Trey was sitting in the banquet hall with Teres, trying to explain what a shortcake was to an interested audience of servants and a harried [Cook] when Gazi found him. The half-Gazer strode through the crowd and jerked her thumb.
It was indicative of her personality that no one asked questions. Trey and Teres were following Gazi out of the banquet hall in an instant.
“Why are we—”
Gazi’s head turned and she cut Teres off with an answer.
“A messenger has come for my lord Flos. He desires you to hear what is being said.”
The world precipitated a crash of broken pottery. A woman who’d been carrying a load of dirty dishes dropped them when she heard the word. Gazi glanced at her and the woman immediately bowed.
Trey said it faintly. War? Now? Of course, Flos was the King of Destruction, but—
“It will be war.”
One of Gazi’s eyes turned to follow the servant as she bent to pick up the broken shards. She didn’t say anything, but Trey would have bet his eyeteeth—since he didn’t have any actual money—that the woman would be telling everyone in earshot as soon as she was out of sight. And Gazi probably new that, but she walked on.
As it turned out, war had already been declared by the time the twins and Gazi reached the throne room. They entered to hear shouting, and saw a young man wearing leather armor, covered in a thin layer of dust and sweat, shouting at Flos.
“—will not kneel to you! Hellios has risen, and our soldiers are marching towards this city at this very moment!”
Flos sat on his throne, flanked by Orthenon and Mars as he stared down at the messenger.
“So Queen Calliope desires war?”
The young man’s eyes blazed up at Flos. He didn’t seem to notice the twins as they edged around the room, nor Gazi as she strode up to the throne and took a place next to Orthenon.
“You know she does. Her hatred of you burns no less brightly than my own, King Flos of Reim. You killed my father, and for that you will answer at last.”
His father. Trey looked at the young man. Was he a [Prince]? Certainly, Flos seemed to be treating him like one, to let him yell at him in front of his vassals. But why had a [Prince] come himself? He certainly wasn’t attired like one, and he looked like he’d been on the road for hours, if not days.
“That I killed King Treland is reason enough to hate. But I would have thought your mother had more sense. She knows what war brings. She has seen it once. I doubt she would be foolish to wish for it again.”
His words made the young prince flush with fury.
“We have held our peace because you slept, in cowardice. But now that you are awake, it is war, Flos of Reim!”
“And why were you sent? Did your mother fear I would slay her messenger?”
“I took his place. I had to see the truth of it myself, that you were awake. I wanted to lay eyes on my father’s killer myself.”
The young man’s eyes burned as he put his hand on the sword at his waist. No one moved, despite the threat. Orthenon stared coldly down at the prince, Mars with intensity, watching his hands. Gazi looked bored; only one eye was one him. Two were for her King and one—
Trey shuddered. One was watching him and Teres. Watching them react to the prince.
“Tell me your name, bold son of Calliope. You have not given it. If I am to be at war with the kingdom of Hellios, I would know who brings such tidings.”
“I am [Prince] Siyal of Hellios. And I swear to you, King Flos, that I will have vengeance for—”
“Your father. Yes, I heard.”
Flos sighed. He stared down at Siyal with an expression Trey and Teres hadn’t seen on him before. It wasn’t anger. It was more like grim intensity. It was a very kingly expression in that sense, but there was something else in the way he looked at Siyal.
“So you seek my head as a matter of vengeance. You would not be the first, nor the last. But why for Treland? He was not worthy of it. Far better to come after me for those countless thousands I slew, or your shattered kingdom. Why waste hatred for the death of a worthless king, even if he was a father?”
“How dare you.”
Siyal’s eyes blazed and he actually unsheathed his sword a fraction. At once, Orthenon and Mars both reached for their sword hilts. The prince halted, eying both of them.
“I did not come here to bare my blade, King Flos. But one more word of insult and I will shed my blood, regardless of the odds!”
“I hear your words, Siyal. But what I said was no insult. It was the truth.”
Flos cut off Siyal as the young man looked as if he might truly rush the throne. He stood up and stared down at the young man.
“You think your father was a man worth avenging? He was not.”
The King of Destruction raised his voice over the young man’s voice.
“Silence! He. Was. Not. Because I am a [King], know that I speak the truth. Your father was no hero, no great ruler, boy. He was a fool and a monster. You have a King’s word on that.”
It was amazing, Trey thought, that Siyal could shout that at Flos, much less to his face. A King’s word…but Flos didn’t grow angry. He just stared Siyal down, and the [Prince] lost a bit of his bravado in the silence that followed.
“I will not lie, even for the fallen. That your father died does not change the nature of his sin. Neither did his Class. He treated his subjects like animals—no, worse than that.”
“He was a [King]! He deserved an honorable death, not an execution on the battlefield! How he ruled was no business of yours!”
“His people cried out for justice. They came to me, begging for protection, to bring down a king that cared more for his own wealth and that of his friends than his people. Is that the man you admire, Siyal? Or did your mother never tell you of his failures, only my crimes? I went to war for the thousands who died under his rule, not to steal land of wealth.”
Siyal’s face had gone pale as Flos spoke. He pointed a shaking finger at Flos.
“I will not listen to your lies. You are no worthy [King]. You dare to talk of a [King]’s duties when you abandoned your own kingdom? You—you have no right to speak of my father to me.”
Flos stared down at Siyal, that same cold disappointment in his expression. He shook his head slowly.
“You and I use the truth like blades. But I have the courage to face it. My failure and who I am does not change reality. Your father—”
Siyal did draw his blade, then. And Orthenon and Mars did the same. They leapt off the throne’s dais, surrounding Siyal from both ends. He whirled to face them, face pale but jaw set.
“Orthenon. Mars. Enough.”
Flos stopped his vassals with one hand. He looked down at the [Prince] as Orthenon and Mars stepped back, sheathing their blades.
“You are fearless, Prince Siyal. Just like your father. But it takes more than courage to make a man. But at least you have that. Your father had neither.”
It was cruel. Flos’ words were harsh and cutting, and Trey saw the marks they left on Siyal. They cut deep, because Trey knew they were true. There was something in Flos’ voice, the way he spoke that made the truth self-evident. And some part of Siyal knew it.
The prince sheathed his sword. Tears stood out in the corners of his eyes as he glared up at Flos. His voice was rough, but steady.
“You have heard my message. Hellios declares war with Reim. My duty here is done. When we next meet, it will be under banner, bearing arms.”
He pointed at Flos.
“I will find you on the battlefield. I will hunt you down and claim your head with my sword.”
The King didn’t blink.
“I shall try to spare the effort to pick your face out from the legions of my enemies.”
He lifted a hand in dismissal. Siyal turned and stormed from the room, face crimson. All that time he had not glanced once at the twins. They were beneath his notice.
