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“The Quarass is dead. May she live again.”

That was all they said. In the streets, in their homes, staring at armored [Soldiers] with hatred, or dying with blades in hand. That was what was spoken. The people of Germina whispered the words. Then they shouted them. They gathered in the streets.

The Quarass was dead.

They were words which shook the world. At least, the world according to Germina. In fact, most of the other nations had already moved past that news. It was weeks-old, and just one revelation among many.

At the time, yes, the news had rocked the foundations of every nation that had heard it. It had become the topic of every conversation, every bit of gossip and worry and [Generals], [Strategists], and [Rulers] had all gathered to discuss the events surrounding the Quarass’ death. Because she had been killed by none other than Flos Reimarch.

The legendary King of Destruction himself. Slumbering no more. The man who had conquered an entire continent as a boy, then begun a war of conquest that had threatened to engulf the world. He had been stopped—but only by a hair’s breadth by every nation uniting to force his armies back. And, some speculated, had he not gone into his slumber after the death of two of his Seven, his famous generals and leaders, his empire might still be the mightiest in the world.

That was Flos. And he had reawakened. Months ago, the rumors had begun spreading. The quiet, tiny kingdom of Reim, reduced to a single city and a few villages had suddenly revitalized. Somehow, the impoverished people living there were transforming themselves into an army. And then had come the news that had given more than one ruler a sleepless night.

The King of Destruction had awoken. He was forming an army. He was back.

Of course, it had always been a possibility. Flos Reimarch had never died, and never suffered a grievous injury to force him to retreat. He’d simply…stopped. And his kingdom had collapsed into pieces and been claimed by other nations as his armies disbanded or turned traitor, his loyalists fleeing without the benefits of his Skills or leadership. And the King of Destruction had returned to his throne in the city where he had been born and sat no longer on this throne.

It was a mark of how much he had been feared that even decades after his kingdom had vanished that no one dared to attack Reim. Yes, the King of Destruction was slumbering, his people impoverished, his treasuries empty. And yes, even his legendary Seven—now five—were scattered, and only his Steward, Orthenon, known as the King of Destruction’s left hand, still remained.

But though his enemies were legion, no one dared send an army against him to finish Flos Reimarch off for good. Just in case that were to arouse his wrath and reawaken that slumbering monster.

But now he was back. Someone, something had woken him up. And the other nations closest to Reim had done the only thing they could think of: they had declared war and sent a coalition army to take Flos’ head before he could regain his former strength.

They had failed.

It was a story the people of Germina knew. After all, they had sent their sons and daughters off to war. Their country of Germina bordered Reim. And their ruler, the Quarass, had personally desired Flos’ death. So Germina and the Kingdom of Hellios had spearheaded the attack. And Germina had not stopped there; they had sent child-assassins to slay Flos, and a powerful [Geomancer] with an ambush force from Hellios to draw Flos out of his capital and slay him.

Again, they had failed. And though the coalition army had first routed a force led by Gazi and Orthenon, they had discovered it was a trap; upon nearing the capital of Reim, the King of Destruction had unveiled a working of Drevish, one of his Seven, now deceased. The legendary [Architect]’s will had laid the army to waste with lightning hurled from the towers of Reim. And Flos himself had led his army on the counterattack and taken the remains of the coalition army prisoner.

He had ransomed many of the [Soldiers] and surviving officers back to their countries, in accordance with the traditions of war in Chandrar. And also in the same tradition, those that their nations had not bought back became slaves, which he sold to one of the Traders of Roshal, a nation that controlled the slave trade across Chandrar and the rest of the world.

All of this was backdrop, however. The true tragedy had come in the months afterward. Flos Reimarch had not been content with the defeat of the coalition army. Or rather, his wrath had spared the other nations who had taken part and focused solely on two countries. Germina and Hellios. Leading his army from Reim, he had come north. And on the battlefield he had smashed Hellios’ army and the might of Germina in the course of a day. His armies had split, one to occupy a surrendering Hellios.

But he had accepted no quarter from Germina. The King of Destruction led his armies personally into the capital of Germina, the city built around an oasis from which Germina had been founded. Ger. And in its streets he had cut down everyone in his way and ascended the steps to the Palace of the Quarass. And there he had beheaded her.

The Quarass is dead. Let her rise again.

They could all remember the moment Flos had strode down the palace steps, bloody blade in hand. They had not seen her head, but they knew. You could feel the Quarass’ death, feel her Skills protecting her nation pass with her. They had raged against the King of Destruction, then, but his army had filled the city. So they had been forced to choose between subjugation and death.

It might have been surprising how few chose death to an outsider, especially given how beloved the Quarass had been. But that was because outsiders didn’t understand the truth. Now, nearly a month after the Quarass’ passing, as Flos’ armies still occupied much of Ger and the country, keeping order, hope had blossomed on the streets. They whispered it, and gathered in secret.

The Quarass lives.

—-

This was Germina. Hot, arid land, almost desert, defined the nation. Germina, like Reim, was not a land of riches. Chandrar, the continent was not rich. It was arid, which meant heat by day and freezing cold by night in many regions. Some parts were prosperous, but no part of Chandrar was as rich as the jungles of Baleros, overflowing with life, or Terandria or Izril, whose greenery was but a dream for many living in barren parts of Chandrar.

Perhaps only Rhir was harsher, and even then, only because of the Demons. But Chandrarian citizens often claimed parts of Chandrar were worse even than the blighted lands of the Demon King. Toss an army of demons in the great desert and see how many crawled out.

Yes, the desert. Chandrar had several, but the largest was the desert which occupied the center of the continent, effectively cutting off civilization for thousands of miles so that nations had emerged around it, but never flourished inside the unrelenting hell of sands.

As luck would have it, the Kingdom of Germina bordered that desert, situated in the northeastern quadrant of Chandrar. It was one of the kingdoms closest to the desert that bordered it on the west; aside from the damned Khelthans, of course. Reim and Germina were both hard lands to settle and grow anything but the tough Yellats in.

But Ger had been blessed. For it was located on an oasis, a vast reservoir of water that had sustained Germina for thousands of years. The first Quarass had claimed the land, and the Kingdom of Germina had begun millennia ago. It was a Shield Kingdom, one of four remaining, ancient, sometimes waning in power, but never erased. Not even the King of Destruction could do that.

Germina was, of course, landlocked. To the northeast Hellios was a sometimes friendly neighbor, ruled by the current Queen Calliope. There was no [King]—Treland of Hellios had died decades past at Flos’ hands during his first wars of expansion. Calliope was the only ruler of her kingdom, followed by her son, Prince Siyal. Both had been spared death. For now.

The other nations around Germina were likewise small, having reclaimed themselves out of Flos’ empire once he slumbered. They were powers, but not, say, equivalent to the confederation of String People nations to the south, or the richer coastal nations on the south of Chandrar.

To the north, nations like the realm of Belchan which was a parliamentary government who elected a [Minister], and the Republic of Jecrass, who had a [King], ruled. Minor powers, but powers nonetheless. West of Germina was the land of Kheltha, of course, and no one threatened them. They had stayed out of the war with Flos.

None of these nations could by themselves threaten Flos, even with his small army. The King of Destruction was too high-level, and his vassals—Orthenon, the King’s Steward, Gazi the Omniscient, Mars the Illusionist, and Takhatres, Lord of the Skies, were all titans in their own way. The only threat to Reim was if multiple nations united to crush it—a process that Germina’s folk hoped was already underway—or if the Empire of Sands took action.

Of all the nations on Chandrar, the Empire of Sands was the newest. In the decades after Flos had entered his slumber, a new [Emperor] had risen and claimed the western civilizations across the great desert. He had expanded rapidly and his empire was now a major power, if a distant one. But he had set himself as an enemy of Flos, and announced it by sending him the head of one of his Seven. Drevish, the [Architect].

But both nations were too far apart to yet do battle. The desert separated them and while Takhatres had led his tribe to raid the Empire of Sands, no retaliatory force had made the dangerous journey to strike at Reim. The King of Destruction had likewise ground to a stop as spring began; his armies continued to occupy Hellios and Germina, but all three nations were still mortal. They needed to eat, plant crops, and bury the dead.

But now a change had come over the citizens of Ger. The initial shock of the King of Destruction’s army sweeping through the capital in a bloody evening had faded. Their fear and despair had turned to fury. And that seed of hope was growing. So, you could feel it as you walked across the mud-brick streets of Ger, past houses built of the same material.

If you peeked down a street not patrolled by [Soldiers] wearing Reim’s colors, you could see people gathering. Their clothes were light in color and plain; mostly white or grey, the product of wool or other light fabrics for the day. The women dressed in long, flowing dress sometimes banded by color, but often as plain as the long-sleeved clothing worn by men. Both genders kept little of their skin exposed to the sands that could sometimes blow in, scalding and stinging exposed flesh. But Germina was hardly colorless; the people just left it to the buildings.

Pigments. Dyes made of crushed insect shells, or plants, bright and colorful, adorned each house. You couldn’t walk past one building without some motif. Often they complimented each other; it was rare to see a house that clashed. Sometimes the houses were drawn with fanciful motifs, like a bird, or a stylized mythical creature. Other times they were just plain colors, artfully brought together by the owners. But the paints were beautiful and the owners of each building tended to them more than their clothing. After all, they would pass in time, but a home could last for centuries if it was tended to.

Color on the buildings, white clothing. Rebellion on the streets. More than one young man was hiding a knife, or a club unsuccessfully in their clothes. Young women did it too of course, but they were more artful about it. If you passed by some girls with braided hair, you’d notice the shiv woven into the hair, ready to be plucked out.

But there hadn’t been much violence this morning. The city was waiting. There had been a few incidents, some too-obvious malcontents arrested, an idiot attacking a band of [Soldiers] killed, but the city was quiet.

“Too quiet.”

Venith Crusland, one of Flos’ vassals and a [Lord] and veteran of countless wars, grunted to his wife as they surveyed the city from the steps of the palace of the Quarass, known as the Seat of Ger. Probably because it did look a bit like a seat, being the tallest building built on a slope on top of the city. Or maybe because it was located directly on top of the reservoir of water that fed the city via the wells. Or…Venith didn’t care.

He was surveying the streets of the city from this commanding spot, using a monocle enchanted with a farseeing spell. He hated the thing because it was a stupid device you had to hold with your cheek against your eye and because it stank to him of pointlessness. Why couldn’t the [Enchanter] who’d made it create something more practical? With two lenses? He held it up to his eye as he followed a patrol of [Soldiers] across the city, noting how people got out of the way.

“Maresar, do you see? They’re all congregating near that one plaza. And it’s too quiet. Did you hear me?”

“Twice. And it’s fine.”

The [Lord] glanced up. He had dark hair, not entirely black, closer to brown, and a stern, set face. His wife, Maresar, was far more relaxed than Venith, who was restlessly feeling at his sword and shield. She was tall, had short-cropped, black hair, and darker skin than Venith. She was a former [Bandit Lord], but she hadn’t bothered stringing her longbow. That relaxed Venith a bit; Maresar’s instincts were excellent and if she didn’t seem ready for battle, it meant they were probably safe.

“What do you think? There. Look at that group. Fifteen youths. All armed. We should break it up, orders or not.”

He offered the monocle to Maresar, but she declined. She squinted at the spot he’d pointed to, picking it out with her eyes, enhanced by her [Eagle Eyes] Skill. She shook her head.

“No. They’re not a threat.”

“Until they attack someone. I don’t want to lose another soldier to a cut throat. You and I could—”

“No. We have orders.”

Venith bit his tongue. He and Maresar had been assigned to Ger by Orthenon a month ago, when it had become clear that the citizens were not tolerating Flos’ armies. With Maresar’s help, Venith had made it clear that anyone attacking soldiers would be dealt with in moments. She could hit half the city from her vantage point with her bow and no amount of civilians armed with knives or clubs or stones could harm Venith. They were too high-level. Still, today, Venith felt his back crawling.

“It won’t be one or two groups that erupt if this comes to a head. You’ve seen this before. You know this city will erupt in violence and if it does, it will be all of them versus us.”

“I know.”

“So…”

“We have orders. He told us to wait, so we’re waiting. Don’t you trust him?”

“I do.”

Venith ground out the words. He did trust, but it was hard. He shifted, walking back and forth until Maresar caught him. She squeezed his shoulder gently and Venith looked at his wife. He grew calmer again.

To change the subject, he glanced southwest. He couldn’t see anything; a damn dust cloud had kicked up, obscuring the horizon, but he imagined he could still see the capital of Reim, the city in the distance.

“Calac’s in Reim still, isn’t he? With Orthenon.”

The [Lord] spoke sourly. He didn’t quite like Orthenon, although they were on the same side. The King’s Steward had his grudging respect over his friendship. Maresar nodded.

“And one of the twins. And Gazi.”

“Hmf. Do you think he’s well? Calac, I mean. He wanted to accompany us, but after his previous failure—”

“You told him no. So I said no. What more do you want?”

Venith didn’t say anything. Being a [Lord] was difficult. Being a father was worse. He glanced down at the streets again, spotted a girl with a potion bottle, handing it to a man who placed it in his pocket. He grimaced.

“Where is he? He told us to wait, but did he tell you anything? His Majesty?”

He looked up. Maresar bit her lip absently. She was scanning the city.

“No. But he’s here. You can feel it too, can’t you?”

The [Lord] nodded tightly. He swept his monocle across the city.

“What’s he doing?”

“He told me he was going to crush them.”

Venith’s head snapped up. He stared at Maresar.

“The rebels? Himself? By force?”

“Yes. Maybe? And no. He told us to wait. Trust him. You do, don’t you? Or are you having second thoughts?”

“I do. I do. I made my choice and I don’t regret it. It’s just, it’s been so long—”

At last, Venith saw Maresar smile.

“Yes. It has. But if I look at him, it feels like yesterday, doesn’t it?”

“…Yes. It does. Sometimes. Other times…”

“So. Wait.”

Venith did. He saw them moving. The citizens of Ger. They were moving towards one spot, some gathering on rooftops, all of them. Towards a place hidden by a line of houses. He longed to ride down there and find out what—but he had orders. So he waited. And he waited for the King of Destruction. And on the wind he heard the whispers.

The Quarass lives.

But Venith had seen her die. He glanced at Maresar and shook his head. Germina was a Shield Kingdom. Ancient. It had been defeated easily enough on the battlefield, but Venith knew that a kingdom’s power wasn’t always based in the force of its army. There were old secrets. And he feared Germina had at least a few. So he waited. And he wondered where his [King] was. Usually you could spot him by the crowd. And the commotion.

