My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived.
Let the record of this oath remain: I, Matta, certify this manuscript is entirely truthful, recounted directly from my memory and by my own hand.
I was born over a millennium ago, in an age when the prestige of one's lineage still meant something. Through my mother I was said to have been descended from Sadon, though none were alive by then to vouch for the validity of such an extravagant claim.
Throughout my life, wars were fought and leaders rose and fell around me. I adapted to the ebb and flow of history as best I could, swearing new allegiances and kissing the rings of each new king or emperor, all in the name of continuing my research.
I am, and always have been, a scholar. My studies and experimentation focused on the observable physical differences between immortals and mortals, the deathless and the doomed. I have always been interested in these scientific matters, if only because so much of our society revolves around our interactions with them.
We have made mankind into our slaves, bartering for them like chattel. Human talents are a commodity which we rely upon more than we realize, and yet we look down upon them as inferior beings. The fellinar, our priesthood, tell us that Akhen made humans for this purpose. After all, why else would the creator of all things fashion them to be physically weaker and slower than us unless it was a deliberate subservience to our race?
But by no means are we culturally or spiritually superior to them. I have found that our corruption and moral vacuousness frequently surpasses theirs. We look at their families, at lovers joining themselves together for life in marriage and raising their children themselves, and we scoff. As if the loveless, fickle coupling that kluuda has become and the calamity of aimless children wandering the streets were so much better. We know it is not what Akhen intended, and yet we excuse our behavior by saying we are better than mortals—that we are beyond them, that we don’t need the same limitations and laws.
But I am getting ahead of myself. There is more yet for me to tell of my life.
When I discovered I was a hunyadi, I was indifferent to my abilities. In fact, I saw them as an obstacle and a distraction. Many hunyadi tend to become employed as slave overseers, but I resisted such a calling. Instead, I threw myself into intellectual pursuits. My quest for knowledge led to me amassing the largest library in the Empire.
It is unfortunate, then, that my talents and knowledge were squandered when I was called upon to create chemical weapons for the army during Arlo’s War. The historians have done their best to strike his name from the records, but it is a sorry nation that forgets its history. Arlo was another anti-slavery insurrectionist crushed beneath the imperial heel. But he had far more support than I have ever seen an anti-slaver garner, and so he was considered a genuine threat to our security.
With my art I designed and constructed contraptions to wreak havoc upon the enemy—slivers of glass containing acid to be thrown like daggers, canisters of compounds that needed only to be heated to turn into deadly fumes, molten liquids that burned the skin like fire. In the process, I found a peculiar metal which was a bane to Exekians, but had no effect on humans. My superiors stepped in only once, to sweep away that worrisome discovery from prying eyes. Otherwise, I was free to experiment as I pleased, usually on prisoners of war.
During the course of that endeavor, I met Matta, my greatest friend. He was a dutiful soldier favored by the Emperor, because he never questioned orders and always performed them to the best of his ability. In particular, he was constantly sent to put down slave revolts.
In a thousand years of an Exekian life, there are five kluudas, with an average conception rate for a male being four per cycle, meaning that I must have fathered, on average, twenty offspring. I only ever saw one in person, though not for lack of searching. Arina… she is dead now. Soon I will join her.
I am running out of time. It sounds strange coming from an immortal, but make no mistake. My days are numbered.
I've brooded over this manuscript and how I should go about continuing it. I must concede that I began this not only to tell the truth and preserve the legacy of our race, but also to keep my own legend alive.
I write this in the shadows of a ruined fortress. I am in hiding. I am already dead to everyone I ever knew. And you in the future should know why. It is less than a footnote in our history, and yet I am selfish enough to want to tell my story as well.
I left off with the barest mention of my daughter. As I explained before, we Exekians are encouraged to abandon our young. We are not born the way mortals are. We dwell in the womb for three months time, and then for seven weeks in a chrysalis, which must be kept in a cool, damp environment. And of course, our fertility is limited only to kluuda, once every two hundred and fourteen years. At that time, we arrange for caves and other suitable places to be guarded and overseen by both Exekians and slaves, and that is where we keep the chrysalises until they hatch. After they are born, the children are given a bath, a meal, and a name before being sent off into the world alone. Unlike mortal infants, they learn how to walk and run within hours of their birth, but everything else must be learned from experience. Consequently, it takes much longer for them even to learn our language, much less history, mathematics, and sciences. Indeed, they are wild as animals, civilized only out of necessity, and hardly inclined to behave honorably.
