“Flos of Reim. I have come for your head.”
The young man lying on the ground looked up. He stared in vague surprise at the other young man on horseback. His eyes fixed first on Venith’s set face and clenched jaw. Only then did he focus on the sword in Venith’s left hand.
He sat up and yawned, but didn’t reply to Venith’s statement. He scratched the back of his head and shook loose some of the dirt that had gotten trapped there. Of all the things Venith had expected, this wasn’t it.
He drew his horse closer, cursing a bit as his mare seemed more interested in Flos’ stallion, which was placidly eating a few whippy plants to the left. Venith glared down at the king of Reim, Flos. He didn’t seem like much to Venith. He was bigger than the young man on horseback, but Venith had beaten grown men far larger.
“Did you hear me? I said—”
“I heard you.”
Flos looked up at Venith, not intimidated the least by the sword the other man held. The young king had a sword, Venith could see. But he didn’t reach for it.
That was all the young man with bright red-gold hair said. He stared at Venith, frowning as if the young man were a puzzle, rather than an enemy.
That was too much for Venith’s pride. He lifted his sword.
“Have you any last words before I cut you apart?”
“I’m rather wondering why you didn’t do it earlier, actually.”
Flos sprang to his feet, so quickly Venith cursed and pulled his horse back. He rode backwards as the king mused to himself out loud.
“It’s strange. If you were another [Assassin], or a [Bounty Hunter] or [Mercenary], or any one of the people who’ve come to claim my head this month, you’d have tried to sneak up and stab me to death, or blast me with a spell at range. Or use an arrow. Or poison. But you didn’t. You rode up and told me you were going to kill me.”
“So? I’m a [Warrior]. Are you going to draw your sword or not?”
Venith didn’t know why he was replying when he should have been attacking. But Flos just grinned as if he knew.
“If I didn’t, would you cut me down? Unarmed?”
“No, I don’t think you would. Else, you’d have ridden at me and not given me time to prepare.”
That was true. Venith knew he should have done that, and he flushed angrily. But Flos just smiled.
“So you’re coming to take my head? Why?”
“My reasons are my own. I’m challenging you, king of Reim. Are you a coward, or will you answer me with steel?”
Venith raised his voice and shouted down at the young man. Flos sighed. He reached for his side and drew his sword. Venith tensed.
Flos looked mystified.
“Get on your stallion.”
The young King looked over at where his stallion had gone to graze. He shook his head.
“I don’t feel like it. I’ll fight you on foot. It won’t make a difference either way.”
Venith stared down at Flos. He felt unbalanced. The young king of Reim, the boy with eight thousand gold pieces on his head dead and twice that alive, grinned as he spread his arms.
“Shouldn’t you be glad? I’ve heard a mounted [Rider] can defeat three [Soldiers] of the same level.”
That was just a rumor. Venith had heard the same thing boasted of, but since he was no [Rider] he’d never want to try that. He stared down with narrowed eyes at Flos. He wasn’t what Venith had expected at all. He hadn’t tried to beg for his life, or flee for safety. Part of Venith couldn’t help but admire the King for his confidence.
But he was here to kill the young man. That made everything harder. After a second of furious internal debate, Venith swung himself off his horse. He set his mare running with a slap on her side as he grabbed the shield he always carried. It was flat along the top and curved downwards to a point at the bottom. A heater shield. This one didn’t have Venith’s heraldry on it. It, like his sword, was unmarked, so no one would know his identity when the deed was done.
Flos eyed Venith as the young man approached, keeping his shield up.
“You needn’t have done that.”
“Shut up. I’m better without my horse. Now, are you going to fight?”
Venith was angry without knowing why. He didn’t want to do this, but he had to. He wished he’d never spoken. But to his surprise, the young Flos just grinned.
“As you like. I am Flos of Reim! What’s your name?”
It was too late to go back. Venith shouted over the thundering of his heart.
“Venith Crusand! Prepare to die!”
He charged, ready to end it in a single thrust. But Flos raised his sword and Venith, forewarned, raised his shield. He felt something crash into his shield and staggered. He raised his sword, but Flos was already running past him. Venith spun, and heard a strange noise over the blood pumping in his veins. It was laughter. Flos was laughing—
Five minutes later, Venith lay on the ground. He couldn’t move. Part of the armor around his legs was damaged and unable to bend. And his right hand felt broken. He stared up at the blue, clear sky while he heard footsteps crunching in the dirt, coming towards him.
“I told you it wouldn’t make a difference.”
Venith closed his eyes. He refused to cry, or beg. He tried to speak and coughed.
“Finish me off already.”
Someone reached down and hauled Venith up. The young man found himself being carried to the slight incline where he’d first laid eyes on Flos. The young king dropped Venith there, and Venith stared up at him.
“If you plan on torturing me to find out where I come from—”
“Don’t be silly. I like you. And I don’t care where you come from. I just want to know why you came to kill me.”
Flos grinned down at Venith. He was barely sweating. Venith stared up at him.
“I needed the bounty on your head. That’s all.”
He felt ashamed for saying it. It wasn’t an honorable thing to do. But Venith was no [Knight]. He had duties. He was ready for Flos to scorn him, but the young king only laughed.
“That’s why you tried to kill me? Just for money? Then it’s no wonder you lost!”
That stung. Venith tried to rise and fell back.
“I had a chance! I waited until you were alone. If I’d attacked from behind—”
“You still would have lost. I can’t be killed by [Assassins], you see. I have a friend—well, a vassal, really. She would have killed you, but I told her to let you come closer.”
Venith looked around stupidly, but he hadn’t seen anyone when he’d approached Flos. The king just smiled.
“You might have beaten me, it’s true, but not with a bad reason like that.”
He laughed again. It was beginning to get on Venith’s nerves.
“What do you mean?”
The boy King stopped laughing and regarded Venith, suddenly serious.
“If your reason isn’t good enough, there’s no way you’d ever best me. I have a dream as large as all of Chandrar. If yours isn’t at least half as big, you’ll never be able to beat me.”
“What? That’s stupid.”
“It’s not. I’ll never die so long as I have my dream. That’s why I knew I could beat you.”
Flos stared down at the other young man. He offered Venith a hand again. After a moment of hesitation, Venith took it.
“You’re nothing like what I’ve heard of.”
“I heard you were a fool who accepted traitors and slaves into his kingdom. A rabble rouser with no respect for law or tradition.”
“That’s partly true. But it doesn’t matter.”
Flos spread his arms wide, grinning broadly with a smile that was infectious.
“I am a King. If I cared what people thought, I’d really be a fool, wouldn’t I?”
Venith stared at him. He wasn’t like any [King] Venith had ever met, not that he’d had a chance to talk to any other one. He’d only glimpsed other monarchs from afar, usually on bended knee or while dining at a feast or banquet. But Flos was different.
“So if you won’t kill me, what will you do? My family…cannot afford to pay a ransom if that’s what you’re hoping.”
“I don’t want that either. I think I’ll just let you go.”
Flos turned and whistled as Venith gaped. One horse came running. Venith’s mare. Flos stared at his stallion and kicked at the dirt irritably. Then he smiled again as Venith staggered over to his mare.
“When you have a better reason for fighting, come find me again. That was fun.”
The other young man made no reply. He hauled himself up into the saddle, wincing. He wheeled his mare to stare at Flos. Then he shook his head.
“You aren’t worth my time.”
