strong, beautiful young ladies that I can only ever be proud of… But – unknown to even some of my closest acquaintances – there was also a son. Born second, between ladies Erikah and Artis.”
He sat back in his chair, a small frown pulling at his lips. “Bastian Matthew Ollini, arrived into this world to the rage of a storm the likes of which the desert climate of Zenros had not seen in over an age. Purple lightning struck tempest tossed waves. Ships collided in the docks. Rain beat so hard at the window panes of my summer estate, that I was sure the glass would smash in testament to the fury of that night… and in the next room, the shrieks of my then-mistress as she endured the trials of childbirth, seemed to govern it all.
“I felt the balance itself shift as my son was dragged, kicking and screaming from his mother. There was a sense of great omen; not just within myself… within the very threads of fate. But I am no seer, and so the premonition was easily dismissed to the stress of a difficult situation...” The lord paused for a moment, brow furrowing in frustraition.
“It is a common misconception, that sexual intercourse with a slave was illegal during the time of the Demithian Empire. It was not. Love them or marry them? Never! But to slake a desire for exotic flesh…? It was a flaw of character, nothing more. A social scandal that often solved itself when the pressures of high society kept the so-called perversion strictly behind closed doors…But my love for Marithia was not so easily remedied. I did not care that her hair was black as night, or that her eyes were a mahogany brown. Nor did I care that our children were - in the eyes of my people’s empire - abominations. I loved her. She loved me. I needed no other reason to betray the dominion of my kin… Though they certainly gave me plenty regardless.
“Mixed-race children, on the other hand, were utterly forbidden. Merciful parents committed infanticide rather than subject their offspring to the imperial regime, even before ‘the purgeries’ started. If--” he stalled, the words suddenly too difficult to confess. “If I had known then what Bastian’s fate was to be…” But he shook his head before he could finish the harrowing thought.
“I was cocky. The two of my children that were born in the time of the empire were both of them so entirely in my image, that I thought I could hide them in plain sight. With my wealth and influence it was not difficult to forge their documentation and name my token wife – Kayla Kasavon – as their mother. It put her in danger, of course, but much as I cared for my wife, I loved my children more. And besides… she was an enthusiastic volunteer. Infertility cursed her to never bear an infant of her own. To raise mine and Marithia’s – to protect them from the brutality of our time – was, to her, a great honour. For fifteen years she played the role so perfectly that even the children themselves suspected nothing…” Simion pushed back his hat, scratching at his head as he considered what to say next. Restlessness had him leaning forward again, his hands fiddling with his cane.
“What trails of mixed blood Erikah bore was easy enough to supress until after the revolution. Indeed, she could have continued under the façade of her assigned sex her whole life, should she have needed to. I’m glad she did not… but it was an option. Her brother Bastian, however, was less fortunate…
“Demithian’s do not possess any aptitude for magic. We are faster, both in movement and in mind, but the legendary abilities of our elven ancestors have been lost for generations. Yet, in half-blood people it is sometimes reawakened. In children like my son – who is born of noble blood on both mine and his warrior’s side – it was returned to my family with the kind of magnitude as can be difficult to control, let alone to hide.
“The storm he had been born to returned as he entered sexual maturity. I learned far too late the sky itself responded to his whims. If I had known but a few days sooner, I would not have released his mother back into the wild, but rather begged her to delay. The Faustian armies could have waited just a few more weeks for their leader, I am sure. But as a feel for revolution began to mist about the air, Marithia had become restless. At the time, I had no legitimate reason not to assist her escape.
“Naturally, her freedom brought the shadow of suspicion upon our house. An unlucky twist of fate had Bastian entering season just days later. Discovery was tragically inevitable…”
Another stumble. Another pause. The lord removed his glasses to rub at tired eyes threatening to swim with blood-stained tears. The voice that he recovered was strained, far too close to breaking. “Enforcers ripped him from my arms and dragged him into the street by his hair. A jeering mob gathered outside. Boys he went to school with. Girls that had admired him. They beat him while the enforcers stood by and watched! He was spat upon. Stamped upon. Every foul name and curse hurled at him as he cried into the muck. I tried to reach him, tried to defend him but… I was arrested. My arms were held, my hands bound. They threw my bloodied son into the back of a transport and drove away. I didn’t think I would ever see him again. In fact…I hoped I would not. It would mean that the Empire had at least granted him the mercy of a swift death…”
Long fingers tapped against one another. “I tried to make that the end. In the quiet of solitary confinement, I mourned Bastian. I prayed for his death and for his soul… and then I forced myself to accept the cruel truth that there was absolutely nothing I could do to save him. Whatever his fate, it was far beyond my hands now. But the rest of my family...? My innocent wife and my Erikah. I could still save them if I was quick and clever. To my fortune, Kayla was quite ahead of me in the same thinking.
