Within Bogyoke Park, Yangon, sat Kandawgyi Lake, the largest man-made lagoon in the city. The opalescent body of water was first commissioned by King Thibaw, criticised by the British for his love of material excess and ceaseless warmongering, though during the occupation, it became a favourite hangout for expats.
Upon the lake, tethered to its centre by centrifugal currents of pure mana, gently rotating where the city's ley-lines met, was an enormous pleasure barge, the largest of its kind ever built. Named the Karaweik Palace, the ship was clad in foiled gold and studded with gems and jewels, with its interior floor plated with an interlocking herringbone pattern of nephrite and jadeite. On either side, two enormous statues of life-like Nagas, each twenty metres tall and two hundred long, formed the perimeter of the ship from the shore. From atop heads the width of two men, egg-sized ruby eyes watched over the tranquil lake, guarding its precious cargo: Matriarch Nanmadaw Me Nu, protector of Myăma and its Frontier provinces.
While the IIUC raged in Kachin, the Matriarch hid as she had always done for the last half-century, cocooned in luxury, lying on a divan of enormous length and girth, enfolded in silk, satin and chiffon, wary of the outside world, usually asleep to preserve her remaining life.
Within the high vaulted walls of the floating palace, three kept company; though only two engaged in conversation. The first was Me Nu, radiant on her divan, the second was Maymyint, prostrated on all fours, and the third was Marong, quiet as a whisper of smoke, blended into the ever-burning incense, no more obtrusive than the gentle scent of sandalwood.
Marong had never expected that he would venture this far.
The throne room usually fielded two Manipuri Shadowmen, his seniors by decades, standing in the antechamber, followed by four elite guards within the sanctum itself. Strangely, only an hour ago, an order had come from the Grandmaster to transfer every single member of the House of M's precious guards northward for a final confrontation with the Tyrant.
Marong was himself a member of the House of M's elite force, but as a scion, he also existed outside of the cult's organisation.
When the irrational command came, he felt the sea change in his smoke, swirling with hidden eddies clouded by conspiracy.
There was another reason for Marong's suspicion.
Usually, he opted to remain as far from their Mind Mage sister as possible. Maymyint was the eldest and the favourite of the Matriarch. Even when Marong was a child, Maymyint had remained exactly as she was now, aloof, beautiful, and cold-blooded. Thanks to her inherited Radiant Element; she commanded unquestionable loyalty from the House of M's caretakers, especially its troop of secretively trained mercenaries in the mountains of Manipur, including its Grandmaster, a powerful Vairagi and Marong's teacher.
After Me Nu had cheated Mayuree of her promised protection, he had found himself increasingly drawn to his eldest. And it was from the many incidences when Marong lurked to see what treacherous plots Maymyint trafficked, that he caught a whiff of the Tyrant. At first, it was faint, but as he followed Maymyint day after day, the musky scent clung to his nostrils like pork grease.
Was Maymyint in contact with the Tyrant then? Marong knew he had to find proof, though since Mayuree went away, he had found no evidence of collusion.
But then an order had come from the Grandmaster, and much to Marong's shock, the Shadowmen not only obeyed: they had left Me Nu unprotected. He was incredulous, for the contract between the Vairagi and Me Nu was etched out in dragon-tongue, in the writing of the Naga, and only Me Nu could revoke it. Not in all twenty-four years of Marong's life had he ever witnessed Me Nu not being protected by at least four of the Vairagi's elites, the only force she trusted, which was why he had slipped into the theatre to bear witness to the rare sight of a furious Matriarch.
An invisible lash snapped across Maymyint's body, sinking her into the floor.
Me Nu's wrath was terrible indeed, so much that Maymyint's pain, which should have delighted Marong, stirred even his smoky form. In Marong's eyes, Maymyint existed as a favourite of the Matriarch, unassailable in her superiority. Never had he seen her berated, much less whipped and beaten. Sometimes, he had thought the pair mind-linked, for they often finished each other's sentences.