Venith spurred his stallion and rode away as he heard the young man named Flos howl with laughter. At that moment, Venith hated that sound. But he would hear it for many more years and smile. Until the day the laugher stopped…
Laughter. It was fierce, loud, and unexpected. It made Trey jolt as he stared at Flos. The King of Destruction was laughing at the man who’d spoken. Venith Crusand.
It made everyone stare. The villagers, crowded protectively around their King, the mounted warriors, even the man with the sword. He wore a helmet with no visor, allowing Trey to see his face. Venith was an older man, around Flos’ age. He had dark hair, and a stern, set face. He held a shield on his right hand, and a drawn sword in his left. But Flos only laughed at him. He laughed and laughed, as if he’d heard a truly hilarious joke, not a threat against his life.
When he finished, there was silence. Flos wiped tears from his eyes, and then stared up at the mounted man, his smile fading. Venith Crusand hadn’t moved, and his eyes hadn’t shifted from Flos’ face.
“Memory is a strange thing, Venith. Do you have a better reason for seeking my life this time?”
The man on the warhorse stared down at Flos, cold emotions locked behind his eyes.
“Peace for my people. Vengeance, and retribution for an oathbreaker. And an end to your lies.”
Flos sighed. His shoulder slumped slightly, and he stared at Venith with disappointment. Disappointment, and something else. Regret, Trey thought. Or was it guilt?
“Oh? I had hoped to see you before now, Venith. I thought you would be the first to ride through my gates. I waited for you long, old friend.”
“You would have had to wait forever. I did not rejoice to hear you had awakened. And if you had the sense to stay clear of my lands, you would not have forced my hand.”
Venith raised his sword slightly. Flos stared at it.
“You are serious.”
“I do not forgive betrayal. And I swore an oath to take arms against you should you ever wake from your slumber.”
Now Venith rode forwards. He motioned slightly with his shield, and the other mounted soldiers spread out with him. They drew their weapons as well. But…hesitantly. Trey saw one armored warrior riding next to Venith fumble before raising a spear.
Venith didn’t seem to notice. The [Lord] stared at the mob of villagers surrounding Flos.
“No, my Lord Venith!”
A man moved to bar Venith’s way. He stared pleadingly up at the [Lord].
“Our King has returned, don’t you see? How could you raise your sword against him?”
Trey heard more voices raised in agreement around him. Venith stared as the villagers moved to protect their King, forming a living wall between him and Flos. His face twisted with fury.
“Silence! You are not his subjects. You are mine! I am your [Lord]! I have ruled you for ten years!”
“But I am their [King].”
Flos strode forwards. The people around him parted unwillingly, but they did move. Flos stood at the head of the villagers, staring up at Venith without fear.
“Pull your warriors back, Venith. The people of Manimar are not tainted by my guilt.”
“Then send them away and face me yourself, coward.”
Trey saw Venith blink incredulously. But Flos was calm as he went on.
“I will not let myself die here. But neither will I order my subjects to a slaughter. And neither will you. You are not that sort of man, Venith.”
“You do not know me.”
The [King] met the [Lord]’s eyes steadily.
“Yes. I do. You will not slaughter innocent people here. Pull your forces back and we will settle this in a duel, Venith.”
For a second, Trey thought Venith might order his men to attack. His face was red with fury, but he eventually growled a command. He wheeled his horse and the others did likewise.
All except for one. The rider holding the spear was staring at Flos. Trey had an uneasy feeling. He fought to get closer and realized Teres wasn’t at his side. Where had she gone?
Then his head turned as he heard her voice.
Teres was standing near the edge of the crowd. She had something in her hands. She hurled it as the mounted rider kicked his horse forwards. She’d thrown a stone, but it was too late. The mounted warrior was shouting as he aimed his spear at Flos’ chest.
“Die, King of Destruction!”
He ducked the thrown rock and raised his spear to impale Flos. The King stared at the rider as he charged at him. He seemed to sigh.
The spear shot forwards as the rider thrust with it. But it stopped as Flos reached out and grabbed the shaft. He didn’t budge, and as the horse continued forwards the spear was locked between the two. The warrior slammed into his saddle and then tumbled off it as his mount’s forward momentum tried to carry him forwards and the spear held him back.
He tumbled off the horse and landed hard on the ground with a crash of armor. At once, the villagers were upon him. Enraged by the attack, they began kicking and stomping on him as he tried to get up.
Someone shouted that name amid the roars of anger as the rest of the villagers streamed towards the downed warrior. Trey turned his head and saw Venith was riding back, sword in hand. The villagers scattered as he rode through them, striking with the flat of his sword and knocking men and women away.
He dismounted and reached for the fallen figure. At once, the villagers were around him. Venith turned, sword and shield ready, but it was Flos who strode forwards. He stopped the villagers from descending on the two warriors.
“Enough. Let him go.”
“But your Majesty—”
“Let him go. ”
Reluctantly, the people backed away. Flos stared down at Venith; the man was a head shorter than him. Then his eyes went to the warrior who’d tried to kill him. He was still helmeted, but Trey thought he was a younger man.
“Is that your son, Venith? I remember the name. Calac. You wrote to me the day he was born, and I drank to his health. I am happy he is grown, even if his manners are lacking.”
“He is my son. And a fool.”
For all his harsh words, Venith carefully carried his son to his horse. He helped Calac to mount as a second mounted soldier brought a second horse over to Venith. Flos called out to him as Venith put one foot in his stirrups.
“I have never seen his face.”
Venith’s head turned. He did not look grateful. There was fury in his eyes. Fury and dark hatred.
“And you never will.”
He kicked his mount in the sides and he rode out of the village without looking back. Flos watched him go as people shouted curses at Venith’s back. He somehow found Trey, trying to push towards him in the crowd. Flos sighed. And then he rolled his shoulder and stood tall. Because he was a King.
When they were outside of the village and riding towards the rest of the soldiers Venith had brought, he stopped and turned to his son. Calac had taken off his helm, and his face was pale as he rode next to his father. He was bruised on his right cheek and his armor had been dented in places by the villagers.
Venith didn’t waste time with words. He slapped his son across the face with one hand. It wasn’t a heavy blow, but with his gauntlets on it drew blood.
Calac’s face was red with embarrassment.
“Father, I could have—”
“You have disgraced yourself and your family’s name! Be silent!”
There was too much memory and guilt in his eyes. Venith turned away as he guided his horse towards his forces. A rank of cavalry waited for him, along with a cluster of armed foot soldiers and archers. But not his [Mage], nor the vast majority of his forces. They had stayed behind rather than take up arms against the man that had been their King.
His mood was black. Venith had no ears for the man who rode up alongside, asking for orders.
“Keep your forces back. Encircle the village, but do not attack, even if provoked.”
“What if he runs? The King?”
Calac flinched as Venith looked at him. For a second his father struggled with the urge to shout, but he controlled his temper. Barely.
“He will not run. Even if he is a shadow of what he was, that man would not run.”
“But what if he does?”
Too stubborn, and too insolent. Venith felt like he was staring at himself, twenty years ago. He scowled.
“If he does, I will run him down.”
“But if we attacked—”
That was too much. Venith shouted at his son, the first time he had done so in public.
“I will not slaughter my people! And if you draw your sword without my permission again I will disown you. Is that understood?”
Calac’s face went white. He stood still and nodded. Venith turned away.