“She had lost one of the beloved offspring put into her care. She would protect the other with the ferocity of a threatened tigress. As a Kasavon, she was quite well versed in hiding half-bloods. Her own adopted sister was the Lady Astra Tala; niece to my own darling Marithia and now married to the emperor himself. On Kayla’s behalf, Astra enlisted the assistance of one Lord Soren Kevias. With a reputation as sterling as could be had in the Empire, Kevias’s word was worth ten times its weight in gold. As Lord of Science and Medicine, he was able to conduct - and falsify the results of - Erikah’s genetic testing.” A small scoff passed the lords lips. “I confess I was surprised to hear of his involvement. The rivalry between myself and Kevias is quite legendary, yet, for this favour, I can never thank him enough… Then again…” his smile broadened “…the old pervert always did have a soft spot where the empress was concerned.” He shook his head and replacing his glasses, continued his recital with a somewhat stronger tone.
“Kayla was a wise woman. The next I saw her it was to finalise divorce proceedings; a sadly necessary precaution. We established the fiction that I had been a vile, abusive sort of husband. I confessed freely to threatening her and her only legitimate child – Erikah – if she did not go along with my treasonous schemes regarding Marithia and Bastian. The statement was enough to allow her unquestioned freedom and half my vast wealth, an arrangement that assured her lifelong comfort and continued eligibility. There was a great sense of victory when the dealings on that matter were closed. They were untouchable now, providing I behaved myself.
“I remain somewhat surprised that I was not ultimately executed, but I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, I remained too important a man to simply do away with. I had then – as I do now – a monopoly on most of the entertainment districts and several other key businesses. My generosity and kindness towards paid employees – which I was always careful to make numerous and vital – meant that those in my care were fiercely loyal. I flatter myself to theorise that my execution would have caused unprecedented fury at a time when discontent already ran rife within the general populace. It was therefore decided that I needed to be ‘reclaimed’. That is to say, brainwashed into reverting to imperial ideals.
“For two years I endured and quietly resisted the attempts. I played the part of a fool; agreeing and apologising, throwing myself upon their mercy and begging forgiveness…all the while plotting their downfall. I had thought I was doing a grand job of it. Perhaps I was. Either way, they hatched a most brutal scheme to ultimately test my loyalty. The cost of my freedom was apparently not mine to bare…”
Ollini’s long fingers clenched. How to put such a thing into words? Could it even be done? The horror of it threatened to overcome him even now, when he had had so many years to heal.
“‘Bio-synthetic fusion’ was first perfected by Lord Kevias,” he explained wearily. “He lost his arm in one of the previous rebellions and his scientific genius allowed him to create something superior to take its place. It is my belief that the idea was innocently conceived with a dream of advancing medical science. It was the empire that twisted the principle. Their media claimed the project was a ‘painless and humane’ way of dealing with the ‘unruly slaves and the half-blood problem’. Like everything that came of that time, however, the reality was something else entirely. ‘Botification’… was a madman’s artistry… And I was taken to the labs and given my own private tour of that hell.” Finger nails burrowed so deep they bit painfully into his palm, serving the purpose of keeping him in the present while recounting a terrible past.
“The screaming of men, women… children. It haunts my every waking moment. A foul stench of infection and death so polluted my skin that even now, I can never feel clean of it. Blood ran in rivers so thick the drains in the floor could not keep up with demand and all about the place, victims were strapped to tables, broken and mutilated with incomplete augmentation. There was no anaesthesia, no pain relief to ease their suffering… And this…” A voice until now steady, suddenly cracked against the torment. “…This was the fate of my son!” A hand reached to cradle his head. Red tears fell at last, the droplets leaving crimson tails over pale skin. “My boy. Not yet eighteen years old.” He sniffed back what emotion he could contain and allowed the rest to continue spilling from beneath his glasses.
