A Question of Dominion
by H. M. Snow
Standing at the top of the steps that led downward into the gate, Ciar held perfectly still for as long as it took for him to draw several long breaths. Then he raised his hands high, clenched them into fists and brought them swiftly down to his sides.
A soft cloud of dust rose under the impact of two bodies materializing at Ciar’s feet. To his left appeared a young man barely more than a boy still; to his right, a slender ascetic approaching middle age. The young man raked both hands through long blood-red hair with the exclamation, “What!” The ascetic merely took in his surroundings with a cool glance, stood and dusted himself off with thin hands decorated with the distinctive blue flame markings of the king of air. “Really, Ciar,” this one said, “what are you doing? I have a full schedule today.”
“I assure you,” Ciar replied, “I do not want you here either.” He descended the steps through the gate without another word.
Halfway down the underground corridor, the young man said, “Uh-oh.”
The ascetic answered him, “Come, now– she is our mother. As such, she’s owed some measure of duty. Stop lagging behind and behave like a man.”
Ciar ignored them both as he led them into the luminous fountain cavern. There a low table, gilded and empty, was laid for a feast, lacking only the food. “Mother,” he said to the lady who occupied the foot of the table, “here they are.”
“Ciro.” Their mother reached out her hand for him to kiss. “Still only duty, as always.” Then she held out her hand commandingly toward the younger. “Caius. Here. Now.” Before he could take her hand, she lowered it to point at the place to her left. “Sit. I’m deeply displeased with you.”
Because Ciar had taken the head of the table as his rightful place, Ciro the eldest son lowered himself into the seat at the only empty side of the table, at his mother’s right hand. “What was so urgent that you had Ciar yank us out of our domains like this, Mother? It doesn’t seem to be an emergency, not if this is what we are summoned to find.” He swept his bony hand over the feast table.
“It is far more important than you think.” She did not speak further.
Caius squirmed in his place. He picked up the goblet in front of him, cast a glance inside its empty depths, sighed a dissatisfied sigh. “I’m thirsty. I was in the middle of hunting. I see the promise of a feast– where is it?”
“In good time,” said his mother.
This did not suit Caius’ nature. He rose to his feet abruptly. “Well, I’m thirsty,” he said again as he headed toward the fountain.
“I don’t recommend it.” Ciar’s deep, harsh voice was enough to stop the youngest brother in the process of lowering his empty goblet into the water.
“You are such a fool,” Ciro added with a short laugh. “You don’t recognize a fountain of dominion when you see one! It raises an interesting question, though: what would happen if the lord of one domain drank from the fountain of another domain? Would earth be subject to under earth? Would it have any effect at all?” His voice was mocking, directed at Caius as the youngest settled himself back at the table.
“I have a better question for the three of you,” said their mother, “if you wish to test your wisdoms. There once lived a child who drank of all three fountains: the first, driven by fear of another’s greed; the second, compelled by a sense of duty for the sake of another’s arrogance; and the third, led by ignorance through the compassion of another. To which domain did the child belong then?”
Caius had a ready answer. “Every race goes to the swiftest. The reason doesn’t matter; the first always wins. The child belongs to the first domain he drank of the water in.”
His eldest brother shot a contemptuous look across the table. “Fear is an illogical reason. If the water was not drunk by choice, then there can be no true loyalty. Besides, duty is a higher impetus than either fear or ignorance. Duty is the perfection of the human will. Obviously the second domain would hold sway, regardless of sequence.”
Their mother gazed from youngest to eldest with flat eyes. “Neither answer surprises me. This is what you two call wisdom– choosing whatever appeals to you most. What is your answer, Ciar? Which holds dominion over the child?”
The middle son was slow to answer his mother’s prompting. When at last he spoke, he did so slowly as well. “The child, as I see it, is in a pitiable state. He belongs to all and none at the same time. The water of dominion is absolute. It gives everyone who drinks of it the freedom of the domain. The child would be free to travel in any of the three domains, but cannot rest in any one domain, being pulled toward the other two at all times. There is no such thing as one fountain overriding or replacing another’s dominion. This means the child must serve three masters, which is impossible for anyone– let alone for someone with three such masters as we are.” He did not look at either of his brothers when he said this. “Such a child is likely to be torn to pieces instead of finding a home in any domain.”
“Then by all means,” said Caius, “tear the child in three and let’s be done with the question. A situation like that is impossible anyway.”
“As you say,” their mother replied, “a child like that must be quite impossible.” She smiled a little at Ciar across the table and repeated, “Quite impossible. Let’s eat together, before it is too late. Call them in, Ciar.”