“We are not without honor, even if he is an oathbreaker. And if we attacked, we would be the ones feeding the crows.”
His soldiers stirred. The younger ones, those who hadn’t ever known the King of Destruction as more than a slumbering legend, looked incredulous. The older ones knew better.
“Don’t underestimate an army of villagers. Don’t underestimate him. He could cut you apart with ease, and he has the Skills to make any battle even. No. I’ll kill him myself.”
Venith turned. It wasn’t his son he looked at, but his oldest retainers. The ones who’d fought with him over a decade ago. They shifted. Some were uneasy. Others wavered. But some had the same anger that burned in Venith’s heart. They understood.
Venith dismounted from his horse.
“Alert me when the King of Destruction moves. It won’t be long.”
He drew his sword and inspected it. Venith knew it was undamaged; he’d sharpened the blade this very morning. And the same went for his shield. But he wanted to take no chances.
One of his men rode towards the village to keep watch on it. The burning torches made visibility hard, but Venith knew the King would not run. He wouldn’t. Even as weak as he was, he would not. And so he would come out, and Venith would make him pay for betrayal.
The man’s hands shook as he lifted his shield. He stared at the village, trying to summon more of the white-hot fury that had gripped him when he’d heard the words he’d despaired of hearing ever again. But there wasn’t any anger when he reached for it. Just a kind of emptiness—no, a lack of anything at all. He reached into his chest and felt nothing at all.
So it was with a kind of dread that Venith stood, waiting for his King. He stared at the village and remembered another sight, one far more bitter than the time they had first met.
How had it gone? A village and a King. Only the village that Venith saw in his head had no wall. It was dark, and the village was burning. He could still smell the smoke, taste the blood and fear in his mouth. His grip loosened on his sword.
The second time Venith met Flos, he was galloping away from his father’s castle as it burned in the distance. The village was filled with screams and armed soldiers striking down people—his people as he fled. They cried out for someone to save them, but Venith could not stop. Sixteen riders wearing black armor and the silver insignia of a set of scales on their arms were in hot pursuit of him.
They caught him at the bridge. Venith heard his mare scream as she stumbled. He tumbled to the ground and saw an arrow in her thigh. His faithful horse thrashed on the ground as Venith tried to get to his feet.
“Put down your sword, Venith Crusand. Accept your judgement.”
The leader of the pursuers was female, but her face was covered by a black veil. She, like the others, hid her face. They surrounded him, weapons raised. Venith reached for his shield, but he had dropped it. So he clasped both hands to his sword and told himself he would kill one of them before he died.
The voice didn’t come from in front of Venith, but rather, behind. He turned warily, and saw his pursuers back away. Because they were outnumbered.
Flos had changed little in the year since Venith had tried to kill him. He was a tiny bit taller, that was all. But this time he was not alone. An army stood at his back. The army of Reim, just as Venith had heard.
For a second hope surged in his breast. But then Venith felt movement. He whipped around and felt something touch the skin at his neck.
A glaive’s tip cut into his throat. The woman who held it stared past him, at Flos.
“Withdraw your forces, King of Reim. This does not concern you.”
“Put up your blade. Now. I know that man. Why are you trying to kill him?”
It wasn’t a question that needed asking. Venith knew Flos must have known. The woman’s response was sharp and irritated as she raised her glaive away from Venith’s head. He felt at his throat and felt blood.
“We are the Black Judgment. The house of Crusand has failed to honor its debts and refused to pay its dues. We are administering justice.”
“You mean they refused to sell their people off as slaves. And now you’re killing all of them.”
“Oathbreakers shall be punished. Criminals shall be found. Traitors slain. You know we answer to no [Monarch]. Do not interfere.”
Flos was staring at Venith. His eyes flicked to the village. Venith could still hear screaming. The Black Judgment worked methodically, going from house to house. They did not have to hurry. They just had to ensure no one escaped.
“My lord. They have many soldiers here.”
A quiet, frightened voice came from one of the people standing next to Flos. He turned his head.
“How many, Gazi?”
“A thousand—perhaps a thousand five hundred. All armored. And six mages.”
Overkill for a small [Lord]’s house and his retainers. But that was how the Black Judgment worked. Anyone who broke the law and refused to honor their debts was punished, be it a [King] or a [Beggar]. Venith’s stomach twisted. Now that he looked, he saw the army that accompanied Flos was no true army. Their numbers lay in the hundreds, possibly not coming close to a thousand.
He stared dully at the woman—no, the person who’d spoken. She was not Human. He found himself staring at a being with a huge eye in the center of her head and four smaller ones around it. He only vaguely recognized her as a species from Baleros. A Gazer.
She was female, frightened, holding a sword that looked too big for her. Venith looked around. The rest of Flos’ ‘army’ looked the same. They weren’t the professional soldiers he’d expected, merely the sons and daughters of [Farmers] and [Shopkeepers]. Common peasantry.
He turned away in despair. His father had sent [Messages] for help in every direction. If Flos hadn’t come with an army three times larger, it meant he was only here to watch.
But the King was arguing with the half-Gazer now. He stared hard at the soldiers as he spoke to her.
“I like him, Gazi. And these aren’t soldiers that are being killed.”
Venith looked incredulously at Flos. The leader of the band of Black Judgment warriors was doing the same. Flos spurred his mount forwards until he was sitting and looking down at Venith.
“So this is why you came for my head. It is still not a good enough reason.”
There was no point to talking. Venith lowered his head, biting his lip until he tasted blood.
“Go on and leave. You can’t do anything here.”
“I could. This does not seem like justice to my eyes.”
Flos leaned forwards on his mount. He was staring at the burning village. The woman with the glaive spoke sharply.
“You have no right! This is the law and they have broken it!”
The King of Reim ignored her completely. He looked at Venith.
“I have no cause. A King must not declare war for no reason. But perhaps you have one. Is this just?”
He would have loved to say yes. He would have loved to deny the truth. But Venith’s hand clenched on his sword’s hilt until it cracked. He spoke slowly.
“My father borrowed too much and refused to sell his people. That is the truth. This is—justice.”
“I see. You are a poor liar.”
Flos didn’t move as Venith whirled on him. He was staring at the village. He pointed.
“Look, Venith Crusand. Over there. That girl.”
Venith did not want to look. But he did. He saw a child lying on the ground. She was dead. Dead, or soon to be dead. He looked down.
“What about her?”
“What is her name?”
A hand reached down and lifted Venith off the ground. Flos stared at Venith as his stallion groaned at the sudden increase in weight.
“What. Is. Her. Name?”
Venith turned to look. There was no way he could tell at a distance—
His breath caught. He saw a long braid, faintly blonde hair. He remembered the handful of flowers that she gathered every summer and handed out like they were treasures. He spoke her name.
The King dropped him. Venith landed on the ground with a thump. Flos nodded. He stared at the village, and then met the eyes of the order of Black Judgment.
“That’s all I needed to know.”
He rode back towards Gazi, and his army of amateur warriors. Venith lowered his head and raised his sword as the Black Judgment closed in. Then he heard Flos’ voice.
“Her name is Merisa!”
It was a shout. Like thunder, his voice echoed across the ground, cutting above the screaming and shouts. Venith saw Flos turn. Then the young King unsheathed his sword. Beside him, the half-Gazer raised her blade.
Flos pointed straight at the woman with the glaive. He uttered one word.