“I was taken to an observation room and behind the windows they tortured Bastian; already so maimed he was almost beyond all recognition. He’d lost both his legs and one of his arms. Monsters in white coats fitted grotesque, jutting implements ready to take the weight of heavy augmented limbs. Incisions littered his body, some as savage as others were methodical, made for no other reason than to hurt him. He saw me standing near and, reaching with the arm he had left, he begged, pleaded that I save him and I…I could not! If I moved, I risked seeing both my children at the mercy of such madmen. My dear brother and his infants… Kayla and her family… They all would have been purged for my moment of weakness…” Reaching up he wiped at tear tracks. “I betrayed my son to save my house… and it was the last thing he ever saw. As I was forced to watch, they ripped his eyes from his skull and replaced them with metal. The sound of his agony has ever since been my lullaby.”
Silence lingered longer this time. For a few moments the lord simply sat, staring into nothing and seeing his brutalised son in the evening shadows. The image seemed burned upon his gaze, as real in that moment as it had been at the time of happening.
Slowly, Ollini pushed onto his feet and crossed the room. He collected a bottle of brandy from the glass bar and poured a generous measure directly into his mouth. Slowly, the image faded a little. It would never leave completely – Gods knew it never did – but at least the screaming was quiet enough that he could find the words to go on.
“There is beauty in breaking. There is strength in that moment; when your world crumbles away and you are left to scream and beat the walls until your fists bleed. When you are dragged so low that you are given a very simple choice. To die, defeated as you are, or to light the fires of vengeance and burn all as you rise again. When I found that moment in the privacy of my cell, I chose the latter. The Empire was a thing of barbarism and evil. A festering corruption that spat in the face of all that was truly holy… and I was done waiting for it to collapse under its own weight!
“It was not an easy road.” He took the bottle back to his chair and sat heavily. “I was released but my assets were in shambles. What businesses I had left had suffered greatly without my leadership. My estate had been shut up and abandoned. My wife and remaining child were both gone. It was a lonely homecoming. In the misery of it, I almost forgot my own resolve and in effort to silence the screaming in my head, I drank myself into a coma.
“When I came around, Erikah was holding my head over a toilet bowl and forcing me to throw up. I am a lucky father to have sired such a strong woman for my eldest. She came for me. She resuscitated me and she comforted me. I might not have made it were it not for her…After all that I had seen it was a blessed relief to hold her again, to feel her safe in my arms. I told her of Bastian’s fate, though… I spared her the exact details. That burden was to be mine alone for as long as I could bare it. Still, what little I did say was enough to horrify her. But she is much like me and her response was the same. The rage in her was worthy of her mother’s people but the vendetta was handled the cold clarity I know myself capable of.
“I learned then that in the time I had been incarcerated, Erikah had been building herself in my stead. She had always been in the army – part of her cover, I think – but she had risen, quite sharply, to a notable rank. She had all of my charm and wit and used both to take wealthy, influential imperialists to her bed. In return, they gave her all the favour a high-ranking lover could expect. ‘Favours’ and ‘contacts’, she had learned, were far more valuable than gold… and all of what she had gained was given in service to the Empress, Astra, and her resistance. I worried, of course. I lectured her on the matter as any decent father should… But I did not refuse the help her newfound power was able to offer me.
“Erikah put me in touch with a few social groups more concerned with getting into my bank accounts than the risk of scandal by association. From there I pushed my way upwards, urged and assisted by Lady Astra. Eventually I found myself courting the friendship of her husband, Emperor Arisen Salis.
“The achievement is somewhat negated by the fact that Arisen was already toying with the idea of joining the resistance against his own empire long before I was invited to his birthday celebrations that year. But a keen friendship was struck on the advice of his wife when she whispered into his ear that I might have guidance on how to appease a volatile warrior-maiden. I speak, of course, of the beginning of his legendary love affair with Queen Illianna Tala. As my own beloved Marithia was also Illianna’s aunt, Arisen was keen to hear my perspective and we had many private meetings to attest to our growing attachment. To this day, Arisen Salis remains one of my closest and most adored friends.