—-

There was a crowd. But the King of Destruction would not have been welcome in it. They were gathering as Venith had noticed, in a plaza too small to hold all of them. But they had chosen it precisely because it was out of sight of the palace. The people of Ger waited as a group of men, all former [Councilors], [First Warriors] or [Highborn]—Ger had no [Lords] or [Ladies]—fussed at the center of the gathering.

They were a motley group, different in station and rank. Some were barely important and had the Quarass been alive, the inner circle of men wouldn’t have deigned to consort with them. But two thirds of the Quarass’ court had been slain when the King of Destruction had taken the palace. So those that remained weren’t in a position to quibble.

In fact, the leader of this group of men was a [Councilor of State], the only member of the Quarass’ council who’d survived. He was hardly a leader, but he had loved the Quarass as fiercely as the other men.

As they all had. All those gathered in the plaza, sitting, standing, were fixed on the circle in the center. The men, sixteen or so, formed a ring of bodies, shielding something, someone with their long robes. It was the [Councilor of State] who walked back and forth, murmuring to himself, glancing at the sun, which was nearly overhead. He was dressed in a colorful robe, bright scarlet, normally strange for a man to be wearing. It made him look like a splash of blood amid the white. Every eye followed him as he walked back and forth.

And he was afraid. You could see it if you looked in his eyes, so he kept his gaze upwards, towards the clear blue skies and relentless sun. He was waiting for it to be exactly midday, but the sweat that rolled down his face had as much to do with the fear churning away at him as the heat. The other men standing in the circle were likewise sweating harder than the crowd, and more than one of them followed the leader in red’s pacing back and forth. The others had to fight to keep from glancing behind them. They too were afraid.

Perhaps, had they been zealots, they might have clung to the righteousness of their purpose. They could have reassured themselves in the divinity of their task, the infallibility guiding them, that they were following a higher power. But faith was dead as were the gods. So it was only men who gathered here. Men, who were desperately afraid that their gathering would be broken up, or worse, that they would fail.

The people of Germina had gathered here because they knew what must be done. They knew who waited in the circle of men in robes. If the men here failed—and oh, they could fail—they would be torn apart. If the King of Destruction’s soldiers were to interfere, if everything wasn’t right or something went wrong…

Sweat and fear hung in the air in the circle of men. But the crowd was just waiting. They were common laborers and highborn folk. Men and women. But those in the circle, those in charge, for now, were men.

Men. Not women, for all that there were just as many daughters of Germina in the crowd as sons, young and old. But that was the way of things. The Quarass ruled, female, her word law, her lineage passed from daughter to daughter. And it was men who found her when the Quarass died.

The last of the crowd entered the plaza as the sun finally reached its zenith in the sky. A few people pushed through the crowd, though everyone was fighting for a view. A sea of faces, and the feeling that this was an important moment.

In such atmospheres, an errant cough or someone who needed to use the bathroom precisely at the wrong moment stood out. The leader in red was afraid of each instance, afraid that anything ruining the sanctity of the moment would cause the ritual to fail. But there were so many.

A pair of crying babies provoked each other. Someone tripped, causing a small collapse in the crowd. And worst of all, one of the men in the circle hurried out, causing a ripple to run through the crowd. Every eye fixed on the man, a [First Warrior], equivalent to what other countries called a [Knight] in terms of rank, hurried over to the [Councilor of State].

“Dead gods, what is it? Get back to your place! We’re about to start!”

The [Councilor] scream-whispered at the [First Warrior]. The younger man was far more fit than he, but both were practically white in the face. The [First Warrior] shook his head.

“The—she’s thirsty. She needs a drink.”

“A drink?

Belatedly, the [Councilor] realized he’d forgotten to provide for that simple amenity. The…person sitting in the circle of men, who’d closed ranks to avoid her being seen by the crowd, had been sitting for hours in the sun. The [Councilor] cursed.

“Water. Fine, then. Sands take it! Get some!”

“From where?”

“I don’t know! But hurry!”

The [Councilor] saw the [First Warrior] hesitate, and then turn. He called out; his voice strangled.

“Water. We need water. Has anyone a flask?”

Silence. And then several people offered theirs. The warrior hurried around, grabbing two nearest and disappeared into the circle. Standing at the edge of the circle, the [Councilor] heard a muffled voice, a quiet, female one. A child’s voice. And then the [First Warrior] hurried out. The circle made room for him and he nodded at the [Councilor].

Good. All was well. All would be well. The [Councilor of State] wished he were dead. He wished someone else were in his position. If he got this wrong—

If he had been capable, he would have prayed. But the thought of prayer didn’t even cross the [Councilor]’s mind. So he was just afraid. But the sun was overhead. And so he began.

“People of Germina. Bear witness! Gather here, in this sacred heart of the city. Gather, and bear witness! The Quarass is dead! So gather, sons and daughters! Gather! I, the son of Ger, call to you! Gather and bear witness!”

The crowd shifted. All eyes were on the [Councilor] now, on his red robes. He felt his voice crack on the last sentence. Oh, dead gods, he’d said it wrong. It wasn’t ‘people of Germina’, was it? It was ‘children of Germina’ or was it—‘chosen of Ger?’ And was it sons or daughters or—what had the old woman he’d consulted say it should be? She’d told him to shout this without the crowd, but he hadn’t dared. It was all going to go wrong. It wasn’t going to work! And then what?

Everyone was staring at him. The [Councilor] froze, but there was nowhere to run. So his tongue went on as his mind began screaming.

Gather! Gather together! Gather to bear witness! The Quarass has fallen! But Germina must live! So gather—

He faltered. They were gathered. What should he do? He switched to the next part, stumbling over his words.

“Pay heed. Lay down your burdens and still your hearts. For you will bear witness to a resurrection. The Quarass has fallen. By blade, by war. By wrath and treachery, by the King of Destruction!”

That stirred the people in the crowd. The [Councilor] saw faces contort with fury. He went on.

“But now is not the time for vengeance. The Quarass is dead. Germina is broken. The sands will take the kingdom and wash the stones away to dust. Our blood shall soak the deserts and no thing will grow. The kingdom needs its heart. So the Quarass must live.”

She must live.

The murmur came from the crowd, thousands of voices speaking as one. They hadn’t practiced it; it was spontaneous and it dried the [Councilor]’s throat even more. He coughed.

“So—so we are gathered. To witness her rebirth. By blood of lineage she will be called. By the needs of her people she shall arise! By the will of Germina, she returns! Bear witness!”

Lies. All lies. The ritual called for the Quarass’ firstborn daughter. But her daughter was dead, killed in her bed six years past after trying to take the throne. The bloodline of the Quarass had ended with her. So they’d found a child. A girl who looked a bit like the Quarass. The old woman had said that might do. But she wasn’t sure. And the child was—a child.

But he was in too far. He’d never had a choice, really. He was the only one who knew the words, or so the others had been convinced. But the [Councilor] didn’t know the words. What he was shouting was a mix of what he could remember and what the old woman thought was supposed to be said. He was sure that ‘bear witness’ wasn’t supposed to be said so many times!

“So let seven come forth. Three of the sands. Three of Chandrar. Of those gathered here, who has the will? Who will be chosen? The will of Germina calls you. Who will witness the Quarass and make the oath?”

This time the crowd moved as one. Those sitting surged to their feet. And those standing crowded closer. The [Councilor] had to shout as the men in the circle locked arms, afraid they’d be rushed.

“Hold! Hold back! I will—choose among you.”

Only, here it all went wrong. The crowd was pushing forwards and someone—the [Councilor] didn’t know who—shouted.

“The three aren’t chosen! One comes from foreign lands! One comes of Germina! And one comes as a child!”

The [Councilor] froze. And the crowd drew back. He looked to see who’d said it. It had been a young voice. Female. Worse, she’s sounded confident. The [Councilor] ran with it.

“Yes! Yes! One of Germina! Who will—”

A surge again. But the [Councilor] was ready. He jabbed a finger at a likely figure. He remembered one of the old three, an old woman who’d been the Quarass’ guide until her passing. The three had to be exemplary, so he pointed at a woman in the crowd.

“You. Name yourself!”

The figure he’d indicated stepped forwards as people looked at her. She hardly needed introduction as she gave her name.

“[Highborn] Vaitsha Zectiou. I am Vaitsha, daughter of Germina. I will witness the Quarass.”

She was one of the richest of the [Highborn] in the city. A powerful woman. The [Councilor] nodded and she stepped forwards, until she stood in front of the circle of men. She shot the [Councilor] a sideways look as he scanned the crowd.

The child was next. He didn’t remember a child—but the Quarass had been in power when he’d been born. So he pointed at a young boy.

“You. Do you have the courage to accompany the Quarass until her passing?”

The young boy shook and trembled in fear. He looked about to wet himself and stammered a string of gibberish. The [Councilor] knew he’d picked wrong. So he shook his head before the boy could speak again. He sought once more, found another boy in the crowd, this one older. Nine or so? He looked like a [Street Tough], if he had a class at all. But his eyes were piercing and he didn’t waver as the [Councilor] pointed at him.

“You. Have you the courage to accompany the Quarass?”

“I do! And may I serve the Quarass and the sands take me if I have anything less!”

The youth shouted back. He had a scar above one eye, and, as he walked through the crowd, a large one on his uncovered left leg. At least he wasn’t a slave. What a mistake that would be!

Two down. But the last was suddenly a pressing issue for the [Councilor]. A foreigner? Germina had few foreigners in its capital before the war with Reim. And now—he shouted desperately.

“Who comes from foreign lands? Who of Chandrar will bear witness to the Quarass? Who will swear the oath?”

And then there was silence. The children of Germina looked around, suddenly wary. A foreigner? Any one of them would have volunteered, but according to the rules one voice had shouted—and the [Councilor] didn’t even know if they were real!—it had to be a foreigner. But who could that be? One of the [Soldiers] patrolling the streets? If they had to kidnap someone—

Fear. It was all going to fall apart. If a patrol happened by and they heard what was happening because the ritual took too long—they’d stationed people to ward off any patrols headed this way. But they had to have a third. The [Councilor] shouted again.

“Is there anyone not of Chandrar? Not born on Germina’s soil?”

He hoped someone in the crowd had been born outside of Germina. A cousin, maybe. Or a wife? A husband from afar? Anyone! He heard a few voices and the crowd broke up, seeking the speakers. But then a figure bellowed, louder than the rest.

“I have come far, from lands where Germina’s name has long passed. I am a son of the sands, Chandrar born. I am not of Ger and was not borne of its waters. But I will bear witness to the Quarass. I will swear the oath.”

The crowd parted. A giant strode forth, a tall man with dark skin, his features plain, but his arms and body huge. For all that, he looked intelligent, and he had a pair of glass spectacles on his broad nose. A [Scholar]? He glanced around and people stared up at him. The [Councilor] could have wept.

“Yes! Come, then! And all bear witness! You three, stand before the circle. The Quarass is dead, but she must live!”

They were at the heart of it now, and hope was replacing fear in the [Councilor]’s chest. The three stood together, Vaitsha and—damn, the other two hadn’t named themselves!

No hope for it. The [Councilor] lifted his arms and turned, the ill-fitting red robe swirling around him.

“You three will bring her forth! The Quarass is dead, but the Quarass lives! Step forwards and claim her, chosen three! And swear an oath—”

He broke off. The bespectacled giant was looking at him. It was just a look, but it told the [Councilor] he’d erred somehow. The broad-shouldered man spoke, in a voice that carried across the crowd in a way that the [Councilor]’s shouting could not. The crying babies went silent. The gathering, already silent, went still.

“The Quarass is dead. Germina waits. So by Ger and by the blood of Quar, let the kingdom never pass in the shadow of the sun. Let the Quarass be reborn. So we gather here. Three. One of Ger, to remind the Quarass to be of who she was. One of childhood to follow the Quarass until her death and take it in her place. And one of distant sands, to tell her of what is and what must be. Let us bring her forth, and swear our oath on blood and the stones of Ger to ever be her protectors.”

There was silence after that. And the [Councilor] felt something stir in his chest. The words struck home; they were too real to be fake. He sagged in relief. Someone else knew the old words!

“Yes. Yes, that’s—that is what must be done. So bring her forth. You three. Enter and call her name. And let it be the last time her name is ever spoken. Hear it, and know that who you find within is dead. And she will emerge the Quarass. Swear your oaths before her then.”

And like that, the circle of men opened. It was a precise movement, so that the crowd only saw the backs of the three before they stepped forwards and the circle closed. And then there was nothing.

No one spoke. No one moved. The [Counselor] heard very little, even close to the circle of men as he way. He could see them looking outwards, arms linked, eyes wide. But what passed in the circle—no one could say.

There were voices. A female voice—that of Vaitsha. A rumble from the giant. A high-pitched voice from the youth, nervous despite his courage. And then—the [Councilor] heard a higher voice still. A girl’s tremulous words. A name, but he didn’t hear it. And then the circle opened and the crowd saw her.

A girl. She was dressed in white, a simple dress of cotton. Her face was dark, and her eyes pale yellow. Her hair was parted in a widow’s peak and a warm black—that was slightly like the look of the old Quarass, though fifty years separated the two. This child couldn’t have been more than ten.

And she was a child. Not the Quarass. How could she be? The [Councilor] froze. He could feel the crowd rustle. But not like before. Now it was an ominous sound. They had been promised the Quarass. And the child who was shaking with nerves and fear was not her. Her dress was wet near the neck where she’d spilled some water on herself while drinking.

“Hold.”

The giant said the word before something could happen. He looked across the citizens of Germina and the [Councilor], who had never prayed, tried to believe that he knew what was missing. And somehow, the foreigner did.

“Before the Quarass is reborn, she must accept the oaths of the three and hear her people call for her. So I stand here. A foreigner of the sands. Finder of the Quarass, charge me with my oaths.”

He pointed at the [Councilor]. The man jumped, and stopped looking for a way to escape. He turned back and again, his tongue took over for his brain.

“Do you swear to protect the Quarass, stranger of the sands? Do you swear to be her guardian and guide? If so, swear by blood. Swear on the stones of Ger, with all to witness!”

It was a desperate shout. The stranger nodded. He reached for his belt and pulled out a simple dagger of steel. He cut his arm, a powerful gash that made half the crowd wince. His blood ran down his arm as he held it out, letting his blood drip on the mud brick stones.

“I swear it by the Shield Kingdoms, by Germina’s soil and the Oasis of Ger. The Quarass lives and let my flesh and blood spill upon the sands before her.”

