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A note from Ryan English

Please read the note at the end.

  Androkles returned to his seat without further encouragement. As he sat, his mind roiled in agitation. He simply could not fathom why one of his own kind would treat him like this. What was that about enemies of his family? That Agapatheids had no enemies. But if so… He began planning, just in case. He started by making a mental tally of who was armed and where they sat or stood around the room. It helped him keep his discipline, which was no easy task.

  The Laophilean arose and gracefully stepped over to stand before the King, near the center of the open area so everyone could see and hear. Satisfied he had everyone’s attention, he said, “The Great King may know that seven generations back, my family were kings as well, proud Tyrants and Reformers in Dikaia. We reigned for four years, with the love of the people and the support of most of the nobility. That slave’s family was foremost among those who forced us away from our rightful place. We have quietly, subtly worked against his fathers all the years since, slowing undoing all their wealth and power. A deceptive land deal here, a broken agreement by a third party there. I will spare the details, but…”

  A hundred loose pieces fell into place in Androkles’ mind. The diminishing family lands, his father’s suicide, his own misfortune…

  The man trailed off, his jaw slack and his brow nervous. Androkles discovered that some of his killing intent had radiated out on its own, without him realizing it. It wasn’t enough to do any real harm, but he could hear men gasping and shuffling around in fear. He tried to gather it back in, but it resisted him.

  It took him a moment longer to fully recognize just how angry he was. It was an old, low-burning anger, one that drove him more deeply than he could understand or explain. The Laophilean’s words had drawn it out and stoked it, blowing embers into flames. He closed his eyes and tried to discipline himself, but he could not. The more attention he gave this feeling inside him, the more its bitter sharpness and piercing fury grew. It consumed every effort he gave to fighting it, its flames growing ever higher. The heartbreaking loss of his father. His mother abandoning him and returning to her family, never to be seen again. A life spent without full citizenship due to no property, unable to vote or attend the assembly to learn of the wars he himself would fight. Twenty-five years on the road, unloved by his wife and nearly forgotten by his neighbors, killing men he didn’t care about. All for nothing. All for an old grudge.

  He rose to his feet, considering what to say before he began the slaughter he’d dreamed of for so many months.

  Arthfael, the only one in the room who seemed unaffected, clapped twice and said, “Bring in Flower! He must get ready for his performance.”

  The kit must have been just outside the door, because he was immediately pushed into the room, stumbling as he entered. He grimaced from the pressure of Androkles’ wrath but pressed forward anyway. Instead of dancer’s apparel, he wore plain clothing this time—a thick, pale woolen shirt and pants that bunched up at his ankles to give him room to grow. On the whole, the kit appeared neat and clean, and the bruises had mostly faded from his face.

  “Come, boy, and sit on my lap while I sharpen this knife,” said Arthfael, removing a curved dagger and a whetstone. Flower stepped gingerly over to Arthfael and sat as directed. The boy did his best to look casual, but no one was fooled, especially not when he flinched as Arthfael put his arms around him and began shaving the whetstone. Flower risked the shortest of glances at Androkles and twitched his eye in a secretive wink.

  Androkles had no idea what Flower was thinking, but there was no doubt what Arthfael was thinking.

  Soon. Soon, he’d kill all these people. Kill the King’s men, the backstabbing Laophilean and his guards, the Prince…. But not yet. He couldn’t yet, not without Flower getting murdered right in front of him. Not yet. He breathed deeply to center his thoughts, then swallowed his killing intent with an act of sheer will. It took two tries.

  “Please, dear guests, what you were saying?” said the Prince casually, gesturing the whetstone toward the newcomer, who nervously stood like he was going to piss himself.

  Every eye fell on Androkles, and he sat again. Closer, this time, and not in his accustomed spot. And not with the casual disinterest he’d taken care to display in such gatherings. Instead, he sat cross-legged, hands on his knees, facing Arthfael with a look that dared him to harm his son. Arthfael ignored him, not even glancing away from the knife he sharpened.

  Androkles’ focus on keeping his anger down brought clarity, and he realized something important: the judges in Dikaia would want to hear all about this. Androkles knew who the man was now. He was a son of the Thaxeonidae, one of the four founding families. Long before living memory, they had set up a tyranny, but it failed, due in part to Androkles’ own family. Androkles had never heard the full story from his father before he died, and doubtless much about it was now lost forever to time.