“At the time, however, with Arisen’s loyalty wavering, the Empire began to sense its inevitable demise. Paranoia blanketed the realm. The council began to turn on itself in fear. They killed each other off, guided by the whisperings of Astra and Kevias, who, through it all, maintained their trusted reputations. By the time Illianna and Marithia came to take the city, the structure of power had already been decimated. But… I get ahead of myself…”
A deep sigh. Another swig of brandy, and he continued. “It was… about a week before the revolution began that I received an invitation to a gala at the palace. The entire thing was so blatantly a cloak and dagger affair. Astra and Arisen warned me not to attend, given that I was likely to be the council’s priority target… But to decline the invitation felt too much like defeat, and I considered myself well-armed, given the secrets and connections I’d managed to gather. Yes…Even with hindsight, I think I would have attended.”
“They unveiled several new bot designs. In their finished form, the monstrosities are far more tolerable to behold and so I managed to retain my composure. Plated in metal head to foot, they simply look like machines, often with little resemblance to the victims inside at all, and so I was doing quite a grand job of feigning awe. Unfortunately, however, one of the project leads recognised me.
“The man had the nerve to greet me like an old friend, to ask so casually how my ‘recovery’ was going. He let me into a secret ‘just between us’. ‘The Sentinel’ – a new bot designed for the military – was my son… Bastian…
“They displayed him upon a pedestal beneath show lights. A gleaming suit of bronze armour, meticulous, ornate… splendid. And wings…They gave my boy wings. An armoured angel. Dutiful. Proud. Ready to serve the Empire. It was a morbid magnificence.” Ollini leaned over, setting the bottle down on a small table in front of him.
“The project lead told me Bastian was the only one to survive the process. He was the only one powerful enough to support so much augmentation. It runs from their magic, as I understand it. That storm he could call at will was now channelled through wires and gears… Lords… The agony my boy must have been in!
“I could see no way to shut him down. No way to sabotage him that would bring him peace. He was lost. Bound to their will. Every prayer I’d ever pleaded for his wellness and mercy had fallen upon deaf ears. I’m not sure I can forgive the gods for that.”
The lord took up a tablet computer in place of the brandy. Pushing up onto feet, he went to standby the window, looking out over a marvellous courtyard and a golden sun, setting over the sandy horizon below.
“The Empire fell. To the fury of its own people; Carnite, Faustian, Seer and Demithian alike… it crumbled. I was reunited with Marithia. I salvaged my friendship to dear Kayla and thus, named my youngest daughter for her. Erikah was able to make her grand transition and now has dedicated her life to both beauty, and the art of aiding other half-bloods made unfortunate by their mixed heritage…
“My house is stronger and wealthier than ever and still… I cannot sleep. I wake in cold sweat, screaming for the son I have lost. I imagine a thousand ways I could have lived that moment differently. A hundred things I might have said or done to spare him. Marithia comforts me as best she can…” he shook his head to himself. “But she was not there. She did not see.
“There is no record of Bastian’s fate. All other bots were either painstakingly reversed, or humanely shut down, but the bot designated ‘The Sentinel’ was listed as missing after the revolution…
“I wonder which it is that I should wish for? That he is merely ‘misplaced’ in some warehouse somewhere, conscious but forgotten? That he is taken by the imperialists that fled into the east? Or that he lies forgotten…Rotting away beneath the piles of dead left in heaps in the very bowels of the undercity? None is a comforting imagining…
“Whatever his unkind fate, my son paid the price for our freedom. By his suffering are we free to love each other, openly, as the gods intended. I will not dishonour his sacrifice. The House of Ollini will stand in memorial. We will rise from Bastian’s ashes in defence and restoration of this realm. In his name… we endure.”
For a moment Ollini lingered, watching the sun set the final fraction behind yellow dunes. Then he lifted the pad, and ended the recording program. A mail was composed, the audio attached. A simple composition filled in the message space. ‘F - History lost is doomed to repetition. See that this is noted at your end, would you? – O.’