His words echoed. They shouldn’t have. But for a second they rolled, like distant desert thunder. And for a second, the [Councilor] could swear he felt a breeze blow in the plaza. It smelled of distant lands. Of sands, a world unknown.

Suddenly, the atmosphere changed. The fear in the [Councilor] went away. He felt a stirring in the air, like magic, but more powerful. He turned. Suddenly there were words in his chest, and his eyes were alight.

“You. Child. Do you swear to protect the Quarass? Do you swear to be her guardian and companion? If so, swear by blood. Swear on the stones of Ger, with all to witness.”

The youth had no dagger. But there was a bit of mud brick broken on the ground. As if by chance, he bent and snatched it up. With a single furious slash he opened his wrist. Blood dripped onto the stones.

“I swear! I swear by the Shield Kingdoms! By the Oasis and waters! The Quarass lives! Let me die before she does!”

And his voice was thunder. This time the breeze blew, and the [Councilor] was reminded of his youth. Of a time he had all but forgotten, when he was young and knew so little. When he was young.

All watched as he turned for Vaitsha.

“Do you swear, daughter of Ger? Do you swear to protect the Quarass? To be her guardian and friend? If so, swear by blood. Swear on the stones of Ger, with all to witness.”

Vaitsha’s eyes were wide. She spoke, trembling, pulled by the same force now guiding everyone present. Her hands retrieved a delicate belt knife, ivory and steel, and her cut was no less deep than the other two. Her blood ran down her dress and stained the ground.

“I swear. I swear by the Shield Kingdoms, by Germina, my home. By the Oasis, I swear to be her friend. And let me die before she does. Let me be worthy of it.”

A sigh ran through the audience. But it wasn’t over. The [Councilor] turned. Now he shouted. Now he screamed, where he had not dared to before. As if he were afraid of being silly. Now his lungs burst as he howled at those gathered.

“The oaths are pledged! The three stand before you! And she awaits! So call to her! Sons and daughters of Germina, call to your Quarass! And so long as Germina endures, let her come! Call her!”

He saw them look at her. The child looked up, shaking. And the voice that came from her was a scream that shook Ger. It broke paint. It made the foreigners on the streets clap their hands to their ears and sink to the ground. It killed—yes. Two rooftops collapsed, sending those sitting them to their deaths. The word.

Quarass!

The girl fell backwards. Her eyes rolled up in her head. She collapsed, and the giant caught her. A brown hand laid the child down on the ground and every eye fixed on her. Men. Women. Children. Even the [Councilor], who had forgotten to run. He stared. Hoping. Praying that the ritual really could bring her back.

Hope. That was all they had. Not faith for gods. Not religion. But perhaps there was something similar. The gods were dead, but you had to believe in something. And so they called for her. And, slowly, the small figure stirred. She raised her head, looked around. She sat up, clutching at her brow. And then she got to her feet, unsteadily, using one hand for support.

She was the same as she had been. A child with a large forehead. Dark hair. Pale yellow eyes. But when she looked around, her gaze found the [Councilor]. And his heart stopped. Because he felt it. He saw it in her gaze. He felt it in his soul.

“The Quarass lives.”

It was a whisper. Then a shout. The [Councilor] turned. He raised his arms and his eyes wept even as he laughed and screamed it.

The Quarass lives!

It was her. You couldn’t deny it. It was the same presence. The same feel that came from her. Faint, weak, but there. She was the Quarass of Germina. And the crowd roared. They fell to their knees and bowed. The sixteen men fell to their knees, weeping like the [Councilor].

Only the three who had pledged their oaths stood. The boy was caught between bowing and staring at the girl Quarass in disbelief. Vaitsha was staring at her ruler with tears in her eyes. And the giant? He looked around and spoke. And his words cut through the rejoicing like a razor sheared wool.

“The Quarass died. And she lives. I have sworn it. To protect her with my life before hers. I swore it on Ger. I swore it on the waters that give you life and on my blood. But that is the oath of a foreigner. There is one more oath I have to give.”

The [Councilor] turned to him in disbelief. The crowd looked up. The giant with dark skin and glasses reached for his neck. He had noting there, but as his hand grasped something and tore it away, an amulet shimmered into existence. It dropped from his hand, a broken jewel and silver chain. And the giant changed.

He grew no shorter. But his bulging arms became thinner, if not by much. His skin changed, and his dark hair became red and gold, only slightly faded by time. There were wrinkles on his face left by age. Grief and mirth. But what changed most about him was his presence.

Before he had been a man. A colossus who commanded the eye. But the figure who stood before the Quarass now was a different kind of giant. The kind men fought and died for. A figure to love or hate, but never ignore. He attracted every eye, as if the world bent around him. But that was his nature. For he was a [King].

The King of Destruction stood in front of the Quarass. He surveyed the crowd, which had gone still with shock and fear and turned. The [Councilor] quailed before him, but it was the Quarass he sought.

She stared up at him, a small figure. She did not turn to run or flee, though she shook. The other two tried to place themselves in front of the king. The street boy tried to charge the King of Destruction but his legs wouldn’t move. Vaitsha tried to throw herself in his path, but the King of Destruction walked around her. He stopped in front of the Quarass. Then he bent.

His arm was still cut open. His blood still ran. The [King] slowly bent onto one knee, looking down at the Quarass. And his voice had that same quality, the same echo as he met the Quarass’ eyes.

“I swore to protect you. And I swear it again. I will allow no harm to come to you. I will pledge myself to death before you. So long as Germina endures, I will be your guardian and guide. I, Flos Reimarch, swear it by my Seven. By Reim, my kingdom, my heart. I swear it by my crown. I swear it as your King.

His voice rang throughout the plaza. Flos, the King of Destruction, turned. And when he looked around, the spell broke. The crowd screamed in horror and awe and the [Councilor of State] regained his senses. He raised a hand, pointed at the figure behind Flos.

“P-protect the—”

The words froze in his mouth. The King of Destruction was too close. He could slay the Quarass in a moment. The other men who’d been part of the circle had their weapons drawn, but they were afraid. Even the [First Warriors] were no match for the legendary king.

But he was alone and the crowd had seen their Quarass. They surged forwards, shouting the same words. They might have swarmed Flos, but the [King] only raised his wounded arm. He pointed.

Halt.

And they did. Against their will, they stopped moving. The King of Destruction looked at them.

“People of Germina, do you seek my life?”

Of course they did. They shouted at him, helpless to move but free to rage.

Murderer! Monster!

“You ravaged our lands!”

“You killed my son!”

“You killed my mother!”

“This is our city! Begone, murderer! Begone!”

“King of Death! King of Destruction!”

The insults and cries poured out, jumbling, too many to be heard. Flos listened, seeing the rage in them. Then he raised a hand and there was a silence again.

“Yes. I did all these things. And I would do them a second time. I destroyed your armies. I slaughtered your kin, your friends and countrymen. I invaded your lands and I hold your city in my hands. But tell me, people of Germina. Should I do it a second time? For these are my lands now. I claimed them by right of conquest. And you who strike at my [Soldiers] strike at my kingdom. You would make war. So tell me, people of Germina, should I bring destruction to Ger a second time?”

He spread his arms, looking around. The crowd quailed. The King of Destruction’s eyes blazed.

“I left your people unscathed! I left your homes intact! My armies did not despoil, did not loot or rape or pillage! But still Germina seethes, fighting my armies day by day. Your people’s blood and mine run in the sands. To what end?”

“Our freedom. Germina will not tolerate you, tyrant.”

The voice came from behind Flos. He turned and looked at Vaitsha. The [Highborn] lady stared hatred at him. The King returned her glace as if she were an ant.

“Then the war has not ended. And to protect my people, I would slaughter all present. Man, woman, children. Make no mistake, Vaitsha of Ger. But I have said it once and I say it again: I am your [King]. And you have witnessed this as well: my oath.”

He raised his arm. And the sight of the blood reminded everyone that yes, Flos had sworn the oath. So the bloodlust pumping through their veins slowed and they listened. Warily, for here paced the lion. Flos looked from face to face, and few could meet his eyes for long.

“Forty years.”

The [Councilor of State] blinked. He stared at Flos. So did the others. Flos said it again.

“Forty years. How long may a Human man live? Even a [King]? A hundred years? Likely, at most. So. Forty years. And if blades take me, or a spell claims my life or my heart gives out, much less time. But forty years. For forty years, I claim Germina. I claim your kingdom and name you as my people. My subjects.”

There was a roar of protest from the crowd. But again, Flos silenced them.

“Forty years! And I will rule you as [King] and Germina shall prosper. Once, I rode across Germina and you fought for me. Do you not remember those days? Were they not the greatest you have lived through before or since?”

He turned, eyes blazing. The [Councilor of State] flinched. But he did remember. There was war, but there was always war. And people returned from the front lines with gold and treasure and more levels than you could count. There was no shortage of food, and Germina grew as it expanded. He remembered those days. And he remembered them as Flos turned his head and he caught a glimpse of that figure from afar. It was true. Once he had been their [King].

“Germina was once mine. Mine, but it forgot me as I slumbered. And its ruler has always been the Quarass. She reigned even as I ruled. But when I awoke from my slumber, she took arms against me. For that she died. I killed her.”

Yes. And if they could have killed him, the people in the crowd might. But they looked at the Quarass, standing still behind Flos. And they felt something shift in the air. This time they listened, wondering what came next.

“Your Quarass lives. She is young, but she lives. And I came here to swear the oath you all heard today. Let all the children of Germina hear it, not only those of Ger! I stand surety for the Quarass’ life with my own.”

Flos raised his arm a third time. The bleeding was slowing, but still it ran. Vaitsha and the youth were pale behind Flos from blood loss, but he seemed not to even notice.

“As long as I endure, I will protect the Quarass. And when I pass, Germina will rise once again. But will it do so as a broken nation, governed by an iron fist, or as a proud one? I cannot be shifted. I have claimed Germina, but I would rather you join my kingdom. Join my kingdom and ride with me across all the sands of Chandrar! Let your kingdom return to its glory, children of Germina! Be mine until my death. I have need of you.”

He held out a hand and the [Councilor] felt something pull at his heart. A part of him wanted to step forwards and shout that he would follow Flos. But only a part. The rest of him wanted to shout at the [King], if only he dared. And he saw the rest of those gathered were just as conflicted.

The King of Destruction saw it too. He waited for a heartbeat, and then turned. The Quarass stood behind him, a child, but their ruler. It was to her Flos spoke next.

“This is my pact, Quarass of Germina. You sent armies into my lands. You attacked my people. And you used children as weapons of war. For all these things and more, you paid with your life. But we were once allies.”

He extended a hand to her, the same hand streaked with drying blood. The citizens of Ger looked up as Flos held it towards the small figure.

“I hold you no grudge now; join with me and let your people strive alongside mine until it is time. I will not contest Ger and I will not keep you from your throne. But we must be allies of blood until my death. Take your kingdom, Quarass, but do it as part of my own, and I will make yours a nation remembered in legends for a thousand years. Will you accept my offer?”

The Quarass looked at him. Her eyes were old. Scarcely half an hour ago they had been young, innocent and afraid. But something older looked out from them. Old and young. She was still a child. But she was the Quarass. And because she was both, she hesitated. The citizens waited. On her words turned their fates. If she ordered it, they would fall on Flos and it would be his death and theirs. If she ordered it.

At last, the Quarass nodded. Oh, so slightly. And she reached out with her tiny hand and took Flos’ outstretched palm. Her voice was quiet, but all could hear it. The silence was absolute. The Quarass spoke.

“Yes. By Ger’s waters I say it is so.”

A sigh ran through the crowd. A sigh, and then a voice of protest, swiftly cut off. The spell was broken. A hubbub rose, voices asking what had happened, someone shouting again, trying to shout to the Quarass. A woman screamed vengeance against Flos and launched herself, but the crowd was against her. There was still something moving them. The will of the Quarass, this time.

The [Councilor] felt it. He bowed to the Quarass, sinking to his knees in his red robes, sweat staining his clothing. He was so relieved he couldn’t move; his legs had given out. Some of the other former councilors and members of her court did the same, or tried to move closer. But the King of Destruction forced them back with a glance.

So it was with the crowd. Those who wished to see the Quarass crowded forwards, or simply wept in place with the same relief. But others who couldn’t stand the agreement, who stared at Flos with hatred, began to push away.

Not towards him, though some vowed vengeance and shouted his death at the [King]’s back. But they still moved back out of the crowd, as if they couldn’t help it. And they kept moving, running down the streets, fleeing the [Soldiers] of Flos’ army who were finally moving towards their [King]. They fled the city, a few hundred, while the rest of Ger remained.

Chaos. Venith Crusland marched a full three hundred [Soldiers] through the crowd, ordering them back, shouting at them to make way. His [Soldiers] forced through towards the King of Destruction and encircled him, ignoring the insults and crowd pushing forwards. There was no violence, which surprised him but not Maresar.

“He told you. Keep them back. [Thunder Arrow]!”

She drew an arrow and shot it into the sky. The people closest to her ducked and covered their ears, flinching back. Venith guided his horse forwards, shouting.

“Form a ring around the [King]! Back up! Back up, I said! Your Quarass will be fine! You can see her later! Get back!

“Venith! Venith!

He heard someone shouting his name in the press. The voice was familiar, so Venith pointed. A group of his [Soldiers] pushed into the crowd and emerged with someone. An unfamiliar Germinan girl. Venith stared at her, confused. Then the girl tugged at a ring and her figure changed.

Like Flos, the illusion magic turned the dark-skinned girl into another figure. Slightly taller, fairer skinned, like a Terandrian or someone born of Izril. Venith did recognize her.

“Teres!”

The young girl from another world nodded and Venith pointed. The [Soldiers] brought her into the circle of space and Venith leaned down to shout at her.

“Is this his Majesty’s doing?”

“Yes! He helped bring back the Quarass!”

“I gathered that! What next?”

Teres could only shake her head. Venith cursed. He held out a hand.

“Come on, I’ll bring you to him!”

He rode Teres towards Flos, who’d stayed where he was. The King of Destruction stood in silence next to the Quarass, keeping the people around her away by sheer force of presence. The young child was staring wide-eyed at her citizens, who were still fighting to get to her. Calling out her name.

“A strange sight, isn’t it? You’ll get used to it soon.”

The King of Destruction remarked as Venith led Teres towards him. The [Lord] stopped to let Teres jump to the ground, then turned to marshal his soldiers to keep holding the crowds back. Flos turned. The Quarass looked up at him. Teres, who’d approached hesitantly, halted and shuddered.