  The curly-haired young man nervously licked his lips and continued, “Where was I? How can I credit what I have just seen? But I was saying, O King, that all is in place. Our last enemy’s house is fallen, and nothing remains of it but the King’s slave. It is our time to rise and retake our rightful place as the rulers of our City. Our house is strong, and we have prepared soldiers sufficient for the task. Yet even so, we desire perfect assurance of success.”

  At this, the Thaxeonid motioned to his Skythander escort. The two with the packs arose and every ear in the room focused on the sound of shifting coins as they were placed at the feet of the young man.

  He smiled and continued, “For this assurance, we wish to hire as many demons as the King can give us. O King, we bring ten silver talents in gold. Behold!”

  The Skythanders pulled the ties on sacks and upended them to let the gold spill to the floor, which elicited shocked gasps from the crowd. The King’s eyes grew wide, and he leaned forward in his seat. The cat-man escort silently returned to their places.

  “We have this much gold and more, O King, in our coffers in Dikaia. We will pay any price. Our victory must be overwhelming and undeniable, to resound throughout all the Glories and the world forever. How many demons will the King give us for this price? And how many more can he offer for assurance of another payment?” the Thaxeonid said. He bowed with a graceful flourish.

  The King rose from his seat and held his hands forward, palms up, in an inviting gesture. “I know of your house and your City. I foresee great benefit in cooperation. Therefore, I, King Lugubelenus of the Allobrogians, declare that you shall have twenty-nine demon berserkers, for no more can I give you. And to guide them, you shall have 200 of our finest soldiers with horses.”

  Arthfael stopped his sharpening and glanced up at the King with the barest hint of surprise. It was the first real emotion Androkles had ever seen on the prince’s face.

  The King seated himself again, sitting this time with a stiff and regal posture. He continued, “I will ask no more than the ten talents you have brought me. Conquer your people and rise to your proper station. When your work is complete, I will hire your best soldiers to complement my own armies, for there are many lands I yet wish to claim. Perhaps your family is wealthy, but I control the wealth of a Great King. Grant me my desires, and we shall rule as brother empires. We shall set a stone to mark our oath and divide north from south. You shall own the seas and beach-lands, and I the mountains and deep forests, and none shall resist us.”

  The crowd broke into a cheer with a sudden force like a thunderclap. The walls shook as the men shouted their approval, stomped their feet, clapped their hands, and banged their dishes with their cups and horns. The King allowed it to continue for only a moment before he raised his hand to silence the room. He said, “Bring forth my grandest spear and give it to my nephew!”

  Only moments later, a slave rushed into the room carrying Androkles’ spear. He knelt before the Dikaian envoy and held it up. The man reached forward and accepted it with reverence. He carefully looked over its intricately decorated haft and eternally-polished spearhead. He raised his eyebrows to show he was impressed.

  The King said, “That spear was the last possession of my slave, the man you call Androkles. I have never seen a weapon so finely worked or so finely spelled: its edge will not dull, nor its handle dent. It is a gift, which I give freely as a show of goodwill. May my brother, your father, carry it when he retakes his throne.”

  “It is fitting, O King, that our agreement should be made atop the ruin of the Agapatheid. Would the King believe that four talents of this money used to be his? He spent his whole life earning it and look what it got him. Even his wife left him and married into our household,” said the young Thaxeonid. “She was pregnant when I left.”

  Yet again, the rage welling deep inside Androkles burst forth before he could control it, and he rose to his feet before he realized he was moving. The pressure of his anger stunned the crowd, and in a lightning motion, he rushed to the Laophilean and tore the spear from his startled hands. He stabbed the man so viciously in the neck that his head lolled to one side and blood shot several feet into the air in spurts from his heartbeat before he collapsed to the ground.

  It happened so quickly that Androkles had no time to think, to realize what he had done or what it meant before it was too late. But after the Thaxeonid twitched for the final time, Androkles regained enough of his wits to withdraw as much of his killing intent as he could.

  He turned to the Prince and said, “I’m taking this gold and heading south. Give me my son, Arthfael. Then let me leave in peace, or I swear by Arkos Oathfather I’ll kill every last person in here.”

  The Skythanders didn’t wait; before Androkles was done talking, they were halfway out the door.

  Arthfael smiled darkly and said, “Defend him if you can.” He drew the knife to Flower’s throat, but before he could open the boy like a soft pear, Flower lowered his chin and bit the prince viciously on the thumb. Flower shook his head to tear the wound like a dog and slapped the knife away.

