The sun was setting as Flos, the King of Destruction, found the small rock outcropping at the top of the hill. He trudged up the grassy slope, admiring the greenery around him.
Despite the burning fires of the army’s campfires below and the sea of tents and moving soldiers who had based themselves around the hill on which he stood, it was the grass that held more importance for Flos at this moment.
He was not accustomed to so much life in the earth. In his home, the arid ground was dry and inhospitable. The few places capable of producing water and sustenance were coveted. There would certainly be no grass growing there.
But here—Flos inhaled the smell of nature and smiled. He climbed the last stretch of hill, his armor rasping a bit as two ill-fitting pieces ground together.
“You should have that looked at, sire. I’m no [Blacksmith], but I don’t think armor is supposed to make that sound. Not unless you’re being stabbed, that is.”
The King smiled and looked up. The acerbic tone came from a man sitting on a rocky ledge, staring down at what would be tomorrow’s battlefield.
Drevish, known to all as the Architect, one of the King’s Seven, barely glanced up as Flos took a seat beside him. He was busy with a piece of parchment and charcoal. Flos glanced over his shoulder and saw the man had drawn a rough sketch of the landscape, only in his depiction there were buildings in the place of grass and stone.
“A new fortress?”
The King smiled. Drevish irritably waved him off. He continued sketching for a few moments, lost in thought. Flos was content to wait; he could see three more figures ascending the slop of the hill.
“It will not be anything special. But I want to test my new prototypes for a wall…and this place would make an acceptable chokepoint for advancing armies, or so Orthenon has informed me.”
“That it would. Assuming we take the field tomorrow.”
Flos stared pensively out across the battlefield. He could see smoke and fire rising in the distance. Drevish looked up and out at the other enemy’s encampment. He grunted sourly; the [Architect] had little time for battle.
“It escapes me why both your side and this kingdom would agree to a cease-fire overnight. Wouldn’t you customarily go down there and start hacking soldiers to bits in the night?”
“Perhaps. Fighting at night is tricky business, though. And the enemy [Commander] requested the truce.”
“And you accepted it? That seems idiotic to me.”
Drevish’s eyebrows rose, but Flos smiled. He raised his voice as he heard someone else approaching.
“They fight with honor. The [Commander] assured me not one of his soldiers would violate the terms of the truce. I took him at his word.”
“And if he lied? What if he’s marching an army to attack this camp right now, or sending another bunch of those delightful [Assassins] that have been popping up lately?”
“Well, that too would be interesting. Is this a man who believes in honor, or will he compromise it? What do you think, Amerys?”
Flos turned, and the woman who floated down out of the sky smiled at him. Amerys, the Calm Flower of the Battlefield as she was known, smiled as the flight spell let her descend next to Flos.
Drevish turned and eyed Amerys; she ignored him as she considered her King’s question.
“I think that if you gave me the order, I would be happy to attack right now. But if you want to find what this other commander is made of, why not walk in front of his camp naked and see what he does?”
Flos roared with laughter. Drevish shook his head. Muttering, he reached for a soft, round object sitting to his left. It was a kneaded eraser, something that had intrigued Flos greatly. The malleable putty could erase the charcoal from the parchment. But the old man’s hand slipped and knocked the round ball off the side of the rock.
He cursed, but a gauntleted hand caught the eraser as it fell. Gazi leapt up onto the rock, making the [Architect] jerk backwards. She smiled as she offered Drevish the eraser.
He glared at her. Drevish held out a hand and the eraser was dropped into it.
“Move. You’re blocking my view. I have little light left to work with.”
Gazi did, walking quietly over to where Flos sat. She took his right side, Amerys his left. The two didn’t quite glare at each other, but Flos knew better than to expect either to greet the other.
“So, Gazi. What have you seen?”
The half-Gazer smiled. Her central eye flicked to the enemy camp, miles away.
“I have seen several mages on the left. They are mixing with the soldiers there. Meanwhile, the cavalry is bunched up near the rear, although they pretend to occupy the right.”
“So they want to circle around and hit us from the side while the mages surprise us on the left? I’ve heard of worse plans.”
Amerys shrugged. She looked unconcerned with the upcoming battle. But the two who reached the top of the hill last were not so sanguine.
“They could be trying that Amerys, or they might know of Gazi’s eye and be baiting us. Either way, I would like to take out those mages before the battle lines are locked.”
Orthenon and a bird-man, one of the natives to this land known as Garuda, approached the group. Amerys waved a hand, Gazi smiled without turning her head as one of her eyes rolled back in its socket; Drevish just turned his head and grunted.
“Takahatres. Orthenon. Tell me one of you has brought wine or something else to drink.”
“I have brought two wine flasks. Orthenon has the cups, my lord.”
The bird man unshouldered the two bags of wine as Orthenon tossed a cup at Gazi. The [Scout] caught it without turning her head.
No one spoke for a minute. Takahatres poured wine from one flask while Orthenon did the same with the other. The Garuda advanced to the place where Drevish was sitting, and offered him a cup. The [Architect] gave him an approving grunt, and Flos accepted his cup from Orthenon with thanks.
Soon, all six people had a drink. Amerys and Drevish sipped at their drinks while the others drank faster. They didn’t speak much; they didn’t need to. But in the end it was Orthenon who broke the silence.
“Tomorrow, I would like Amerys to attack the left flank. If you can tie up that side, we will focus on the center and right.”
“Oh? You’re not going to have me take out those mages?”
“That’s my job.”
Takahatres filled his cup with more wine. He wouldn’t drink more than two cups that night, Flos knew. The Garuda sipped his second cup very slowly, making his drink last.
“I will lead my kin into the left as you attack. Try not to hit us. We’ll take out the mages; you just engage their front for a few minutes and then you can do what you want.”
“Fine. Try not to get in the way of my lightning.”
“Try to aim.”
Orthenon cleared his throat, looking displeased. He shifted as he knelt next to his King. Flos glanced at him and saw the single-edged sword at his belt trailing on the rock. Orthenon was dressed for war, but it always intrigued Flos how he chose to fight.
He wasn’t wearing plate armor like Flos, or Gazi’s brown scale armor. Instead, he was wearing leather, form-fitting and enchanted. That was also unlike Drevish, who was wearing clothing since he wouldn’t be fighting tomorrow and Takahatres, who was wearing only a cloth around his midriff. Amerys was wearing her robes, but given that they were enchanted as well, she was probably the most well-armored out of anyone in the group excepting Gazi.
Now the men shifted again, only without the audible creak that accompanied Flos’s movements. The King absently felt at the offending part of his armor as his steward explained the rest of tomorrow’s strategy to the others.
“While Takahatres and Amerys deal with the mages, Gazi will attack the rear and whatever spots she deems most important.”
Drevish snorted. Orthenon paused and stared at the old man’s back. Drevish raised a hand in half-hearted apology and the steward continued.
“Finally, my lord and I will lead the vanguard straight into the right flank. We’ll leave the rest of our mages and archers in the back—Takahatres will pull back and protect them after he is done with the mages.”
“A fine plan.”