The child. Teres had seen her before the ceremony, before everyone had called out her name. And she’d just looked like a kid, then. An ordinary kid like the young boy with the scars standing behind her. But now her gaze held something old in it. And she didn’t look as afraid as before, even as the King of Destruction bent to speak with her.

“A second thing, Quarass. These child [Assassins] that Germina uses. I wish them stopped. I know your kingdom houses their training grounds and my people have not found them yet. I do not wish the children killed or…abandoned. But let them grow as children. No more of them, not as tools of Reim. Not ever. Have we a second deal?”

The Quarass tilted her head. Her lips were calmly pressed together, her gaze imperious. Teres saw her glance towards her crowd, up at Flos—not one whit afraid. A silent calculation ran behind her eyes, and then she nodded. Her voice was still a child’s, but it sounded like an adult.

“I agree. But I will not stop from using my [Assassins]. They are mine. And we are allies, King of Destruction. The Quarass kneels, but she does not bow.”

Flos nodded gravely. He met the Quarass’ eyes levelly. It was a ludicrous sight, the imposing King of Destruction of over six feet in height stooping to address the tiny Quarass. Ludicrous until they glanced at you.

“Just so. My soldiers will stop patrolling by sundown. Your palace will be cleared by then as well. And if ever you should call, I will come. It is a heavy burden you wear. That invisible crown.”

The Quarass hesitated. The impassive mask slipped suddenly.

“Yes. It is. Thank you.”

For a second she looked like a child again. Then her back straightened and she nodded to Venith and Maresar and the [Soldiers].

“Withdraw them. Those are my people. They should come to me.”

“As you wish. Venith!

Flos turned and roared. Teres and the Quarass jumped, as well as everyone around Flos. He had an incredible voice. Venith turned and Flos raised his arm. He’d healed it with a potion and apparently shared it about because neither Vaitsha nor the boy were bleeding any longer. Flos waved his hand at Venith in a circle.

“To me! We leave the Quarass to her people!”

The crowd roared and Venith slowly drew the circle inwards, forming around Flos and Teres. The Quarass took a few deep breaths, then glanced at Teres with a frown. She was standing by the King of Destruction and you would have had to have been a fool to not have noticed how she was standing by his side where no one else was.

“Who is this? She is not one of your Seven, King Flos of Reim. Is she a wife? A consort? A slave?”

Teres’ jaw dropped. Flos laughed, and the child-Quarass scowled, embarrassed.

“No. She is not. This is Teres, one of my two personal attendants. Remember her, Quarass.”

“I will.”

Those old eyes swung to Teres and the girl shuddered. She heard the clatter of hooves and saw Venith riding towards Flos.

“To the palace, your Majesty? I can’t keep the crowd back and the ones who fled the city looked—”

“To the gates, Venith! Leave Ger as I promised! Those who fled are enemies of Reim—and of Germina.”

The King of Destruction looked at the Quarass and she nodded. He stepped forwards. Venith dismounted, but the King of Destruction waved a hand.

“Keep your horse, I’ll walk. Teres, with me!”

He beckoned her, and she followed. Just like that, or perhaps, as expected. You couldn’t help but follow if someone like Flos beckoned. The Quarass knew that. She knew many things, for all she was a girl of barely nine years. She was old and young. She had died, and her body had been carried out of the Seat of Ger weeks before. But she now lived again.

The Quarass lives. And as she watched the King of Destruction go, his pledge echoed in her mind. The young Quarass heard a timid voice.

“Quarass?”

She turned. Vaitsha was on her knees. So was the [Councilor of States] and what remained of the Quarass’ court. She knew them all from memory. She knew their names, their pasts, everything the old Quarass had known. But the new one didn’t feel the same way about all of them. She was afraid, scared, and at the same time, weighed down, just like Flos had said. She wished he had stayed, but her memories told her she had to be alone. At least for now.

“Rise, Vaitsha. I am the Quarass. And you are one of my three. What is it you have to say?”

The [Highborn] lady rose, cheeks pale. Eyes sparkling as she looked at her ruler in the flesh. She hesitated, but the young Quarass wasn’t the King of Destruction yet so she gave words to the uncertainty she and the others around her probably felt.

“Quarass, is it wise? He is the King of Destruction. And he swore an oath. But.”

She trailed off. But. But he had still invaded. But Germina would be absorbed into Reim, even if the Quarass could still rule. But the world feared and hated the King of Destruction and Germina would have to fight wars in Flos’ name. The Quarass knew that too, but she took a different view from the old one. Each Quarass was different, after all.

“Yes. He is destruction and yes, he did invade. But we have sworn an oath. Better to be a kingdom under another [King] than one ruined by fruitless war. The King of Destruction is a fool, and a force of nature. He cannot be stopped. And though he is a fool, he does not forswear himself. So we are part of Reim. And any who would harm him go against my will. Let that be known.”

She saw Vaitsha’s head bow, along with the other members of court. The Quarass felt a headache, the first in her young life beset her. How many would be traitorous, or how many could be trusted once they realized she wasn’t the old Quarass? Had the [Councilor of States]—whose name was Ilhmet, a detail even the old Quarass hadn’t really cared much to remember—chosen wisely in Vaitsha and…

The Quarass glanced at the ground. The young street boy had not risen. He was still kneeling, pressing his head to the mud brick. She bent.

“You. What is your name?”

He looked up with her with wide eyes.

“Me, Quarass?”

She glared at him. A young face looking into a boy five years older than she was.

“Yes, you. You are one of my three, are you not? Well, the King of Destruction is already left. So tell me your name, my guardian and companion. And rise, for I have need of your strength.”

The young boy rose. He smiled at his Quarass, and she saw he was strong, for all he was a street child. His body was wiry, and his eyes burned with the courage of a man already.

“I will be your strength, Quarass! And whatever else you ask of me! I am Khalid, who has no last name!”

There was still blood on his skin and clothes from where his arm had bled. The Quarass stared at it. Then she held out her hand. Khalid stared at it, but the Quarass was intent.

“Then, Khalid. I will hold you to that oath. Until my death, let us remake Germina into what it was and could be. Come with me.”

Khalid hesitated. But the Quarass was frowning, so he gingerly took her hand. And the crowd that surged forwards as the King of Destruction left paused when they saw him holding the Quarass’ hands. They stopped and stared as the Quarass turned, and her eyes flashed with the memories of countless dead women, and Vaitsha and her court knelt behind her.

It was indeed a moment you saw only once in your life. Of such moments were legends born, here, on a small mud brick street, between a street boy and a girl ruler. But such legends are not always told, and another legend that had already echoed around the world once walked calmly out of the city of Ger, capital of Germina.

—-

Flos Reimarch, King of Destruction and ruler of Reim and now Germina, stretched his arms up and yawned. Something popped and he twisted his neck.

“Ah, that’s better. Venith, pull your soldiers out of Germina but keep them in place. You and Maresar will hold here until Orthenon gives you further orders; he’ll no doubt wish to visit, but I shall recall you to Reim shortly. Germina is now allied with Reim, if you had not heard. Maresar, rally your riders. Those who fled the city will soon take up arms against it, and I would rather the Quarass not deal with traitors on her first day.”

Venith and Maresar turned towards their King. The [Soldiers], who had been pelted with paint pellets and sand, coughed and wiped their faces. Teres stared at Flos.

“What, just like that?

He glanced at her. Flos Reimarch’s voice was a normal Human baritone, when he wasn’t speaking as a [King]. But if you listened, you could still hear that odd reverberation behind some of his words. He was tall, imposing, and Teres had to admit, handsome, all of which gave him the regal air of…of…well, a [King]. One right out of a children’s book, if the artist was exceptionally talented.

“I told you I planned on crushing Germina’s rebellion today, didn’t I, Teres?”

“You did, but I thought you’d be hanging people or doing something else! I had no idea you meant all that!”

Venith coughed as he stood next to his king. He glanced at Teres, with the same bit of bewilderment she always saw him give her. He was still working out her exact rank. Maresar, who was more easygoing and didn’t really care, leaned on Venith’s horse and addressed Flos over the back.

“The Quarass. We can trust her?”

Flos stroked his beard.

“Hm. I can’t say for certain, but my instincts tell me yes. And I have sworn to leave her city. The Quarass was always practical, and her current incarnation seems level-headed. More importantly, she is brave, which is a far better quality to have. So we will give her trust—but only that. Venith’s army will camp outside and still request supplies from Germina. Even if she rallies her entire city, it would be a mistake to set them against your forces.”

“As you wish, your Majesty. And I will hunt down those stragglers. May I ask why they fled?”

“[The Choice of the Conquered].”

Flos sighed. Maresar’s brows shot up, but she only nodded. Teres stared at Flos.

“The choice of the what? Is that a Skill?”

Venith shot her a glare, probably for talking to the King of Destruction out of turn. Some of the [Soldiers] were also giving Teres the fisheye, but she was used to it. Flos only grinned as he replied.

“Of course. It’s one of my Skills. A powerful one, too. You saw those in the crowd who left after I made my vow and the Quarass allied herself with me? They are rebels. Traitors who won’t obey me or her.”

Teres remembered them pushing out of the crowd, shouting at Flos.

“You mean, you made them like that?”

Flos hesitated.

“Say rather that I gave them a choice. I gave everyone present a choice, Teres. That is the nature of the Skill. If there is even a glimmer of chance that they would acknowledge me as their ruler, they weren’t affected. Only those who will never bow, never suffer me will flee. Only someone exceptionally high-level or strong of will could have stayed.”

Oh. So it’s like a…lie detector test? A loyalty test?”

“Mm. Something like that. But as I said, it only finds those for whom I would never command their loyalties. Anyone with even a hint—isn’t affected. Half the crowd could well end up trying to kill me, but there’s a chance they’ll be my citizens. Which is fine by me!”

He laughed again, carefree as could be. That was Flos, and believe it or not, this was actually not that strange of a day for Teres anymore. She shook her head.

“So we resurrected a Quarass, identified a bunch of enemies, and now Maresar hunts them down, Venith camps, and we…do what?”

“Confer, for one more moment. Venith, I need a horse and escort. We head to Hellios on a similar errand. Actually, I would do without the escort if you need the men, but Orthenon will object.”

“As would I. You’ll have a hundred men, your Majesty.”

Flos sighed as Venith turned and shouted for horses and the escort. He looked at Maresar.

“Lady Maresar—”

“I wasn’t a [Lady] when you first met me, your Majesty.”

He grinned.

“Bandit Lord Maresar, then. Maresar the Wolf.”

She laughed and Flos went on as Venith gave both his liege and his wife a look of chagrin.

“Hunt down the fleeing traitors by all means, but don’t overreach. Some might have high levels and flee to pockets of resistance. I struck a deal with the Quarass to ban her child assassins, but some of her [Assassins] may rebel. So be on the lookout for them.”

“I will be careful, my liege.”

“And Maresar, take them captive if possible. Execute them swiftly only if you must.”

Flos sighed. Maresar nodded, the slight smile on her face never changing. Teres eyed her. Take them captive meant turn them into slaves. But she bit her lip rather than say anything. If Trey had been here, he might have objected. Flos sighed.

“It is a pity that they fled, Teres. [Choice of the Conquered] is a useful Skill, but…were I a better king, much less a better [King], I think they would all have stayed. But this is enough. Now Germina is part of Reim.”

“And that’s a good thing? It feels like you just gave up the country.”

Flos smiled.

“Hardly. You think I could manage to subdue Germina without years of martial rule? This was far easier since I knew the Quarass could be reborn. And this is how my empire always expanded. Province by province, kingdom by kingdom. Germina will regain much of its strength with its Quarass, and now its armies will march alongside mine.”

“It’s that easy?”

The King shrugged. Venith had left and was returning with two horses.

“Not at all. Orthenon will need to work closely with the Quarass, and there will still be unrest, difficulties…but it will be far easier now. Venith, I commend you for keeping Germina and the area from full-blown revolt until the Quarass was found. I was honestly worried that they’d forgotten the ritual.”

“It was nothing, your Majesty. And I will await Orthenon’s visit with pleasure.”

Lady Maresar rolled her eyes and smiled silently. Flos grinned and patted the stallion Venith led towards him. He swung himself into the saddle as Teres awkwardly mounted with a stirrup.

“I missed your lies, Venith. Well, Teres! To Hellios, then! It is a two-day ride from capital to capital nonstop. If we rest our horses and with my Skills, we’ll make it in one. Come! You can tell me a story of gods on the way.”

And like that he was gone. Venith shouted at the escort of [Soldiers] to ride after the King of Destruction as he rode down the road that slowly changed from mud bricks to just dirt. The King of Destruction rode on, Teres, a girl from another world at his side. It was early spring. And this was how the King of Destruction spent his days. Riding, talking about other worlds, laughing with his companions of old.

And plotting to take over the world. As one does.

—-

The ride through Germina’s lands was quiet. That wasn’t to say that Teres didn’t see people. There were villages, even a town they passed on the road heading east. But there were no travellers on the road aside from a City Runner who took one look at their procession and started running perpendicular to them.

Germina might have had trade, but the [Merchants] and caravans normally travelling between nations and cities had no desire to be caught up in the continuing battles between Germina’s remnants and Flos’ army.

Only one type of caravan would brave the journey right now, and Teres was glad not to see any of that sort. She contented herself with looking around at the arid lands and sparse settlements until that grew boring. Germina, as a nation of oases, was relatively flat, much like Reim. Hellios was apparently more fertile, if only by comparison.

It was a day’s ride from Ger to the capital city of Hellios, Blalevault, even with the fresh horses and Flos’ Skill, which made the ground pass underneath the hooves of their horses flash past. It was a deceptively slow journey to Teres; until she realized that she was comparing the speed they were going at to that of a car.

Still, a day was a day, which meant that somehow they had to pass the time. Teres didn’t know how the [Soldiers] following them and riding ahead did it, but Flos occupied himself by talking with her. It went something like this. They would be riding along in silence, Teres not thinking of much in particular and zoning out until she had a thought or question and rode closer to Flos to ask it. Or he did the same to her.

“So, if bringing the Quarass back was so important, why did you wait for nearly a month to do it? Venith was sending you reports of how hard it was to keep control. Why did you wait for them to decide to do it and not do it yourself? Or at least tell them how to do it? That priest guy had no idea.”

Flos, was the King of Destruction, but he was surprisingly approachable. And he liked to talk. He shrugged as he rode, back straight, as if he’d been born in the saddle. Teres had learned to ride, if only to keep up, but she wasn’t nearly as good as Flos or Orthenon. Even though she’d gained the [Rider] class and several Skills.