As part of my experiments and research into the differences between us and mortals, I endeavored to raise my own child in mimicry of a mortal family. I made a deal with Arina’s mother in order to procure the chrysalis, but she refused to play at motherhood. So, in the seven weeks before it hatched, I paid a visit to the bazaar district to buy a slave for that express purpose.
At the time, I had few slaves, and then only to serve as assistants. I had no overseer of my own, since I was a hunyadi and could simply twist the slumber of a rebellious servant.
How pathetic the mortals looked in their ropes and binds, sometimes gagged to prevent them from disrupting the transactions. I didn't pity them, though. If I were the way I am now, perhaps I would have, but not then.
When I arrived, the slavers looked at me and recognized my rank by the hunyadi's circlet upon my brow. "How may we serve, my prince?" they cried, crossing their arms over their chests and kneeling, palms outstretched.
As was the custom, I bent over, wrapping my hands around each slaver's wrists and lifting him to his feet, one by one. There were four in all, each clothed similarly, with gloves and thick cloth, although it was a humid day.
"I require three mature women, physically fit and capable," I told them.
The slavers set about picking and prodding the masses they had captured. Each cycled through their catch, pulling the healthiest ones out and offering them to me. I inspected each one, questioning the slavers thoroughly.
I recall that I asked them, "Why is this one's mouth covered?" The slaver replied that she would not stay quiet. "Only offer me the ones who have been silent," I said.
While the others began to vigorously examine each woman without a gagged mouth, the slaver who had suffered rejection grasped the arm of a different young woman. Gripping her jaw, he wrenched her mouth open, jerked it to the side for me to see, and asked, "Is this suitable, your lordship?"
I asked, "How much do you want for her and those like her?"
"Three," I countered.
"Four hundred fifty," I bargained. "That's final."
Akhen forgive me. I fed these peddlers of flesh, these merchants of souls, and bought her life.
Though the slaver was annoyed at the cheapness of the sale, with one swift blow he cut the bonds. The deal was done.
I felt compelled to look at her more closely then. Her skin was browned by the sun and her yellow hair was matted with dirt. Her clothes were tattered to the extent of being little more than rags, and there was a cut above her left eye that had yet to heal.
I asked her, "What is your name?"
She raised her head for the first time. "Cordelia Zimmer," she answered.
In the days to come, I sold the other two women, having concluded Cordelia was the most suitable choice. I explained the experiment to her in the simplest of terms, but she caught on fairly quickly as to what was expected of her. She never divulged the secret, nor did she show resentment that she had been chosen. Rather, she appeared relieved she had not been selected for other less savory labors.
Arina was hatched in my house, bathed and fed by Cordelia, and reared as my daughter. As I suspected would happen, she learned to speak fluently much faster than most Exekian children do. She called me “Papa” a mortal word, for we have no equivalent in our tongue.
I knew before I began the experiment that I would have to love her. I had observed it in the mortal families, and recognized it as a necessary component. But in the beginning, I confess I didn’t know how. I watched Cordelia, for loving seemed to come naturally to her. It comes easier to mortals, I think, because they are so limited by the constraints of time and age. With them, everything must count for something.
She treated Arina as if she had borne her herself. So too did she come to love me, though I didn’t recognize her feelings for what they were at the time. I was just beginning to understand what it meant to be "Papa". To look into the eyes of your creation—to see your own features reflected back in the face of another being, not just as a fleeting possibility, but knowing they are flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone—that must be the heart of the mortal experience. It is pain mixed with joy, agony and ecstasy, each exquisite sorrow more brutal than the last, for once you become the parent, you begin to taste death as well as breathe new life.
Alas, it was not so for us. Arina grew to the age of eight, but no older. I had accounted for every aspect of her upbringing, except the inevitable desire for her to explore. She managed to escape the house one night, wandering alone near the river. When we found her it was too late. She had fallen into the water and drowned.
There is nothing more cutting than mortal grief. I, who could hardly comprehend death, saw it suddenly and vividly. Cordelia shared my pain, but with the knowledge that it was the way of things. I was driven almost to madness by it. So if my actions henceforth seem rash or incomprehensible, know that I was not in my right mind… I was misguided.