His army roared and swept forwards. Venith heard thundering hooves, and then Flos leapt past him. He cut the first warrior of the Black Judgment down and then rode on. Shouting a child’s name.
That was the first time Venith had ever wept in public. He ran after the King of Reim on the day he declared war against the Black Judgment.
For a child.
Trey shouted her name amid the clamor around him. He heard someone shout his name, and then found her in the sea of people.
She led him away, away from Flos, who was at the center of the throng of people. When they could talk without shouting, Trey hugged Teres. She hugged him back.
“How’d you know he was going to do that?”
“I didn’t. But when he didn’t ride off I got a bad feeling.”
“You threw a rock at him! What if he stabbed you?”
Trey opened his mouth to protest that logic when he heard his name again.
Someone’s voice boomed. The twins turned. Flos was striding towards them, the sea of people parting in biblical fashion. The King smiled as he stared at Teres.
“You have keen eyes, Teres. A shame you had no bow or wand. I will fix that another time. For now, follow me.”
He turned. The twins stared at each other and then followed Flos. He was walking towards the village gates. People were trying to stop him without actually holding him back. A man—the village headman, perhaps, was trying to talk to Flos.
“Don’t go alone, my King. We’ll follow you into battle! We might not have weapons, most of us, but we’ve a wall and three times their number. We’ll choke them on our blood and flesh if need be!”
“That would be the worst outcome. Far worse than my death. Venith is your [Lord], is he not?”
“But nothing. He is a good [Lord], by all accounts. I remember Orthenon telling me he patrolled these lands. For ten years he has kept you safe from monsters and brigands.”
“He is not you, my King. And he was once your vassal! Taking arms against his sword master is treason!”
“Perhaps. But I was the one who betrayed him first.”
Flos sighed. He did not look at the confused headman, but turned to the twins.
“I will duel Venith now. The sun should rise shortly—stand with your backs to it so you may have the best view.”
They gaped at him. Teres was the first to find her voice.
“He challenged me. That is how things are done in this land.”
“Not that! Why does he hate you? Was he your vassal?”
“Yes. And he bears a grudge.”
Flos strode out of the village, people streaming after him. He was adjusting his belt, tightening it. Trey stared at Flos. He wasn’t wearing armor.
“Why does he hate you?”
“For abandoning him? For leaving my kingdom to rot? For incompetence, failure, cowardice?”
The King of Destruction shook his head.
“I do not know. But I must answer him, Trey. I cannot run from my failure. And he has every right to hate me.”
“But he’s wearing armor! And you’ve only got a sword!”
“Yes. I rather wish I had something else.”
Instantly a hundred voices rose, offering Flos a shield, a helmet that might fit, a piece of armor. He waved the voices away.
“I have no need. And Venith will not wait. Besides, a sword is all I need.”
He unsheathed his sword, and Trey stared hopefully at the blade. But it did not glow, or sparkle. It was shiny, but that was only because moonlight shone on it.
Flos saw Trey’s expression and laughed.
“There is no enchantment on the blade, Trey. I believe I took this one from my armory. It is just steel. But it is my sword, so it is a King’s sword. That should be good enough, even for Venith.”
“But he’s got armor.”
Teres stared at Flos and then grabbed Trey’s arm.
“He’s not listening to me. Talk sense to him!”
“And I am listening. But your worries are unfounded, Teres. I will not lose. Because I am a King.”
Trey’s sister gaped at Flos’ back. But at his words a huge cheer went up from the people who had heard. Flos stopped and turned to face the villagers.
“I have been challenged! And so I declare this: I will go to do battle with Lord Venith Crusand. Let no one interfere with our duel on pain of death!”
They shouted and cheered him. A King wearing no armor about to fight a man in full plate armor with a sword and shield. Trey stared at Flos as he strode across the dry, flat ground.
Venith was waiting for him. The man stood braced, ready for battle. His soldiers had spread out around him, forming a large semicircle. Flos halted with the crowd of villagers at his back. He stared at Venith, and then turned his back on the man. He raised his empty left hand and bellowed into the night.
“People of Manimar! Who is your rightful ruler?”
A roar answered him.
He raised his sword, and the cheering and shouting from the villagers overwhelmed all other sound. Venith waited, braced in the dirt, shield in one hand, sword aimed at Flos’ chest.
Trey found himself standing closest to Flos, in the circle that watched the two about to duel. Teres was by his side. She was gripping his arm so hard it hurt, but Trey was doing the same to her.
This was crazy. Insane. But there was something to this moment that spoke to Trey. He thought of knights. Of honor and valor and chivalry. And when he looked at Venith he thought about vengeance and betrayal.
Flos strode towards Venith and stopped around ten paces away. When he spoke, it was far more quietly, so that Trey had to strain to hear over the restless crowd.
“Why is it that you cannot bear that I live, Venith? You, who once fought beside me fiercest of all?”
“Because you abandoned us.”
Venith raised his sword. Flos kept his lowered. The man charged and the duel began without a signal.
From where he stood, Trey could barely see Venith’s sword flash forwards. He’d stabbed at Flos’ chest, but Flos stepped sideways incredibly quickly. His sword came up and parried Venith’s thrust with the flat of his blade, knocking it aside.
Venith spun as Flos turned. He lashed out, punching with his shield. Flos stepped back from that as well, and raised his sword. Venith pulled his shield up and braced. The sword came down.
And Trey felt the clash in his bones. Venith staggered. He stabbed with his sword again and Flos dodged. The King cut horizontally at Venith’s side and the blade slashed across Venith’s shield. Then Flos reversed the direction of his cut. He was aiming for Venith’s shoulder. But Venith had raised his shield again. This time the noise made several people clap their hands to their ears.
“Your skill hasn’t changed, Venith. Your [Flawless Defence] is still as invincible as ever.”
He said it so casually, as if he weren’t fighting for his life. But Venith’s voice was tense, filled with sharp emotions.
“I haven’t put down my sword for ten years. Unlike you. And you have grown weak.”
He raised his shield as Flos leapt forwards. The King jerked his head back to avoid having it clipped by Venith’s shield. He retreated as Venith slashed at him.
The [Lord] didn’t fight like Trey expected. He never slashed wide with his sword and always kept it close to his body. When he attacked it was with a quick, precise cut, not Flos’ powerful strikes. He kept advancing on the King, not giving Flos a chance to move around and find his back.
He was forcing Flos to defend, but Trey saw that Flos could easily parry most of Venith’s strikes, even when the man tried to strike him with the rim of his shield. By the same token though, Venith’s cautious style meant that every time Flos tried to strike him, his shield was in the way.
But the sound of it. Trey shuddered as Flos struck Venith again and the very air seemed to explode. Flos was clearly stronger than Venith, and only the man’s shield held him at bay. Around him the villagers of Manimar were shouting their King’s name, drowning out the soldiers who cheered for their lord, Venith.
The noise of it was deafening, actually drowning out most of the sounds of battle, save for when Flos dealt Venith a strong blow. But Trey could still hear the two shouting at each other, in a world of their own as they fought in the center of the ring of onlookers.
“You are mine, Venith!”
Flos shouted at the man as he cut rapidly from every side, trying to score a solid blow. But Venith’s shield moved just as quickly, deflecting every strike.
“You are not my king!”
Venith roared as he cut low at Flos’ leg. This time the King had to jump away. He was nearly struck as Venith lashed out. Trey saw the sword catch on part of Flos’ royal clothing.
