The Face in Gold
By Lee J. Rice
The slack-jawed stare of a dead man made his heart lurch into a frenzied rhythm that threatened to drum him from his feet. Blood still flowed slowly from the open wound at the throat of the man, dripped from the lolling tongue. All he could do was match the gaze of a dead man who’s name he did not know.
And yet, the face was extremely familiar. He should know this man, shouldn’t he? His brain scrambled for any recognition but there was nothing, not a single name. No name at all. He couldn’t think of a single name of anybody he knew. Did he know anyone? His knees buckled when he realized he remembered almost nothing, not even his own name, and he knelt beside the body with quivering muscles.
He glanced at his hands, his dark skin untainted by blood, and he gave a small sigh of relief. It was some solace to think that he at least had not killed this man, even if he couldn’t remember either of their names. It was strange that the dead man before him seemed more familiar than himself. There were tugs at his memory, as if his subconscious was attempting to tell him something, but the voice was muffled and unclear.
His hand wandered to a pocket in his tunic where his fingers fumbled with several heavy coins, but he pulled out only a single coin of gold. He gazed at the smoking mountain imprinted on the one side, then with a trepidation he could not grasp, he tumbled the coin in his palm.
The face in the gold was regal in bearing and he recognized it immediately as the face of the dead man. He leapt to his feet with a start and turned... to cry for help? to flee? to seek the culprit?
He did not know, nor would he ever know what he had meant to do in that moment of panic. At least twenty people, all silent, all staring at him and the body froze whatever action would have been next. His feet had might as well have been part of the marble floor as he stood transfixed, the gold coin gliding from his fingers to clink and roll across the floor.
“Dead. The King is dead.” He knew it was true, and he could see in every one of the faces before him that they knew it to be true too, but they had not known it to be until he had said it.
He gazed down at the coin that circled until finally collapsing, heads up, at the toe of his boot. “By the Four Queens of Ibinû, what is happening?” he muttered aloud.
Two men with painted shields and plumed bronze helms had khopesh in hand but their thoughts were clearly nowhere near as sharp as their curved blades. He was, however, closest to a murdered king, and that didn’t seem the safest place to be.
“You. Guards.” He motioned to them and they came without question. “Guard the king’s body. No one is to touch him. Understood?” He walked toward the group of twenty, “Does anyone remember their name? Anything?” He was met with blank and confused stares and unanimous replies in the negative. Importantly, there was no blood on their hands. Each was resplendent in silver and gold, the women with jeweled facial piercings in a variety of locations.
He rubbed his face with both hands, digging knuckles into both eyes while noting the gold and jewels on his own fingers. Good, he was at least one of them. “So then. Sit, walk, think, whatever it takes to wrap your soul about this moment and remember. When you know your names, Ibinû be kind so that we will, return here and we will speak again.” At least he could remember the name of the Father of the Universe, that bode well didn’t it?
One woman collapsed then and there to weep and a man leaned over to console. Apparently uncomfortable with this display the group slowly dispersed, leaving him alone with the couple. Were they friends, lovers, enemies, or two strangers? He turned his back and strode to the body of the king and knelt. He felt as if he should say something, a prayer perhaps, but the words didn’t come. “I knew you, didn’t I? I told these people who you are, if only you could return the favor.” He stared into the lifeless eyes until it became uncomfortable and still the dead did not speak.
He stood and wandered down one of a multitude of corridors that exited the room of the dead king. There was a certain familiarity, but he hadn’t a clue where these halls might lead. And still, he felt there was no way he would truly get lost.
At a meeting of six halls the sound of sobs so soft they might have come from the grave caught his ear, as compelling and haunting as memories lost and teasing the mind.
He followed the sounds the best he could down forking and meandering halls, finally climbing a spiral stair. He nearly passed the lady by without knowing she was there. Slumped in a white marble alcove in a pristine white dress, her perfect ebony skin stood out with a beauty that stole his breath. The dark tear swollen eyes met his and tore at his soul, ripping a memory to the fore of his mind.
Ûbonu Yuvên, Shepherd of the Lindíun and Nephew to the King.
If he weren’t already kneeling for the girl he might have dropped to his knees at the memory of his own name, but at this moment the memory seemed hollow, far less important than the girl before him.
“What troubles you, sweet one?”
The young lady stared at him with horrified blood-shot eyes and slowly unwrapped the folds of her dress to reveal blood stains in the silken whites and a bejeweled dagger.
Ûbonu’s flesh went cold. “Where did you find this?”
The girl shrugged, “I awoke running, with this in my hands. I don’t know... I don’t know anything.”
“Hush girl, stop your tears.” he smiled and took the dagger from her fingers. “Do you think you killed someone?”
“I don’t know.”
“You didn’t. Your hands, that beautiful dress, they are too clean to have killed.”
“How can you be so sure?”
In truth he couldn’t be, but somehow it seemed horribly wrong that a young lady so pretty could perform such a deed. He was smitten. “I am Ûbonu, Nephew to the King, and I say you couldn’t have done such a thing.” He stood and helped her to her feet. “Keep that stain covered until you can find a new dress, then lose that one, understood? Now go, I will find you again.”