Flos smiled as he looked out over the battlefield. There was so much grass there. He could see it even in the darkness that now enveloped the land. But soon that grass would be muddy and trampled, stained with blood. That bothered him as much as the lives that would be lost.
“Are you expecting any surprises?”
Gazi turned and looked at Orthenon. The man shook his head.
“None. But if there are…Mars is on the way. She should arrive at midday—sooner if she’s marching as fast as I think.”
“We could wait for her and smash this army between both ours and hers.”
Amerys smiled. Takahatres and Orthenon looked disapproving. Flos shook his head as he finished his cup.
“We could. But that would not be honorable, Amerys.”
“Oh very well. In that case, I shall do my best to kill as many soldiers tomorrow as I can—honorably, of course.”
Her remark elicited a glare from the two warriors, but Gazi smirked. Flos just shook his head as he stared down at the burning fires of the camp below. All fell silent. After a few more minutes, Drevish spoke.
“On another note, I have located quite a fine spot to build a defensive tower. When the battle’s over I’ll see about laying down the foundations.”
“A tower to go along with your new wall?”
Flos chuckled. His voice was lower, and he felt calm. He thought he might sleep here if the others wouldn’t have objected. He was at peace in this moment, surrounded by five of the people who had become his sworn companions. His friends.
“Why not? You can spare a few [Archers] for it, surely. Do not quibble over my designs if you won’t do the same for your other vassals.”
Drevish half-turned and scowled at his King. That was an offense that Orthenon and Takahatres wouldn’t have ever dreamed of, but Flos was used to it.
In a way, the [Architect]’s presence had not been necessary to the night’s meeting. He would not participate in the battle. Rather, Flos suspected he would sleep right through it, if he didn’t end up sketching plans for a new fortress in his tent.
He didn’t need to be here. But in another sense, he absolutely had to be with them. He knew it, and the others knew it. And it was Amerys who gave voice to that feeling. She smiled as she leaned against her King.
“This is the first time in what, two years? The first time we’ve had four of the Seven together, not counting Orthenon and my liege.”
“True. And tomorrow it will be five.”
Takahatres stared pensively out into the darkness. He shifted from one leg to the other; he had trouble sitting for long periods.
“It is a shame the others couldn’t be here. But then, it is also pointless to have us all together. We are too strong for any one army in this region.”
Flos turned to look down at Gazi. She was shorter than he was, and she stared out at the enemy’s camp, her other eyes scanning the hilltop. Always watchful, almost wary of any threat to her [King].
The others sitting around Flos made similar noises of agreement and regret. But it was Flos who felt something stir in his chest. He sighed as he placed his cup on the ground, empty.
“It is true there is little merit to keeping us together for strategy’s sake. But pointless? No. There is meaning to this.”
His words silenced the others. They stood or sat with him, staring out into the darkness. All was silent. All was calm. And as Flos sat, looking at his companions, he smiled. He was thousands of miles from the place he had grown up, in a distant land, about to fight another battle against a nation whose name had already been forgotten.
But here, in this moment, he was home.
Flos reached out, looking for his cup. He knew what came next. He would lift his empty cup and Orthenon would check whether there was any wine to fill it. He knew Gazi would smile as she wickedly told him he had drunk the last of it. In a moment Amerys would offer to fly down and steal some from the soldiers. Drevish would encourage her and Takahatres would lose patience and run down and get some in a flash, and Flos would be laughing too hard to tell any of them he hadn’t wanted a drink, merely to toast in spirit.
All that would happen in moments, Flos knew. It would be a perfect interlude before they slept, before the battle. So he reached for his cup—
And then he woke up.
The man known to the world as Flos, the King of Destruction, woke up in his bed. It was familiar to him. It had been the place he had slept for the last ten years. Though the mattress had been changed, the frame of the bed, deep, expensive wood, and the large room had not. Flos sat up as the dawn’s light fell on him. It was that which had woken him from his sleep. Even after a decade, he rose with the dawn.
But he did not get out of bed. Flos stared at the wall of his bedroom, not staring at anything in the waking world, but chasing that dream, that vision of the past.
It was no use. It slipped away from him, fading with each moment. Soon, it was just a hazy recollection, not the reality he had experienced. For a second Flos could still taste the cheap wine on his tongue, feel the stone beneath his legs and the ill-fitting armor digging into his shoulder—
And then it was gone. It was all gone. Flos looked around the room and felt years settle on him like stones. He remembered, and saw the block of ice sitting on the table across from him. Staring at him.
Flos buried his head in his hands. The man wept. He let grief overtake him for a minute, and then six. But then he stood, and dressed himself. He threw open the curtains and let the sun bathe him for a second. He stared down at a kingdom below, a ruined city, neglected. But burning now, already moving as the people below woke. They were not dead. The spark lived in them. The man took a deep breath of the air.
And when he threw open the doors to his room and strode out, he was a King.
Trey Atwood was eating breakfast when Flos woke up. He knew that because he could feel it. That was the thing about living in the proximity of Flos, the legendary King of Destruction. You could tell when he was nearby, and you could tell when he woke up.
It was like a little shock to the spine. It made Trey’s heart jump, and he looked up from his plate of crunchy bacon bits. He’d been quite enjoying his meal—proper rashers, not the greasy bacon he’d been forced to eat when he’d stayed at that international hotel one time. This was thick, chewy meat which he loved, and he’d specifically requested the crunchy fried bits.
“I think he woke up, Teres.”
“Of course he did.”
Sitting next to him at one of the dining tables in the banquet hall, his twin sister Teresa, who preferred to be called Teres, turned and frowned at Trey. He knew he didn’t need to say it. She’d felt the same thing.
“I reckon he’s going to be here in five minutes, what do you think?”
“Two. And you’d better finish eating your veg. You know he’s going to be eating while he walks again.”
Teres reached over and stole half of Trey’s remaining bits of crispy bacon. He groaned, and groaned harder when she turned his plate so he could stare at the orange tubes on them. Even in another world, he still didn’t like the vegetables.
She elbowed him. He knew she hated it when he called her by her full name. Reluctantly, Trey began crunching down on the orange vegetables, called Yellats, grumbling about how they’d gone cold.
In truth, these vegetables were a lot more fun to eat than asparagus, spinach, or most of the other greens Trey had suffered through back home. They were spicy, and they crunched delightfully loud between the teeth. They were a treat when fried hot with oil, but since Trey always left them for last, he always ate them cold.
Always, meaning for the last month, really. It was an odd thought, but Trey had hardly been in this world, this new world filled with levels and classes and Skills, for more than a few weeks. It was incredible to him, but there it was.
He was in another world. And not only that, he was a guest in the palace of a king. Not just any king, too. The King of Destruction, one of the most famous people in this world, a man whose name was known in every part of it for his legendary kingdom’s rise and sudden collapse. The man who had been slumbering, asleep in his palace for ten years.
Until Trey and Teres had accidentally fallen into his throne room and woken him up. That moment would be forever engraved in Trey’s memory. He and his sister had stepped off the subway car’s ledge, expecting to walk out onto the platform and head back home. Instead, the ground had disappeared beneath them.