  The Prince shouted more in anger than pain, his eyes lighting up with fire that contrasted sharply with his frozen demeanor. He yanked his hand out of Flower’s mouth and lunged forward for the knife.

  Held now by only one arm, Flower squirmed and broke away from the Prince’s grip. The boy stumbled and fell running toward Androkles.

  The King leaped from his chair, pointed at Androkles, and shouted, “Kill him! Kill them both!” All around the room, the King’s guests rushed to their feet and grasped for their weapons.

  Androkles lifted his son by the shirt and set him upright. He said, “Time to leave.”

  “Yes, Papa,” said Flower, gazing up at him with a look that conveyed a thousand different emotions.

  “Now!” shouted Androkles and threw him toward the door on the right, which had the fewest people nearby.

  Flower hit the ground in nearly a full sprint and raced toward the exit. The first few Allobrogians ignored the boy, and Androkles’ heart raced hoping he’d make it out.

  Arthfael pointed at Flower, ignoring the blood dripping down his forearm, and shouted, “Grab him!” For the space of a heartbeat or two, no one reacted, and the room seemed silent except for Flower’s footsteps.

  Seeing he wasn’t obeyed quickly enough, the Prince threw the dagger he’d been sharpening. Flower shrieked and fell behind the crowd.

  Androkles had no time to see what happened to Flower; his enemies were already upon him. The first attacker swung a mace at his head, which Androkles caught.

  He blasted out a shockwave of killing intent, but only for the briefest moment before closing it off again. He had to give Flower a chance to get away.

  The men nearby paled and lost their footing; one even dropped his ridiculous, two-handed sword. Before they had a chance to recover, Androkles stabbed two of them in the neck, slicing to the bone with the broad, flat spearhead. They collapsed.

  The next man swung a stealthy blow at Androkles’ heel, but he lifted his foot in time for the sword to miss and strike the dirt. The tip caught for the briefest second and he stomped on it, bending the blade into uselessness.

  Another long sword came swinging at him, and he ducked out of the way just in time. Without all those years of practice evading spears, he never would have had the reflexes to deal with such absurd swords.

  The fight began in earnest. Instinct and training took over, and he spun like a dancer with his spear, relying on motions drilled into him for decades. Most thought and emotion fled his mind focused as he focused, but even so he tried to work his way toward Flower.

  A club struck his elbow, but the blow failed to shatter the bone and he kept his grip on his spear.

  A sword bit shallowly into his hip, and Androkles stabbed the attacker just above the sternum. Another man threw down his knives and jumped down to grab Androkles’ legs, but no experienced wrestler would fall for such a trick. He stepped back and stomped the man’s head into the ground, then ducked away from an axe.

  Something struck the side of his head nearly hard enough to stun him, and he realized the press of the crowd had grown too great for him to maneuver. He blasted out with his killing intent again, another short, powerful burst. Flower, hold on

  It bought him the time he needed to deal fatal blows to three more of his attackers and push them away while they discovered they were dead. He had just enough space to evade the next two swings. Stabbing another man low in the gut and pushing him back created more space.

  He edged his way bit by bit toward where Flower had fallen. A man grabbed the middle of his spear, and Androkles was forced to let go of it to catch a heavy mace swung at the same time from a different angle.

  Very well, then. He would fight bare-handed. Stay alive, I’m coming… He released another burst of killing intent, but his enemies were starting to recover too quickly for it to have much effect.

  If Flower was dead, or if he was able to make it out the door, Androkles could fight at full power, but he still had no idea where the boy was in the chaos of shifting bodies. Gods, let him be alive.

  He grabbed an attacker by the eggs and throat and squeezed both, then lifted him overhead and threw the screaming, twisting man at the press of growling savages trying to rush him. He punched another solidly in the nose, crushing his face. Then another, with the same effect. Flower, where are you?

  The man who stole the spear tried to stab him with it, but Androkles twisted alongside the thrust, grabbed the spear, and viciously headbutted him. It made Androkles’ head ring more painfully than he expected, but he yanked his spear away from the man’s grip.

  He thrust the tip into a man’s underarm to stop an overhead two-handed swing.

  He yanked the spear back and spun it into the side of another man’s head, but not before receiving a cut in his side below his ribs. Flower

  Two more swings came from opposite directions. He deflected both with a whistling spin of the spear.

  Blow after blow rained against him, and most he deflected or dodged, but not all. A thrown dish caught him above the right eye, and blood dripped down his face faster than he could blink it away.