I came to believe existence without immortality was futile. A reversal of Akhen’s “curse” upon the descendants of Monaxia and Lostris was needed. So I took to my alchemy, resolving to find some way of defeating death.
That was the towering height of my arrogance. I believed absolutely that I was right, and possibly, if I could find the antidote, I could usher in a glorious new age. The ramifications of my actions didn’t trouble me in the slightest. I was working toward evolution. I was going to cheat reality. I was going to defy Akhen.
But I failed. As if in some black comedy, I watched Cordelia, who had agreed to be my test subject, die rather than live forever. The draught I prepared killed her as if she had swallowed poison.
Then I knew I was the one in the wrong. It was not death that needed to be cheated—it was life. Life, which is so overwhelming as to become numbing. Suffering and pleasure both grow dull, sorrow and joy but routine cycles.
The wise say love is the only thing that matters in this world. It is what we are truly remembered for. And yet we grow weary and cold and numb, and can't find it in ourselves to feel anymore. Like Akhen said to Monaxia, “You have allowed your senses to overturn love.”
So death is not the end. It is a spiritual apotheosis, the fruition of life. One which we Exekians have been denied. We are not the inheritors of this world, but transient guests upon it. We will all ultimately die, even those of us who do not age and live for a thousand years, feeling until we cannot feel any longer.
That is why I said to the people, “We are not superior to them, they are superior to us.” I was ridiculed and scorned. But at last, I knew the truth.
It is far more painful to recall my past than it is to recount history, no matter how closely woven the two may be. So if I seem more impersonal now, it is because I am agonized. I fear what I will find on the other side of life. I am enlightened, and yet I doubt myself. I am comforted by the unknown, and yet I ache and fret over what is to come.
After I concluded we needed death, I was struck by the state of our society. The Empire was built upon the backs of mortal slaves, individuals whose lives were already brief and difficult enough as is without us imposing our will upon them. I had never questioned the system by which we all lived, but after realizing this truth, it seemed disingenuous to continue propagating it. I freed my slaves and tried to give them safe passage to the north, but they were captured and enslaved again along the way.
One of them broke under interrogation and revealed I had freed them. When word of this reached the capital, I was called before Emperor Rokanan.
Black-haired Rokanan sat upon his throne and stared down at me with glowing violet eyes. He smirked as I admitted to having freed my slaves, and then he laughed when I asked they be allowed to continue their journey north. He called me a madman and dismissed me with the warning that if I did not cease to be a nuisance, he would have me committed.
I was infuriated, and in my fury my ambitions grew. A plan came to me like a bolt of lightning, to use my power as a hunyadi and touch the dreams of the slaves. I enlisted my services as an overseer on a far-flung plantation, calling myself Arkady (after the fake soothsayer from the old legend), and gradually I influenced the slaves as they slept.
We Exekians do not dream. A hunyadi’s ability to dream-walk provides an experience unfathomable to the rest of our kind. They see human frailty and fantasy—I see the wellspring of the soul. I entered their minds, turning terror into courage, pain into determination, and all the while inspiring a deep longing for freedom.
To some degree, I also stirred up their hatred, provoking them with memories of mistreatment at the hands of their master. When at last I revealed myself, most did not trust me, but their desire for vengeance was stronger than their doubts.
I told them how they might kill their master. Another error in judgment on my part—I was unaware of the importance of their master, Caspar. He was being groomed by Rokanan to be his successor.
The humans rose up and slew him, and the word spread quickly. Those who were involved in the assassination were executed. And because I had joined the attack, I was condemned as well. To escape the soldiers, I fled to this abandoned keep, where I now compose this.
It was all a grave mistake, no matter the intentions. Soon, the mortals will obtain their own freedom, in defiance of those who would seek to corrupt their dreams and amplify their nightmares. If Akhen wills it, they don’t need my help.
Kemet, I know it will be you who slays me. I have seen you on the crest of the hill outside these broken windows. After all, you’re always being sent to put down slave revolts.
I trust you will have the strength to do what must be done, no matter your feelings of friendship toward me. You saved my life once, so it is fitting you be the one to end it as well. I ask only that you become the keeper of my last possessions—my library, including this manuscript. Hold onto them, my old friend, and I will go to my death in peace.
Cordelia, my Arina, I am close now.