They’d fallen, landing in a magnificent, grand, empty room where a man sat in a small chair. He’d looked up and seen them. And Trey had picked himself up, heart pounding, and stared into two empty eyes, a tired face. He had looked at a man who looked worn down by the years, hunched, alone.
That was how they met Flos, the King of Destruction. After that, men with swords had rushed in, and Orthenon had nearly run Trey through before Flos had stopped them. And then, well, they’d told them everything.
One month later, here they were. Flos was awake, which was pretty important, and Trey was used to eating his food on a wood platter with a knife, rather than on proper plates. It wasn’t exactly a series of events that made sense to Trey, but he had eventually come to terms with it. Except for one bit, actually.
“It ought to have been a train station.”
Teres looked up. She was chewing down the last of her bacon, and she stared pointedly at the remaining orange tubes, and Trey glumly speared one.
His twin didn’t need to ask what Trey meant. She just had to think for a few seconds as she chewed. While both she and Trey weren’t identical twins on a genetic level, they were close enough that they could usually understand what the other one was thinking.
After a second, Teres understood what Trey meant. She scowled at him.
“Well, it wasn’t. And the subway’s close enough, so stop complaining!”
“I’m just saying, if it was a train station it would make sense.”
“You’re not Harry Potter. You’re not good enough to be Ron Weasley. You don’t have a wand and you can’t do magic. What’s wrong with a subway?”
“I dunno. It’s just…weird. And I could have a wand. They exist in this world.”
Teres rolled her eyes, but Trey refused to concede the point. They were alike, the two of them, but differed on some fundamental issues. For instance, Trey firmly believed a train station platform would have been cooler and more traditional. Teres thought he was an idiot for worrying about it at all.
“What do you think he’ll do today?”
“Dunno. Fix more walls? Look at maps? We’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?”
That was true. Trey glumly gulped down the last of his food and pushed his platter away. Teres folded her arms as she stared down at her plate. They would have to see. And they would see. Because they had a special role in this world, now.
They were servants to Flos. Servants to the King.
They didn’t have the class, actually. Orthenon had told them not to think of it like that. Trey and Teres were more like aides, although they would eventually be expected to fulfill the roles of bodyguards and assistants as well. As such, they were required to follow Flos around, mostly watching as he attended to the needs of his kingdom.
And there were a lot of them. And Trey understood that things like finding food for the hungry people, or making sure the walls were all intact in case an army showed up were essential—as was studying maps of the world and sending messages to allies and so on and so forth.
But he was confused, because he wasn’t sure why they were here. Here, in this faded kingdom, when he expected to be out, marching in an army. For the kingdom was at war. They were at war, and the knowledge of it hummed in Trey’s blood at times. And yet here they were, growing accustomed to a life in this palace. Yet they were at war.
A contradiction. They were at war, but they weren’t going to war. Not yet, at least.
A second puzzle. Trey slumped over at the table, thinking. Remembering. He knew why they were at war. He had been there the day the Emperor of Sands had sent a gift to Flos, knowing he had awakened. But it hadn’t been a gift. The food Trey had just eaten lurched unpleasantly in his stomach. No, not a gift.
He remembered the moment after Flos had pulled out the head from the box the Courier had delivered. It had been—Trey’s gut lurched—it had been the head of a man called Drevish. Apparently he was…had been…one of the King’s Seven, a group of legendary high-level people who served Flos.
And he had been killed by the Emperor of Sands. His head had been sent to Flos, and the King had declared war. Trey remembered that moment as well.
Flos had declared war. He had drawn his sword and raced through the halls. His voice had been like thunder, and he had shouted that he would not rest until the Emperor of Sands was dead.
Orthenon, Mars, Takahatres, they had all followed Flos, caught up in his fury. Only Gazi had remained, and Trey remembered what she had said to them.
“To victory, children. Victory, and the glory of our King.”
That had sent a chill down his spine. Trey and Teres had stood fixed in place, Flos’ voice still ringing through the castle. They’d run out of the room moments later, mainly because the incredibly scary Lady Gazi had made them. They’d followed Flos and the others by the sound of his shouting voice.
He had strode down the hallways, shouting for his sword, his warhorse, his armies. Trey had seen Flos throw open the doors to the palace—
And stop. He had stopped there, as people ran out of every hallway, holding weapons, shouting, asking what was going on. But their [King] had no answer. And then he’d turned, and walked back towards his throne room.
Not to go back on his word. No, Takahatres had left that very night, promising to strike the first blow against the Emperor of Sands with his tribe. And every day since, Trey and Teres had followed Flos about, witnessing preparations being made. Orthenon, the King’s Steward, had begun the immense task of preparing a kingdom that was on the verge of extinction for war against a huge empire.
There was everything to do, and not enough time to do it. People had been starving. They needed to be fed. The walls needed to be manned, and an actual army built out of the people. So Trey understood the need to wait, to take precautions. He just didn’t expect Flos of all people to wait.
And Teres agreed with him. She thought something had happened too. And in fact, Trey was sure that the other, Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi knew that something was keeping Flos from marching as well. But no one had said anything. Perhaps they could—
Trey looked up. He had felt it at the same time Teres spoke.
Flos had entered the room. The King was awake and he was here.
The banquet hall wasn’t full, but it was hardly empty. Trey sat up in his seat and saw the other diners, servants and guards mainly, turn their heads towards the door.
A King stood in the doorway. He wore no crown, and he didn’t carry a scepter. The sword at his belt looked plain, and Trey knew it was normal steel. But he was nonetheless, unmistakably, a King.
And you could feel his presence in the air. Trey stood up. Most of the people in the room did as Flos strode towards them. Men and women were already flocking towards him, one carrying a platter with food, another a drink.
“Good morning to you all.”
Flos’ voice was deep and commanding, like a King’s voice should be. Where it differed from Trey’s image of a King was how…normal it sounded. Flos seldom spoke like a posh aristocrat—Trey had never heard him say ‘thee’ or ‘thou’ and he didn’t tend to make grand speeches either. Still, he made Trey’s heart race the instant his eyes fell on the young man.
It was rather like standing next to a power pylon, or so Trey imagined. When Flos was in the room, it was as if your body was filled with a crackling energy. It was impossible to simply lounge about or ignore him. If you were looking at something on the opposite side of the room, your eyes would eventually wander over to him.
“Trey, Teres. Have you eaten?”
If the first words Flos had spoken were for his subjects, it was notable that the second words from his mouth were for the twins. Trey and Teres automatically bowed as one. Teres was wearing trousers, and so curtsying would only make Flos laugh.
“We have, your majesty.”
“Good. Then I shall eat as we walk. I have risen late, but I intend to do as much as possible before resting. With me.”
That was all he needed to say. Trey’s legs started moving. He walked on Flos’ left, with Teres next to him. Flos accepted the steaming food from the platter with a word of thanks for the beaming woman who had served it to him, and took the mug with his other hand.
“My thanks to you all.”
That was all he said to the men and women gathered there. That, and a nod. But it seemed that was all they needed. The people bowed or called out greetings, and then Flos had left the banquet hall and was striding down the hallways of his palace, the twins hurrying to keep up.