Ûbonu watched the girl trot down the hall with a floating gate as if she were treading upon the wings of angels and didn’t take his eye from her, and even after she was gone he stared after.
Many beats of his heart passed before his eyes went to the steel in his hands. The guard was filigreed in gold and the grip was wrapped in silver wire. The blade was finely polished steel etched with a multitude of symbols representing Lord Ibinû, his Four Queens, and their dual Aspects, but the truly unnerving detail was the crystal clear tip of the weapon.
It was like sharpened diamond, about an inch in length, and perfectly shaped to be inset within the steel of the blade to come to an otherworldly sharp tip. Lâtcu. Could it really be?
He gripped the dagger and put the tip to the stone wall. It dug and scratched the marble like limestone. The pressure was like a hand squeezing his heart.
“Executioner’s blade,” he muttered aloud. Reserved for the King’s hand or his family and only used upon noble traitors to the Faith and Crown. The Lâtcu would pierce flesh and bone, and open a throat as quick as a wax seal. “Queens be kind, what were you doing with this blade?” He had thought to discard or destroy the weapon, but that was no longer an option.
He slipped the dagger hilt first into an inner pocket of his doublet, descended the stairs with slow heavy steps and began the walk back to the dead king. Then it struck him: The blade had a missing companion, the so called Life Catcher, a cloth that assured the royal hands would stay clean during the execution, reputedly blessed by Ibinû’s priests to catch the victim’s blood without fail. If the Life Catcher had been used there were no stained hands and anybody could be the killer, even the girl or himself. The dagger’s weight seemed to grow, dragging his mind to damning suspicions.
The appearance of a man, one of the twenty from the dead king’s room, rattled his attention.
“My name is Mosêgô Mbolê.” His smile was huge, “A few others have returned to the room.”
“I am Ûbonu Yuvên, Shepherd of the Lindîun.”
The man’s face blanched, “The king was a Yuvên, yes?” He bowed deeply, covering his eyes with both hands.
Ûbonu touched the man on his brow in recognition of the bow. “The king was my uncle, and yet I can not recall his name.”
Mosêgô turned, “It will return to you, my lord, I am sure of it. Perhaps another has remembered.”
In the great hall were six of the twenty and an additional guest: a middle aged woman without gold or jewel for adornment, but the intricately carved staff in her hand suggested she wasn’t the simple woman her garb indicated.
“Bôipelô Yuvên, Third of his Name, King of all Darâ, and in service of our Lord Ibinû is dead.”
Ûbonu stepped forward, “And you are?”
The woman laughed, “That detail has not returned to me, but you look very familiar, Shepherd of the Lindîun?”
“Yes, Ûbonu Yuvên. I should know you, my apologies for being unable to help with your name.”
Most of the room was bowing before him and he found it somehow unsettling.
“Well, Ûbonu Yuvên, you are the first known heir to the throne of the Darâ.”
His heart lurched and his hands went cold, “No, no. Surely he has sons.”
“Four Queens and thirteen daughters, with no legitimate sons. The rule of the Darâ must mirror the rule of the Universe, a single King and Four Queens. There will be more claimants, yes and yes and many, but few with better and none quicker than you if you should so decide.”
Ûbonu paced, it was insanity, happening so fast. “Perhaps in time, but now? So soon?”
Mosêgô cleared his throat, “If I may... If memories are lost all across the realm, there will be chaos, we will need a leader.” His gaze was square on Ûbonu.
“My uncle’s blood isn’t yet dry, I can’t.”
It was then that all attention in the room swung to a beautiful young woman entering the hall in flowing burgundy dress. She gasped at the sight of the corpse and hid her face, but not before Ûbonu recognized her. He sighed with relief just knowing that she had found a clean dress, but his sigh turned to grinding teeth in an instant.
The ornate staff thundered as it struck the floor of the hall, and the older woman spoke, “Anyaru, Fourth Queen of Bôipelô Yuvên, Queen of the Dawn and the Day. All bow.”
Everyone in the chamber turned and bowed to the confused young woman in red, all except Ûbonu and the woman with the staff, but nobody seemed to notice.
Widowed queens were turned out from the palace as new queens were taken, they were turned over to the temples of the Aspects to live out pious lives in service to Ibinû and the Queens, never to be married again, never to leave the temple grounds again, unless...
Ûbonu knew then that he would make claim to the throne, and under his breath he swore to Ibinû by His most holy name that he would be the next king of the Darâ and make Anyaru his First Bride. He bowed then to the Fourth Queen and his intended before he turned to the woman with the staff with another revelation at hand, one more staggering than all but a dead king. It made perfect sense that this woman would not habitually bow to anyone.
“Îûmumotrêu, Lord Priest of the Living Mouth.” The hall was filled with gasps that echoed throughout the hall, then everyone, even Ûbonu, fell to their knees and kissed the floor.
What didn’t make sense was what she was doing here at the palace, a priest who only left the Temple of the Dreaming Father for the most sacred or dire situations. A Queen, the Shepherd of Lindîun, twenty nobles who could only now be presumed to be some of the most influential in the realm, and the most powerful Priest of the Pantheon of the Four Queens were in the palace the same day, and all connected somehow by a dead king and the dagger that slew him. “Îûmumotrêu, I beseech a private word with you at your earliest convenience.”