“A king who abandoned his kingdom is not a [King]! He is a coward!”
Venith lashed out with the edge of his shield. Flos had to avoid that; he blocked Venith’s sword with his, suddenly being pushed back. Venith charged forwards.
“You left us to rot! You left us to die!”
Flos cut down, like lightning. Venith raised his shield. Again metal met metal. Trey blinked from the impact—he felt there should have been sparks. But then he saw something as Venith cut again, forcing Flos back.
Flos’ sword was bent. It was so slight Trey might not have noticed it. But then he saw Flos strike out with it and knew that he wasn’t seeing things.
Teres had seen the same thing. Flos’ strength might outmatch Venith, but his sword couldn’t handle the abuse. And as Trey saw Venith force Flos back, he realized Venith knew this too.
Flos didn’t know. Or he didn’t care. He kept striking at Venith’s guard, as if to batter him down with sheer force alone. But his sword slowly and steadily deformed from the impacts.
The breaking point came when Flos charged Venith, locking his blade against the man’s shield. He tried to cut below around it, but Venith was too quick. He raised his sword up and brought it down on the bent part of Flos’ blade.
Just steel. That was what Flos’ sword was made of. But Venith’s was enchanted, or better quality. Or simply stronger. It bit slightly into the blade. Flos twisted away and stared at his blade. Venith gritted his teeth. He raised his shield as the King brought down his blade.
For the last time.
The blade met the shield. Only this time there was no crash, of impact. Flos’ sword broke as it met the shield. It didn’t shatter, but the blade snapped and spiraled into the air.
Silence followed that moment, as Flos stared down at the handle of his broken sword. Venith smiled grimly and raised his shield and sword as he spoke.
“And a king without a sword is nothing.”
Flos took a step back. Trey stared around in horror at the ring of watching villagers. They were no longer cheering.
“You are no match for me without a sword.”
Venith strode forwards, and this time Flos was in full retreat. The King cast aside the hilt of his sword.
Someone shouted. Trey saw a man waving a sword in his hands, trying to throw it to Flos. But the King ignored the blade as Venith’s soldiers pulled the man back into the crowd.
“What now, King of Destruction?”
There was mockery in Venith’s tone, but it was bitter. And he was not smiling. He looked as if he was in pain as he slowly backed Flos towards where Trey and Teres stood. Flos danced out of range, far quicker than any man his size should have moved.
“Your vassals will not return. Your kingdom is in ruins. Your lands are gone. You have nothing left. You are no King! You have no army, no allies, no sword—”
Venith’s eyes widened. He raised his shield and a fist crashed into it. Trey heard the dull thump. Venith stumbled back. He raised his sword and a foot kicked him in his armored chest. He fell backwards, crashing onto the ground.
Flos stood over him. He shook his right hand, and raised his voice as he pointed down at Venith.
“Fool! Have you learned nothing of Kings?”
Everyone stared at him as Venith struggled to get up. Flos raised his right fist into the air; Trey saw the skin along his knuckles had split from the impact. It was bleeding.
“A King is more than just a sword! He is more than a crown, more than an army or a kingdom. Deny it if you will, Venith. But I am and always will be your [King]. Nothing will change that!”
Venith got to his feet, coughing. He swung at Flos with his sword, slower. Flos grabbed his gauntleted arm.
“A King cannot be beaten by any common warrior!”
He caught Venith’s shield as it flew towards his face. Flos held Venith’s arms apart as the man struggled to free himself. Then Flos’ head drew back.
Venith was wearing a steel helmet. Flos was not. The King’s head came down and struck Venith on the helmeted forehead so hard Trey winced. Venith stumbled back. Flos took three steps back and shook his head like a dog. But he was the first one to step forwards.
“A King is always a King. And I am your King!”
The [Lord] groggily raised his sword. He blinked and saw Flos striding towards him. Venith tried to raise his shield, but it was too late.
Flos’ right fist met the front of Venith’s helm. The impact sent the man’s head snapping back. Trey saw Venith stagger. He took a step back and then slowly collapsed back onto the ground.
Blood dripped from Flos’ right hand. The metal faceguard on Venith’s helm was stained red with blood, but not from the man. It had cut deep into Flos’ hand. But the King didn’t appear to notice. He looked down at the fallen [Lord].
“I will always be your King, Venith.”
The man made no reply. He might have been unconscious. The King turned away. He bent down and picked up Venith’s sword out of the dirt.
Now everyone was silent. Trey stared at Flos as the King walked back to Venith. The rush of excitement and fear in his veins had turned completely to horror. What would happen now?
There was only one thing Trey could think of. Flos stared down sadly at Venith. He raised the sword in his hands. Trey’s mouth was dry with fear.
Someone shouted in the circle of onlookers. Trey saw a young man without a helmet—the same one who’d attacked Flos with the spear.
Calac. He threw himself in front of his father, arms spread wide.
“Have mercy, sire!”
Other people rushed to hold him back. Not just villagers—soldiers as well. Flos watched them pull Calac away, and then turned his head. Trey and Teres were standing by his side, staring at the sword in his hands. Their faces were pale.
“Are you going to—”
Flos didn’t immediately reply. He looked back at Calac. Trey saw the young man’s face, darker than his father’s, but with the same features. Flos stared too.
“I wished to see his son’s face, you know. But I was too far from home.”
He turned back to Venith. Then Flos’ head turned. He frowned and then threw a hand out. Trey felt a palm knock him off his feet. He heard Teres cry out in shock, and then a thunk.
Trey sat up and saw the arrow. It had passed through the air where Flos’ arm had been. If Flos hadn’t turned, and if he hadn’t knocked Trey out of the way, it would have struck Trey’s leg.
“Who—what was that?”
Teres was shouting. Most of the people around Flos hadn’t heard or seen the arrow, focused as they were on Calac, who was struggling and shouting with the people who held him. But Flos’s head turned. He looked east, towards the brighter sky.
Someone was standing on a hilltop to the east. It was a thousand feet in the distance, yet Trey could see the figure clearly. She was riding a horse. Her hair was short, but the figure was unmistakably a woman.
And she was holding a bow. A woman on a horse put another arrow to the huge bow she carried. She was a distant speck, but when she loosed the second arrow it sped towards Flos’ chest.
He cut the second arrow out of the air. Flos stepped sideways casually and Trey heard the ripping sound of cut air before the shaft splintered into two parts. One spun past Trey’s face and something stung his cheek.
“Lady Maresar disapproves of our duel.”
“Is she going to shoot us?”
“No, I think.”
Teres stared at the figure in the distance. She was raising another arrow to her bow. But Flos turned away. He didn’t appear concerned.
“What are you doing? She’s going to shoot you!”
“I see her. But I see someone else as well. She is always about. I should have known she would have noticed me.”
Trey stared at the hill. The woman named Maresar was sitting on her horse. But there was someone else? Then he saw her, blending in at the bottom of the hill. If she hadn’t moved, he would never have seen her. But that was why she wore that armor. It matched her skin, and it was the color of dirt. Now the half-Gazer strode up the hill, sword in hand. Flos smiled.
The mounted archer lowered her bow when she saw Gazi’s head appear over the hilltop. She didn’t appear surprised to see her. And neither did she put away the arrow.
Gazi smiled widely, showing the woman her sharp teeth. She had her two-handed blade in her left hand, and all four of her eyes were fixed on the woman’s face.