That was how it happened. Every day. Somehow, it never occurred to Trey or Teres to object. Flos beckoned, or just walked and they followed. Some days Trey felt like a bit of metal following a magnet.
“Is there anything you have to tell me?”
That was usually the second question Flos asked them each day. He was always curious whether Trey or Teres had remembered some tidbit from their world, or if they had found something objectionable or startling in his absence. Trey had gotten used to the question by now and no longer wracked his brains for a response. Honesty was best with Flos. Actually, it was harder to lie to him than simply tell the truth.
“No, your majesty.”
“And you, Teres?”
“Well then, let us find my vassals, if they do not find me first.”
Flos laughed and took a bite from the sandwich in his hands. It wasn’t quite a sandwich, actually. It was more of a collection of bacon adorned with two pieces of dark rye bread added to make holding it more convenient. It didn’t have any brown sauce, which both Trey and Teres considered a capital crime. But Flos seemed happy enough to eat it.
The bacon roll was still steaming, and though Trey had eaten, his stomach rumbled a bit as Flos chewed his meal, making comforted sounds and sipping from his mug.
He was done with his food in less than thirty seconds, despite the bacon sandwich being big enough to have filled Trey’s stomach and half of Teres’. He drained the mug and handed it to a man who was waiting for that very moment. The servant hurried away with it as Flos grinned at the twins.
“Ah, there is nothing better to start the morning with. Eating food while walking. What a wonderful invention. And convenient! I have eaten on the march before, but this—I enjoy this. What did you call it?”
“A bacon roll. Uh, sire.”
There was something criminal about feeding bacon rolls to a King, Trey felt. Though it was a traditional food, it was just—odd. But Flos had insisted on trying it the moment he’d heard about fast food and walking while you ate. He’d enjoyed it so much that bacon rolls and other walk-as-you-eat foods had become a permanent part of the castle’s served foods.
Flos dusted crumbs from his clothing and turned his head. Trey turned to look too, and saw a man he had grown to know quite well walking quickly down the hall towards him.
The tall man wearing dark clothing was named Orthenon. He was Flos’ steward, which meant he was the second most powerful man in the kingdom. He was tall, gaunt, and he was very graceful. Trey felt Teres miss a step next to him. She had a crush on Orthenon, Trey knew. He just admired the man; there was something about him that spoke of flawless competence to Trey.
“Orthenon. Greetings. Have you broken your fast? I have had another one of those bacon rolls. You should have one too.”
Flos greeted Orthenon, and the man fell into step next to his King without missing a beat.
“I have eaten, my lord. And those sandwiches are not to my taste.”
“A pity. Ah, there you two are!”
Two other people were striding down the hallway towards Flos. On opposite sides of the hallway. Servants were forced to funnel down the middle; they certainly weren’t about to get in the way of the woman wearing brown armor, a two-handed sword strapped to her back, or the other woman, a sword and shield at her side.
Flos called out and the two bowed to him as they took places behind their King. Trey shifted as he saw Mars smile at him and one of Gazi’s four eyes turn to stare at him and Teres.
He didn’t know what to make of these two. One of them, Gazi, wasn’t human. She was obviously not Human. Not that Trey minded non-Humans that much—he had liked Takahatres a lot. But Gazi…no.
If there was anything to keep your back straight, it was having Gazi standing behind you. She made no sound as she walked behind Trey and Teres, although she was wearing her brown scale armor, but they knew she was there.
She was distracting, even with Flos nearby. Where Gazi was unnatural because of her five eyes, her orange-brown skin, four fingers, and disconcerting way of looking through you, Mars was distracting because of how perfect she was.
She had flawless skin, pale as a moonbeam, and red curling locks that ran down her shoulders. She also had huge breasts. Trey tried to avoid looking at those, but they were…
Significant. Mars also moved like a dancer, and as she walked by Flos, her melodic voice did complicated things to Trey’s insides.
“Have you slept well, my King?”
“Blissfully, Mars. It was a shame to wake. But I have slept long enough. Tell me, what news is there?”
The three servants of Flos took turns speaking as Trey and Teres walked silently beside Flos, listening, watching servants get out of the way and people turn to stare at their King.
It was like this every day. That didn’t make it any less incredible to Trey, though. The instant Flos woke up, he was surrounded by people. Yet he dealt with them all as if he were completely used to being at the center of the world. That was what it was like being a [King], Trey supposed.
“Work on the eastern wall is going well. We’re fixing all the temporary gaps one at a time. It could be going faster, but we don’t have enough skilled [Builders] and [Craftsmen], let alone [Stonemasons].”
“How long until we can call all the walls secure?”
“Four days and we could fight off an army of three times our numbers with enough arrows and mages.”
“Good. Orthenon, what news?”
The gaunt man nodded.
“I have located two more of your vassals. Again, they are in mercenary companies, one in Baleros.”
“Far from home.”
Flos sighed. Teres saw Orthenon nod calmly.
“I have had mage [Message] spells sent, but as always, I had to encode my words and send them from another city. It will take time to reach them, if the messages are not intercepted on the way.”
“Why all the cloak and dagger nonsense?”
Mars scowled at Orthenon, her hand on her sword.
“The world will know our lord has awoken soon enough. Why not shout it now and let our allies come to us, rather than play games of secrets like some Terandrian [Lord]?”
“It is prudent. We do not have the forces to resist a combined assault from multiple armies at present. Besides, if word spreads that the King of Destruction has awoken, some of our allies will be attacked by enemies. We must alert them as quickly and as covertly as possible.”
Orthenon turned to look at Mars, unruffled by her ire. The woman shrugged. She was a [Vanguard], Trey knew. A powerful warrior class, and her nickname was Mars the Illusionist. And…that was all he knew about her, really.
“Fine. But it seems strange to me that the world doesn’t know our lord has awoken already.”
“It would be difficult for most to know. Orthenon has kept a lock on word spreading, and it is hardly knowledge most wish the people to know. Most likely all the powerful leaders of nations know, and perhaps groups like the mages of Wistram or traders of Roshal have found out. But the world? No.”
Gazi’s voice was soft, but all heads turned to listen to her when she spoke. Flos nodded, looking pensive.
“Word of my return is a weapon in itself. I fear that my vassals and allies will be attacked regardless of the measures Orthenon takes. But I will leave it to him to decide what is best. Now, Gazi. What of Takahatres?”
The half-Gazer smiled lazily as all eyes turned to her again. Trey felt Teres shudder a bit at Gazi’s lips moved up. It was a smile, but as Teres has pointed out to Trey, there was nothing really nice about it. The only time Gazi ever actually looked affectionate was when she looked at her King. And even then, she was scary.
“He sends word that he has reached his tribe, and they have begun crossing the desert. I believe they will begin striking at the holding of the Emperor of Sands within three days or less.”
Flos looked like he had more to say, but he didn’t say it. Trey saw Mars, Gazi, and Orthenon all glance at their King, and then at each other. He wanted to ask the question in his chest, but he didn’t dare speak. The presence of the people around him was overwhelming.
“Well then, I will visit this wall, and then hear what else ails my people.”