"You dared to move my Shadowmen without my consent!" Me Nu snarled, baring pointed canines of flawless ivory.
"The decision is to the benefit of the House of M." Maymyint passively touched her head to the floor. "Matriarch, please understand."
"Benefit? By leaving me unprotected?" Me Nu spat, her ageless face growing grotesque with wrinkles. "Call our Mages back!"
"We need them in Nagaland if we are to retake our home!" Maymyint protested. "Mother, you have to listen!"
"Silence! Do you think I don't know you meddled with the tithing? Why is Mayuree with the foreigners? Why are the transports going out now?"
Another blow, harder this time, was enough to send Maymyint skittering across the polished jadeite floor, leaving a vivid streak of red. From the tiles, Marong could see that Maymyint was bleeding from her mouth.
She defiantly raised her head.
"YOU DARE?!" The Matriarch rose from her divan, revealing her scale-covered lower body. "You, who art the flesh of my flesh, how dare you utter such imprudence? Maymyint, you forget your duty."
"Imprudence?" Maymyint spat blood. "You, who stole life from my siblings, who fed your scions to the Tyrant, speak of duty?"
Like an agitated cobra, Maymyint suddenly stood. "You're past your prime, old bitch."
For a second, Marong thought the flow of time had ceased.
"You have grown cheeky." Me Nu regained her composure. "Tyrtrol!"
Maymyint prostrated by throwing herself on the floor with a violent snap.
Marong likewise felt the blood in his veins urging him to obey, though when it came to off-shoots like him and Mayuree, their genetic heirloom had thinned enough to gift them freedom.
"Confn trelkilt," Me Nu continued in the old draconic tongue, her expression demonstrating full confidence in her command over her children. "It seems the liberty I have gifted you has gone to your head, Maymyint. You believe yourself beyond your role as tithing for our little Tyrant up north. But some lessons, I see, mustn't be remiss. You, my child, are just as expendable as your brothers and sisters. You, arrogant whelp, are no more important than Mayuree, who you so eagerly volunteered."
At the sound of Me Nu's words, Marong tensed, relying on years of training to quieten his disquieted heart. Maymyint volunteered Mayuree? His complexion would have blanched but for his dissipated body. Then it wasn't the Matriarch?
Maymyint forced herself onto her knees.
"But why have you sent all our forces northward, leaving the city unprotected? Are you perhaps planning a coup?" Me Nu continued, growing more upset by the minute, feeling naked without her guards. "I sense something on you, dear child. What could it be?"
By the time Marong had calmed himself, the Matriarch had left her throne and was encircling Maymyint. As usual, their so-called mother's deathless face was something that made one's spine squirm. Said to be the descendant of a great Naga, Me Nu was the last remnant of the Royal Family deposed by the British, a surviving daughter of the Mon and the Pyu. The way she moved reminded him of a serpent, made more so vivid by the jewel-encrusted scales just below her neck, cupping her shrivelled breasts.
"Open your mouth."
Marong's sister stretched her blooded-lips so far that her jaws appeared unhinged.
The Matriarch reached out with fingers crusty with dull serpent scales, then drew out Maymyint's tongue. Quickly, like a dash, Me Nu's tongue flickered.
"Ho?" Me Nu dug a nail into Maymyint's pink appendage, daring the woman to bite. "What is this? Someone else has marked you in my stead. I can smell it on your breath and in your blood."
Marong meanwhile, was considering the possibility of getting the Matriarch to rescind her order for Mayuree. If he should approach their "Mother" with suspicions of Maymyint' treachery against Mayuree's contribution, could he bring his sister back?
"You always had a glib tongue." Me Nu relented her grasp, then patted Maymyint on the cheeks, wiping the frothy blood on her daughter's cheeks. "Tell me, child, how is it that you have met with the Tyrant without my knowledge? What is your purpose? Use the Void Sorceress to make the IIUC Mages join your fight? You know the proctors do not interfere, no matter the sacrifice made by the students. Are you truly hoping a group of children would defeat our enemy of three decades? Your plan appears to be full of holes, my dear. Tell Mother what it is that you have truly envisioned. I know you're smarter than that."