“The court of the Quarass was in hiding, Teres. They feared I would execute them, especially if they knew what I was doing. If I had told them I desired the Quarass’ rebirth, do you think they would have trusted me? No, they would have been suspicious. Moreover, I think that the rebirth of the Quarass is a function of the will of the people as much as it is a hidden requirement of her class. If I had forced it, perhaps the ritual would have failed.”

“Oh. So what is the Quarass? You killed her—and now she’s back? I thought she was like a [Queen].”

“She is the ruler of Germina. No more, no less. There is no one in the world like her. [Quarass] is a unique class. And the first Skill she obtains is [Memory of the Quarass].”

Teres could guess what that Skill did. She shuddered, remembering the old look in the girl’s eyes.

“Is it evil? I mean, they turned that girl into…”

Flos’ face was troubled. He hesitated, and casually slapped a bug threatening to bite his horse out of the air.

“She would not have gained the class had she not wished it. But you are right, the child did not know what being Quarass meant. Still, if you are asking whether the class and Skill will take her over—it affects her, but each Quarass is different. I should know; I have met three now. Her Skill does not convey wisdom, nor, I think, is it always helpful. But that child had a spark of her own. She may prove to be a better ruler than the previous Quarass. At the very least, she and I are allies. But I will keep Maresar and Venith here until Orthenon may speak with her and establish governance to his liking. And hers.”

Teres digested that. She frowned.

“Okay. But how do the memories carry over? That was like…rebirth.”

“A form of it. It is a function of her class, which, as I said, is unique. A power that Germina somehow discovered. Or created. Secrets, Teres. This world has secrets. The power of the Quarass’ class to resurrect itself is one such, if a small one.”

That didn’t seem small to Teres. She opened her mouth, inhaled a bug at speed and coughed. Flos slapped her on the back, laughing, until she spat out the bug and washed her mouth out twice.

“Beware of bugs. Especially as fast as we travel. My turn to ask a question. I believe I asked you to tell me more about gods on the way here, Teres. You told me much about the various religions…can you elaborate on these holy wars you said took place?”

Teres scowled as she spat some water out. She could still taste bitterness in her mouth. And a feeler. She spat that out too.

“Trey’s the one to ask.”

“But he stayed in the capital. I don’t think he enjoys riding or my company enough. These holy wars?”

Sighing, Teres thought for a second.

“I don’t know. Okay. There were these kingdoms who believed in Christianity. And they had the Pope.”

“He who was highest of the [Clerics].”

“Um…yes? The closest man to god. And he said—I think, something like ‘the people living in these countries don’t believe in our god. Go kill them.’ And that’s what happened.”

“And the nations who practiced Christianity…?”

“They went to war. And they killed a lot of Muslims. And they got killed.”

“Hm. It feels like you skipped over a lot of the details in your account. But I understand the gist. And these nations sent their warriors to fight and die? For a god’s will? Did he manifest to them?”

“Nope. The Pope said so and so everyone went off.”

“On his word alone. Unbelievable.”

Flos frowned to himself. Teres couldn’t help but interject her opinion.

“That’s faith for you. It makes people crazy. Anyways, Trey’s the one you want to talk to. He actually paid attention during the sermons in church.”

“I will ask him about it.”

Flos nodded slowly. He glanced up at Teres.

“Still, faith is a powerful thing. I’ve thought on it, Teresa Atwood. And I believe it is one of the fundamental differences that separates my world from yours.”

“Probably. But I mean, didn’t those people love their Quarass? That entire ritual looked a lot like something religious, you know.”

“Mm. Perhaps it did. But I think there were differences.”

“Which are?”

The King took a few moments to think. He opened his mouth, frowned, and spat out a bug. Teres was vaguely disappointed by that.

“The difference is this. In this world, Humans—no, people know the gods to be dead. We cannot believe in them; I have never heard of a…[Preacher] in my world, let alone religion. And so, we know there is a limit to all things. Immortals may die. Magic is finite. The gods are dead.”

That was a cynical outlook on life. Unusual, coming from Flos, who was normally impossible to depress. The King of Destruction went on as Teres shielded her face with a scarf.

“Faith has its limits in the heart, Teres. Not like your world. And so I may conquer the hearts of Germina’s folk, by nurturing their fear that the line of the Quarass will die out and by giving them hope that I will let it continue. They do not have the blind faith of your world that some…god will swoop down from the heavens to make things right. That is what they do, isn’t it?”

It sounded like Flos had trouble saying the word ‘god’. He had to frown as he pronounced it, but he’d been saying the word more often of late. And asking questions about god nonstop on their ride here, for that matter. Teres nodded, smiling at the image of gods swooping down out of the sky like birds. But wait, wasn’t that what they did? She frowned.

“Well, some myths, er, have that. Beams of light from heaven. But sometimes it’s just a voice. Or—or people say miracles happen thanks to god, like a bridge collapsing and no one getting hurt. But they never see god. It’s all invisible. The invisible hand of god.”

“Ah, invisible workings. So they flit about invisibly?”

“No, no…they’re miracles. It might not even be god, but you see, if there was a god he’d be omniscience and omnipotent. So he could just save lives by willing it. You see…”

Teres had trouble explaining what a god was to Flos. He seemed incapable of grasping a being that was all-knowing and all-powerful. He kept asking for clarification until he finally got it. And when he did, he just shook his head with a vague look of disappointment.

“Omnipotence. Omniscience. Odd things to imagine. Your gods sound more like dreams, to me. How would such a being exist? Why would they let evil exist? Ah, wait, I know the answer to that one. Evil must exist, or how else would we outline what is good? Dark needs light to shine. Ah, but it must be aggravating to be a god!”

He laughed heartily as Teres gave him a sidelong look. That was another thing Flos did. One second he was interested in mundane things—like ice cream—the next, he was speaking of good and evil as if he understood the perspective of gods. She rolled her shoulders and shifted in her saddle, wishing she had a pillow.

“I guess that’s what some people say. But that’s only if gods exist. And that’s up for debate.”

Half a year ago she would have laughed at any suggestion gods existed. Now she wasn’t so sure. Flos smiled.

“If they exist. If they exist? And here I thought your world had more faith than mine.”

The question and the smile—more like a smirk—needled Teres. Sometimes Flos behaved that way, as if their two worlds were in competition. And sometimes Teres felt as if she had to defend Earth, as if Flos’ admiration or scorn mattered.

“Well, we can’t know for certain! There are contradictions in holy books, like dinosaurs existing when ‘apparently’ the god of Christianity made the earth in seven days. And no one can prove their god exists because they don’t do miracles, which all apparently happened in the past. So it sounds like bollocks to me. Anyways, if people knew it wouldn’t be faith, right? It’s the eternal question or some shite like that.”

To the young woman’s surprise, her outburst only provoked gales of laughter from Flos, that made some of the soldiers riding ahead of them turn to see what was going on. He righted himself in his saddle before he fell off and gave Teres an amused glance.

“Ah, Teres! The eternal question? You clearly don’t believe in gods, but you don’t understand. Teres, you are that answer to your world’s eternal question. Because you can ask whether god exists or not in this world. I cannot. The fact that your world can even believe in gods while we know that none exist in our world…doesn’t that prove there are yet some in yours?”

It—Teres opened her mouth. Closed it. She rode on, shaken. Flos shook his head.

“Or maybe it only proves we had some. And that they now lie dead.”

He stared ahead. Teres was determined not to open that can of worms no matter what. She wondered what Trey would think when she told him what Flos had said. If they could talk without fighting. She slumped in her saddle. She and Trey hadn’t been getting along since…well, it was his fault and her fault. But she hated being alone from her twin.

“Do you always talk like this? Is that why none of the others would ride with you?”

Flos snorted; he seemed to enjoy it when Teres poked at him.

“They have their duties. And I don’t always pester my vassals. For one thing, they don’t have entertaining stories like you do. Well, not true ones at any rate. I’m not always so introspective, Teres. Sometimes, yes, I think deeply about the world. Other times I wonder what ‘soda’ tastes like. The rebirth of the Quarass was a time for deep thoughts. I fear our next errand will be a time for quick thinking and petty triviality.”

Teres glanced up the empty road. She thought she could see the land rising ahead of them.

“We’re going to Hellios, right? To conquer it? Crush it?”

“That. To bring Hellios into my kingdom, rather than waste time occupying it. Although we might have to expend more resources and time on Hellios.”

Flos sighed. He leaned on his saddle and his horse glanced up at him. Teres scrunched her eyebrows together.

“Okay, another question. If it’s important to take over both nations, why didn’t you do Hellios while you were waiting for Germina to resurrect their Quarass?”

The King of Destruction smiled again, although he was studying the landscape ahead with a kind of weary anticipation.

“Ah. That answer is simple. The Queen of Hellios, Queen Calliope, is haughty. As are Hellosians. A proud people, whereas the folk of Germina love their Quarass. It is far easier to convince them to submit once another nation has followed suit. Besides, a month of occupation proves to them that they cannot oust me so easily. The hearts of men are not so easily won over.”

“What about the hearts of women?”

“Even harder. But it’s vital we secure Hellios, as Orthenon tells me the other nations won’t let us consolidate these lands for much longer. We had a break during the winter and, I think, while the other kingdoms secured their borders in case I continued to advance. But our new neighbors won’t fall as easily as Germina or Hellios this time.”

Teres’ stomach churned.

“You mean, more armies? More war?”

“Perhaps. It need not come to that. But I wish to secure Hellios. If we do, we’ll have ample time to react to any threat coming from the north. There are a trio of nations bordering our lands at the moment to the north and east. Of them, the realm of Belchan and the Jecrass Republic are closest. Even so, Belchan is eight days north of Hellios’ capital even with a marching Skill for any army. No danger—unless we’re attacked from multiple spots at once.”

Eight days of marching with Flos’ Skill? Teres tried to figure out how far that was.

“How many miles is that?”

Flos counted on his fingers and gave up.

“You’ll have to ask Orthenon when we return. I don’t know exact distances of the places I’ve visited, but I know exactly how long it takes to march an army there, or a group of [Riders]. It’s one of the reasons Orthenon and Takhatres are so invaluable; they can reach the swiftest of attacking forces where Mars or Gazi or I would struggle to react in time.”

“But you sent Takhatres across the desert. Why did you do that? His tribe could have wiped out both Germina and Hellios.”

And saved Reim from nearly falling to the coalition army. Flos nodded as if he read Teres’ mind.

“Takhatres would be invaluable here. But he’s occupying the Empire of Sands. While his tribe harasses them they’re forced to expend forces on him, and he can hit any army trying to cross the desert. My kingdom needs that time. We can manage without Takhatres for the moment. Already you could say Reim has expanded three times over. If I can take control of Hellios and Germina’s armies and their economies, I will have a true base of power to draw on besides my Seven.”

“I guess…”

“Fear not, Teres. My enemies at present aren’t a concern. Any single army a kingdom nearby could field is no match for mine. And as I said, we have ample time to react if Hellios is secure. I’m more interested in the future. Now, I was thinking about our chat from last night…”

Oh no. Here we go again. Teres sighed. Flos had that look in his eye.

“So, these guns from your world. I understand they shoot hundreds of ‘rounds’ per minute. Bullets, which despite being tiny can go straight through armor. But Mars is surely immune to such weapons. Her armor is magical. I’ve seen it withstand countless weapons at point-blank range. A sledgehammer swung by an Ogre couldn’t dent it. A ballista couldn’t pierce her chest plate.”

“I understand that. But they’re guns, Flos. They’re a lot more powerful.”

“How much more? I refuse to believe your bullets have more force than a ballista in a single shot.”

“Oh yeah? What about tanks? They have…armor piercing rounds. They could put a hole in a castle. Can Mars survive that?”

“Yes.”

Flos’ calm expression made Teres grind her teeth.

“No she can’t. Don’t be stupid.”

“You haven’t seen Mars as I have, Teres.”

“And you haven’t seen a tank. Or a missile. They can blow up—look, if one hits her, she’s dead! Maybe she survives ordinary guns and not like…RPG’s or sniper rifles, but she can’t beat a tank. She can’t. One of them rolls through and it’ll shred an army, Mars or not. It has machine guns, Flos. I explained them to you. An army from this world can’t beat one from mine.”

The King of Destruction gave Teres a sideways look, almost irritated himself. He breathed out slowly.

Fine. I accept the power of your weapons. But you are still incorrect. It would be simple to triumph in a battle I planned against your world.”

He raised a finger as Teres furiously opened her mouth. Instantly, her mouth shut. She glared as Flos went on.

“In case Mars isn’t totally proof against your missiles and tanks, I would find a single high-level [Pyromancer] and order the [Mage] to disable combustion on the enemy army. What will your guns do, then? From what I understand, they must ignite, mustn’t they?”

“Well, yes, but—guns aren’t that simple. It wouldn’t—”

Teres tried to remember how exactly guns did work. It wouldn’t work if—that wasn’t fair, was it? What about bombs? Or…she stared at Flos.

“How did you come up with that?”

He sighed.

“Easily. I spent several days devising numerous strategies against your world’s weapons until I realized your lack of magic is a crippling weakness. It doesn’t interest me any longer. What else have you?”

She glared.

“We have bombers. And nukes. I told you about them too. And before you say anything, they’re flying miles up. Too high for Amerys to reach like you said yesterday. How would you stop one of those?”

“A flying vessel that can go higher than even Amerys could reach, is it? Capable of destroying cities with a single weapon? I see. Indeed, that is a challenge, indeed…”

Flos murmured to himself, stroking his beard. Teres resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Every time she told him about the military might of Earth, or some device his world hadn’t dreamed of yet, Flos would grow excited.

“You know this is stupid, right? If our world invaded yours—and I don’t even know if that’s possible—you’d be fighting an entire world.

“So? I have one right here. And mine is filled with species yours has never seen, Teres. We have magic. You have technology. It would be a fair battle in some ways.”

“Please.”

“No, I’m serious. If I had to prepare against Earth, if, say, a portal had opened between our world and yours and both sides were sending armies through, I know how I’d begin to compete with your advanced weaponry.”

Teres felt a flutter of uncertainty in her chest. He’d been thinking of it?

“Really? How?”

Flos casually stretched one arm, then the next.

“The first thing I would do is collect some guns and armor to be copied and retreat. Prisoners too; your world’s [Engineers] and soldiers. After all, traitors and turncoats exist in every world. And even if producing these weapons is beyond us, we can always capture more. But I would make every effort to manufacture some of the materials of your world. And—yes, I think preparations can be made. Kevlar is a cloth, you said? An army of Stitch-People made of kevlar would do well against your powerful guns, wouldn’t you say?”