The King nodded to himself as he turned left down a corridor. He looked down towards Trey and Teresa, and they both stiffened.
“Trey, Teres. I believe it would be best if you two learned more about the continent today. Orthenon, please take some time out of your day to teach them. After that…Mars, if you would, find out if either has the aptitude with weapons.”
The armored woman laughed as the twins exchanged a glance. Today was the day? Flos had been hinting—Trey raised his voice because he knew Teres would never dare to speak.
“Are we—are we going to learn how to fight? Your majesty? What will we be doing?”
“I told you on the day I accepted your service that I would have you follow me into battle and across the seas. If you have the aptitude for arms, it is best you learn from Mars how to fight. If not…I will find another teacher for you.”
Flos nodded to Orthenon. The man stepped away from his King, bowing, and then beckoned to Trey and Teres.
“This way, you two. I will instruct you for an hour and then give you over to Mars.”
“Meet me in the training grounds when you’re done! Don’t fear—I won’t break either of you two!”
Mars laughed loudly as Trey and Teres followed Orthenon away. The tall man glanced down at the two, and slowed a bit; both twins’ legs hurt from trying to keep up with Flos’ long stride.
“I noted your confused faces earlier. Ask me your question.”
Trey gulped, but it was Teres who spoke before him. She was quiet and shy around everyone except Flos and Orthenon. Flos, because it was impossible to stay silent when he asked a question and Orthenon because she liked him.
“Will Lord Takahatres be alright, fighting against the Emperor of Sands by himself?”
Trey nodded. As always, Teres had had the same thought as him. Orthenon sighed.
“A complicated question. Come with me.”
He strode down the hallways, briskly talking to the people who hurried up to him, so that there was a steady stream of people moving towards and away from him. That was the thing. Flos might be King, but Orthenon was the one everyone went to for instructions.
“If you need more wood, check in the storerooms near the dungeons. There might be wood there, but be careful to distinguish between the firewood and usable timber. If there is not enough, return to me. See Master Invac for help lifting—he has bodies to spare for an hour or two. Find five people with tracking skills and locate the source of that nest. Exterminate any rats living within and burn the remains.”
He turned into a room and the twins followed him in. Orthenon stood in front of a large map, adorned with markings for cities and towns, and border lines and the geography of the continent.
“Here we are. Before I answer your questions—a test. Point to me our location, Trey.”
The boy hesitated. He squinted at the map, and pointed. The continent of Chandrar was a rather lumpy rectangle, with elements of oval in his eyes. The kingdom that was the King of Destruction’s home was named Reim, and it was a small dot on the northeast quadrant of the map, closer to the border than it was to the center.
Desert and the dry, faded dust coloring indicating arid land surrounded Reim, as well as the large area around it. That was most of Chandrar, actually. While there were green patches to the southwest and along the coasts, most of Chandrar was one big dry place. With lots of deserts.
The lone bits of color actually came from markings that denoted oases or other bodies of water. They were almost invariably located next to a city, and Reim had its own small flush of green that indicated the deep underground streams from which they drew their water.
Orthenon nodded in approval and Trey felt relieved. It wasn’t that Orthenon was a strict teacher; he was, but it was that he demanded perfect understanding. If you made a mistake, he would go over it again with you in exacting detail, and question you on that very thing the next time you met.
“Very good. We are here. While the Emperor of Sands is—Teresa?”
He also called Teresa by her full name, which she normally hated. But Teres never made a complaint to him. The girl pointed without hesitation to a large section of the map, ostensibly a collection of nations by their borders, almost directly west of their position.
“Correct. This map is outdated of course—but the nations from here to here are where the Emperor of Sands has expanded his empire in the last eight years.”
Orthenon traced his fingers over a vast stretch of land, from the cast to the edge of a massive desert. He pointed that out to the twins.
“The one thing that has stopped his expansion is the desert. Marching an army across the Zeikhal desert is dangerous, and I believe the Emperor of Sands wishes to consolidate his hold over the west before expanding. He may eschew crossing the desert and conquer his way north and south to avoid it.”
Trey nodded as he saw Orthenon trace possible routes that avoided the massive Zeikhal desert. As far as Trey understood the world, it was vast. He had never been good at geography, but Teres told him that the Zeikhal desert was probably twice as large as the Sahara in total. He couldn’t imagine that.
“So Takahatres is crossing that? Isn’t that…bad?”
Trey felt like an idiot for asking the obvious, but he didn’t understand.
“Not to his tribe.”
Orthenon smiled at Trey. Perhaps it had been a good question after all? The man showed Trey where Takahatres had been.
“His tribe is nomadic, and used to crossing the deserts. Moreover, they move quickly. They can skirt the outer regions and make use of oases. They will be fine. But as to your main question—Takahatres believes, as do I, that he can attack the Emperor of Sands without being cornered by his armies.”
“So he’s going to fight a guerilla war.”
The tall man paused. He always seemed a bit surprised when Trey and Teres knew something without him explaining, for all that he knew they were from another world.
“Correct. He will raid villages, destroy cities—and attack any army he believes he can rout with few casualties. He is adept at such maneuvers.”
“But the Emperor will send armies after him, right? He wouldn’t just ignore that.”
“True. But Takahatres’ people, the Garuda, are known for their speed. Flying and hiding, they could easily escape most pursuit. And there is another factor to consider. Takahatres’ tribe is far superior to any one conventional army. With him leading them, they could fight two armies at once. Catching him will be no easy matter and will occupy the Emperor of Sands for a long period of time. And while that is so…”
It was strange, saying we. But Orthenon nodded as if it were only natural to include them.
“In theory. I have advised my King—and would like you to do the same if he thinks otherwise—of striking nearby nations first. We must recover strength before doing battle with a vast empire.”
“But we are at war, aren’t we? Flos—I mean, King Flos said—”
Orthenon’s voice was quiet as he traced the lands of the Emperor of Sands. He did not look so friendly then.
“We are at war. But we must be prudent and sensible in a war of vengeance. We must gather our strength, and my lord Flos knows this.”
“Is that why he hasn’t left yet?”
Trey blurted the words out before he could think twice about saying them. He’d been wondering—Teres had been wondering that very thing for days now. Ever since Flos had declared it.
The [Steward] paused, and looked at the twins. He seemed conflicted. When he spoke, it was not with his usual surety.
“I—believe so. I do not have to tell you what the Emperor of Sands did was unforgivable. There will be no peace until he and his entire empire is brought to justice. But as to my King—you are right. I would expect him to ride forth, regardless of the danger. I was prepared to stop him, but he—”
“Why didn’t he go?”
Orthenon had no answer. He looked back at the map.
“Perhaps it is caution that stays his hand. A King must think of his realm, and it is dangerous to go forth without preparation. That is what I believe.”
“The city is being repaired quickly. I should think it would only be a month before everything’s repaired.”
“Yes. A month. Perhaps sooner, if all continues to go well.”
Orthenon nodded in agreement, but he looked troubled as he did. Trey exchanged a glance with Teres, and they had the same thought.
“What will we be doing?”
“You will accompany my King, and assist him as you are able. For now, I believe you will simply follow and observe. Your…presence matters to my lord Flos. Just by being by his side, you fulfill your roles.”