"I planned for your departure from this world," Maymyint spoke, her voice different somehow. "Are you so discontent with rotting away in your palace, Me Nu? You haven't left here, nor seen the sun for how long? What's the joy in life, when you live in a gilded cage?"
That last metaphor, Marong mulled. Was that for Me Nu, or was it for Maymyint herself? In a way, wasn't it the same for all their siblings? Cocks and hens locked in gilded cages, fattened up to be of use to the House of Mü, a house of nothing?
"Ssejinw!" Me Nu commanded, fuming at her daughter's insolence.
"No, I will not." To Marong's shock and surprise, Maymyint not only disobeyed their Matriarch's Draconic speech but rose to both feet. Instead, she opened her mouth, split her tongue in twain in the manner of a serpent's and delivered a power word of her own. "Vataka!"
Unbidden, surprised and caught utterly unprepared, Me Nu found herself hitting the floor on all fours, just as Maymyint had done so before.
"How does it feel?" Maymyint's trilling voice quivered with excitement. "Old whore! Now the shoe is on the other foot! HA!"
"YOU!" Me Nu's eyes rolled in all directions. "How?"
Marong knew that Me Nu's dragon-speech held her children in check. When she fully applied her will and her Mind Magic, it was almost impossible to resist her command. That Maymyint had found a way to combat their Matriarch's blood magic was an impossible thing. Distinctly, Marong recalled the Grandmaster warning him that any descendants not subject to Me Nu's control were sent to the Tyrant, that or fed to the pseudo-dragon-carp in the lake.
"I have a new Master now!" Maymyint snarled. "I am free!"
Before Marong could rebuke the irony of what Maymyint had declared, his sister reached out with both hands and took Me Nu by the arms. "Hag! Your time is done! Progress waits for no one!"
"ARRRRRGH!" Me Nu screamed as radiant energy seared her scales and melted the golden mounts upon which her jewels were clustered.
"Make me prostrate?" Maymyint exalted as she tore a chunk of charred flesh from the Matriarch's body. "That's the last time you threaten me!"
"Guards! GUARDS!" Me Nu cried out.
Marong's eyes, were he still in his physical form, would have bulged from their sockets. Maymyint, attacking the Matriarch! It was insanity; the world had gone topsy-turvy!
"You ingrate!" Me Nu struck out with a blow of her own, but her body, as Marong suspected, was old and frail, a scarecrow wearing a skin of youth the House of M had supplied for almost half a century. Beneath Maymyint, Me Nu's lower body suddenly fused, becoming the likeliness of a snake, but whatever Maymyint had done was keeping the Matriarch bound in her human form. With this final indignity, Me Nu grew desperate. "Are you working with Aung San?! Did he set you up for this? Do you hope to give up the House to those peasants?! To those rebels?!"
Maymyint didn't speak. Instead, she pushed Me Nu to the floor and began to choke the life out of their matron with a sadistic glee that bordered on orgiastic joy.
"Is it the B-British?" The Matriarch choked and howled, her face turning half-cobra before turning back again. "No-Tsss-M-Maymyint- Sss-spare-"
Mindful of his incorporeal heart pounding away somewhere in the Astral Realm, Marong descended into the throne room, slinking across the ground, mingling with the smoke from the sandalwood incense. He had no love for the Matriarch, but this was an opportunity.
An opportunity that would likely never come again in his life.
A chance to be free.
Maymyint was going to be another Me Nu. Nothing would change with her reign. Even so, their eldest had the right idea. If his sister could make the hard choice to fight for her future, then so could Marong.
"Garrr… Garrrrk… Fles… of mine..." Me Nu struggled for breath. Scales painted with golden flakes began to cascade from her body as her waning vitality began to shed what age should have taken long ago, filling the antechamber with a musical series of clinks and clangs.