Ciar held out his hand, palm-upward. A wisp of black smoke streaked from his hand toward the darker recesses of the cavern, where the inmost gate was concealed in a cleft of the rock. In another moment, two figures approached from the cleft. Foremost was Des, carrying the smaller of two trays laden with platters and tureens. Her gaze sought Ciar’s. Her complexion was a little gray and her posture rigid as she dropped to one knee to present the tray before him.
“When did you get yourself one of these? She doesn’t look dead.” Caius extended his left hand, tattooed all around with blood red flames, on a straight line toward Des’ backside.
Ciar’s black-flame tattooed fist shot out on an intersecting line.
The young king of earth yelped. He cradled his hand against his chest. “You! You’ve broken my fingers! I’m sure they’re broken.”
“You’ll get worse if you move in that direction again.” The king under earth shifted the tray so that it rested on the table. Then he led Des around to his other side, making room so that she had a place beside him. He went so far as to serve her from the tray first before taking any food for himself. With a fingertip, he pushed the tray toward his elder brother when he had finished helping himself to its contents.
The other server had taken his tray to the far end. No one gave him a glance until he sat down beside the kings’ mother. Even then, Ciro and Caius were too preoccupied with the scene featuring Des to do more than note the fourth man’s presence until the fourth man offered a platter of cut fruits and said, “Do you still have a taste for fruit, Ciro?”
“Yes, thank–” Ciro, king of air, opened wide his blue eyes. “Father?”
“Father!” Caius echoed in amazement.
“I was beginning to wonder if either of you would take note of me.”
“But… you… died,” said the eldest with painstaking enunciation.
“You weren’t always this slow on the uptake,” said the former king, Ciceran. “Where are we, Ciro? In which domain?”
His youngest son hooted with raucous disdain. “And you mocked me for the fountain!”
Ciceran ignored this interjection and said patiently, “Instead of holding dominion, I am now part of this domain. I asked Ciar for his consent as king under earth so that I could meet with you on this decisive day.”
“What makes today so important?” asked Ciro. “Mother said something like that when we arrived, and now you. I can’t see how today is any different from any other day.”
Ciceran and his consort shared a sidelong look. Their lack of response weighed heavily on the conversation, suppressing any other remarks. Fortunately there was food to distract the eldest and youngest, whose self-confidence and appetite was far heartier than any misgivings that their parents’ silence may have engendered. At the other end of the table, Ciar stared at his food in gloom. Des spoke softly to him, too softly for anyone to hear. Under the influence of her whispers, Ciar sampled a little food.
Food still remained, though considerably less of it, when a faraway rush of waters began to resound in the fountain cavern. Ciar heard it first and hushed Des so that he could listen. The youngest brother, Caius, was slowest to catch on that something was happening, but even he fell silent eventually. The rush became a thunder that echoed from every facet of the dome. Ciro covered his ears, wincing. Caius tried to shout over it, but no one could tell what he said over the ceaseless thunder. Des gripped the back of Ciar’s shirt as he tried to shelter her from whatever powerful force approached.
Then the waves appeared from nowhere, rising higher than the fountain itself. They seemed as though they would crash down, drowning everyone trapped in the cavern, but when they fell they engulfed only the three brothers. Ciar was torn from Des’ grip. The water lifted the three brothers from the cavern floor, swirling around them in spheres. Caius flailed uselessly against the water prison, while Ciro made arcane gestures as if attempting to summon some power with which to fight. The pressure within the cavern was immense, even for those not trapped within the living water. Ciceran was on his knees, and his consort surrounded him with her particles like a shield. Likewise, Des knelt at the far end of the table, but far from bowing beneath the pressure, she refused to tear her gaze away from Ciar’s pliant silhouette in its prison.
As fast as they had come, the strange waters receded and left the cavern perfectly dry. The only sound remaining was the dainty trickle of the fountain. The waters left all three brothers flat on the floor, panting. Caius was the first to sit up, but he was no longer the same young man who had entered the fountain cavern. His hair was a plain dun brown, and all the flame markings had disappeared from his sun-freckled skin. “I feel sick,” he groaned. “Ciro… Ciro, what’s wrong with you? You look different.”
The eldest brother rolled onto his side. His voice came raggedly. “What happened?”
Their father rose and crossed the chamber to kneel between them. He picked up two slender tapered sticks of pale wood. Each had a flame symbol engraved into the end. “When dominion is bestowed, it is conditional. One thousand days were granted you, in which you showed your quality as king of your specific domain. On the thousand and first day, you would then undergo a test. If you passed the test, your dominion would be strengthened; if not, it would be lifted from you.” He showed them the two sticks. “Don’t you recognize these?”