The two double doors closed behind Prince Siyal of Hellios, and Flos sat down slowly upon his throne. Only then did Mars and Orthenon turn to face him. After a second, Gazi stepped down and joined them.
And then Trey saw the curtains near one of the balconies move. He stared as Lady Maresar pushed them back. She calmly walked over to the others, putting an arrow back in the quiver at her side as she did.
Flos glanced at Maresar, at Gazi, and then the twins as they hesitantly came to stand before his throne. He smiled a bit at them, wearily.
“And so it begins.”
This time Trey said the word and felt a chill. It was strange. One person said it, and suddenly it was true. He glanced at the doors Siyal had left through.
“Was he really a [Prince]?”
Everyone in the room except for Teres nodded at once. Mars grinned as she tapped her chin.
“Did you see the way he kept it raised the entire time he was talking? The royals have a way of talking and standing that just screams their class. It makes you want to trip them whenever they walk past.”
Orthenon frowned at Mars before turning to Trey.
“I am surprised he came alone, but yes, that was [Prince] Siyal. Doubtless he must have come here against his mother’s wishes.”
“Calliope knows I would not stoop to ransoming her son.”
Flos looked mildly annoyed by the implication. Orthenon bowed to him.
“Of course. But the roads are not safe, my King. He must have rushed here.”
“I saw his horse as he rode in. It looked dead. That fool probably rode it at a gallop all the way here.”
Maresar’s lip curled and Flos shook his head. He sat with his straight against his throne, staring at the ceiling.
“Yet his message was plain, and perhaps warranted such actions, at least in his mind. War.”
“It has come at last.”
Gazi’s eyes glittered with excitement. Orthenon and Mars nodded, and both looked…eager. It wasn’t a thought Trey would have associated with war, not in his world. But there was a spark of that in Maresar’s eyes, and when Flos looked down—
Trey could see it there too. That awful glimmer, that silent spark of terrible things. Terrible, glorious things.
When he said it, Trey got goose bumps again. Only this time, Flos did not seize his sword and rush out of the room. Instead, he sighed.
“We have much to do.”
He looked at his steward.
“Orthenon, appraise me as we walk. Mars, spread the word. Lady Maresar, if you will send messengers to the furthest villages? We must ready my subjects to retreat behind the city’s walls at once. Gazi, be watchful as always. And you, Trey, Teres…”
He turned and the twins tensed with anticipation. Flos smiled.
“You have seen my kingdom in decay, at peace, such as it is. Now see it’s true heart. We prepare for war, at last. It is time to break my long slumber, my endless fast.”
He paused, and only Trey noticed the slight rolling of his eyes, and the look of chagrin on Flos’ face. He turned.
And they did.
To Trey’s surprise, the rest of the day was not filled with people running about and general confusion. Oh, some people moved faster than normal, but Flos walked down his corridors at the same pace as always, and took time to greet the people he met as usual.
He had an explanation when Trey asked.
“War has been declared. But though Hellios is far closer than the lands of the Emperor of Sands, an army will not appear on my doorstep tomorrow. Or the day after, for that matter.”
“That is the convenience of a formal declaration of war.”
Orthenon nodded as he stepped out of a cluster of servants and messenger. He was the one working hardest, and Trey and Teres got to see exactly what going to war meant you had to do.
The first and most important thing was to make sure everyone knew there was a war going on. It wasn’t as if everyone had a telephone—or a [Mage] capable to receiving a [Message] spell. Within the hour, people on horseback were racing to all parts of the kingdom, bearing the news of war.
But that didn’t mean people were about to come rushing towards the castle with swords in hand, ready to fight, either. It did mean they harvested any food available, and made preparations to leave their villages and towns at once if an army came their way.
“You see, Teres, Trey, an enemy army will strip the countryside. Even if an army does not attack civilians—and there are many which would slaughter any of my subjects they came across—they will destroy villages and kill by their simple passing. Once we know from which direction the army approaches, we will begin evacuating those in need.”
Flos told them this in between readying his capital for war. There was so much to do he was giving Orthenon a hand in organizing. The walls had to be inspected, soldiers manned and watchful at all times, and gear had to be distributed. Not everyone walked around ready for battle like Mars—most people found wearing anything heavier than cloth fairly tiring, let alone plate armor or chainmail.
And not everyone got that, either. Helmets were in short supply, armor needed patching, some weapons could use a whetstone, while others had a broken haft. Potions needed distributing, pack horses and other animals found to haul all of the army’s supplies and equipment—the list went on and on. It wasn’t as if Orthenon and Flos had been neglecting doing any of this, but they’d had an entire kingdom to get working again. Now, all of these preparation were the first order of business.
Amid all of the busy work, Trey felt like the most useless lump. He could only watch as Flos strode around, taking care of matters that Trey wouldn’t have thought to address. At least Teres could say she was helping a bit—she scribbled down notes for Orthenon as he assessed the number of soldiers they had, how many saddles were in working repair, and so on.
Not so for Flos and Trey. The King of Destruction didn’t use lists, and he didn’t need another person to run messages for him. He told Trey that he just needed him to watch what he was doing. So Trey did.
He watched as the second declaration of war reached Flos in the throne room. And then the third. And the fourth.
This time the messengers came together. Two delegations of armed soldiers approached the gates and demanded entry. The bulk of the soldiers remained at the gate, watched warily by soldiers from the walls, as a smaller delegation entered the throne room.
One man came alone, sweeping into the room with a bow towards the throne, his silk robes swirling around him as he approached the throne and then bowed again. The second man marched in with four warriors at his back, a scroll of parchment sealed with wax in his hands.
“I take it you two come for the same reason?”
Flos sat on his throne, staring down at the two unalike messengers. It was the man in robes who spoke first.
“Your Majesty, I come bearing word from my home country of Gemira. I am humbly [Ambassador] Illius, authorized to speak for the Quarass on matters of state.”
Flos nodded at the man as Trey stared at Ambassador Illius. He sounded like a complete ponce. That was, until Trey realized he probably was all the things he said. So…just weird.
“What does the Quarass will, Ambassador Illius?”
Flos knew. Everyone in the room knew. But somehow, the good ambassador managed to stretch a single statement into multiple sentences.
“The Quarass has determined that a state of war exists between our two nations. Having searched for an alternative, she has concluded that none may be found save by arms. We declare war upon the nation of Reim and I am tasked with ensuring this messages reaches his Majesty Flos so that an understanding is reached.”
Flos nodded as Trey rubbed at his ears and Mars yawned. The King turned to the man standing stiffly next to Illius.
“And do you come with the same tidings, messenger?”
“Your Majesty, it is not for me to say. I am enstrusted with this letter, and may not return until I have seen it to your hands.”
