“If the money was so important, include a fucking note.” Allica hissed. To have Talim blame her for something she had no control over was bringing up the deep history of aggravation that the two had shared. “And don’t expect me to come with you now to clean up whatever mess you find yourself in. I know that’s why you are here. The war is over and now you need help, eh? Must be of great importance.”
Talim stepped toward her desk. His hands clenched into fists. In the small cave-like room she had commandeered as her headquarters, it was hard to be very aware of Talim’s commanding size. But she sure as hell wasn’t going to let him gallop in and derail her plans.
“Don’t speak so flippantly,” Talim said. “If you knew the truth-”
Allica remained seated and steepled her fingers. “If you told me, I would know. How many times do you need to shoot yourself in the foot before you realize you are a fool?”
At that, Talim visibly paled. Allica winced inwardly. Reminding Talim of his past failures was a little unfair; he had just fallen in love with the wrong chieftain's daughter. In addition, the wound cut doubly deep because she had died in the civil war that followed. Still, Allica would never forget that it was Talim’s lustful young heart that had pushed Alrick to lead their tribe to war all those years ago.
How distant those memories seemed now. How small and fragile.
It was a certain sort of irony that Alrick would later offer the Widower Talim his own sister, and she too would die in a great war.
Despite all the emotional weight that Allica had spat out, Talim recovered and stood firm. “...my crimes are my own. I will carry them for the rest of my life. I have resigned myself to that. But this… this concerns the fate of our entire Race. Do you not want to have an Emperor once more Allica? Do you remember the old stories-”
“Those stories have led us to graveyard after graveyard, Talim,” Allica said. Abruptly, she felt so tired she wanted to just close her eyes and let the whole world slip away. Far too many times in their excavations had her team found twisted and broken bodies. Far too often they went down a caved-in tunnel and found the curled and starved body of a child. “We cannot chase that dream any longer.”
“It need not be a dream,” Talim said softly. “I believe we have found a way. A road to an Empire of prosperity and peace. Where we need not live in fear of the next warlord. Where we will have room and space to grow.”
In spite of herself, Allica looked up toward Talim. For all that her brother was self-important, he also genuine. He truly believed the things that he said. For him to sound so dedicated to a cause… one that Allica had pushed for years…
Like an old addict coming back for one more hit, Allica sighed and said. “What’s going on, Talim?”
He smiled. “Before we continue, I must have you swear to secrecy.”
Impatiently, Allica waved her hand. With a chuckle, Talim said. “Let’s start with the good news; sister, the High King lives. And with this, we can rise again.”
Allica felt a flutter, but then all she could manage was disbelief. “Talim… are you sure? The coalition army came and took away a body. They were very sure that it was the body of the High King. Otherwise, they would not have left as many civilians alive as they did. Even they, by the end, had to admit that he could transform any group of people into an army.”
In the darkness, Talim sneered. Allica hated that expression on her sweet elder brother. “Treachery. Even amongst the Coalition, there are those that would see the High King crowned once more. With their assistance, it was simplicity itself to survive the siege and escape. An entire Council, dedicated to the Creation of an Empire, with the High King leading us.”
Just as swiftly as she had allowed Talim to raise her hopes, everything came crashing back to the ground for Allica. Shrugging, she asked. “Leading us where? This is our land, Talim. For all that it is a broken thing, it’s our home. If this Council plans to lead us against another Land, it is useless. The others would not permit it. And we don’t possess the strength to accomplish it. For now, we need-”
“The greatest secret in the world, Allica,” Talim whispered urgently. He leaned close. “This world is a false prison. The ruins left by the Progenitor will lead us to a promised land. There, once we conquer-”
“We cannot conquer our way out of this!” Allica shouted. Her voice reverberated strangely in the small room, and both of them fell silent. The siblings gazed at each other. “Thousands will die to Sandstorms this year, Talim. Sandstorms will kill more in two months than twelve years of war ever managed. And why? Because we stopped accepting peace.”
“In a few more years, the separate tribes would have starved,” Talim countered, habitually falling back into this old argument they had. “Without unification-”
“Unification need not mean bloodshed,” Allica said quietly.
Talim shook his head. “You are too sheltered. Your time taking care of the estates has left you out of touch with the world. I have ridden across this land, and naught but the sword can convince the population. Believe me.”