“Is that all?”
Teres stared at the man. Orthenon shook his head.
“Your duties are unclear as of yet. But you must have faith in your [King].”
He stared at the twins. The twins stared back, waiting for more. But that was all there was to it. After a moment Orthenon turned back to the map.
“Enough. I am here to teach you, and so I shall. We have little time left in any case. I taught you of the peoples of Chadrar, did I not? Teres, repeat for me the native inhabitants of this continent and their specialties. Trey, you will point out where they live on the map as she does…”
“Caution? Hah! That is an answer Orthenon would give. But it’s not why my lord hasn’t ridden off already.”
Mars was the second stop for the twins that day. She stood in the dusty training grounds as men and women sparred or trained by themselves. She was wearing a light, elegant tunic, unarmored save for the shield in one hand and sword in the other.
It was a sight to behold Mars the Illusionist. She looked like a champion out of stories, and she was one. But Trey had a hard time staring at her face. Perhaps it was the lack of armor, but he couldn’t help staring at her bare chest.
At her breasts. They were large. Trey stared at them, realized he was staring, and looked at Mars’ face, flushing. But every so often his eyes would slide back down. He couldn’t help it, even when Teres kicked him in the side.
Mars laughed at Trey when she noticed, which made him turn bright red.
“Don’t stare so, Trey. If your eyes aren’t on my sword, you’ll live to regret it. Now, I’m told neither of you has held a sword before, true?”
The two nodded. Trey gingerly eyed the two swords Mars had planted in the ground. They weren’t sharp, at least, he didn’t think so, but they weren’t exactly blunt either.
“Go on, take one each. I’ll test you with axes and other arms, but swords are what I know.”
The two twins gingerly took hold of a sword each. Trey pulled his from the ground with some effort. He was surprised that the sword wasn’t that heavy—he vaguely remembered hearing they were supposed to be hard to lift.
Teres frowned at her blade. She whispered to Trey as she showed him how easy it was for her to lift it.
“I thought swords were really heavy.”
“Heavy? Hah! What good is a heavy sword?”
Mars had heard them. She smiled as she showed them how to grip the swords properly in their hands.
“A sword has to be light and useful. You won’t see many swords heavier than five pounds, not unless you’re fighting a Minotaur or someone who specializes in such things. Like warhammers, I suppose. What, do you two fancy using one of those?”
Trey went stiff as Mars went behind him to correct his posture. Teres was glaring at him, but Mars ignored Trey’s awkwardness.
“Alright then, try and strike me.”
“You? But you’re not wearing any armor!”
“And if I was, you’d still not hit me. I have a shield and a sword. And I’m a [Vanguard]—if you two could touch me with a sword, I’d run myself through in an instant. Or ask what level you two are.”
Mars laughed as she beckoned Trey and Teres to strike at her. They did, gingerly, and then with more and more vigour as they realized they really couldn’t hit her. Even with Trey on one side and Teres on the other. Even when they timed their attacks at the same time.
Six minutes later, Mars was standing without a scratch on her, and some of the people in the training grounds were laughing at Trey and Teres, who could barely lift their arms. The female warrior had flawlessly blocked or parried or simply dodged every thrust and strike they’d made.
“Not bad. Perhaps you two might be cut out for the [Warrior] class. For now, let’s switch to another weapon. Come on, lift those arms. We can talk when you’re done.”
When they were done and lying on the ground, Mars sat with them, letting the two gulp water as she spoke.
“I don’t know why my King hasn’t ordered me to war. But I think it’s because he’s waiting until he is ready for it.”
Trey raised his head, trying not to gulp water down and throw up. Again. Mars nodded, looking pensive.
“I haven’t seen him on the training grounds. And my lord Flos was never one to shirk practice. It has been ten years, and perhaps he wishes to regain his skill before he rides out. A [King] must be strong, to lead his armies.”
“Shouldn’t King stay at the back? I mean, it’s dangerous, right?”
Mars turned and smiled at Trey.
“Not him. My lord Flos has always lead the charge. When you see him on the battlefield, you will know. Have faith. He will order us to battle soon, and then you’ll see why I’m one of the Seven.”
“But what will we do?”
Trey asked pensively. Mars shrugged.
“Whatever he asks of you. You are sworn to him, as am I. We are companions, in that sense. We are the swords of our lord. When he calls, we must be ready.”
She smiled then, and the twins found they couldn’t ask her anything else. They left the training grounds, unsure of what to make of what they’d been told. Trey and Teres stumbled down the corridors, massaging their sore arms.
“She always seems so loud. And happy.”
Trey confided in Teres as they walked. She turned and glared at him.
He stared at her. She glared. He slowly flushed.
“I couldn’t help it!”
“So could! You’re disgusting!”
As the two began to argue, they started to lapse into a way of speaking unique to the two of them. Teres and Trey knew each other so well, they could complete each other sentences at times. So they didn’t bother to finish theirs when speaking with each other.
“Not my fault—”
“Eyes up here! You’re as blatant as—”
“Shut it! You don’t understand—”
“Dog’s bollocks I don’t. Just because I don’t have a thing swinging down—”
“You shut up! Besides…they’re fake.”
Trey paused. Teres nodded.
“They’re fake. I’m sure of it.”
“How do you know? Did you touch—”
She glared at him.
“No, but they don’t move right.”
“How can you tell—”
“I’m a girl! I know how they’re supposed to move.”
Trey thought about this as they walked down the corridor. He thought of Mars. Then his mental image focused, as it were.
“They’re really fake?”
Teres nodded decisively. Trey sighed.
She rolled her eyes.
This might have started another fight, but a low voice interrupted the two.
“Your King awaits you.”
Trey turned, and promptly forgot every other part of the female body. Four eyes were staring at him, and a mouth full of sharp teeth was curved up. It was…reminiscent of a smile.
Gazi the Omniscient, or Lady Pathseeker, or the half-Gazer that terrified the piss out of Trey and Teres, smiled at the twins as they froze up in the hall. She smiled wider.
“He is in his room. Hurry or you will make him wait.”
“We—we will, Lady Gazi. Thank you for telling us.”
“He asked me to.”
Gazi said it simply. She stared at Trey and Teres. They stared back. They had four eyes between them, but since Gazi had four eyes as well it was an equal staring contest. Trey’s gaze was fixed on the center of Gazi’s face.
She had one central eye and four peripheral ones. And virtually no nose. But Trey had never seen her central eye—it was injured. Apparently, a girl from his world had actually poked it out. Trey had no idea who would dare to do that—he wondered what kind of maniac would even try.
Gazi’s words made the two twins start walking. But to their extreme dissatisfaction she walked with them.
Neither one of them understood Gazi. She was a hero in the eyes of the people of Reim, and Flos and his vassals treated her with respect. But Trey knew that Orthenon didn’t exactly like Gazi, and he was sure that she and Mars didn’t get along. Only…he didn’t know what Gazi really did.
Orthenon managed things. Mars fought in the army. But Gazi…she was a [Scout], but why would a [Scout] be one of the King’s Seven?