The man stepped forwards, offering the scroll. Not directly to Flos, but to Orthenon, who came down to receive it. Only after the steward had checked the scroll—for dangerous magic or poison, perhaps—did he deliver to Flos.
The King broke the seal and read from the scroll as everyone in the room waited. It took him only a few seconds, mainly because Trey saw his eyes skimming down the very long scroll all the way to the bottom. Then he rolled it up and nodded. He said one word.
The ambassador and messenger both bowed their heads. Flos looked down on them. Trey was practically eating his fingers. Three nations had declared war? Three? But the King of Destruction looked as if he’d expected nothing less.
“I have read your senate’s declaration of war, messenger of Xar. And I have heard your words, Ambassador Illius. You may go.”
Apparently, all of Flos’ vassals and Flos himself had known more nations would be declaring war. And apparently, Teres had figured it out as well, which meant only Trey was caught off guard.
“Well it makes sense, don’t it?”
She explained it to Trey when he pulled her aside—for what Trey had assumed to be a mutual freak out, but which became a stern lecture. Teres frowned at Trey as if not predicting war was a fault.
“You heard how scary Flos is supposed to be, didn’t you? Even if they think he’s just woke up, no one nation is going to pick a fight. It’s probably a lot of them that decided to gang up.”
Just how many was a surprise to both of the twins, though. Because not an hour after the two delegates had left, another declaration of war came to Reim. This one came in a box, and it was delivered by a [Runner].
In fact, it took a while to get to Flos. A servant came with it as Flos was walking around his city with Orthenon, making sure there were no glaring gaps in the wall. Only when Orthenon had spoken with the man did the small box reach the King.
“Is it another declaration of war?”
“I believe so, my King.”
Flos sighed. He eyed the package.
“I think I know which nation this one comes from. Elmvettelashar. Or whatever the name is.”
Orthenon shook his head at Flos’ incorrect pronunciation as the King took the package and began to unwrap it. It was tied with a bit of twine, and the package itself was a cheap wood box, hardly fit for a King. Trey edged away from the box nervously.
“What about traps? What if there’s a b—poison or something?”
Flos shook his head.
“This came through the Runner’s Guild. They do not allow such deliveries. It would ruin their neutrality. And this is a declaration of war, I am sure of it, as is Orthenon. Less formal perhaps, but cheaper. Let us see what they have—ah.”
Flos’ hands had unwrapped the parcel. Trey recoiled and Teres clapped a hand over her mouth when they saw—and smelled—what was inside.
The King’s face didn’t change as he showed the contents of the box to Ortheon. The steward stared with disgust at the slightly rotted heart in the box. Flos handed it to him and Orthenon immediately handed it to a servant with orders to burn the box and everything in it. Only then did Flos notice Trey and Teres’ pale faces.
“It’s not a human heart. I think it’s probably a goat’s.”
Teres was able to ask the question. Trey felt if he opened his mouth something else would come pouring out.
“Ah. It’s an ancient tradition. This is the way the people of Elmvett declare war. In the past they would have used a real heart, but this is probably more convenient.”
The King waved away the smell and the twin had to go sit down for a bit. That was the fourth declaration of war. The fifth and sixth arrived the next day. But before Trey heard them, the first assassin was discovered in the castle.
Trey awoke the next morning to a scream. He rushed out of his room, and Teres ran out after him with the sword Orthenon had given her. They followed the raised voice and people running and found Gazi.
She was kneeling over the body of a child.
Her sword was drawn, and there was blood on it. Trey knew what had happened, but he didn’t want to know. He stared at Gazi with dull horror beating in his chest.
She straightened, after wiping her sword on the dead child’s clothing. She turned and paused when she saw Trey and Teres staring at her. But then her head turned. She bowed as Flos strode towards her down the corridor.
The King stopped when he saw the body. He stared at Gazi, and Trey saw his face pale. He knelt by the small corpse and the pooling blood. She had raven hair. It was a she. Flos gazed down at the child and then up at Gazi. He sighed, and it was as if part of his heart left with it.
“Ah, Gazi. Did she have to die?”
The half-Gazer bowed her head. Then she produced something and held it out carefully to Flos. He took it.
It was a dagger, coated with something dark and brown on the tips. Flos didn’t touch it. He only stared at the dagger and then dropped it.
Maresar spoke softly behind Trey and Teres. They turned to her. She had an arrow nocked as she stared at the child’s body. There was no sorrow there, just concentration.
There was on Orthenon’s face, and Mars. They came at a run, Orthenon first, Mars slower, running with sword and shield in hand, wearing her plate armor as always. Mars turned away from the body and Orthenon sheathed his sword harder than necessary. Flos stared at the crowd of servants and soldiers, and then at the twins.
Neither one of them could look at the body. But they couldn’t look away. Trey stared at Gazi. And then at the child.
Flos looked at Gazi. She answered softly. As if by reflex, she smiled as she spoke, that same, damned smile that Trey hated so much. It wasn’t a smile. It was a grin. Something devoid of actual emotion.
“A group of refugees arrived last night. They claimed to have been driven from their village by soldiers. They had marched for days. Some died. They were all starving.”
Orthenon rubbed at his face.
“I heard the report. I ordered them fed and given a place to sleep. And this child—”
Gazi turned to him, looking vaguely surprised.
“You knew they would send assassins the moment my lord woke.”
He didn’t reply. He just stared at the body and turned away. Orthenon walked down the corridor as Flos stood. He stared down at the child’s body and then looked at Gazi.
“I ask much of you.”
He did not say thank you, or that it was a job well done. If he did, Trey thought Teres would have attacked him with the sword in her hands. He did not know what he would have done. Gazi nodded once. Then she turned. She sheathed her sword and began to walk in the other direction down the corridor.
Someone covered the child’s body with a cloth. Someone else carefully picked up the dagger and wrapped it in several layers so the deadly poisoned edge was not visible. Flos walked towards the twins. They stared at him.
This was the feeling Trey remembered. This was it, pure and raw and sudden, cutting through the vague acceptance of this world, all the time he’d had to adjust to a new reality. Suddenly, he truly was a stranger in a strange land.
Until he remembered they did this very thing where he came from too. Not at home, but in his world.
Flos looked into his face. The King was silent for a while. Then he spoke.
“Some nations use assassins, Trey, Teres. This reeks of Germina. Ambassador Illius’ people train such killers and the Quarass…she would do this.”
That was all he said. He turned away and began walking towards his throne room. It took a long time before Trey and Teres moved. And when they did, they stumbled. They walked along the stone corridors, hearing the hushed voice and knew they did not belong. They did not want to belong.
Not here. And Trey remembered Gazi’s smile.
And he hated her for it.
There were more shadows in the throne room that day. Flos sat heavily on his throne, and he did not smile. The fifth declaration of war reached him as Orthenon was speaking quietly.