“Stitch-People? But—you can’t do that. Can you?”

Teres tried to imagine the few String People she’d met being made out of kevlar. It boggled the mind. But that was how they worked, right? They sewed fabric for limbs. Flos looked amused at her reaction.

“Of course they could. Any cloth would do. String People are like Dullahans in that they craft themselves. But if I had to choose between the two, I would wish for an army of the Stitch-folk every time. Tell me, how would an army of Humans with guns face a similar army, equipped with guns but made of this wonderful material you and Trey keep telling me exists, but can’t describe in any detail?”

Teres bit her lip. Flos eyed her and went on.

“Now, to counter your aircraft…you said they’re electrical? Amerys might be able to disable them no matter how high they fly so long as she knows they’re there. But just in case…how high did you say they could fly, again? And how fast?”

“Mach 9.”

“And that means…? Come now, Teres. This is all hypothetical. And besides, I wouldn’t conquer your world right away if we discovered a portal leading between our worlds.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“I’d request their surrender first.”

—-

Some days Teres didn’t know if Flos was merely insanely overconfident, or if he was actually deviously intelligent. Certainly she’d given up trying to convince him that Earth was impossibly advanced for his world to take on. After hearing some of Flos’ theories about how to counter everything from a nuclear bomb to bioweapons, she was half-believing he’d have a shot. The thought wasn’t pleasant, but Teres was also sure of something else.

Flos was a good ruler. A good man, for what that was worth. Yes, he believed slavery was fair, but that was a fault she was trying to work on. And he might be the King of Destruction, but she had never seen him behave in a way that was less than…noble. It was strange for Teres to admire someone; she was used to crushes like she had on Orthenon, but Flos inspired. However, what she sometimes forgot was that he didn’t always inspire loyalty, like the devotion of his subjects. Sometimes what he inspired was hate.

Case in point. The next day, after a long night of riding, sleeping after being pestered by Flos to describe various military scenarios and then what Oreos were like, Teres woke up after four hours of sleepy riding to find they’d passed into Hellios and were nearing its capital. It was…northing like Ger had been.

If the capital of Germina had been quiet, discontent, simmering out of sight, Hellios’ capital city was a full-blown boil with a grease fire on top. Flos’ army was camped outside of its gates and Teres could see scorch marks on the earth and arrows. Fresh ones too; a new volley was launched and landed well clear of Flos’ army camped well outside of the walls of the city.

Hellios had fallen, and the city had been taken, but Flos’ army had withdrawn from occupying it after Orthenon had decided it wasn’t worth the casualties it would take to hold it. Part of that reasoning probably had to do with the person he’d stationed in charge of the army.

“My king! I’ve longed to see you!”

The instant Flos approached the camp, a tall, bodacious woman dressed in very form-fitting armor ran out to greet him. She was tall, impossibly fair of skin, and had the kind of beauty that inspired the words bodacious, exquisite, delectable, and uh, beautiful.

Mars the Illusionist stopped in front of Flos’ horse, beaming up at him. Teres glanced sideways at her as some [Hostlers] raced forwards to take the horses of the other soldiers. She dismounted as Flos, laughing, leapt from the saddle.

“Mars! How goes it, my [Vanguard]? I see that Hellios still has some fire!”

The woman pursed her lips, looking vexed but only for a second. Luscious lips. That was another phrase. She needed no makeup, and her skin was perfect despite the heat. Teres could see some of the male soldiers—and two of the female ones—giving Mars a long look. She tried not to stare as well. Flos appeared impervious to Mars’ charms, however. The [Vanguard] and one of Flos’ infamous Seven led them to the center of the camp.

“The defenders shoot arrows at us any time we get within range, milord. But they’re smart enough not to sally out or sneak out—at least, after the last eight times they tried. We have them cornered and they know it. They don’t dare attack so long as I’m here.”

She reclined on a chair, her body languid, her molded breastplate gleaming in the sun. Teres stared at her chest. She met Mars’ eyes as the [Vanguard] winked at her.

“Hello, Teres. Like the spell? It’s a new look.”

“It’s great. Do all of your illusions have huge breasts?”

“They attract attention. And arrows, strangely enough. I can’t count how many [Mages] have seared me straight across the chest rather than aim for my head, for all it looks unguarded…”

Mars sighed, and her lips curved up in a smile that would win any heart. But it was all an illusion. Teres knew that, although she had to fight to remember that when a stray gust of wind blew Mars’ hair, or she wiped a bit of dust from her gleaming, gilded armor.

But that was Mars the Illusionist for you. She hid her true form with spells. But illusion or not, she was the most powerful of Flos’ servants, at least in level. And with her present, Hellios’ forces cooped up in the walls of their city wouldn’t dare sally forth. Teres had seen Mars fight in a battle only once. And when she had, she’d been unstoppable. Invincible.

Still, Mars was hardly a leader like Venith or Maresar and the camp showed it. She’d left the organization to a [Strategist] under her command and apparently she’d spent her time in camp sparring, taunting Hellios’ defenders, or drinking and gambling.

“A true soldier to the last. But I need into that city, Mars. Would you care to walk to me?”

“After a month spent staring at the walls and listening to their weak insults? Walking with my sovereign? You don’t have to tempt me any further.”

Mars leapt up. She grabbed Flos’ arm and laughing, he followed her. The two walked through the camp as men and women raced forwards, but Flos walked through them with a single sentence.

“I intend to take Hellios myself.”

And that was it. The [Strategist], one of Venith’s men, fell back with the others. They didn’t ask how Flos intended to do it, or if he was crazy. The King of Destruction wanted to take Hellios with just Mars and Teres. So they watched and the [Soldiers] dashed out of their tent and cheered Flos’ name.

King of Destruction! Teres could fell the reverberation in the air as they approached Hellios’ capital. Blalevault was a city set into the side of the mountain, hence the reason why the defenders couldn’t go around Mars’ army in the cover of night. But it was well-fortified and the walls were imposing. Flos stopped at the point where the arrows littered the ground. Behind him, his army spread out, chanting his name.

Flos!

The roar came from thousands of voices. Hellios seemed to shake with the sound. The King of Destruction raised a hand and his army roared. Teres, standing next to him, shook with the sound, but neither Flos nor Mars moved. She was smiling up at him, and he was smiling at her. Like the oldest of friends or lovers. That was how Flos looked at all of his Seven. It was a look to make Teres jealous, for only her bond with Trey was more intimate.

Hellios had spotted the King of Destruction. They’d heard him long ago. Teres could hear someone blowing a horn and saw people racing across the walls, filling it. Archers, [Knights], she saw several draw their bows back.

“Incoming. Stand behind me, Teres.”

Mars warned the girl. She raised her shield as the first arrows flew. They were over three hundred meters away from the walls by Teres’ metric reckoning, but a few arrows still flew all that distance. Then one shot from a bow aimed straight at Flos. It fell through the air, aimed at his face—

The arrow snapped on Mars’ shield as she lifted it. The [Vanguard] poised like some kind of action hero, lifting her shield over Flos’ head. The King of Destruction held still as Hellios loosed more arrows, but whoever had shot that arrow must have used a Skill, for none came closer.

Hellios! I have come to speak with your Queen! Open your gates and let us enter in peace!

Flos bellowed the words at the walls. His voice was so loud! Teres winced. She saw the bows stop loosing arrows. For a second there was silence, then she heard a distant shout.

Sands take you, King of Destruction!

Someone on the walls bellowed the words back. There was a shout, and more sound as the defenders screamed and jeered. The sound was a cacophony with few words Teres could hear, but what she could make out was all foul.

Flos’ army shouted back, but they fell silent as Flos raised a hand. Mars glared at Hellios.

“The barking of a defeated army, your Majesty. They can’t hold out for even a day and they know it. And Orthenon has the rest of the country locked down. Do you want me to send the army forth? We can take those walls.”

“No. I won’t waste lives. Ours or theirs. This is simple enough, anyways. Hellios might not be Germina in terms of loving their Quarass, but they are still loyal.”

Flos walked forwards, heedless of the second volley of arrows that fell short and the fireball that exploded after only a hundred meters in the air. He raised a hand and pointed at the walls—the jeering redoubled in volume as the people on Hellios’ walls dared the King of Destruction to come closer. But Flos only looked at one person.

Mars! Enter the throne room. If anyone threatens my subjects or myself, put Queen Calliope to death and slay everyone in the castle! My army, if I or Teres should fall, burn Blalevault to the ground and erase Hellios from every map in the world.

The people on Hellios’ walls suddenly went quiet. Behind Flos, his army roared his name. Teres turned to stare at Flos. He wasn’t smiling.

Mars was. At his command, she strolled forwards, her bright red hair, the color of today, last time it had been purple, streaming behind her in the wind. Her face was bare, her armor beautiful. But it fooled no one.

Here came Mars the Illusionist. Teres saw the defenders pull back as one. Then they began firing and loosing spells as she came within range.

Hundreds of arrows struck Mars in the face, across her armor, and yes, across her breastplate. A [Fireball] exploded, engulfing her in flames. Someone threw a bolt of lightning. Both standard spells. War spells that could kill a group of [Soldiers] in a single blast. But when the smoke cleared, Mars was walking forwards. Her pure skin wasn’t scratched. Her armor gleamed.

An illusion. But the Mars underneath was just as unharmed, Teres knew. And the knowledge made Hellios’ defenders quail, then redouble their assault. Teres watched as they shot quiversful of arrows at her, and then, when she was within forty feet of the walls, they just gave up.

Open the gates. Or Mars will cut every soldier on the walls down.

Flos bellowed at Blalevault’s walls. They hesitated, but this time Teres could sense the fear on the distant figures. The gates opened and Mars strolled through.

“Our turn.”

Flos calmly walked forwards. Teres stared at him and then walked after him, cringing as the walls grew closer.

“Wait! But should we let Mars—”

“If they were going to shoot me, they would do it regardless. No, they’ll refrain, tempting a target as I might be. And those who think to kill me will be held back by those who fear for their lives, or their families.”

“Are you sure?

Flos looked back over his shoulder.

“No. So you need not accompany, Teres. But I will protect you if someone tries.”

For a second Teres debated staying as Flos walked onwards. But perhaps it was his nature as [King], or maybe it was her. She followed.

Mars was through the gates by the time they arrived and heading up the street. Blalevault was organized such that the street leading through the central gates led straight up towards the keep built into the back of the mountain. Teres saw that while the defenders had given up, some were still trying to hold her back from the palace.

They couldn’t stop her. Teres saw a man fling himself at Mars. He was as tall as her illusion and broader still, but when he tried to stop her with a bear hug she just kept walking. His legs began sliding and he scrabbled for purchase. He couldn’t so much as break her stride and ended up being dragged ten feet before she kicked him off her.

“After Mars.”

Flos walked through the gates. Teres stared up at the faces on the walls. Hundreds of eyes stared hatred and fear at Flos. If she had time, she could have stared at Hellios impressive walls, built up from thick-cut blocks of stone, or the architecture of the city, which was all stone, intricate work compared to Germina’s simple mud huts, but terribly lacking in color despite the colorful roofs. If she had time she could have seen the people, judged the condition of Hellios’ defenders after a month of defeat. But Flos was walking so fast that Teres could only see a blur of faces.

They were all there. Hellosians, the people of Blalevault. Staring at Flos, some clearly trying to shout insults at him. But fear and his presence held their tongues. Flos walked up the street, glancing to his left and right, his face impassive. What he felt, Teres couldn’t guess at. He was moving too fast. He’d spend two days in Germina, blending in with the people under his illusion spell, listening to them. But here he was nearly at the castle when someone threw a rock at him.

Flos!

The King was already turning. His sword was in its sheathe, but it slashed the rock into fragments before the world had left Teres’ mouth. The crowd gasped and drew back in horror. The King of Destruction turned and pointed at the culprit. She froze, tiny hand lifting a second rock.

A child. A girl, who was instantly shielded by her mother. The people of Blalevault stared at the girl in horror, and then at Flos, remembering his vow. The King of Destruction studied the girl for a second and then shook his head.

“Children don’t count.”

The breath that the crowd let out was like a gust of wind. Flos paused as Teres stopped by his side. He looked at the child holding the rock.

“I hate you! Die, King of Destruction!”

She struggled in her mother’s grip. Children were supposed to be cute, but there was nothing cute in the way this girl’s face contorted. Her mother held onto her.

“Don’t, spare her, your Majesty, please!”

She begged as Flos drew closer. The people around the woman drew back. Teres saw a few men clench their fists and thought that if Flos hurt the girl, they would attack him, order or not. But that wasn’t what Flos did. He bent and looked down at the girl.

“Why do you hate me, child?”

The girl went still for a second in her mother’s arms. She looked up.

“You killed my da.”

Then she threw herself at Flos. Her mother had to drag her back. Flos looked at her, and then around at the citizens of Hellios. They stared at him, and the same hatred in the girl’s eyes was in theirs.

Then Teres understood. Hellios was different from Germina in one way. The people of Germina had hated Flos for killing the Quarass. For bringing war to the country. For all these things, they hated Flos, but Hellios’ hatred ran deeper. It was darker. And Flos knew it.

“What is your name, girl.”

He looked down at the struggling girl. She shouted defiantly in his face.

“Delani of Hellios! You’ll die! Queen Calliope and Prince Siyal will cut off your head!

She screamed, red in the face as she tried to kick at Flos. Teres saw his shoulders slump for a second. Then he knelt.

“Quiet.”

And the girl was. She held still, flushed with rage as Flos looked at her. He spoke quietly, to her, to the watchers.

“I did not make war first, Delani of Hellios. I understand that does nothing for your heart. But do not waste your life here. Grow. And wait. And find me when you are older if you still bear a grudge. I will be waiting.”

Then he stood up and kept walking. There was only silence after that. Delani’s mother dragged her away and no one else attacked Flos. Teres followed him. It was a long road up to the keep.

“They loathe me in Hellios twice-over, Teres. There are no memories of my reign over them that are pleasant. I have taken this city twice now. Both times I was hated. I fear Hellios will be harder to rule than Germina by far. But I will not have it stab at my back a third time.”

Flos spoke quietly as he entered the open doors to the castle. The wooden gates looked…cracked, as if Mars had rammed her way through. Teres stared at three bodies in the entryway. They looked unconscious, rather than dead.

The keep was stone. Impressively tall, but short. Apparently it was expanded with each generation. Flos slowed his pace; Teres could hear a commotion coming ahead of them, from the throne room. He stared at the servants cowering in the stone entryway and gestured around it to Teres.