“Um, Lady Gazi.”
The half-Gazer turned to look at Trey, still smiling. The saliva dried up in Trey’s mouth. Oh yes, there was one more thing. He was quite sure that Gazi didn’t like how close he and Teres were to Flos.
But he had to ask. He’d asked Mars and Orthenon, so Trey forced his mouth to work.
“Do you…know why King Flos hasn’t ordered us to war yet? I mean, he’s not even assembled the army.”
Gazi’s smile vanished. She stared at him with one of her eyes as the other one fixed on Teres and two more looked ahead and behind her. Trey shuddered as the fourth eye rolled back in its socket. When Gazi spoke, it was calmly.
“I do not know.”
The twins stared at her. Gazi shrugged slightly, the rust-brown scale armor moving smoothly with her shoulders.
“I do not pretend to understand my lord’s thoughts. He is a mystery to me, no matter how often I have watched his actions. If you wish to know his thoughts, you must listen to his words, not any others.”
“Except he never explains anything.”
Teres said that with an uncharacteristic scowl. Trey glanced at her and saw his sister’s face was set, and her eyes were flashing with annoyance. He privately understood her feelings; they were being shuffled around again, like every day, really. Flos told them what to do, and they did it, usually without even thinking to ask why or argue. He didn’t like it, but Trey felt strongly about voicing his objections in Gazi’s presence. Because she might object. Strongly.
“If my lord has no answers for you, perhaps it is because you have never asked. You have a chance now. Here we are.”
She halted. Trey realized they’d come to Flos’ door. Gazi smiled and turned. Had she just wanted to walk them over? She whispered to them before she left.
“But if are to ask him…do it now. I have waited a long time for my lord to awaken. And I do not like waiting longer.”
She left, and Trey looked into Teres’ pale face. He didn’t know if that was a threat, a warning, or just her way of encouraging him. But he did know one thing, and that was that he never wanted to meet a full Gazer if they were all like Gazi.
Trey knocked on Flos’ door. He heard a booming voice at once.
The twins cautiously opened the door, knowing that the eyes of the other servants in the hall were fixed covetously on their backs. As personal servants to the King, Trey and Teres had some invisible ranking that put them just below the King’s Seven in the eyes of the servants. As children, or at least, not full adults, they were also constantly instructed by everyone to be on their best behavior to the King, and their actions were monitored by everyone in the palace.
“So. Have you learned much from Mars and Orthenon?”
Flos turned from his dresser. Trey and Teres jumped. It was she who replied as he stared around Flos’ room. He had never been in here. The room was grand and plain. Grand because everything in it was meant for a king. Plain, because there were no paintings on the wall, no decorations—just a dresser, a closet, a bed and Flos himself. It did not look like the room that had been lived in for ten years.
“We learned more about other continents, my King. And Mars tested our ability to fight. She says we might make decent warriors if we practice at it.”
“Good. I am not certain that is the best class for the two of you to take, but it is worth considering if you have the aptitude.”
Flos sighed as he regarded the twins. He didn’t look tired, but he did look…less intense than normal. That was unusual, because it was only midday and Trey had known Flos to work late into the night and rise hours later with energy to spare.
“Is everything alright, my…liege?”
The [King] waved a huge hand at Trey.
“When we are not in public setting you need not address me with titles. Actually…you need not address me so in a public setting either. I have told my Seven and Orthenon the same, but they refuse to listen. But in your world, it is not common to speak to others in such a way, is it?”
“Yeah, but we don’t speak to the Queen.”
Trey pointed that out. Flos smiled.
“But your Queen should have those who speak to her as a person, not as a monarch. It is not always pleasant, to be a [King] at all times.”
He sighed, and turned back to his dresser, picking something up. Trey saw Flos turn back with a broach in his hands, a bright yellow gem set with violet ones around the gold rim.
“Perhaps that is why I keep the two of you close. Disregarding your knowledge of your world…I crave those who will treat me not as a King, but as something else. What, I do not know. Regardless. Tell me, have you often ventured outside my palace walls?”
The two chorused as once. Teres clarified.
“We don’t often go out. But we’ve walked through the city a few times.”
There wasn’t actually much to see. There was lots to do, and so they’d accompanied Flos in rebuilding a house, or seeing to some minor emergency or other. But the people had flocked around him. In the times when he wasn’t there, people were always busy. It was just crumbling buildings and worn down stone as far as Trey was concerned.
“Well, I suppose today will be instructive. You see, Teres, Trey, I desire something of you.”
“Yes, my l—”
Trey bit his tongue. Flos shook his head.
“You see? Already you are so much like the others. But it occurs to me that I am missing something dearly.”
“Honesty. Clarity. Someone who will treat me as a friend, a man, a nuisance. Not as a [King]. From you two, I ask it; and I will have it from my people today, one way or the other. I have had such relationships few times before. But it was that honesty I needed. Isn’t that right, old friend?”
Trey had no idea who Flos was talking to. But then the [King] moved and Teres screamed.
There was a head sitting on Flos’ dresser. A head, encased in ice. It was one Trey recognized. His stomach threatened to empty itself as he stared into the bitter expression of the Architect, one of the King’s Seven.
Teres’ scream hadn’t gone unheard. Almost faster than thought, there was someone pounding on Flos’ door.
“All is well.”
Flos stepped towards the door and opened it. Trey heard him reassuring whomever was outside in the background. His eyes were fixed on the block of ice. He kept staring until someone blocked it from view. Flos.
“I did not mean to startle you. I apologize. I had forgotten such sights were not common in your world.”
He spoke gently to Trey and Teres, with a hint of chagrin in his voice. The two stared at him. Teres lifted a shaking finger.
“Why—why do you have—”
“Why didn’t it melt?”
That was Trey’s question. Flos turned and stared at Drevish’s head.
“It was a simple preservation spell for the ice. As to the head…I kept it as a reminder. Of my fallen companion. Of the man I knew. Of my failure. And as a promise.”
Trey’s voice was faint. Flos turned and nodded.
“I promised Drevish to build a city like none the world had ever seen. In my kingdom. I told him that it would be his plans by which every brick was laid and every house built. That was my vow to him. And I have not kept it. He did not live to see it, but perhaps…”
“You’re going to show it? To his head?”
Teres’ voice was a horrified whisper. Flos nodded gravely. It made a terrible kind of sense to Trey, but his sister was pale and swaying.
“It is all I can offer him. When I show him my kingdom, then perhaps my conscience—”
Trey felt a shock. But the word didn’t come from him. It came from Teres. She was staring at the block of ice with Drevish’s head. Flos was surprised too. He stared at Teres.
“What do you mean?”
“No. You can’t let him stay like this. You have to bury him.”
Both Trey and Flos stared at her. There were tears in Teres’ eyes. She looked at Flos, angrily.
“You can’t keep his head like this. Not frozen. Not—you can’t do it. You have to bury his head.”
The [King] froze. Trey froze. He had never heard Teres use that tone in Flos’ palace. He had never heard anyone use that tone with Flos, either. The King’s head bowed. He turned and stared down at the block of ice. His voice was low as he replied.