“War with Ultea. A rider rode up to the gates and shouted it.”
Orthenon relayed the message, a look of disgust on his face.
“Barbarians. They didn’t confirm it was a true messenger from their nation. Anyone could have claimed the same.”
Flos was in no mood to debate the issue. He clenched one hand as he sat on his throne, looking as though he would have rather drawn the sword at his side instead. It was another plain sword from his armory. Not enchanted.
Not like Gazi’s.
“It is enough that I hear war declared, Orthenon. When we see their banners marching, we will know the truth.”
The steward nodded. Flos turned towards the twins, standing like ghosts. His voice softened, but he did speak to them of war.
“It is not like your world. There are no signed treaties, at least, none that require my signature. Some nations do send formal missives, but many are like Ultea and use action, not words. Other nations are subtler, but some do not bother with declarations at all.”
The twins made no reply.
The sixth declaration was the most dramatic of all, and if it hadn’t been for Orthenon and Flos, Trey and Teres would never have spotted it. The King was walking out of his palace when he uttered an oath and stared up. Orthenon stared up and the twins barely saw a flaming arrow before it struck the wall of Flos’ palace. It did not shatter, but rather dropped downwards, out of sight.
Flos strode to the battlements. Trey and Teres saw a rider with a bow in hand. They had shot the arrow at the walls. A banner—dark blue, emblazoned with a white bird clutching a second flaming arrow in its talons—flapped wildly, attached to the horse’s saddle.
The meaning was clear. War, from a sixth nation. By this point Trey was numb to it.
Flos stared at the rider, hands gripping the battlements tightly. He turned his head towards his steward.
“Orthenon. If that arrow struck one of my subjects, catch that rider and kill her.”
The man nodded and strode away. Trey stared at Flos. The King’s eyes followed the rider until she had vanished. She was allowed to go; no one had been harmed by the arrow as it fell to earth.
Twenty minutes later, Flos was in the war room with all of his vassals, including Lady Maresar and the twins. He sat on a large chair clearly meant for him, staring darkly at his steward as the man spoke.
“Ultea, Oblinat, Xar, Gemira, Hellios, and Elmvett have all declared war against us now, my King. It is safe to assume they have formed a coalition and will send an army of combined forces to assault the city. I have received reports that most of the armies are on the march already.”
Trey felt a cold pit in his stomach, but Flos just nodded as if that was inconsequential. Trey couldn’t help but keep glancing left, to where Gazi stood with arms folded in one corner of the war room. No one was standing with her. Teres was deliberately sitting with her back to the half-Gazer.
Now one of Gazi’s eyes turned towards Trey. He looked away quickly.
“Will any more declarations arrive?”
“Doubtful, my King. These are all the ones I had predicted.”
Orthenon stared grimly at the map of Chandrar as Flos stood up and paced back and forth in front of the table. He turned to Orthenon.
“After yesterday, how many soldiers do we have in our army?”
Orthenon paused. He looked at Teres, and she was the one who answered.
“Just over six thousand soldiers. Six thousand two hundred and fifty…six.”
“Six thousand soldiers. A fine number, all things considered.”
“But very small.”
Mars mumbled that. She was playing with a dagger in her gauntleted hands. She hadn’t spoken much before this; Trey hadn’t seen her around the castle as Flos and Orthenon were moving about. Orthenon eyed her and nodded shortly.
“We will have more. Possibly as many as two thousand from the refugees headed towards the city. Not all will be raw recruits either; there may be a good handful of veteran warriors among their number.”
“Continue adding them to the ranks of our army as needed, Orthenon. But will it be enough?”
“I do not know, my lord. I can only work off of rough estimates of each nation’s strengths, but from what scouts and fleeing refugees have said, each nation has sent around ten thousand soldiers to do battle.”
Ten thousand soldiers. Trey felt his heart stop for a second. Against six thousand—
Flos nodded. His mouth twisted wryly.
“Ten thousand soldiers used to be an army large enough for any one nation. Not so these days, I suppose.”
“Not to go hunting for the King of Destruction’s head.”
Gazi shifted as all eyes turned towards her. She looked at Orthenon.
“Do you have a total number?”
“One claim puts the army at seventy thousand.”
Someone made a small sound. Trey realized it had been him. Orthenon’s head turned towards Trey and his tone changed, becoming slightly more reassuring. It didn’t work.
“That number is probably highly inaccurate. There may well be over fifty thousand soldiers marching—perhaps as many as eighty thousand depending on whether it was an experienced [Scout] that counted or a [Farmer]. But of that number, a decent portion won’t fight in battle.”
“So? We’re still dead, right?”
Trey didn’t want to be a downer, but he had to speak the blindingly obvious truth when he saw it. Flos drummed his hands on his chair’s armrest as he sat back down.
“[Porters], [Cooks], [Hostlers], and [Healers]…they would account for several thousand depending on the size of each army. Still, Trey is correct that we are largely outnumbered.”
He had to say the situation was hopeless, right? Even if he was the King of Destruction…Trey waited, but Flos just shook his head.
“Putting numbers aside for the moment…Orthenon, based off of your knowledge of the nations that sent these armies, how many high-level warriors are we likely to encounter? Any specialty troops?”
“None that I know of. I would assume they would be obvious if they were included, but it seems that Gemira and Oblinat have declined to commit their most experienced forces.”
“Wise of them.”
Maresar whispered that. Flos nodded. He looked at the twins. He was still explaining. Still explaining, as if this meant…nothing.
“A battle is not decided merely by numbers in this world, Trey, Teres. Nor in yours, I suspect. But aside from the quality of arms and strategy, the existence of high-level warriors and mages can change the course of an entire battle. In fact, the enemy [General] alone can tip the scales between victory and defeat if his level is high enough.”
“So can armies geared towards a certain type of fighting, where all their soldiers have the same kind of class. Highly mobile armies, armies where the most common soldier knows a Tier 2 spell…if we don’t see them here, it is to our advantage.”
Orthenon’s calmness was getting on Trey’s nerves.
“But they have over fifty thousand—”
“Trey. I understand your concerns, but we must appraise our enemy fully before worrying.”
Flos gently patted Trey on the shoulder and let him take his seat. Trey sat, fidgeting on the chair as Flos looked at Ortheon. The steward continued.
“The highest level [General] in the region would be [Duke] Balimar Wulten. I assume he will lead the coalition army.”
“An aristocratic general?”
Orthenon shook his head to Flos’ clear disappointment.
“He gained the [Duke] class from achieving distinction in battle, not at birth. To my knowledge his one main class is [General].”
Flos sighed. He looked at Gazi.
“So. We know there may be as many as eighty thousand, and no outstanding units have been spotted. I hate to ask it of you, Gazi, but you are our highest-level [Scout]…”
She was already ready. Gazi bowed to Flos, eying the position of the army on the map.