“Gazi. I should have known you were about.”
“I follow my King. Just as you seem to follow your husband.”
Maresar spoke shortly, with a slight lisp.
“He is a fool. But he will not die so long as I live.”
“And neither will you harm my King.”
Gazi spread her hands. Maresar nodded.
“So. We are at an impasse. I have my soldiers camped below this ridge.”
“Your big eye isn’t open. I could shoot you if I had to.”
Maresar turned her head. She was staring at Flos as he stood over Venith.
“And why is that?”
Gazi turned her head to stare at her King.
“My lord did not come here to kill. I know him. Your husband won’t die today.”
Lady Maresar stared at Gazi. For a second her hand tightened on her arrow, and Gazi’s hand tightened on her greatsword. Then Maresar smiled and lowered her bow.
“Very well. If you are wrong I will kill you first.”
Gazi just grinned in reply.
Trey stood with Teres, watching. That was what he seemed to do. Watch. Yet he was a part of this scene as well. He stood next to the King of Destruction, after all. He stood next to the King of Reim as, sword in hand he stood over his former vassal.
Venith Crusand. The man had regained consciousness. He stared bitterly up at Flos.
“Finish it this time. Or I swear I will come back for your head again.”
“After all this time, you haven’t changed Venith. I told you once. I like you. You fought by my side for countless years. Shed blood in my name. I could never kill you.”
“But I could kill you. I swore an oath.”
Venith struggled to his feet, but fell back. He coughed and stared with hatred at Flos. Real, deep hatred. Trey could see that plainly, but he also saw how Venith’s eyes hadn’t left Flos’ face. They searched every inch of the King’s expression, as if looking for something.
“You betrayed us. You left us.”
Flos’ head bowed. He made no reply. Venith raised his voice. He shouted as the villagers fell silent, and his soldiers watched.
“You abandoned your kingdom! A King! Every army in the world came after us, cutting us down. I swore an oath to save my people, to protect them since you would not! I am bound to kill you or die trying.”
“A powerful oath.”
Flos nodded slowly. Venith bared his teeth.
“I have never broken my vows. You know that.”
Venith struggled to lift a hand. He pointed to the blade in Flos’ hand.
“End it. Or we shall fight again. Again and again, until I am dead.”
Trey heard a choked sound from Calac. He was held tightly by two of Venith’s soldiers. Flos nodded.
“Your honor. Your vows. For your people you took them, and I know you are bound to fulfill them. However, I would say one thing to you Venith Crusand.”
He raised the sword in his hands. Venith narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth silently. Flos stared at Venith, and then tossed the sword at his feet.
“I do not care.”
Venith stared. Trey stared. Teres stared. The villagers and soldiers were statues. But Flos just smiled. And laughed. And then he shouted so everyone could hear.
“I am no petty tyrant, no fearful monarch! I am Flos, King of Destruction! My heart is large enough to suffer a thousand insults, but too small to accept the loss of one friend. I care not that you renounced your oath of service, Venith. I care not that you swore a vow against me. Join me, and we will fight together as before.”
He held a hand out to Venith. The man stared up at him, open-mouthed. Then he snarled and swiped at Flos’ hand.
“You bastard. You trampled over our dreams, abandoned us when we needed you most! And you dare to come back ten years later, as if nothing has changed?”
The man’s voice broke as he screamed at Flos, at his King.
“How dare you! How dare you—you trampled over us once. And now you come back as if nothing happened, spouting your same lies? How can you say the same thing again? You are a heartless tyrant, a fool!”
“That is what it means to be a King.”
Venith fell silent. Flos stared down at him.
“You are right. I cannot take back the past. I cannot undo my mistakes or erase my sins. And they are the gravest of this world. There is no one less deserving of a crown than I. And yet, I am your King. Your King, Venith. Just as you are my vassal.”
Flos moved slowly. He turned to face the crowd of people, the soldiers, the villagers, the twins. But when he spoke, it was only towards Venith.
“I care nothing for your oath. I care not that you raised your sword against me. I only care for you, Venith. I crave your company, more deeply than a lover, more urgently than a babe. I need you, Venith Crusland. Follow my back once more. Be my sword and shield and run with me one more time. One last time. We still have not reached the ends of the earth. But this time we shall.”
Venith stared up at Flos silently, eyes filled with an emotion Trey could not name. The King gazed down at him.
“My kingdom fell to dust because I was not ready before. But this time my dream is rekindled. And it is larger. This time it reaches beyond one continent. It encompasses the world. That is how far we will go. To the edge of the world and beyond. To the furthest nation, to the highest peak. Once, a young boy dreamed of making the world a better place. Now a grown man dreams of the same. The fire burns again in my chest, Venith. I see in my heart lands I have never laid eyes on, of oceans I have never crossed. And I know my enemies wait for me there, uncountable, and allies too. Waiting for the moment I dare to step forwards.”
He held his hand out, blood dripping between his fingers.
“The world waits for me. But I cannot face it alone. So I ask you once more. Renounce your oath. Take my hand or go. But know that you will always be mine. My sworn companion. My friend.”
All was hushed. Venith stared down at Flos’ bloodied hand. He stared at his King. And reached out.
Venith shook his King, grasped his hand. He stared into empty eyes, a vacant expression. Flos stared back, but there was nothing of him in there.
“It is over, Venith.”
The man turned and glared at the one who had spoken. Gazi. She was standing next to the throne, eyes downcast, more defeated than he had ever known her. Standing to her right, a soldier, one of the Rustängmarder who would ferry orders to the rest of the company, stood at attention. He and Venith had heard the words from Flos’ mouth, but Venith couldn’t accept it.
“It’s not over!”
“It is. It is all over. I am finished.”
The words came slowly and at a distance from Flos’ mouth. He did not look at Venith. He sat slumped in the small chair, staring at the ground. But Venith refused to hear.
“We can still fight! Give me a command and I will lead your armies myself!”
“It’s not about armies.”
Flos didn’t raise his head. He stared down at his hands.
“She is dead, Venith. Queravia is dead. So is Tottenval.”
Something cold lurched in Venith. He had known. But—
“We found his body today.”
Gazi spoke quietly. There were tears in her eyes. Venith couldn’t speak for a few moments. He felt his eyes sting, but he couldn’t stop.
“Even so. Even so—we have to continue. We owe it to them! You can’t just—”
His voice broke. It couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t all be over. The entire kingdom, gone. Not like this. Not—
“It is over, Venith. I am done. The King of Destruction is no more.”
“What about your people? What about your retainers, those who have sworn themselves to you?”
“I cannot be their King.”
Venith lost control. He struck Flos with all his might. The King’s head snapped back, but he didn’t look at Venith. He didn’t react to the blow. He just sat, staring ahead. Silent. That was worse of all.
It was more than Venith could stomach, more than he could bear to see. He would have struck his King once more, but someone caught his hand.
“Don’t do that again.”
Gazi stared at Venith, her grip a vice on his arm. Venith knew he could break her grip, but he saw the look in the half-Gazer’s eyes. And the Rustängmarder soldier was staring at him. They tolerated no treason in their ranks. Another blow and it might be Venith’s corpse lying on the ground.
After a moment, Gazi let go of Venith and he lowered his hand. He stared at his King. A shell. Just that. There was nothing left of his King here, just his appearance. Venith turned away.
