An Unfolding Tale

an experimental fantasy fiction by M.D. Ward

The Midnight Lamb Tiberius

Tiberius was completely and utterly dumbfounded. Even as he recognized the voice rising up from the shards of the Whisper Glass, his mind screamed at him that it simply was not possible. He wished he could turn back time, even by just a few moments, and listen to the words again. Surely he had misheard. Surely he had made some sort of mistake. Jayslen could not have been the Veiled One. The very idea went against everything the Society was meant to be—a secret counterbalance to the Flameborn, an effort to minimize the oppression of the powerless by those who too-often wielded near god-like abilities.

The Society’s strength was founded in the secret knowledge gathered by those it had recruited from the very fringes of their communities. In the eyes of the powerful, they were outcasts, the least of the least—orphans and widows, beggars and lepers, the maimed and the impaired. Tiberius himself had only come into the ranks on account of his own blindness. They were spread throughout the Realm, hardly noticed and rarely acknowledged, listening, remembering and reporting. When the Society needed to act, they knew exactly where to strike.

And so, the very idea of one of a Flameborn even knowing about the Society was terrifying. The thought that such a person could have been the Veiled One was beyond belief.

“I know this must strike you as strange, old friend,” the voice continued. “But I assure you that, while I was shocked to first learn of our brethren, I quickly came to understand their importance. I have never breathed a word of their existence to anyone.

“Still, you must also be wondering how I came to join the ranks.” He most certainly was. Jayslen had not fit any of the credentials. He had not lived on the fringes of the Realm’s social hierarchy, but firmly entrenched right at the centre of it. “The story is simple really. You know how I was as a youth. Arrogant and self-entitled, I thought everyone in the world was beneath me, that they existed merely to serve my own wishes and desires. It’s a wonder you didn’t throttle me. Then came that day, when everything starting coming apart. The beginning of the Black Year.”

Indeed, Tiberius knew it all too well. The Black Year was a term of Jayslen’s own creation, a private reference to what may well have been the darkest time in the Prince’s life. It had all started with his younger brother, on the appointed day of the boy’s Election. In accordance with the age-old tradition, the King and Queen had taken their second born son to the Cathedral and the Sacred Hearth. Tiberius himself had attended the ceremony. In the days that followed, all of Relen’ayar had waited for the young prince to become ill with the Burning Fever. A week had passed and nothing happened. After that, the tension had grown quickly and a strange quiet had fallen over the city, as though the entire population was holding its collective breath.

The rumours had begun after the second week, tentative whispers in dark corners. By the end of the third week, however, they had mounted to fully formed accusations. After a month had passed, even the royal family had been forced to face the horrible truth. Flameless. Mundane. Common. Rejected. Whatever word was used—and there were many—the simple truth was that Prince Carvesh was not Born of the Flame.

And he never would be.

The fallout had been one the most strained and horrible times of Tiberius’ own life. He could only imagine what it must have been like for Jayslen. The laws of the Realm were clear. Every member of the House of Lords was required to be Flameborn. They did not need to be strong, but they did need to be among the Elect. It was considered a sign of blessing and approval from the Nine. Unfortunately, the same law also stated that any child from the ruling houses that was not among the Elect was to be considered cursed and sent into exile. It was a law that had been enforced only a handful of times over the years.

But it had never effected a Prince.

Carvesh Rayderon had been an anomaly, one that had very nearly torn the Realm of Relen’kar asunder. The majority of the Lords from the Major Houses had been prepared to send the poor boy into exile. Even his own mother had accepted the inevitability. The Queen had recognized that to do anything else would only bring ruin upon House Rayderon. The other Lords would have seen it as a double standard, that somehow the ruling family saw themselves above the very laws that were meant to govern the entire Realm. From there, it was only one small step to a full-scale rebellion and civil war.

King Merek, however, would not listen. He had always been a powerfully emotional man, a trait that he had passed on to Jayslen. He had loved his children with all the strength that a father could find in his heart, passionately refusing to stand by and allow his own son to be sent across the Yeartide, exiled to distant Mesinia, where he would be raised by strangers. Counsellors had tried to reason with him. The Queen had tried to reason with him.  Even his own brother, Torshen, had struggled to make the King understand the inevitable outcome of his refusal. But nothing would sway Merek Rayderon. He swore before the House of Lords that he would die to protect his son.

And so he had.

The Queen had moved quickly to stave off disaster. Pulling together the combined power her own House and that of the supporting Lords, she had had her own husband arrested for treason against the Realm. Only Aurin Carwell and Rennard Blackcroft had refused to move against the King. Merek had been imprisoned. Four days later, Tiberius had stood beside Jayslen in the cold morning air, as his young pupil forced himself to stand on the shores of the Kharnine and watch as they loaded a solemn Carvesh onto the ship that would ferry him across the Yeartide and into his lifelong exile.

That same evening, Jayslen had stood at his mother’s side as she ordered the executioner to open the trapdoor and send King Merek Rayderon to his death. People still spoke about the mercy of the Nine on that day, for the noose had snapped the King’s neck, ending his life quickly.

“I’ve never forgiven any of them for what happened,” the Prince continued after a moment. There was pain in that quiet voice, a vulnerability that Jayslen had never displayed in life. It made Tiberius want to reach out, to offer some words of comfort, but he could not. It was far too late for that.

“Afterwards, I never trusted them again. I felt alone and isolated, and I suppose that’s why I lashed out so often. I should probably apologize for that. I’m sure you took the brunt of my rage, old friend. But for all of my anger, for all of my mistrust, I still could not escape who I was.”

He’s being careful, Tiberius realized. Only saying enough to let me follow. If anyone other than myself was to hear this, they would make little sense of it. 

“After the Black Year,” Jayslen’s voice continued, “things were better, at least for a time. Eventually, as you know, I was married. I was angry at first, but as in time, I came to love her. Not as well as she deserved, I think, but she was very dear to my heart. Her death nearly destroyed me.”

That much was also true. The Prince had not spoken for weeks after Princess Mayra had succumbed to the white fever, not even to answer Blackcroft’s baseless accusations. Then he had simply vanished. The disappearance had only served to fuel the hornet’s nest of animosity. Once again, only the Queen’s political maneuvering had managed to prevent a war.

“After that, I gave up on everything. I took a new name and let my beard and hair grow so long and unwieldily that I was hardly recognizable, even to myself. I wore a poor man’s clothes and worked and begged my way across the Realm. I even learned a trick or two to help mask some of my more prominent features. Over time, I developed a fake limp and a slight hunch. I acquired other things too, brutish habits that would not have made my late wife proud.

“I spent the better part of half a year deep in my cups, surrounding myself with women and even mouthing off about the Flameborn. It was stupid, I know, but I was mad with grief. It was during that time that a man and a woman approached me. They called me by my assumed name, and knew nothing of who I really was. They told me of our brethren, of their struggle to protect the people of the Realm against tyranny. Intrigued, and probably very drunk, I agreed to join them and they dubbed me the Midnight Lamb.

“There is more to the story, of course, details that I dare not share with you here and now.  But I have left the rest of the story for you. Seek out the man who saved you from my foolishness on the Kharnine. He will have a gift for you. Remember me, and it will guide you.”

“I’m sorry that it has to be this way, but I am gone, and if those details were learned by the wrong people… well I cannot allow that to happen. There are those that I need to protect. Goodbye old friend. Though I never spoke the words in life, know that you were truly loved.”

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