“I will appraise their forces and return shortly, my lord.”
She would have strode out there and then, but Flos caught her arm. He stared down at Gazi.
“Go safely, my dear Gazi. Take no risks for me. I cannot bear to lose you too.”
She smiled at him. Smiled in a real way, so happy that it made Trey hurt to see it.
“I will be careful.”
Then she was gone. In lieu of better knowledge, Orthenon declared the meeting adjourned. He began shifting forces along the north east wall in preparation for the battle. And he sent more riders out after Gazi had gone, although not to scout for soldiers.
“There are streams of refugees and villagers flooding the road to the city, my King. They have been forced out of their homes. Not just the ones in your lands—anyone who refuses to renounce you as King has been forced out.”
“Were any killed?”
“Some. But most are allowed to leave unharmed, but without any belongings. They mean to starve us, by forcing you to open your storehouses to feed so many.”
Flos turned away. He stared at the map, and then walked out of the room. Orthenon called out.
“My King? Where are you going?”
“To see these fleeing people for myself. They are frightened, homeless. Because they believed in me. I will go to them. While I do that Orthenon, would you carry out an order?”
“Of course, my King. What is it?”
“Open my storehouses.”
The rest of the day, Trey and Teres stood with Flos as he walked the battlements or descended to the streets, greeting the exhausted people coming to his kingdom.
They came in small groups, some of them. Others arrived in long, winding streams, stumbling towards the gates, footsore, weary. Many had nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some hadn’t eaten in over a day and had to be half-carried inside. But they called out when they saw their King, riding towards them with wagons filled with food.
It was a bad idea to help them. Trey knew that. Teres told him how many storehouses Orthenon had to open and how much was left. And yet, they were Flos’ people and no one in the entire kingdom could have stopped Flos from feeding his subjects or going to them.
They were refugees. People without a home, forced out of their country by war. The very definition of refugees. It surprised Trey, that there would be that kind of people in a fantasy world, a magical one. But that was what made it reality.
Refugees, and dead children. It was too real for Trey.
But still, Flos kept him by his side. And in the evening when the rush of people entering the city had slowed, he took them back to the war room and explained what they were facing.
“It is not a vast army. A large one, yes, but if my kingdom were not wasted from a decade, it would be a poor army to pit against me. As it is, it is the first of many. A test.”
It was incredible to Trey that Flos could say that, given the disparity in numbers. But Flos was adamant the coalition wasn’t as dangerous as the Emperor of Sands, not by a long shot.
“I am weak. Reim is weak. That is why these small nations have a chance of defeating me, and why they had to declare war now. Eighty thousand soldiers is a force to be reckoned with, but I am a [King] of the highest level, and I have two of my Seven here and Orthenon. Normally any army would hesitate to attack with that knowledge.”
“But you’re outnumbered ten to one!”
Teres pointed that out and Flos nodded.
“We are. But six thousand soldiers to hold a wall is not bad. And there are tricks to be used…”
“I’d feel a lot better if you had a few more zeroes on the end of your army. Like three more zeroes.”
Flos had to laugh. He spread his hands over the map as he spoke to the twins.
“Six million? If such an army came towards me I would run long and fast, even if all of my Seven were with me. But sixty thousand is manageable. Perhaps it is a small number to you? The largest of armies I have seen mustered was over four hundred thousand strong. But it is rare that any one army grows to that size; the logistics of feeding and moving so many grows to extreme. No, when my conquest was at its greatest, I had three armies each over a hundred thousand soldiers in size, and many smaller ones led by my vassals. Is that comparable to your world?”
It was, but not exactly favorably. Trey was hazy on the exact number, but he knew over three million men had served in the British army during World War II. When he told that to Flos, the King’s eyes gleamed.
“Armies of soldiers millions strong. Would that I could see that—but I suppose they would not all be deployed along one single battleground for the same reason. In truth, Trey, Teres, there are armies of that size in this world, only no nation fields them. When a Goblin King rises, his army will be at least a million Goblins strong, and countless more will be led by his Goblin Lords.”
“How do you beat that? How do you beat any army that large?”
“With Skills and levels and a good bit of strategy. Do not worry—I do not rely solely on my Seven and Orthenon when declaring this battle winnable. But it is true they tip the odds greatly by themselves.”
Trey just couldn’t imagine that. One person shouldn’t be able to influence an entire battle, even if they were as strong as Flos. But the King seemed to think each one of his vassals was worth thousands of soldiers.
“Thousands? If used correctly, certainly they could kill thousands. In their own way. Amerys could do it directly with lightning magic. Drevish could probably count the soldiers his walls have killed in the tens or hundreds of thousands.”
“Who were they?”
Trey found the courage to ask that question. Flos blinked at him. Trey found his tongue knotting, but went on when Teres nudged him.
“I mean—sorry, but we’ve heard some stories, but no one talks about them. Even Mars and Gazi—people seem to think we should know what they’ve done, but we don’t. What were they like? Mars seems so…normal. Well, sort of. She doesn’t look normal, but—”
Trey yelped as Teres trod on his toe. Flos laughed, but his eyes had turned distant. He went to the map and picked up a small pin with a flag on it.
“What were they like? Ah, Trey. Of all the questions you could ask, that is the hardest. My Seven. You know they were the highest leveled of my vassals, my greatest and most trusted companions?”
Trey and Teres nodded. Trey held his breath as Flos stared down at the map. He seemed older, as he spoke of the past. Older, yet there was a smile on his face when he said there names. And unshed tears in his eyes.
“Mars, Gazi, Takhatres, Drevish, Amerys, Tottenval, and Queravia. Those are the names of my Seven, the heroes who rode with me and shook the world itself.”
Trey hadn’t heard two of those names before. Tottenval and Queravia. He knew they were the two who had died without being told.
Flos went on.
“Not all of them were warriors. Drevish was not, and neither was Tottenval. But they all contributed to my kingdom in some great way. In the past, each of my Seven fulfilled a different purpose. Gazi often rode alone, scouting ahead and behind, safeguarding my kingdom. With her eye and Skills, she slew every [Scout] that sought to the movement of my forces, and killed each [Assassin] or [Spy] that dared lurk within my borders.”
“That’s why you sent her out?”
Flos’ eyes met Teres’. He nodded.
“Other nations feared to commit their forces, because they had no clear image of my forces. Some could use magic, but if they sent a person, that person would die within a fortnight. Gazi was feared for her ability to hunt down anyone and find their deepest secrets. When battle called, she would ambush the enemy, infiltrating the camp and killing a valuable soldier or stealing battle plans. Then she would slip away.”
Trey could imagine Gazi doing just that, with her slight smile. That was why she was always looking. That was how she’d found the child. He shivered.