"All shall end in Nagaland," Maymyint boasted even as the flesh of her mother began to soften. "When Mayuree and her friends clash with the Tyrant, when the Shadowmen stir up Aung San's nest, they will smash themselves against the fortress."
"Oh, I don't expect either side to succeed." Maymyint giggled, ratcheting up the pressure on her sizzling fingers. There was blood now; Marong could see broken skin on Me Nu's throat, affecting a great stink as the Matriarch's ancient plasma steamed and boiled. "All they, and Gwen, and the IIUC teams have to do is create a distraction and then… hahaha…"
Me Nu shrivelled, her clawed feet kicked, then all life departed.
Maymyint looked around, dazed by the blood and gore covering her from her throat to her thighs, baked into her dress.
With still shaking hands, she began to draw a communication glyph from the floor, using the Matriarchs blood as a convenient medium. Marong meanwhile, slipped just behind his Enchanter sister, mindful of her sensitivity to magic, keeping his magical signature at a minimum.
With a flourish, Maymyint completed the circle. "It's done!"
The glyphs activated, proving the potency of their Matriarch's demi-human serum. In the next instant, a sudden stink of draconic-essence permeated the room.
Marong knew by now his sister was in league with the Tyrant. If so, they were all in danger. Mayuree was in danger, Gwen was in danger, the House of M was in danger, and so was all of Myăma.
But not if he could get his way.
It was funny how when the Matriarch had sent him to Manipur for ten years of torturous training, he had sworn to kill her and free himself and Mayuree and that now, he was going to avenge the old bitch.
But first, Marong sought to know what his sister was trafficking.
"So you have chosen satisfaction after all," a deep and rumbling voice rolled across the throne room, eliciting a willing prostration from his proud sister. "Was diplomacy too difficult?"
Shit! His ghostly anatomy puckered. That's NOT the Tyrant!
With one hand, he worked the killing spell, with the other, he readied himself to activate the necrotic device tethered to his craft. Maymyint possessed a Contingency Ring, meaning he had to offset any healing she received when she reappeared in her contracted Tower.
Without warning, Maymyint grovelled so low that Marong found himself vis-a-vis with a glowing eye, electric-blue and golden-slitted, staring past the woman and toward his incorporeal visage.
Their eyes met.
Every cell in Marong's body, astral and solid, stood at a standstill.
"Humph," the voice hummed. "Tell me of events in Kachin."
"Gwen Song and her ilk are at each other's throats," Maymyint obediently replied from the floor. "They should be resolving their quest very soon. I have arranged for Mayuree's extradition to Nagaland once they reach Indaw."
"And the Tyrant?"
"Delicious, and what of your promise to Marong?"
At the mention of his name, Marong felt his magic begin to unravel.
"Did you not assert that young Mayuree will be safe?"
Maymyint appeared confused by the unexpected inquiry. "Forgive your servant for not understanding. The sorceress and my sister are bait."
"Indeed they are," the voice grew low. "You may proceed as planned."
"As per your will." Maymyint bowed, just stopping herself before she slammed her head on the jade carvings.
"Go now. I shall be in contact."
Without a word, Maymyint shuffled away, leaving the mangled, half-transmuted corpse of Me Nu, surrounded by precious jewels and gems, to decorate the otherwise spotless golden throne room.
Very slowly, mote by mote, Marong began his retreat.
"Marong." The eye abruptly refocused its attention, and now it addressed him directly. "Your foster mother and something of a matron is dead. Do you hold any affection for her, or is your allegiance akin to that of your surviving sister?"
Before Marong could answer or turn to flee, a dense coil of mana flooded the throne room, making the air as thick as molasses. Something incredibly dense was gathering at the centre, as though a cumulonimbus cloud had suddenly formed in the throne room's golden interior. In an instant, a dark fog, moist and wet like a monsoonal thunderstorm, filled the vacant space, painting the cold walls with moisture.
Marong had been through enough danger to know that nothing good would come of staying any longer.