“I will never accept it. I will not. I will wait! Until the day you come to your senses.”
Flos made no reply as Venith strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. And he waited. He waited until it was too late to go back.
Venith took Flos’ hand. The King smiled. He pulled Venith up. The [Lord] stared at his King. Then he smiled.
And struck Flos in the face.
Trey cried out in shock. The King’s head reeled back. He took a step as the people around him surged forwards, howling in fury. But Flos’ hand held them back like a real thing.
“I have not forgotten the day you turned your back on me. My answer is no.”
Flos nodded slowly. The King stared at Venith, not angrily, but with deep disappointment.
“Very well. Go. But know this, Venith Crusand. For ten years you protected my subjects. You guarded them against bandits and monsters alike and kept them fed. You built them a wall, and took care of my people. For that I owe you a debt beyond measuring. And yet.”
He looked Venith in the eye.
“And yet, it was not enough. You gave them food, shelter, pride in honest work. But you could not give them hope. Your dream is still not grand enough. And that is why they will always be mine.”
He turned away, and Venith stumbled, as if his strings were cut. In a moment his son and another soldier were by his side. They propped Venith up. He stared at Flos and then turned without another word.
Flos turned away as well. He walked slowly back towards Trey and Teres. He paused to look at them and then reached out.
“I am tired, you two.”
That was all he said. Then he walked back into the village, head bowed.
Venith rode away from Manimar, feeling every inch of his body hurt. He could barely sit in his saddle, but he sat with back straight when he saw who was waiting ahead of him.
His wife, [Lady] Maresar smiled and rode to meet Venith. She eyed her husband’s face, and then looked at her son. She frowned at him, which made Calac flinch. Then she looked at Venith and raised an eyebrow.
“Are you feeling better now? That’s twice you’ve struck your own King.”
“He is no longer my King.”
Venith gritted his teeth. His hands were still numb, and he couldn’t feel a distinct part of his face. Maresar only shook her head.
“I heard him shouting from the hill. He is your King. He claimed you, despite how you greeted him. And still you think he hasn’t returned?”
He couldn’t properly reply to that. Venith tried to flex his hand.
“I swore an oath.”
“So you did. But you swore one to him first, if I recall.”
Maresar silenced Venith with another look.
“I didn’t come here to argue the same thing again. You are wounded, dear husband. You had better have a [Healer] see to your injuries.”
He nodded grudgingly. Venith hesitated.
“I am…glad you decided to come after all. Despite our differences.”
She smiled at him. Venith reached out, and she brushed his hand away. He frowned.
“What is it?”
“I brought half of our retainers with us. Don’t worry; there are enough hands back at home to keep everything working. Until you decide to forgive your King, you’ll have to make do with that.”
He heard her, but he didn’t want to understand.
“Mares, what are you saying?”
“He’s my King too, Venith. You might have thought about that when you decided to challenge him. I’ll wait by his side, but not for too long. Hurry up and make peace with the past already.”
She rode past him. Venith reached out for her but missed. He called out as his wife rode past.
She didn’t look back once. Venith stared at his wife’s back as she rode away from him. He stared at his King. He clenched his fist and turned away.
Trey saw the procession of soldiers approaching with the woman archer at their head. Flos had seen them too. But he didn’t appear alarmed. He smiled and stopped the woman bandaging his hand.
He walked towards the woman with open arms. Trey saw a woman, darker skinned, hair cropped short, a bow at her back. She was smiling and kicked her horse into a gallop. She leapt from the saddle and onto the ground before Flos.
And then she slapped him. The crack of flesh meeting flesh turned every head in range. Trey felt like he could feel his own cheek stinging as Maresar lowered her hand. Flos blinked at her. Then the woman, Lady Maresar, flung her arms around him and kissed his cheek.
“Ah, Maresar. I am overjoyed to see you haven’t changed.”
Flos laughed as he hugged her. Maresar embraced him tightly and then let go. She was actually taller than he was, although not nearly as heavy.
“That was for leaving us. And that was for coming back. I am delighted to see you, my lord.”
“And I you. But your husband hasn’t joined us.”
Maresar smiled a bit sadly.
“He still has not forgiven you. But you are my King. He will come back in time.”
“So I trust.”
Flos looked at the ranks of soldiers that spread out behind their [Lady]. Each man or woman slowly knelt.
“Those who would not march against you have come to fight for you.”
“I am honored.”
Flos turned to look at someone who came towards him, apart from the army.
Gazi the Omniscient smiled at her King. She had sheathed her sword, and was looking around at the people around her with all four eyes. Some had already recognized her, and the people calling her name sounded almost as exuberant as when they’d shouted for Flos.
“Gazi the Omniscient has returned!”
She stopped and bowed her head politely to Flos. He grinned at her.
“I should have known you would spot me going, even without your main eye.”
“I suppose I should only be relieved that Orthenon and Mars didn’t notice and drag me back as well.”
Flos glanced towards the sky, where the sun was already rising. He grimaced.
“Then again, I’m sure they will have noticed by now. I don’t suppose you told them?”
“Orthenon would have found out soon enough. He’s coming with an army, by the way.”
Flos’ shoulders sagged.
Gazi only smiled and pointed south in reply.
Venith saw the army and the two riding at its head. He called an immediate halt to his men. They formed up, looking frightened.
Orthenon rode at the head of an army of mounted warriors. There were only around four hundred of them, all wearing mismatched armor, but they vastly outnumbered Venith’s force.
“Hold. They won’t attack.”
Or so Venith prayed. He spurred his horse towards Orthenon, wincing with every step his mount took.
He called out as the man approached. Orthenon did not immediately reply. He was holding a spear, two metal hafts sticking out just below the shaft. He rode fast and hard at Venith, and the man slowed. Venith’s hand grabbed his shield, as much out of reflex as conscious thought.
Orthenon raised his spear. Venith’s arm moved up and he raised his shield overhead as his soldiers cried out.
The winged spear flashed down and crashed into Venith’s raised shield. The impact rang throughout Venith’s body and sent him tumbling off his saddle. Orthenon raised his spear and regarded the head, which had deformed from the impact. He tossed it to one side and Venith braced himself for the man to draw his sword. But Orthenon simply nodded calmly down at Venith as he lay on the ground.
He rode past the man as Venith struggled to his feet. Mars stared down at Venith and then rode past him without a word, sitting awkwardly on her mount. He was getting to his feet when she kicked him in the back.
Afterwards, Trey found he didn’t know how they got back to Reim. There was only the procession of joyous people, singing and shouting Flos’ name. He was riding with Flos in front as the King spoke to Maresar and Gazi, rubbing his cheek. And then there was the meeting with Orthenon and Mars.
The man rode towards Flos at a gallop, hundreds of mounted warriors following him. At a distance a huge scowl was visible on his face. It only grew larger as he got closer.
When he was in earshot, Orthenon began shouting.
“Do you have any idea how recklessly dangerous that was? I have [Scouts] and [Riders] searching in every direction still. We feared you were kidnapped. And you, Gazi! How could you not tell us where our King had gone? Do you have any idea what will happen after word of this spreads? Where are we supposed to shelter these people? Their homes are here. How are we supposed to—”
Flos interrupted his [Steward] calmly. Orthenon stopped, breathing hard. Flos half-turned in his saddle. He waved his arms at the cheering villagers, Maresar’s soldiers, and then expanded that wave to take in the army accompanying Orthenon. Flos nodded at it all.