“Others occupied different roles. Mars is a pure warrior. She would be at the head of every charge, and crush the opposing army’s champion before each battle. She deserved her class. [Vanguard].”
The name made Flos stiffen at first, but then he relaxed. Trey hated to ask. But he wanted to.
“He was an [Architect], right? He built walls, castles, and stuff?”
“More than that. He was one of the three of my Seven who knew magic, Trey. He could enchant a gate so the mightiest battering ram couldn’t break it. He could build a wall overnight with his teams of [Builders], so that an enemy army would be facing a fortified defense when they tried to launch a counterattack. He did not like war. But he was essential. Ah, but I asked too much of him, didn’t I?”
Flos’ head lowered. Trey and Teres exchanged a glance. She was the one who asked the next question.
“What about Orthenon? He’s not one of the Seven, but he’s like them isn’t he?”
“My steward? Yes. He deserves to be placed among them. But he is not one of them. He is my left hand, the one who does what I cannot. So he never achieved the same level of fame during the war that they did.”
Flos smiled ruefully. Trey thought about Orthenon carefully and meticulously plotting the enemy’s movements, just like he took care of everything else.
“Is he the one who led your armies? Like a [General], I mean? Or was that you?”
The King looked first surprised, then amused. And then heartbroken.
“Orthenon? No. He was far too busy managing my kingdom to plan out the movement of armies and lead battles himself. I led my own army of course, but I did not have the skill to plan out the grand movements of each of my armies. No, it was another of my Seven who did that. Who…used to do that.”
His fist tightened on the wood. Trey didn’t want to ask, but Flos continued. He lowered his head and stared at something neither Trey nor Teres could see.
“Her name was Queravia. She was one of my Seven. She and Tottenval died in the war. She led my armies, not Orthenon. It was she who won the fiercest battles in my name, directing soldiers while my other vassals rode forth and fought on the front lines.”
He had to ask it. Trey whispered.
“What was her class?”
The wood on the war room table cracked slightly. Then Flos looked up and smiled. Tears ran down into his beard.
“She was a [Strategist]. The finest in the world.”
His smile slipped.
“Second finest. No. No—she was the greatest of them all!”
He seemed to be arguing with himself. Flos turned his face to Trey, and there was pain in his eyes.
“I did not see her end. But I heard of it. I did not think it was possible that she would ever die. She was my great strategist, Trey. Not just any [Strategist] either—she bet against luck itself. She was a gambler, a [Gambler Strategist]. Before she died she was a [Gambler of Fates]. And she lost her last bet in Baleros.”
There were no more questions after that. Flos wept and the twins left the room, shaken, hearing the past echo around the King of Destruction. They knew him well, after having lived and heard his more secret confidences for a month. And yet, they knew him not at all. They did not know what he had lost.
In the days that followed, things went simply for Trey and Teres. They followed, they watched, they saw streams of refugees fleeing the enemy army, and they heard endless reports about it approaching.
Gazi returned after two days, riding hard, looking tired. But she had come with vital news.
“Sixty-two thousand strong.”
Orthenon bent over the map, looking tired. He had good news for Flos and a lot of bad news.
“There are less mages than we could hope for in their number, and Lady Gazi reports that none of them are of the highest level each nation could offer.”
“They’re being cautious. No one wants to commit all of their best.”
Gazi sat gulping water in a chair. She eyed a plate of biscuits that had been prepared for the meeting in the war room, but didn’t take one. Trey didn’t either; he knew they’d go to people who were actually hungry afterwards.
“Less mages is good news. Without Amerys, we lack any magic users of note. What is the bad news?”
“They’ve brought siege weapons. Even a pair of trebuchets.”
Mars swore. Trey looked around. Flos had to explain.
“Siege weapons are not common for most armies. They are hard to produce, and only rare classes such as [Engineer] can create them. However, they are manageable in battle…”
“But not what we want in a siege.”
Orthenon nodded. He stared out of the window at one of the battlements. Trey knew that the city had a number of high watch towards and decently tall walls, but no trebuchets or catapults of their own.
“Drevish worked on the city, but he only did so once. And that was before we formed an alliance with the Mad Ones. He never installed siege fortifications for defense.”
“And if they had, no doubt they would have rotted away by now. That complicates the issue.”
Flos nodded. He still didn’t look concerned, but perhaps that was because he was a King and couldn’t afford to show weakness. Trey could do that for the both of them. His heart was pounding out of his chest.
“I think we had better rely on the original plan. In which case, we must sortie and meet the army in the field, rather than wait for them to assail us with their siege weapons.”
Orthenon began placing units outside of the city. Flos nodded. Trey, who hadn’t been privy to every discussion stared blankly at the board. Orthenon was taking half of the soldiers out of the city? Three thousand versus sixty thousand sounded a lot worse, and Trey had thought it was impossible to make the odds any more stacked against them.
“In that case, I will take all of our mounted forces, a good number of our highest level foot—a unit of archers under Lady Maresar, and Lady Gazi. Our plan will be aided by some of Gazi’s acquisitions from her adventuring days.”
“Fog arrows. I bought a quiver back when I was going through one of the Walled Cities.”
“Fog arrows? Now that changes things. I assume they’re mine to use?”
Maresar broke into the conversation, looking intrigued. Gazi smiled, and they walked to a corner over to talk with unsettling grins. Trey saw Orthenon glance several times at his King before he cleared his throat.
“This plan will necessitate you staying behind in the city, my King.”
Flos’ brows snapped together.
“And leave you to face that army alone?”
“We cannot execute our plan if you are with us, my King. The coalition army is here for only one reason. Your head. And we must keep the city secure or else lose it while half of our army is in the field.”
“Your plan is dangerous, Orthenon. I cannot sit idly by—I will ride with you. My Skills will make this part of your plan—”
“We need them at a later point, my King! You must wait. You must—”
Flos began arguing hotly with Orthenon. Meanwhile, Trey and Teres stared at the map. Teres nudged Trey.
“What’s the plan?”
“I don’t know! Did they come up with it when we weren’t there?”
“Maybe yesterday? When we went to lunch?”
They were so busy whispering, they didn’t notice Mars coming up behind them. She slung an arm around both twin’s shoulders.
“Hey. You two. Explain the plan to me.”
They stared at her. Mars stared back.
“Come on, you’re always hanging our King.”
“We don’t know.”
“Aw. You two don’t?”
“We know they’re taking half of their forces—the fastest out to fight. Flos—uh, the King will stay here. And Gazi’s got fog arrows.”
“Does she? Okay…that could be useful. But why aren’t we all going out at once?”
“I don’t know. What do you think?”
Mars stared down at the map. Her brows furrowed. She eyed the enemy army, Orthenon’s proposed force. She blinked.
