The Black Tower that dominated the heart of Solon, imperial capital of Mephius, was bathed in moonlight.
There was no sign of human life in its underground. Up until a few days ago, there had been a great many people working there even in the middle of the night, but now that the Dragon Gods’ shrine had finished being transferred, there was no one to be seen.
The ceremony for the unveiling of this new temple, which the shrine had been moved to, would be held in two days. As for this place, it had once been the crypt into which the imperial family stepped with reverence and awe to hold each of their rituals, but now there was only emptiness between the stone walls, and there was nothing but rubble scattered around.
Part of the ceiling had been removed during the works, which was why light was shining through. In this space where there was not a single person, nor even a single sound, only the pale, gentle moonlight remained to console the former sanctuary.
That was when –
Someone’s footsteps echoed in the underground room which had been as silent and still as death.
Taking one step, then another, wrapped in a thick cloak with the hood hiding their face, a form appeared beneath the moonlight. Judging from their figure, it was probably a woman.
Weaving her way around the piles of debris, the woman stopped at a point which had once been decorated with a mural of the Dragon God Mephius and softly stretched out her hand. She looked like a devout believer mourning over the vestiges of the sanctuary, or perhaps she was a highborn lady come for a scandalous tryst with a man.
There came the sound of more footsteps.
When the woman turned around, the figure of a man drifted into sight under the moonlight.
An elderly man with dark skin, clad only in a dull cloth that was wound from his shoulder to his waist. Rolling his goggling eyes that almost seemed about to start out of his head, he approached the woman. His mouth gaped open, and frothy drool clung to the edge of his lips.
A young woman should normally have feared for her safety, but this woman bent her knees and gave a deep curtsy full of reverence, as though she were before royalty.
“I am deeply grateful for the trouble you have taken in coming here.”
If any third person had been present, peeping at the scene, their eyes would surely have started from their heads in astonishment.
The woman’s voice was a familiar sound in the palace at Solon, and while her presence in this place was already unusual, her attitude towards the old man was another anomaly.
The old man revealed in the moonlight was called Wu On, and he was one of the elders.
These elders were Zerdians who had originally dwelt in the mountains west of Mephius, worshipping the dragon gods since long ago, and passing down their faith from generation to generation. When Mephius was first founded, the Dragon Gods faith was the state religion and the ancestors of these elders were granted the position of priests, but then an emperor, many generations ago, had abruptly changed the myths. “The Founding King did not receive power from the Dragon God Mephius but inherited the very blood of Mephius,” he said. In other words, all of Mephius’ emperors were descended from a dragon god. He declared that to serve and obey the emperor was to honour the dragon gods, and thus there was no longer any meaning to following musty beliefs and customs.
It had coincided with the time when the elders were starting to wield real power over Mephian politics. It was a diplomatic way of expelling them; however, not long after, famine had swept through Mephius and that same emperor had died of illness. His successors continued to distance themselves from the Dragon Gods’ faith; but, fearing curses and divine punishment, they had regularly invited the elders to important ceremonies and had left the performing of rituals to them.
Several months ago, however, the situation had once again started to change and several of the elders had come to live permanently in Solon. The one behind that was, needless to say, Emperor Guhl Mephius. Having suddenly decided to build a temple to the dragon gods, Guhl had invited the elders to ask their opinion on everything about it, including style, craftsmanship and the minute details of the layout.
He probably intends to gradually appoint the elders to all the important positions in the temple – was how most of the retainers assessed the situation. After all, for some reason, Guhl had been renewing and intensifying his relationship with the elders over these past few years.
Wu On was one of those elders, and he too had frequently been present during the construction of the temple.
“You said that you wanted to try my ‘divinations’?” the elder spoke without a word of greeting.
Her head still bowed, the woman nodded slightly in assent.
“I have heard that Master Wu On’s ‘divinations’ are the most accurate of all.”
The woman stood, as she had been told, and reached for the hem of her cloak. Her pale skin seemed to glow like white satin. She lifted up her clothes at the same time as her cloak, exposing her abdomen bare. Without warning, the old man squatted down, and seemed to cling to the woman’s feet.
The woman’s chin instantly jerked up. Stretching out his tongue, the old man started licking her naked skin.
For a short while, an obscene atmosphere flowed through the underground room that was bathed in moonlight.
The old man’s face slowly traced upwards until coming to a sudden stop when it reached the woman’s belly. Unbecoming of her dainty figure, her stomach was strangely protruding.
The old man brought his face towards it and almost lovingly rubbed his cheeks against it.
“Ooh, ohh ooohhh,” the old man seemed to croon, his eyes shining with a lust that contradicted his age, “it breathes. Even in the womb, it feels my presence, it answers my call. Just as Sage Samara saw, it is undoubtedly a boy. A boy who will carry Mephius.”
“Truly… Is that truly so?”
The woman’s voice was husky. Was it disgust or joy that caused the gold curls tumbling from beneath her hood to shake so incessantly?
“This is all because you moved the course of events in accordance with our guidance. This time too, all will be well, will it not?”
“Yes. There will be no delay.”
“In that case, there will be no problem for the young lord’s future. Although…”
Wu On changed the angle of his face slightly and the woman once more curved her neck with a shuddering gasp.
“This is undeniable the vessel of a king, but the shadow of turmoil coils around him. Well, there’s no need for excessive concern. Ascending the steps to the throne is never a smooth process. But…”
Once again, the old man interrupted his own words. Moving his head back, he looked up towards the woman. There was no longer any desire in his eyes. Instead, they resembled the goggling, squirming eyes of a reptile, so empty of expression it made you want to shiver.
“There is one among them who casts a particularly deep shadow over the throne.”
“W-Who? Who is it?” the woman asked in a rush.
“A young girl,” the old man concluded briefly. “Very near, at that. As for how great the threat is… I cannot tell exactly until the time comes. If it risks becoming a hindrance, then removing her before it’s too late is one way of dealing with things.”
The old man licked his lips once then suddenly tumbled backwards as though he had lost all strength. His back shook as he began coughing violently. His body quivered with what looked like the backlash from having performed his ‘divination’, but the woman did not spare him a glance as she looked up at the moon that was once more shining from beyond the ceiling.
In those eyes that reflected that gently light, there flickered an unmistakably intense hatred.