"Zexenuma!" the voice that now boomed across the room made Me Nu's earlier command sound gentler than the archery of rain on Kandawgyi. The weight of Maymyint's masters' words pressed in upon his skull with the force of a Stone Spear to his brain, seizing the entirety of his being. He understood the word; in the draconic-tongue, it was a simple command to "Stay" - as one would say to a dog.
With a crash, his physical form fell into the material world, striking the floor with a resounding thunk.
Now held hostage by rebellious limbs, Marong stood still as a statue while the cloud collated, growing solid, crackling with lightning and fulminating with low thunder until it took on the form of a man.
Slowly, as though with all the leisure in the world, his assailant stepped onto the jade-green tiles of the throne room.
Without regard for his captive audience, the monstrous existence exercised his humanoid form, flexing his fingers and extending his legs, craning his neck this way and that. When finally Marong gathered his wits, the Smoke Mage couldn't help but shudder; for he was staring at perfection.
Maymyint's master was tall, at least two meters, with strong jaws, broad shoulders, a compact torso and long limbs. Where Marong had dark hair, the man had a silver mane that sprouted just above his bushy, ash-white brows, tucked behind the ears and flowing till his waist.
The creature's physiognomy was majesty personified, his physique without earthly equal.
When Marong's gaze fell lower, his eyes involuntarily widened.
Abruptly, the man willed a black-silver longyi into existence, leaving his upper body exposed and glistening, rippling with vitality.
"Sva escho," the man intoned with ease, his open mouth hinting at the flickering, forked tongue hidden within.
Without warning, all the tension drained from Marong's body.
"Who are you?" Marong quaked. "You're not the Tyrant."
"Of course I am not the bastard," the man snickered. "You call me Ruxin, your new sovereign."
Marong sniffed the incensed air.
He finally recalled the origin of the nostalgic scent.
How could he have forgotten the stink that Gwen had brought into his home?
Who else could have easily dominated Me Nu?
"You… you're …from…" Marong felt his bones groan. A primal terror unlocked from somewhere deep within his marrows, flooding his spine with adrenaline he couldn't expend. The Yinglong? Was this the Yinglong itself?! A mythic class being, here?! What had Maymyint invited into their home? Was his eldest insane? More importantly, was the Yinglong interested in their country? Was one dragon now going to fight the other for territory? If so, what about Mayuree?
"I suppose I am." The dragon called "Ruxin" smiled gently. "I am but a vagabond prince looking for a home. In this, we are alike: two princelings of worth, seeking their fortune in a hostile world."
Marong felt sticky perspiration drenching his sneak-suit. Alike with a mythic being? To say he was tongue-tied was an understatement.
"Humph, I had thought you quick-witted like your sister," Ruxin observed. "Speaking of which, killing Maymyint there and then was a delicious display of good judgement. But did you think I could not detect your hostility? Had I less care for your sister, you would have delayed my plans..."
The dragon laughed. "How shall I deal with you, young Marong?"
Opposite, Marong's head was abuzz with chaos, though within that primordial chaos of dread and despair, survival and surprise, came a strange clarity.
First of all, he knew that there were two paths ahead. One in which he and Mayuree lived, and one in which he and his sister were dead. Either way, Ruxin would get his way. Maymyint was right in one aspect: that Yangon had survived this long without a Tower was an anomaly. The status quo Me Nu had maintained with bribes was untenable; the House of M's mercantile network would only last so long before external forces, and internal strife blew the lid.
Restoration of the Mon and Pyu bloodlines?
A return to the governorship of Myăma?
Marong could hardly relate to those ageing aspirations, for they were the dreams of an older generation, apparitions from the past.
Compared to old compatriots like Maymaruya, Marong was born in the mountains of Manipur, shipped to Shanghai for his education, then returned to Manipur to be trained as a tool for the Royal House's restoration. He had a dozen siblings then, Thint, Ne Win, Sein, Kwat, Un, Khun and others whose faces he could no longer recall, that and Mayuree, who had clung to his sleeves and cried at every turn, the youngest of their batch.