“I don’t get it.”
She’d spoken a bit too loudly. Every head turned towards Mars. She flushed red. Orthenon turned back to Flos and the others as if she hadn’t interrupted.
“You must stay here, my King.”
“I suppose I must, mustn’t I?”
Flos clenched his fists as he stared at the map. He sighed, looking tired.
“Very well, Orthenon. We shall go with your plan. But only if our inspection shows an adequate charge. Understand?”
Orthenon nodded. Then he turned to Mars. She was busy telling the twins about fog arrows, which wasn’t helpful. Because what they did was apparently create fog. Lots of fog.
“Lady Mars, it would be best if you stayed with our King in case more assassins are sent in great numbers. You must guard the city while we are in the field.”
Mars stared incredulously at Orthenon. Trey and Teres stared too. They had been under the impression that Mars was great at fighting—better than Orthenon or Gazi. Mars glared at Orthenon.
“Don’t be an idiot! You need me out there! Against seventy thousand—”
“We need you to guard our King more. This initial part of the plan will work without you, and I will not leave our King without at least one of our number in case the enemy splits their forces.”
Orthenon stared at Mars. Gazi turned and grinned at the [Vanguard].
“And you wouldn’t be able to keep up with us for what we need to do. Sorry.”
Mars argued. She raged. She turned over chairs. But Flos told her she had to stay, and that was that.
And afterwards, when the meeting was over and everyone split up. Mars sat in a chair and sulked. This came as a surprise to Trey, since everyone else was busy. Gazi was scouting the terrain, Maresar was drilling soldiers and Orthenon was managing everything else. Flos was inspecting the battlements, but Mars was sitting where she was. Doing nothing.
Now that he thought about it, Trey hadn’t seen Mars doing anything these last few days either. He asked Orthenon about it as the man strode out of the war room. It was the first time Trey had ever seen the steward’s pained expression as he tried to explain Mars’ role in the kingdom to the young man.
“Mars is…competent. In battle. However, outside of it she is best suited to training and…”
He paused. Orthenon opened is mouth and searched for words. Then he gave up.
“Well, her presence may inspire others. But she is best utilized at this moment sitting and…”
“Not getting in the way.”
Gazi put that in. Maresar nodded as she broke off from them. Trey stared at Flos’ vassals, and then at Flos. The King looked sheepish.
“Of her talents…talent…well, Mars is suited for war, Trey. One part of it. Fighting. At other matters, she is somewhat lacking. But then, if we were all like her…”
He had trouble finishing that thought. In the end, he just took Trey and Teres on a tour of the battlements, inspecting them for Orthenon’s plan. What they were looking at, Trey didn’t know. But Flos was happy to lecture them on the walls.
“They aren’t very tall, you see. Drevish could only work with the existing stone so much, and he had no desire to completely remodel the city.”
“He didn’t? I thought he worked on the city a lot.”
Teres looked at Flos. The King laughed heartily.
“Hah! He spent the least amount of time on Reim than any of his projects! If you compared this city to any of the ones he constructed from scratch, I think he’d have a heart attack. Or try to kill you. Or both. Drevish hated this city. Note how the walls are merely thirty feet high, without any additions to the fortifications? Drevish would never have constructed such mundane defenses.”
“So he didn’t work on the city is what you’re saying.”
Trey’s estimation of their odds of success went down another notch. Flos shook his head.
“He worked on the city, and my palace. But he made only one major improvement. No, you see, Drevish disliked remodeling existing architecture. He was far more of a fan of Drake construction practices than the Chandrarian style on that note. He especially disliked the way the towers are placed, although he did work extensively with them.”
“How do you mean?”
Trey had seen the watch towers. There were sixteen of them, placed at equal distances along the curtain wall. They were very big and could hold a lot of archers on top. Flos pointed to each of them.
“Drevish considered them aesthetically disgusting. See how they jut out? And if you look at the wall, what does it remind you of?”
Trey had to think for only a second.
Flos nodded, smiling at the recollection.
“All that work just to create a crown, which is rather spoiled by the palace in the center. Drevish told me my city was an eyesore that ought to be wiped from the face of the earth. But he did like the height of the towers. He was a fan of what he called self-sufficient architecture, buildings that didn’t need to be protected, that were capable of protecting themselves.”
“Well…these towers would normally carry high-level archers and mages that could rain death upon an enemy. They’re enchanted quite heavily, and Amerys aided in that. But Drevish once made what he called a sniper tower. It was over a hundred feet tall, and so enchanted a trebuchet couldn’t knock it down. He claimed that if you put an archer in there—only one!—they could hold it forever with enough food. There are no entrances leading up, you see, and if they used the cover of the walls, they could shoot down enemy mages and so on.”
“That sounds…really interesting.”
Flos nodded. He stared at one of the towers and sighed, suddenly melancholy.
“He did work hard on this city, for all it was anathema to him. I wish I could say his work has stood the test of time, but six of the towers have worn away over the last decade. Still, I think there is enough to complete Orthenon’s plan. A pity Amerys is not here. She could have restored the enchantments.”
“And just what is the plan?”
Flos just grinned at Trey. He put a finger over his lips.
“Orthenon has bade me not to speak of it in public. But it is a good plan. And it is…appropriate. You see, my city has never been besieged.”
“I was always on the offensive. And by the time other nations formed armies to attack, well, Reim sat at the heart of my empire. My bastion. So I have never had to defend it. This time will be the first. And perhaps—last.”
He patted the wall of one of the watch towers fondly, staring up at the dark peak. Trey felt another lurch of fear in his stomach, but Flos’ eyes were calm. He smiled.
“Yes, but how appropriate it is. Drevish, old friend. Even in death you protect me.”
Then he turned, and strode away. Trey stared up at the towers. They stood tall and black in the night sky.
And then it was time. Trey nearly choked on his food when Orthenon came striding into the banquet hall, dressed for war. He was wearing leather armor and there was a sword at his waist. He strode up to the table where Flos was sitting down to eat for once. The King looked up and pushed his plate back.
“It is time?”
“The army is a day’s march away. We will meet them halfway and begin the plan.”
Orthenon stepped forwards as Flos rose. The [King] and his steward clasped hands. Flos looked Orthenon in the eye.
“Go with my heart, Orthenon. It rides with you. Come back alive. You too, Gazi.”
The half-Gazer was wearing her brown scale armor. She reached up to clasp Flos’ hands. There was a slight smile on Orthenon’s face.
“I would hardly let myself get killed on the first battle since you awoke, my King. We shall return soon enough. Be ready for us.”
“We shall throw open the gates! Ride forth, and remind these foolish nations what it is to challenge me!”
Flos roared and the people in the banquet hall leapt to their feet. Orthenon and Gazi strode out of the hall, Flos and a stream of people following. There was already an army at the gates, mainly mounted warriors on horses. Trey stared at them through a window, and then turned.