“The first time I walked these halls was as a boy. I was…fourteen? Fifteen? Maybe fourteen. King Treland had made an incursion into Reim, hoping to take our lands after my mother’s passing.”

“What happened? I mean, how did you defeat him?”

Teres expected that was the start of Flos’ famous exploits, but he shook his head.

“I couldn’t defeat him in outright battle. So I used trickery, of course. His armies were stronger. He was a much higher-level [King] than I at the time. So I diverted my forces. Gazi—she was with me, even back then—helped me lead a small force north, around his troops. Treland hadn’t expected that and we took the walls by surprise. He’d left only a token force behind.”

“Oh. And then?”

Flos’ face was shadowed. He stared ahead. The doors to the throne room were thrown open. Two [Knights] lay on the ground. One’s faceplate had been bashed in. The other was clutching at his groin.

“I marched up to his throne room and challenged him to personal combat. He accepted, so I killed him there. Calliope was a young woman, then. It feels…like only a moment has passed since then. A moment and a century.”

Then he entered the throne room. Teres heard a blather of voices before he entered, shouts, and then dead silence. She walked forwards and saw a tableau.

Here stood the King of Destruction. His sword was sheathed at its side and he wore plain clothing, well, plain for a monarch, though she knew he had armor on underneath. And there was the court of Queen Calliope.

They had…nobles, courtiers, a Master of Ceremonies, [Knights], [Ladies] who might have been in waiting, pages, servants, even a steward of their own. But they were the backdrop. The true actors to the scene stood on the dais surrounding the throne at the back of the room.

Three of them. One was Mars. Her shield was on one arm and her sword drawn. She held it lazily, pointed at a woman with a crown sitting still in the chair. Queen Calliope. And next to her, his sword drawn and aimed at Mars, was Prince Siyal.

Teres had seen him once. He’d been a [Messenger] who’d brought news of war. She remembered an angry young man and found her memory hadn’t lied. Prince Siyal’s face was flushed and the expensive sword in his hands was held in a double-grip. Mars didn’t appear bothered, though the sword was nearly poking her in the cheek. She was only a few steps away from Queen Calliope, who stared past her at the King of Destruction with burning eyes.

Queen Calliope. She was…well, she looked like a [Queen]. In that she had an expensive dress on. And she had a crown, although that was silver rather than gold. But other than that? She didn’t look like Flos, who had the bearing of a hero of stories. Calliope just looked like a middle-aged woman, hair going to grey but artfully concealed by some kind of hair dye that hadn’t been applied recently enough to cover a few hairs. She looked normal.

And perhaps that was most telling of all. Because when Flos walked forwards, the room shuddered. The King of Destruction slowly walked towards the throne. Mars stepped back, sheathing her sword as Flos came to a stop, still far away from the throne. He spoke quietly, but with that same echo Teres had heard yesterday.

“Twice now, Hellios has made war on Reim. Once, Treland invaded and I took his head. The second time? You have cause for fury, Calliope, but you acted poorly as ruler of your nation.”

“Flos of Reim. You will answer for your crimes against Hellios.”

Queen Calliope’s voice shook, but whether with rage or fear it was hard to say. Her eyes were locked on Flos and her hands were white on the armrests of her throne. Prince Siyal hadn’t lowered his sword, only pointed it at Flos.

“Threaten my mother, King of Destruction and I will—”

Flos raised a finger. Prince Siyal’s mouth snapped shut. Teres could see him trying to open it furiously, but both monarchs never looked away from each other. Flos shook his head.

“Tell me, Calliope. Was vengeance worth the cost?”

“You murdered my husband.”

“He attacked Reim. I challenged him to a duel. He lost. I did not despoil Hellios, though it was within my power. Now, you send your armies against me. Twice, Calliope. Should I repay you for the lives of my people you slaughtered as they fled towards me?”

Queen Calliope’s face didn’t move, though the rest of the court visibly drew back.

“Do it. And the world will see you for the monster you are.”

For a second Teres saw Flos’ eyes narrow. He glanced around the room and she thought he was measuring up every life there. Weighing it. Standing next to the throne, Mars looked around, her gaze cold, her smile taunting. But then the King of Destruction shook his head.

“I do not come here for your head, Calliope of Hellios. I do come for your kingdom. I would have Hellios join Reim, have your people work with mine as equals and your armies and mine march to the ends of the earth together.”

The intake of breath was sharp. Calliope glared at Flos.

“Never. We would rather die than join with you. That is Hellios’ answer, Flos of Reim. And Germina would answer the same in a heartbeat, if you have not asked them already.”

Again, Teres sensed that the room wasn’t quite on Calliope’s side. Even her son, Siyal, gave his mother a glance before glaring at Flos. The King of Destruction spread his hands.

“Germina has agreed. The Quarass of Germina was dead, but now she has risen. And the new Quarass has pledged to join her kingdom with my own.”

The Quarass lives. The murmur that went through the court was short-lived. Calliope glared around, and then compressed her lips.

“My answer stands. What will you, then, King of Destruction? Or—will you accept this? Withdraw your forces from Hellios. When the last of your soldiers is gone, I will accept an alliance with your kingdom.”

Teres glared at Calliope as more murmurs sprang up. She saw Mars roll her eyes and mime to Flos a punching motion. The King ignored her. But he did stare at Calliope with something like disgust.

“I trust you less than the Quarass of Germina. I will not settle for an alliance, even sealed by blood. I require your abdication, Calliope. You will not be harmed on my word as a King. But Hellios will be part of Reim. Until such time as it is earned back.”

What?

The word burst from Siyal’s mouth at last. He strode down the dais—two men and a woman threw themselves at him, stopping him from approaching Flos. Siyal struggled and then shouted at the King, face flushed.

“You dare to claim our throne? By what right? King of Destruction or not—”

He fell silent as Flos looked at him directly once. Siyal paled as Flos glared.

“Yes. I dare, Prince Siyal. By what right? By right of conquest. Or did you think this was a negotiation? Do you think you held off Mars with that sword? If I ordered it, she would clear this room of life in a minute.”

“Thirty seconds.”

Flos ignored that too. He pointed at Siyal, who’d gone pale.

Did you think my words were an idle boast? I could erase Blalevault as easily as Hellios. I could empty this city and wash your stone buildings with blood. I should. By rights I should, to make up for Hellios’ slaughter of my people. For war. I do not because I remember that the people of a country do not answer for the monarchs’ crime. So I offer your mother—and you—this one opportunity. Take it, or I will take your lives.”

Siyal backed up a step. Then he half-looked at his mother. She stared at him and Teres wondered what kind of a mother she had been. She got her answer as Calliope dipped her head slightly. Siyal froze, and then turned. And he raised his sword.

“Flos of Reim. I challenge you to a duel. For Hellios! To the death!”

The throne room was silent. Teres saw one of the people around Siyal, the man, trying to pull him back. The woman was sobbing, pleading with him. Flos stared at Siyal, and then looked at Calliope. This time Teres felt his fury like a hot brand, burning her chest.

“He is your son. Low, even for you, Calliope. Or did you think it would work? If so, you understand nothing of why your husband fell.”

“Your enemy is me, Flos of Reim! I challenge you—”

Siyal paused as Flos looked at him again. The King of Destruction shook his head.

“I refuse your challenge.”

“Then your honor is forfeit! Leave go of me—”

Siyal struggled forwards, but stopped as Mars blocked his way. There was no smile on her face this time as she placed her blade in front of his chest. Flos looked at Siyal.

“Do not throw away your life, Prince Siyal. If you raise your blade against me, Mars will answer you. And she is not merciful in battle.”

The young man hesitated, raising his blade. And Teres prayed he wouldn’t try it. Siyal glanced at his mother again, but she gave him no cue this time.

“I—better to die defending my home than to see it destroyed! You would tear Hellios apart and destroy our legacy!”

The [Prince] hurled the words at Flos, as if trying to convince himself. Flos sighed. But he faced Siyal more readily than Calliope.

“No. Recall what I said to your mother. I take Hellios, but only because I find its ruler unworthy of it.”

Now there was another conversation happening. A different tone than the raw contempt between Calliope and Flos. Siyal wavered, his sword loose in his grip. Teres thought she could have disarmed him with a single blow. If Orthenon had seen Siyal’s grip, he would have smacked the [Prince] across the head.

“Then—Hellios is to be mine? If my mother abdicates?”

Mars rolled her eyes. Flos was more patient and just shook his head again.

“Are you worthy of it? No. But you might be, in time. You are young, foolish. But I have seen worse become the best of men. Your mother will not rule Hellios, but you might. Here is what I offer. Serve me, Siyal of Hellios. Win battles in my name. Grow, [Prince], into a man who could lead your country. And I will restore Hellios to you. Not just your lands of now, but the lands Hellios held in days of yore.”

What?

The court was shaking. From fear, something like incredulity was blossoming. Hope, worming its way out of despair. Siyal shook his head.

“You don’t own those lands! And Hellios was mighty! In our founding—how do you offer kingdoms so easily?”

The King of Destruction spread his hands. He turned to face the room, slowly looking at the faces around him.

“How now? Boy, I am Flos. One day I will rule all of Chandrar and the lands beyond it. Why should I not reward my loyal vassals? But a kingdom must be won by valor and service. So that is my offer to you, as a [King] to a [Prince]. Will you accept it?”

The [Prince] wavered. He stared at Flos white-faced. And Teres saw his sword-tip lower. Or maybe his arms were just tired? But the voice came from the throne, harsh and unrelenting.

“Siyal will never serve you, Flos of Reim. And I will never leave this throne.”

Flos looked up. Calliope was staring at him. She stood, then. It was a grand gesture as she pointed down at Flos. But she still seemed smaller.

“If you wish to take Hellios, it will not be with false promises. Do as you did in decades past, Flos of Reim. Or begone from my sight.”

She glared at Flos. And he bowed his head. Teres saw him close his eyes. And then open them a moment later. Flos sighed. Then he shrugged.

“So be it.”

He began walking towards Calliope. Flos strode up the throne room, casually, as if he were going for a stroll. But he drew his sword. And his eyes were locked on Calliope’s head.

Teres felt a surge of cold panic run through her. He wasn’t going to—now? Here? Just like that?

The suddenness had caught everyone else off-guard as well. For a moment Teres saw them make the same incredulous assessment. And then the terrifying realization that Flos was serious.

“The Queen—”

Several warriors lunged forwards. But they stopped when Mars turned to face them. Siyal was on the floor, choking, clutching at his throat where she’d struck him. Flos kept walking. Calliope backed up, sat down on her throne. She stared at Flos. He came up the dais steps, two at a time. He raised his sword as the noise reached a furor behind him and Teres ducked behind Mars, her sword drawn too. And he—

“Enough! I yield. I abdicate. I abdicate.”

The words burst from Calliope’s lips. She stared up at Flos. He paused, sword in hand. Slowly, he sheathed it. Then he nodded.

“Do it, then.”

With all eyes on her, with trembling hands, Calliope lifted the silver crown from her head. Flos took it. Then without looking he hurled it across the room. Someone whimpered. Calliope stared at Flos. He nodded.

“Good. Then I accept your crown, Calliope. Let it be known that you have abdicated, and that I take Hellios as my own. Prince Siyal will not become [King]. But I pledge upon my own crown that should he prove his worth, I will grant him Hellios.”

He turned and walked down the steps of the dais. Siyal scrambled up onto all fours. He coughed, and then shouted with a strangled voice.

“Do you think I’ll serve you just like that? King of Destruction?”

Flos didn’t bother to slow as he walked past Siyal.

“No. But if you are a true [King], you will come for your kingdom.”

And to that there was nothing Siyal said. He lowered his head as Flos strode past Mars and Teres. Silently, the two women followed him. Flos was nearing the doors to the throne room when Calliope shouted at his back.

She was on her feet now. tears streaked the makeup on her face. No longer a [Queen], just a woman. But she still hated him, Teres could see.

“Are you pleased with yourself, Flos of Reim? Or must you take everything from me on the tip of a sword? My husband and my home, and now my son?

Flos turned once at the doors. He put his hand on them as Mars stood at his side. A King and his vassal. And he looked old, then. Old and disappointed. He stared back at Calliope. And it was disappointment, more than his contempt, more than his fury, that made the woman quail.

“Would that you had never invaded, Calliope. Would that Treland had never taken arms against me. Had that happened, I might never have been known as the King of Destruction and we might have lived in peace as neighbors. But, I think, we would never have been friends.”

Then he turned and was gone.

—-

They left Blalevault in silence. No one stopped them. If anything, the people were relieved. News of what had passed in the throne room was already spreading. And the people were…wary.

They did not hate Flos one bit less. But he had offered them something. Like Germina, it was a deal. A chance, a way out besides death. They could rise up, or they could bide their time. Wait and take the King of Destruction’s offer.

Teres thought she knew what they’d choose. But Flos didn’t seem happy, for all he’d won a bloodless victory. He gave curt orders in the camp. Watch the city; he didn’t trust Calliope, for all she was no longer [Queen]. Then he retired to Mars’ tent.

Teres found him inside, drinking a cup of wine with the [Vanguard]. Mars was talking softly, but she wasn’t as provocative as before. She’s switched guises; from a redheaded beauty to a younger woman, still flawless, but more like a soldier, with short-cropped green hair.

“Teres. Come in. We were talking about the past.”

Flos looked up. He took a gulp of his wine as Mars sat back and motioned for Teres to join her. There was a cup of wine and Teres accepted it, drinking a bit and grimacing. Mars drank the poorest of wines, but Flos didn’t seem to care.

“I don’t know if Siyal will accept my offer. Either way, it will be a long time before I trust Blalevault to a small guard. Orthenon will have to work hard to keep the city from erupting in plots. Then again—Hellios was manageable in my first campaign once I let them fight their enemies. Which they have many of, thankfully.”

“Do you think that Queen will give you trouble, Flos?”

Mars spoke softly, using Flos’ name for the first time Teres could remember. Flos shook his head, staring into his goblet.

“Calliope? She’s not brave or clever enough for true dissent. And she’s lost her class. Her Skills too, some of them. She’ll keep some Skills, gain a new class. But she cannot take back her abdication. Nor will her people forget. Siyal is the one who will decide their fates, if anyone from her line does.”

Mars nodded. She offered Flos a refill from a wineskin and he took it and drank again. Teres gulped. She looked from Mars to Flos.

“Were you—were you actually going to cut off her head if she didn’t say anything?”

She didn’t know if she wanted the answer. But to her surprise, that made Flos laugh. He looked up, grinning slightly.

“Kill her? No. Calliope must have thought so. But I had no intention of killing her in that moment. I was going to slice that damn throne in half. Take her crown, break it. Maybe spank her like a child.”