“He is my vassal. I owe him this.”
Trey looked at Teres. She stood with her fists clenched, staring at the [King]’s back. Trey reached out—to stop her?—but she knocked his hand away.
“It may seem odd to one from another world like you, but it is how I honor my sworn companion. Drevish would understand—”
“No. I know it’s wrong. Trey knows it’s wrong. Anyone would know that! Ask Orthenon, ask Mars or Gazi—”
Teres voice was pleading. She was trying to make Flos understand, but the [King]’s head didn’t move.
“Don’t keep him in this room. Don’t make him stay here. Let him sleep!”
She raised her voice and nearly shouted that last bit. Trey was petrified. As Flos’ back turned, he saw an expression he had only seen once before on the [King]’s face.
“This is not a matter on which I will change my mind. I failed Drevish. This is his last memory. Here!”
Flos gestured at the head angrily.
“I will not forsake him again. I abandoned him once, and he paid with his life for it. I will not bury his memory and turn away from it as I have so much before. This conversation is over. You two—leave. Seek out Orthenon until I call for you again.”
He made to walk towards his door. But Teres barred his path.
“You can’t do it. You have to let him go. He deserves better than this!”
Trey’s breath was gone. He gaped at his sister. Flos’ brows shot together.
“No. Move out of my way.”
Teres was shaking. She pointed at the block of ice.
“You’re keeping him—just like he was when he died! Bury him! It’s disrespectful. And he deserves rest!”
Rest. That word rang true to Trey. He stared at Drevish’s head. It was preserved, so that he could be by his king’s side even in death. Whether he liked it or not. Just like…Trey. And Teres.
Flos’ voice was very quiet.
“Do not talk to me about disrespect. I was not the one who killed him. I was not the one who froze him.”
“But you’re the one who’s keeping him this way.”
Flos’ head turned and Trey realized he was the one who spoke. The [King] stared at the two twins.
“Begone from my sight.”
It was a command. Trey’s legs moved him towards the door. But Teres stayed where she was. She clenched her fists. She was shaking with emotion. There were tears in her eyes.
And there was something in Trey’s heart too. Something that made him stop, despite the urge to listen to the [King]. His King? Yes. No! A King, but not one Trey had ever sworn allegiance to. A King, but one who had made Trey and Teres his servants against their will. A King, yes.
But not a God.
Trey looked back over his shoulder, and saw a man. Flos towered over Teres, but he was a man. Not just a [King]. And she stood in his way. Because it was right.
Slowly, Trey turned back. He walked over to Teres, and stood in front of Flos. The man stared down at them, unable to believe his eyes.
“I told you to move.”
Again, Trey felt the urge to move, but he didn’t. Flos was a [King]. Trey was serving him. He had to—
But he was wrong. And someone had to say it. Trey opened his mouth.
“No. It’s wrong.”
He stared into two burning eyes. There was fury there, uncontained.
“I gave you an order. Are you disobeying your [King]?”
“We’re not your subjects! We never asked to be!”
Standing next to him, Teresa screamed at Flos. She gave vent to the feeling the twins had felt this entire time. She pointed at him.
“You’re the one who decided everything! Well, we’re sick of it! You want us to tell you what we think? We think you’re wrong! And you can just live with that!”
She stood next to Trey, shaking with anger. And he remembered, dimly, that it was always Teres who started fights. When the twins got angry, she was the one who popped her lid first. He stared at his twin sister with horrified admiration as she finished shouting at the King of Destruction in his own bedroom.
“No matter what you say, we won’t change our minds, you—you bloody twit!”
Trey heard ringing in his ears. Teres’ voice echoed through Flos’ chambers, and then there was silence. Dead silence. Trey stared up at the King of Destruction and saw him staring down.
This was where he died. Trey waited for wrath and fury, but heard nothing. He chanced another peek up, and say something strange.
Flos’ face had changed. There was no anger there any longer, but rather another emotion. It looked like amusement, but there was something else there. Trey had seen Flos laugh many times before, but this was different.
It was amusement and joy. And nostalgia. It was rueful, melancholic. And it was there for an instant, before Flos turned away.
“Oh Drevish, would that you could have been here. Would you have laughed, or told me I was a fool?”
He walked back, away from the twins. Slowly, Flos bent and picked up the block of ice. It did not melt in his hands as he stared down at the man’s head. His friend’s head. When he turned back to the twins, there were tears in his eyes.
A King wept. Unabashedly, his eyes overflowed as he held his friend and stared into his eyes.
“You are right.”
He said that to Teres, and then to Trey.
“You are right. I—I have asked so much of my vassal, my companion over the long years. So much, and yet in death I ask more. To wait for so long…it would be far kinder to let him rest. It was my selfishness that demanded he watch over me even now.”
He turned away from the two. Flos stared down at the block of ice and then bent. He kissed the ice over Drevish’s brow.
“Sleep, old friend. I am sorry. It has been far too long since you treated me like a fool. Somehow, I had forgotten what it felt like to be one. But these two can speak the truth to me in your absence. So rest.”
He turned and placed the head back on the dresser, only this time faced away from the room. Teres opened her mouth, but Flos turned and forestalled her.
“I will bury him later. Tonight, in private. Now is not the time.”
Slowly, the girl closed her mouth. Flos looked at the two of them, and laughed. It was not the laugh of a [King]. It was man’s laugh, shaky, and rueful. With a hint of tears.
“I asked you to speak the truth to me, and seconds later demanded you do the opposite. A fool should not do so, let alone a [King]. I apologize to you Teres, and to you, Trey. I am only grateful you could speak the truth to me.”
He bowed his head to them. The twins stood as a [King] and a man bowed to them and neither knew what to say. When Flos had raised his head again, Trey found his voice.
Teres said that. Trey looked at her, and then at Flos.
“Why haven’t you gone to war? Why are we here?”
Flos looked at them and sighed.
“Because I am hesitating. Because I fear war. Because…perhaps I lack the stomach for it, after all these years.”
They stared at him. The King of Destruction. He smiled at them, looking haggard, weighed down by something they couldn’t name. He raised his hand, and touched the sparkling broach.
“Perhaps you do not understand. I was never good at explaining such things. Well, I can show you.”
He gestured to the door.
“Follow me, my friends. You two deserve to follow. I am a [King], but I need someone to tell me I am a fool. So come and let me look upon my faded kingdom. At last, let me have the courage to see the cost of my folly.”
He turned and led the twins out the door. And they followed, swept up in his wake as before. But there was something different this time. Trey and Teresa followed Flos, the King of Destruction. But the back they saw belonged to a man.
Just a man. Carrying the weight of a kingdom on his shoulders. And as he walked, Trey wondered. He wondered if Flos had ever had a friend. Perhaps Drevish had been one. Not a vassal, but a friend. Perhaps he had been, perhaps not.
His head sat frozen in his room, a grim reminder of the past. And that would never change. But the ice would melt. The head would vanish from the room, and time would move on. For the King had lost one of his Seven, but gained something else. Two friends, perhaps. Maybe that was what it was.
And he was awake. Awake. The King of Destruction was awake at last.
And the world would know what that meant soon enough.