Mars was sitting at a table, hunched over, clearly miserable that she had to stay. She met Trey’s eyes and lifted a mug.
“Here’s to not being able to ride a damn horse as fast as those two! And not being able to fight on horseback at all!”
She hurled her mug as Orthenon, Gazi, Lady Maresar, and four thousand of Flos’ soldiers rode out to meet over sixty thousand soldiers in battle.
The minutes after Orthenon had left seemed to drag on like hours to Trey and to Teres. She’d said goodbye to Orthenon at the gates, upon which she’d burst into tears and refused to speak to Trey. She was carrying Orthenon’s sword around—Trey had a steel sword Flos had given him personally. He felt like he shouldn’t have been wearing it, but he was too afraid to take it off.
“Don’t let you mind dwell on it. Orthenon will be riding for hours before he meets the enemy. And it will be later still that we hear any word on whether the plan is succeeding.”
Flos warned the twins. He seemed hardly able to take his own advice. He was pacing around his throne room, unable to sit still. He’d gone to the balcony twice, as if to stare at the distant patch of horizon where Orthenon and Gazi had last been spotted, when someone rushed into the throne room.
It was a servant, one of Orthenon’s aides, panting, almost out of breath. She could barely explain to Flos what was the matter, so he followed her out of the throne room at a run. Trey and Teres caught up outside the palace, at the western gates, to see…
Blood. Staggering bodies. A man without an arm, holding bloody rags that might have been a body. Someone without an eye. A girl with an arrow protruding from her sides.
People were coming through the gates, many wounded. Trey stared in horror at a wailing baby being held by a man who was trying not to let the blood spilling from his arm fall on the child. He wavered and would have fallen, but Flos caught him.
“Get me every [Healer] in the city! Now!”
He shouted as he held a hand over the cut in the man’s arm, stopping the bleeding. The man sagged as Teres took the baby out of his limp arms. He stared up at his King and recognized him. He smiled.
Somewhere between people rushing towards the wounded with bandages and Flos shouting, the news came out. There were more refugees, being herded from other countries. They’d been on the road for days, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of them. But soldiers had ridden down on them in the final stretch. They were cutting everyone they saw apart. Mounted soldiers, maybe only a hundred of them. Maybe a lot more.
It was impossible to tell. They were killing everything. It was just blood and death out there.
Flos stared towards the west, where more groups of shapes were approaching down the road. Trey shakily held a man’s arm with Teres as a [Healer] tried to wind bandages around a cut in his stomach. He was screaming and thrashing, but Flos didn’t turn his head.
“I must go.”
Mars was there, in full armor. She was staring at the refugees with a sick expression on her face. She stared at Flos as he turned.
“Saddle my horse. I am going out there.”
“My lord, you cannot—”
Mars grabbed for Flos’ arm. He stared at her.
“My people are dying out there.”
“There is an army approaching! Send some soldiers—”
“I cannot send a force large enough to catch a hundred mounted riders. But I can rally my people. You know I can, Mars.”
She shook her head, sending her perfect red curls flying.
“Let me go instead! I can do it—”
“You cannot catch a mounted force, Mars! No, I must go. You must stay here and—”
“You must! Someone of high level has to hold these walls. It can only be you.”
“I cannot let you risk your life—”
Trey was holding the wounded man’s arm as tightly as possible. It was that or be thrown off, even with Teres helping him. At some point she shook him, and told him he could let go. Trey realized the shaking had stopped.
The man was dead.
Flos turned to look as Trey got up, shaking, blood on his arms and legs. He looked at Mars, and it was a [King] who spoke next.
“Mars. I must go. Guard the city for me.”
She could not disobey. Trey saw her try. Mars’ mouth opened, and her arms and legs shook. She tried to move as Flos strode away, and then slumped.
He didn’t know why he did it. But Trey ran after Flos, and Teres was there too. They caught him as he was mounting his warhorse. Flos turned to look at them.
“Will you come with me? It is dangerous.”
Trey and Teres didn’t know why they said it. Neither of them were warriors. They hadn’t been trained. But they knew they had to follow. It wasn’t Flos commanding them. It was something in them, something that wanted to follow this King. To see.
Flos didn’t argue. He just called for two more horses and in minutes the twins were mounted. He said only one word.
They rode out of the city at a gallop. Trey thought he heard people screaming Flos’ name, but their voices were left behind in an instant. Then Flos and the twins were riding along the dirt road, passing by people, wounded people, who looked up and saw their King.
It was a trap. Of course it was. The King knew it was. But Nune Salismen knew the King of Destruction would enter the trap. Because that was the nature of [Kings]. That was his nature.
He had studied Flos, learned all there was to know about the man when he had been given his orders by Queen Calliope. So it was with satisfaction that Nune heard out the [Scout]’s report as the rider found his hidden encampment in the hills.
“The King has left his city. He is undefended, save for the fleeing civilians and two children.”
Nune nodded and ordered the camp struck. His men jumped to work with alacrity. They had been waiting for this moment. There was exaltation in Nune’s heart. His plan was working!
But there were fear as well. It was really happening. The King of Destruction would die today. Today. At the hands of a force led by Nune. Nune. Not a [General], but a [Commander]. The King of Destruction would die in an ambush as he rode to save his people from a handful of raiding soldiers.
But it wasn’t a hundred men that Nune had brought. Not even close. He had just under eight hundred soldiers, the largest force he could sneak close to Reim, even with Gazi the Omniscient blinded. Perhaps that might not have been enough, though. Irrational as it was, Nune wondered if a thousand men could slay the King of Destruction. But Nune had another advantage on his side.
He approached the only tent that stood out from the dark grey uniformity of his camp. A bright yellow tent—totally inappropriate for an ambush—housed the one man not directly under Nune’s command. He emerged as Nune waited by the tent flap.
“The King has fallen into your trap?”
“As I said. We are ready to march. My men will cut the route back to Reim off and then we will attack. Are you ready?”
The [Mage] smiled thinly. He had multiple rings to each finger, and he held a glowing staff with a crystal orb floating above the wood shaft. He was the very stereotype of a [Mage], and most would have considered him all show and no substance. But Nune knew the façade was there for that very reason.
“I am grateful for your assistance. Slaying the King might not have been possible without your aid.”
The [Mage] inclined his head, politely accepting Nune’s words.
“It is my honor as well. And my duty. I have a message the Quarass bid me deliver to the King of Destruction.”
Nune paused. This was the first time he’d heard of that.
“What is the message?”
The [Mage] smiled. He tapped the ground with his staff, and the earth shook. Nune stared into two innocuous, watery brown eyes. You would never have thought they were the eyes of a Level 36 [Geomancer].