Now that Maymyint had sold their homeland, why should he remain loyal to a cause that had never been his own, now usurped by another for personal gain?
The words that came to his throat surrendered themselves with a fantastic satisfaction, "delicious" as the dragon would say, for it was Maymyint who had shown him the way.
"My Lord Ruxin, are you familiar with the Centurion Program?"
His unexpected meander must have surprised even Ruxin. Where the dragon had worn the contemplative boredom of a predator toying with his prey, there was now a slight rise to his brow.
"Maymyint had mentioned it." Ruxin nodded with pleasure. "Profitable, I believe."
"Did she inform you that Gwen Song was the progenitor of the program?"
"Not as such."
Marong observed he had been allowed to continue.
"Lord Ruxin, Gwen Song lies at the heart of the Centurion Program." Marong took a gamble. "Maymyint is a fool blinded by her lust for power, which is why she failed to have your interest as her core priority. I know she seeks to borrow your Lordship's terror to cow the House's foxes into submission, but please allow this one a moment to clarify her fault."
"Very well, you have it."
"My Lord." Marong wracked his brain for details, cursing that he had only read the reports in a cursory sense. "The Centurion Program is a credit system the likes of which we have never seen before, at least not in Asia. What Gwen had helped Manager Maymaruya set up in Shanghai is but the seed of something infinitely greater. With only one tier 1 city feeding into the program, the Shanghai division of the House of M has become the preeminent investment our operations now possess. The program, my Lord, is pure profit, not resources dug from the earth, but wealth from thin air, credit and interest, usury by design on an industrial scale. If the program could be successfully replicated in Tokyo, in Seoul, in Singapore, in Hong Kong and beyond, what it may well produce could be the equivalent of many a Myăma and all of its pits of nephrite and jadeite!"
"You had my curiosity." The dragon's eyes were burning holes into Marong's brain, branding him somehow in ways Marong could not begin to imagine. "But now you have my interest."
"Allow me to be your regent," Marong proposed, falling to both knees. "Maymyint has incurred Gwen Song's ire and can neither compel nor elicit her aid. Moreso, if and when Mayuree perishes, that will be the end of our cooperation. Your exalted expansion will be hundreds of times more arduous; our competitors will have us by the throat. For the Centurion Program to continue, and for you to reap its benefits, my Lord, Gwen must remain on our side. Mayuree must remain tethered to Gwen, and I: I shall be your regent where your Grace's presence is too precious."
Ruxin's grin grew until Marong thought for a moment he was going to be swallowed whole.
"You sister promises the loyalty of the Shadowmen of Manipur."
"The Grandmaster is my master, Lord," Marong's voice croaked. "I know him. He will follow you or I or Mayuree even, so long as our supply lines remain intact. His is a developing Frontier, and our alliance is one of mutual benefit, untethered to any one person."
"You lost something of a mother already." Ruxin clicked his tongue. "Now you trade a sister for a sister?"
"This one desires only to serve." Marong touched his head to the floor. "Mayuree is but an instrument which your Lordship must preserve, just as Maymyint is one my lord has expended."
"Raise your head."
When Marong looked up, he saw Ruxin's glowing, single-slit eyes staring back down.
"Allow me to clear a mild misunderstanding, young Marong." Ruxin appeared to mull over his next words. When he finally delivered them, Marong's whole world began to quake. "I shall accept your offer as my regent, your sister shall live, and I shall even allow you the liberty of exacting your human justice, as I had allowed Maymyint. But - let me elucidate on how the events shall now proceed."
In a moment, Marong's mind flooded with knowledge, bloating his brain against the confines of its mortal casing.
"You see, young Marong." Ruxin's voice filled every nook of his skull. "What you failed to understand is that the jade, the land, the people, Yangon, Mandalay, Kachin, Nagaland, the Tyrant, Aung San, your sister, yourself, the House of M and even the Calamity... ALL shall belong to me."