“I don’t.” Allica’s tone was icy. It was a strange coldness that was emerging from her core, flowing outward through her veins. Her arms and legs tingled, slowly numbing underneath the strange frozen sensation. “You are wrong.”
Talim sighed dramatically, shaking his head.
Something inside Allica snapped. A torrent of frozen rage burst out of a damn in her chest and flooded her system.
“Listen to me, Talim. You know nothing of the world. Do you think your pursuit of violence taught you of the world? You are grievously mistaken. The world is not a battlefield. It is not a place of compromise or death. Ultimately, we do not live in that contrived land of constant necessity that you common warlords so applaud,” Allica said. “The world is not can or cannot. It is will or won’t. It is a choice between shitty alternatives. It is responsibility and respect and duty. It is not the pursuit of the empire or-”
“The responsibility of a leader,” Talim growled. “Is to lead the people toward a better life. To protect them at the cost of all else, if necessary.”
“No. Well… just no, Talim.” Allica leaned back and looked at the ceiling. She was tired again and had half a mind to just allow Talim to pull her along in his wake. The simplicity of it… but no, she would not take that path. Because she knew that the figure in front of her might be her brother, but it might as well be a reaper wearing a mask. To follow him was to follow death. He would bleed this land dry to chase an old story.
Although Allica had met ‘royalty’ in many forms and roles, she found her mind going toward a certain prince with eyes of emerald flame. “A leader… a leader does not demand fealty with threat of force or by using the long whips of fear. A leader does not insist their dream is the only dream. And a true leader would never insist that they will never err.
“No… a leader works to build. A leader’s job isn’t to invent the dream for each person, but to dream of a world where the small dreams of the common man have room to grow,” As Allica spoke, she felt the room falling away. All she could feel was the flood of cold in her veins, coiling through her like threads of arctic hunger. And as they moved, they flowed upward toward her forehead. There, they began to gather and condense. The violent chill grew even stronger so that her head was throbbing with the cold. It was simultaneously the most distracting and invigorating thing she had ever experienced.
Yet still, she continued to speak, even as she pictured the slender form of Randidly carrying stones half his size. “Sometimes, the now becomes the most important element to create an Empire. The Earth Golems have fallen into a cycle of believing that they must destroy themselves to accomplish their dreams. Is it really so strange that their dreams have become so bitter? We need a new dream, Talim. A dream where it is okay to not be perfect. A dream where we don’t see our only path forward as devouring others. Only then will we find the Empire we are seeking.”
For several seconds, Talim was quiet. From the expression on his face, Allica could tell he was confused. But they were alike in that. Those words she had just said… she believed in them yes, but… they weren’t from her. But after that frozen core of an idea formed in her head, calmness and serenity. It was like a piece she had been reaching for was finally found. It fit, and things suddenly clicked.
Finally, Talim said, “Your pretty words cannot escape the reality of the world. The weather variations will kill us, Allica. Crop yields have dropped for generations. And with this war… it was not just our economy that was affected. If we do not conquer, our people will die. Your precious estates will wither and rot. Is that truly the choice you are making? To remain still and allow those counting on you to die?”
“You paint such a stark picture. That is not the world we live in, Talim. Ten years ago, mechs were oversized industrial fixtures. Now they have enough killing power to defeat us, the Earth Golems.” Allica spread her hands over the desk.
“Which is exactly why-” Talim began, right on cue. But then Allica gave him a look that contained a shred of the frigid will she had finally found. His words stopped abruptly, giving her space to continue.
“Paths emerge because you look for them. For too long, we have chased the same dream without questioning its validity. So much is possible right where we are. And you would have us go a-conquering to another world? No, Talim. The same dream elsewhere is still useless. It is time for us to imagine other dreams. Perhaps then our people’s children will sleep less fitfully.”
Their gazes locked. Talim opened his mouth and slowly said, “It is not your decision to make. Without you, without the money even, Earth Golems are drawn toward glory. Despite your madness, blood will show through. When the High King rides on a Crusade, the people will follow.”
With ice in her veins, Allica smiled. “I’m sure your procession of ghosts and orphans will strike fear into the hearts of your enemies.”