Ciro reached for the stick engraved with the flame of air. With a harsh cry he jerked his hand back from it as if burned.
“Do you see now? You have failed the test.” Ciceran gazed across at Ciar. “They aren’t listening, are they?” He smiled gently at the sight of the attendant Des helping her lord sit upright, steadying him until he regained his equilibrium, speaking privately in anxious tones.
“That isn’t fair,” said Caius. “You never warned us. How were we supposed to know?”
“I taught you,” his father said in a harder tone, “that dominion was a burden for you to bear. I taught you that, above all, you were never to become a burden to your domain. But you showed your quality. You showed your quality,” he repeated, deadly calm. “Your mother and I brought you all together here so that you wouldn’t display our family’s disgrace publically on such an important day, but you have displayed it for one thousand days already. There is no way to conceal your quality— a womanizer and a glutton, a despot and a murderer. And you.” He turned his attentions on his eldest. “Sanctimonious, dogmatic and cold-hearted autocrat that you are, you did no better than your littlest brother, only you forced all your executions onto the consciences of others. You worship duty while twisting your own obligations to suit yourself. Keep silent,” Ciceran commanded. “Hold your tongues, and it might be credited to you as wisdom. I am finished with you. This is beyond my control.”
“Then what are we supposed to do now?” blurted Caius.
Their mother solidified behind Ciceran, a towering figure of a woman. She grasped eldest and youngest by their collars. “We have trespassed in a sacred place too long. You are my offspring. I will deal with you now in a different place, a profane place more suited to you. Until next time, Ciar,” she said. Her voice echoed with strength. Her expression was matter-of-fact when she added, “If you cannot present me with another generation of offspring from that girl, then you’re no son of mine.” She dragged her other two sons from the cavern.
Ciar stared after her. Beneath the black flame markings of his domain, his skin burned pink. “She says whatever she pleases, as always.”
His father laughed. “And you’ve found another like her, at least in that regard. Didn’t you notice, Ciar? You’re the only one blushing.”
Ciar turned his head to stare at Des’ face, but Des was her usual bright-eyed self. “Did you think I’d turn back because of something like that, lord? It’s your mother’s wish for you. If it’s also what you wish for yourself, then I need nothing more to decide me.”
“But you– you– you don’t lo–”
Des covered his mouth with her hand. “Lord, it isn’t fitting for the king under earth to stutter like that. I couldn’t serve you as I do if I didn’t love you. Didn’t you know? If I had the honor of presenting my lord with a son or daughter, I would be more pleased than I can say. But lord, I think your father has something more to say.” She nudged Ciar to return his attention to the former king.
Ciceran held up the two domain symbols. “It’s your choice, Ciar. It’s a burden, a dreadfully heavy burden for one man to bear, but I think you can do it.”
Ciar stared at the offered sticks. He held out his hand, palm-upward. “For the next generation. I will keep them safe until then.”
His father laid the two sticks across Ciar’s palm. They vanished, and everything that marked Ciar as king under earth changed in a second: the tattoo markings and his hair turned white. His eyes turned as blue as a cloudless sky. The skin of one arm, beneath the white tattoos, turned blood red and the skin of the other, coal black.
“You remind me of myself when I was young,” said Ciceran. He bowed with his forehead touching the cavern floor. “No longer will anyone say ‘under earth’ or ‘air’ or ‘earth,’ because there is only one king and only one domain again.” Then he rose. “I’ll return now, with your consent.”
When they were alone once more, Ciar said to Des, “I can summon you to my side, no matter which part of the domain I’m in. You won’t be bound here alone.”
“Well…” With reluctance, Des said, “Technically, I think I was never bound here. I heard the question your mother asked you earlier. That child in the question… that was me. I’ve drunk from all three fountains, though that was never my ambition.”
“Why did you never say anything?”
“Because of what you said: I couldn’t serve three masters. I didn’t want to serve the other two. I wanted to belong to your domain alone, to stay at your side. I thought you knew that already, lord. How much more do I need to do to prove it to you?” She gave him a wry smile. Her eyes twinkled. “How many offspring will it take? Choose any number; I’m ready to give it my best effort.” She laughed when he coughed in embarrassment. “Whatever the need may be, I want only to remain at your side, whatever domain you visit. I know you’ll do well, and I’ll be proud to be of help to you however I can. So…” Des leaned her forehead against the side of Ciar’s head. “Your new domains await you, lord. Shall we go?”
He stood and lifted her to her feet with him. “Yes, let’s.”