“Take care of it.”
He paused, and then looked at Orthenon again.
He passed by the man and rode on. Trey could hear him calling out.
“Mars! Look who has decided to join us! Did you meet Venith on the road?”
He didn’t hear Mars’ shouted reply. Trey rode past Orthenon and saw the man staring at the mess behind Flos. And then…it was just for a second, but Trey could have sworn he saw Orthenon smile.
And at midday, when he was about to fall asleep, Trey found Flos. The King was sitting in his room, cheek no longer red, hand healed. He didn’t look as tired as Trey, but he was a bit less energetic in greeting the boy.
“Trey. Is there no Teres today?”
“No si—your ma—Flos. She’s asleep.”
“A wise decision. I would sleep, but Orthenon insists on keeping me awake.”
Flos glanced regretfully towards his bed. He shook his head and looked at Trey.
“But you have no [Steward]. Why are you awake?”
“I don’t know.”
Trey didn’t know why he was bothering Flos, for all the King clearly enjoyed it. He hesitated.
“Is—is that Venith going to come back and try to kill you again?”
Flos raised his eyebrows, looking mildly surprised.
“Him? I doubt it. As Orthenon told me countless times, it was foolish to leave my city without an escort. Venith has not the men to challenge me if I go forth with proper protection. More to the point, Lady Maresar is now with me, and I doubt he would try to take up arms against his wife.”
“But he did try to kill you.”
“Yes. I suppose he did.”
Flos stared at his hand, now free of blood. He smiled as he flexed it.
“But that is the thing about Venith. He has tried to kill me once before, did you know? When we first met. Yet he did it so poorly then, and so poorly now, I wonder if that was ever his intention.”
“What do you mean?”
“He could have attacked with his soldiers. Or shot me from afar. Or simply alerted any number of my enemies that I was in Manimar alone and defenseless. I can think of a few enemies – the Emperor of Sands for one – who might use a teleportation spell to send an assassin after me without a second thought. But he did not. He challenged me to a duel.”
“To test you?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps because he had to be the one who struck me. I confess that I do not know. But I am glad to have heard his fury.”
“Even though he hit you?”
“I deserve it, don’t you agree? My face will not be marred by a single blow, although a few of Lady Maresar’s slaps might do the trick.”
Flos laughed. He stared pensively at the wall, his eyes going down to a blank spot on his dresser. Trey saw there was nothing there as well. No head. He wondered if Flos had buried it yet.
The King sighed.
“It is an odd thing, Trey. I went to Manimar unsure whether I would be forgiven for my failure. And yet now all I can dwell on is a single vassal of mine.”
He spread his hands as he sat on his bed, motioning Trey to join him. Trey did, almost too afraid to sit properly. Flos loomed above him, as big as the room itself. But tired. He only looked tired in here, nowhere else. And only when Trey and Teres could see him.
“I wronged him, Trey. I committed the gravest sin a [King] could make. He is right to be furious. If he never forgave me I could not speak a word of protest and be justified in it. And yet, I would give much to have him back.”
Trey cleared his throat awkwardly.
“I understand that.”
“You do? Good. Today was a victory, if there were winners or losers to be counted. But it is not the same, Trey. Not the same.”
“As before. Perhaps it was simply that I was young and did not see the cost in everything I did back then. But today my triumph is bittersweet.”
“I get that, too.”
“Really now? What is so lacking for you, Trey?”
“I—well, it’s nothing.”
Trey wished he hadn’t opened his mouth. But now Flos was staring at him, and Trey unwillingly continued.
“It’s just…today, well, yesterday I mean, Teres did a lot of good things. She yelled at you, threw that rock at Venith’s son when he tried to kill you—”
“Ah yes. She was brave.”
Trey nodded. He felt proud of his sister. But…
“But I didn’t do much, really.”
“Ah. Are you jealous of your sister?”
“No! Maybe. I’m not jealous. I just wish I could have done something useful too. But it’s always like this. Teres is always the braver one. She always does stuff first. I…don’t.”
He didn’t know why he was confiding in a King of all people. But there was something in the way Flos looked at him that told Trey he did understand.
“You know Trey, when I heard my subjects speaking in the dining hall, I was surprised to hear they considered both you and Teres worthless.”
It took Trey a minute to remember. It felt like an age ago.
“Well, we are, aren’t we?”
“Not so. You come from another world. From another world.”
“But we don’t know much. We don’t know how to make guns or how electricity is made or…anything.”
“And yet, it is the two of you who woke me from my slumber. Where all my vassals and time itself could not do so. What is that, if not worth?”
Flos placed a gentle hand on Trey’s shoulder. The young man looked up at him, and saw a smile.
“Shall I tell you something interesting, Trey? Something not even Gazi knows?”
“When I was a young man, no one thought I would become anything special either. I was a low-level [Prince] of a tiny kingdom. My father had little time for me, and my subjects only thought of me as royalty, not someone to inspire them. Only my mother had faith I would be successful.”
“Truthfully, she was disappointed when I took up the sword. She always had hopes I would pursue other paths. Like poetry.”
“Oh yes. She thought I was a wonderful poet, despite my only ability being a small gift at rhyming. Let me see.”
Flos thought for a moment, and then spoke softly.
“One last time let the forges roar.
Let hammers sing and bellows cry
And let voices split the very sky.
The King is awoke, the land awake
Now let us all an ending make.
So one last time the forges roar
And once all is over, nevermore.”
Trey stared at him. Flos shrugged.
“It’s not good. But I could make such simple poems for my mother at will. It made her smile. The trouble is, such a talent is largely useless. I am a King who leads his people. What use is rhyming and pretty words as a talent? I failed my people. Would that I had a stronger spirit, they would have been better served. But now here I stand with sword in hand, the mark of my folly upon this land…”
He broke off, grimaced.
“You see? It is a terrible thing. And it comes upon me more the longer I think of it.”
Trey grinned and ducked his head. Flos smiled, and then stared pensively back at the wall.
“You may not see your worth, Trey. But I promise you, it is there. In you and Teres both. You two are not the same; it is folly to compare your actions, even for twins.”
“But we’re supposed to serve you. Shouldn’t we be…good enough?”
Flos laughed. It was a genuine sound, honest and pure.
“You woke me from my slumber, Trey. There is nothing more worthy in the world than that. And as for the rest…if you doubt yourself, keep following my back. Watch me, Trey. Come with me as I learn to be King again. And one day, you will be worthy of standing by my side.”
He clapped a hand on Trey’s shoulder and rose.
“Today was a start. I failed again, but I also succeeded. One village has come back to me. One small village, but it is part of me, Trey. This kingdom is my heart. Its people are my blood. Now it beats faster. Faster. Not with rage or sorrow, but excitement at last. I had awoken, but I did not remember what it was to be King. Now I am remembering.”
He stood, and strode towards the window. Trey followed him. Flos stared out across the empty landscape and smiled. Below him a city moved with people. It was still largely in ruins, still far emptier than it should be, but there was life down there. Growing.
“It is time to do what I should have done from the beginning. It is time to act, to lead them. Not as a man or memory. But as a [King].”
Flos smiled. He turned to Trey.
“Now, I believe I shall take a nap. If Orthenon comes looking for me, I’ll throw him out a window.”
And he grinned at Trey, looking like a young man wearing an adult’s face. And Trey looked into Flos’ eyes and laughed.