“What? But that’s so…”

Teres almost said childish. But Flos was smiling and Mars was giving her a thumbs up.

“Why shouldn’t I? And it would work better than you think. A [Queen] needs dignity, Teres. More than a [King], sometimes. And Calliope is prideful. I’m not in the habit of killing more than I have to, despite what the rumors about me say. And I don’t kill monarchs. Usually.”

Teres paused. That begged the question.

“How many rulers have you killed?”

Flos looked at Mars. She held up a number on her fingers, balancing the cup between her thighs. Flos shook his head and counted on his fingers.

“Er…sixteen? No—twenty three if you count…often in battle, we’re drawn to each other, you see. And when I was first starting out, other rulers thought they could best me in battle with their [Champions]. That stopped when Mars joined me, but I suppose I came to them after that.”

“Twenty three?

“It happens. I don’t think of it as a good thing. And I don’t plan on killing any rulers out of turn, Teres. Calliope was a fool. But she had cause to hate me. Hellios does.”

“But you didn’t start the war. They did. And you spared them. They wouldn’t have done the same if they were in your shoes!”

Flos shook his head slightly. He looked tired now. Tired, when he had been full of life in Germina. He looked as old as he was, that was it.

“What did that ever matter? They have cause. That child has cause. And I will not take their hatred away. I will bear it. That is what a [King] does. For Reim, I will take the hatred of my enemies. For my kingdom, I will be a monster. But Teres—sometimes it is hard. I am glad you were here to see a day when I was not forced to be that monster.”

He looked up. And Teres saw him smile again. So she sat on a rug in Mars’ tent. And she said the first thing that came to mind.

“This is awful wine. You know, I heard there were magical wines in this world, which we don’t have. But this is terrible.”

“Hey, we’re in a camp outside of a city famous for exporting stone. What do you want?”

Mars protested. Flos laughed.

“This is terrible stuff. But I’ll drink it and gladly. Still, when we get the chance, remind me to show you some magical wines, Teres. They are quite lovely, although you can sometimes taste the magic in them. [Mages] love the stuff, but I prefer…”

He began telling Teres a story, and Mars chipped in, grinning. And Teres sat and listened to the King of Destruction as he forgot his gloom and became lively again. And she thought that was why she was here. She and Trey could do what all of Flos’ vassals and armies and Skills could not. So she kept him company for a while, as Hellios fell to the King of Destruction and the Quarass sat on her throne and looked to the future.

This was Chandrar. And believe it or not, this wasn’t that out of the ordinary as days went.

—-

As Teres and Flos drank in Mars’ tent outside the capital of Hellios, two nations away a young boy perched in the window of the tallest tower in Reim. Not in the window of the tower, of course, but on a stool just on the edge. Trey Atwood wasn’t suicidal. He stared across the nation of Reim, north and east, as if he could see his sister there. Of course he couldn’t, and any mental link with his twin sister was purely in his head. But he liked to imagine he knew she was well.

“There you are.”

A quiet voice spoke behind Trey. He yelped, nearly fell out of his stool, and windmilled desperately, although he was far from the window’s ledge. He fell onto the ground and looked up.

Four eyes returned his gaze. The fifth, main eye was shut. But Gazi’s sharp-toothed smile more than made up for its lack. The half-Gazer knelt. She was wearing her brown scale armor and on her back was tied the claymore she never let leave her side. Trey backed up on the ground, babbling.

“Oh please, not more training. I’m tired, I don’t want to be hit with sticks or cast spells while blindfolded and if you make me dodge your sword again, I swear I’ll jump and die and—”

“Shush.”

Gazi raised a curiously segmented finger to her lips. Trey went quiet. The Gazer put a foot on her chair and stared out the window. He saw one of her four eyes twist downwards. Another stared at him and the other two rolled around, exposing the whites of her eye. Checking the staircase behind her and the floors below.

Gazi, or Gazi the Omniscient, one of the King of Destruction’s Seven, waited for Trey to get up. She glanced out the tower and shook her head.

“If you jumped, you might not die.”

“What?”

She grinned at him, an unsettling smile that had too many teeth and sadistic malice. Trey knew it was a fake smile Gazi used, but it still intimidated him.

“If you lived, which you could, you’d break both legs but not die. With healing potions you’d be on your feet in a month. Sooner if my lord used better quality potions on you. Which he would. But you would wish you’d be dead.”

Trey shuddered. He edged away from the window. Gazi looked at him.

“You don’t like heights. Why did you come up here?”

“To escape you. I thought you were going to make me train.”

“It’s for your own good. If you aren’t accompanying my lord, you should be working to improve yourself. And if you fear heights, you should be cured of that.”

“No thanks. Please? Just let me look out. I’m waiting for Teres to get back. They’re done with Hellios now, right?”

Gazi tilted her head.

“Yes. Orthenon received a [Message] not an hour ago. He is preparing to ride to Germina and Hellios to arrange a system of control. We must have their resources, not to mention their warriors.”

“Flos got both nations to cooperate? Just like that?”

“He is the King of Destruction. But no, it will not be that simple. There will be unrest, but that is a job for the King’s [Steward]. And for me.”

Gazi indicated the sword on her back. The famous Named Adventurer and [Scout] was known for her ability to catch spies and plotters. Trey wondered if she would be fine with her wounded eye. Someone had damaged it before she returned to Reim. But Gazi seemed confident.

“If you say so. I just want to see Teres.”

And Flos. But Trey didn’t say that out loud. He both admired and hated the King of Destruction at times. Admired for what Flos was, and hated because he allowed slaves. Because he was still someone who would kill thousands to rule the world. Strangely, that was why Gazi seemed to have taken Trey under her wing. It was a mixed blessing, because of all of Flos’ Seven, Gazi was the one who scared Trey the most. Orthenon didn’t count.

“Well, we will all be back in time for his return. Orthenon moves faster and I will wait for his arrival. But in the meantime—”

“No training, please?”

Trey begged. Gazi gave him a sinister curve of the lips.

“Not yet. I was going to say there’s someone on the road.”

“Is it Flos? Teres?”

Trey heard a sigh as he scrambled to the window. He stared out across the roads leading to Reim, the capital city of Flos’ small kingdom.

“What did I just say? No. It’s someone you know, though. See if you can make them out. Use the spell.”

“The spell? But—”

A foot kicked Trey in the back. He screamed a bit and grabbed the window.

“Okay, okay! Don’t do that again!”

“Cast the spell. You’re capable of it. And you don’t need the staff. Do it with your hands. Concentrate…”

It was hard to do that with a steep drop below and Gazi’s impending foot threatening him from behind. But Trey had been taught by Gazi and she was surprisingly good, if ruthless, at teaching magic. He concentrated, pulling a strand of magic from a reservoir in his body he hadn’t known existed. He wove it upwards, focusing on a spell. Trey spoke.

“[Farsight]. Ow!

His vision zoomed in, accompanied by a stinging pain as his pupils frantically sought to compensate. Trey blinked, and then stared at the tiny dot that he’d spotted coming down the road. His eyes widened. He saw a caravan of dark-skinned travellers. Camels, a wagon, no, a box with wheels completely covered from the sun. And leading them was a veiled girl he knew.

“Nawalishifra! She finally came!”

Gazi nodded. She leaned out the window carelessly besides Trey.

“She swore an oath. And it seems she’s brought much of her tribe with her. Good. My [King] has lamented the lack of a good [Blacksmith]. We have a few, but…let us greet her.”

“How?”

Gazi turned. Trey froze as he saw all four eyes turn towards him. He gripped the edge of the window, but he felt a hand on his.

“Gazi? Gazi, how—no, no, no—

—-

“So, we have arrived. Strike my hands, but this journey was long. And we would have made it quicker had you dung-beetles not gotten half the carts stuck in the sand. This is Reim, is it? It seems too poor to be the home of the King of Destruction.”

Nawalishifra Tannousin, or Nawal of the Tannousin clan stopped and shaded her eyes as she stared up at the palace that was Reim’s capital. Behind her, the caravan of Tannousin warriors and clanswomen and clansmen stopped. They had travelled for weeks and were dusty with grime. Their passage into Reim had taken three stops as [Soldiers] halted them, but each time Nawal had spoken their name and they had let her pass.

Now she stared up at the towers, and then back at the walls of the city. Reim was circular, and it had towers jutting up at regular intervals across each wall. Much like a crown. In fact, she had heard that the towers had come to life and shot lightning down at the army that had besieged Reim not two months past.

The thought of so much devastation made Nawal shudder. But still she stood by her words. Tall as the citadel was, she could see the places where stone had eroded. The city, for all it was bustling, was too plain, and the people too underfed, too poor. Was this truly the home of the King of Destruction, whose grandeur and terror had conquered a continent?

A low voice from behind Nawal made her turn. One of the senior clanswomen, who was like Nawal, veiled, lowered her voice and hissed at Nawal.

“Nawalishifra, remember what the [Headman] told you, and the elders. Mind your tongue! You have sworn an oath and the King of Destruction sent part of his payment, but you are not to offend! You are a woman—”

“Do you think I do not know that, you sand clod, you? Bezha, do I not bleed monthly? Do I not have breasts? Am I not veiled? Do not speak to me of what I know. I will mind my tongue in the presence of the King of Destruction and his servants, and not before.”

Nawal glared irritably at Bezha. She heard a sigh from the older woman.

“Only know that you are here because no one else was suited and you made an oath, a foolish oath!”

“How was I to know that the master of Trey Atwood was the King of Destruction himself? Were it any other man, my boast would have been true. And it will still be true, the sands take me if I lie!”

“Do not be overconfident!”

Bezha snapped back. Nawal tossed her head, but kept silent. In truth, she was afraid. She was the best [Blacksmith] of the Tannousin clan since her father’s passing. But she was young, not of the level he had been and she feared the King of Destruction might scorn a weapon made by a woman, for all he had claimed otherwise.

If the elders and [Headman] could have sent anyone else, they would have. But Nawal was the only one skilled to work Naq-Alrama metal flawlessly. So she had come, and if she failed to uphold her vow to forge the King of Destruction a blade beyond what he had ever seen before, her tribe would surely suffer his wrath.

All these things were the knowledge that kept Nawal moving towards the citadel, though part of her was terrified and would have fled screaming. The King of Destruction. She had glimpsed him but once, speaking to the world, a figure as grand as she had imagined. What madness would his palace hold? What wonders? Part of her wondered if the stories of his majesty were over exaggerated. But surely there was some truth. Or else, why fear him? Surely…

Nawal paused near the gates. She had expected to be welcomed by a thousand servants, or to be ushered into the most meager of stables like insignificant servants until the King of Destruction deigned to see them. But neither event had occurred. A man was striding towards her, tall and gaunt, as smooth as a moonlight shadow across the courtyard. He was clearly a warrior of very high-level and Nawal was stepping back to let one of the men greet him. That was, until she heard the scream.

All of the Tannousin clan looked about in confusion. Some of the guards grabbed their weapons uncertainly. Nawal glanced to her left, to her right, behind her, at the strange man who’d stopped, and then up. She saw a shape hurtling from one of the towers and heard a familiar voice screaming.

AaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhohgodI’mgoingtodie—

Another shape plunged with him. The Tannousin caravan scattered in fear, but Nawal held put. She’d spotted the figure, and she saw the wand in the armored woman’s hand. As Trey Atwood plummeted to the ground, fifteen feet from it, Gazi raised a wand and spoke a word.

“[Featherfall].”

The two slowed. Trey, arms flailing, still screaming, slowed until he reached the ground. He landed softly and clung to the stones, shivering like…something that wobbled a lot. Nawal stared at the woman who’d landed on her feet next to him.

No, not woman. Gazer. Her four eyes turned towards Nawal, though her main eye remained shut. Nawal shuddered and the Tannousin clan backed up around her, keeping their eyes down. It was said that those who met the main eye of Gazi the Omniscient died soon thereafter. But Nawal was staring at the famed adventurer’s armor. At her sword.

Gazi grinned at the Tannousin clan, and then addressed Trey on the ground.

“You need to practice that spell. It’s always useful to know. I’ll toss you off the tower every morning until you can do it. Blindfolded. With your hands tied.”

No…

He moaned. And then looked up. Nawal’s smile was locked in place as Trey scrambled to his feet, blushing as he looked at her.

“Nawal! I mean, Nawalishifra?”

Nawal’s heart sank. But Trey had addressed her, and the other Tannousin men were terrified. She heisted, then bowed.

“That is correct, Trey Atwood. We have come, in accordance with my oath. To forge the King of Destruction a blade unlike any he has ever seen!”

She prayed her boast was not idle. But perhaps she had time to perfect a masterwork? It didn’t seem like the King of Destruction had that high hopes for her. Maybe he would forget. Maybe he would be content with just a blade of Naq-Alrama metal and not the best blade ever forged. He’d only sent one person to greet them, after all, and Trey and Gazi the Omniscient didn’t count. Trey smiled.

“He’ll be delighted, I’m sure. He was expecting you. He’s out, but—Orthenon! This is Nawalishifra. The [Blacksmith] I told you about.”

Nawal froze. The Tannousin men and women turned, like statues, to stare at the gaunt man waiting for them. Orthenon, the Left Hand of the King of Destruction raised an eyebrow as he stared at the Tannousin folk. At Trey. And Gazi, who grinned. And at Nawal. And she quailed and wished she had never boasted of metal, never picked up a hammer so she might not disgrace her tribe and her father with her failure.

The King’s Steward. Gazi the Omniscient. And the King of Destruction was expecting her.

Oh, sands take her. What had she gotten herself into?

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A note from pirateaba

This time everything went right. If last chapter was a combination of bad sleeps and bad energy, this chapter I did a lot of things right. Good sleep, good motivation, good music…

And still, I’ve been writing for…ten hours? I had a break or two, but that’s about right. I started in the morning (for me), wrote into the night, and now it’s legit morning. I can hear birds. I guess it just goes to show that even at my best, I don’t work less. I just get more out of said work.

A few notes. I don’t know about localizing Teres’ dialogue to UK English, so some colloquialisms might be off, but I couldn’t focus on that with this chapter. Next, it is a long one, but I intend to do only a set arc of Flos…and if I need to, I’ll cut later chapters. For now I’m on a roll, so you get this one.

Lastly–I hope it’s good! We’re back to Flos after a long time, and I hope I conveyed the King of Destruction well! His story is unlike the others in some ways. If Erin deals with magic meeting reality, Flos is a legend coming back to life. Hope you enjoy it and thanks for reading!


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