  His attackers shouted louder and louder as they found themselves with the advantage, and Androkles was forced back with each strike they threw at him.

  He tripped over a fallen body he hadn’t noticed in time, but was able to roll backward to his feet before the crowd collapsed onto him.

  His attackers stabbed at him from three different directions, more than he could block or avoid. Reflexively, the full, unhindered power of his killing intent burst out of him unbidden.

  His attackers immediately ceased their onslaught. The four men closest to him fell solidly to the ground, dead or paralyzed with blank looks on their faces. Everyone within five strides of him stumbled and collapsed. Some frothed at the mouth with their eyes rolling upward. Others gasped for air with bulging eyes and red faces. One man convulsed wildly across the floor.

  The blood soaking Androkles’ hands and arms quickly dried in the heat and began to flake off. He could smell it start to cook. The air itself twisted and distorted around him from the fury of his rage, and he felt oven-hot zephyrs tug lightly at his hair.

  The men further back were too stunned and terrified to move. Many dropped their weapons and cried out, unable to get their feet to obey them. A handful of them even pissed themselves.

  For a brief moment, as he gazed at what remained of his enemies, Androkles wondered what that power of his truly was, and where it came from.

  He shook his head to clear the distraction and began slaughtering everyone within reach as quickly as he could manage. The sooner they were dead, the sooner he could subdue his killing intent and find poor little Flower, wherever he was.

  His spear pierced heart after heart. It took great effort to keep from overdoing it and wasting time. Months of humiliation that had been building up inside him now burned like lamp-oil. His mind threatened to lose itself to pure fury as his killing intent smoldered hair and dry cloth within ten paces of him. Never his own hair, though, he noticed for the first time.

  He saw the flash of polished iron just in time to evade the swipe of Arthfael’s sword.

  Androkles was so surprised that his killing intent blinked away almost to nothing in an instant. The men furthest away from him came to their senses and rushed for the door, and Arthfael lashed out with a series of precise lunges designed to keep Androkles from using the full length of his spear.

  Androkles released his killing intent again, and the last of the fleeing men collapsed in the doorway, but Arthfael was unaffected and continued to press his attack.

  The body-laden ground hindered Androkles’ footwork, but Arthfael fought with an easy grace and poise that Androkles wasn’t quite ready for. The prince showed no sign whatever of being affected by Androkles’ fury, beyond perhaps sweating a bit more than normal from the heat.

  “How?” Androkles asked, right as he stepped on a forearm that rolled beneath him, almost bringing him to the ground.

  “Hmm?” asked Arthfael, stopping his attack.

  “You know what I mean! Why aren’t you affected?” shouted Androkles, so frustrated he could cry. He had been so close. He was still so close. Flower

  Only a short distance behind the Prince, the King rose with grace and dignity from his seat and took up a positively enormous two-handed sword from beside himself.

  Arthfael allowed himself the barest of smirks and said, “Smudge, my father is the King. He subdues berserking demons for sport. You will die here.”

  Androkles had never seen the King do anything more imposing than point a flagon of wine and give orders, but like his son, he gave no impression of being affected by a killing intent powerful enough to make ripples in the air and turn the edges of cloth to ash. He walked with slow dignity to stand alongside the Prince. Androkles wondered if all that ridiculous, womanish jewelry he wore would impede his movement, or how likely he was to catch that big sword on the wings of his helmet. Not very.

  The King said, “We almost had this one, my son. Where did you fail?”

  “I did not know he concealed such power, Great King. That was my first error.”

  Androkles lowered his spear tip slightly, confused. They were looking at him, but hardly with the seriousness of battle. Neither did they show any openings for him to exploit, however.

  The King said, “And the second?”

  “I did not realize his sense of honor ran so deeply. I thought to shatter him against it. I should have turned him by twisting it instead.”

  The King smiled approvingly and nodded. “Yes. And why did you not simply kill his family?”

  “Vengeance would never have died in his heart, no matter how many years passed.”

  “That is correct. I doubted you would succeed with him, but I wanted you to learn. Remember every aspect of his personality. This is a noble man, one of the finest you have ever seen. He would have made a peerless ally, had you chosen it. If you could have broken him, he would have been worth twenty demons. He was sport worthy of your blood, and you were wise to pursue him.”

  Arthfael lowered his eyes, although his iron-discipline demeanor showed no other reaction. He said, “Thank you, Great King. I will remember your words. And perhaps without this interruption, I might have beaten him yet.”

  “No, my son, you were out of ideas and he was growing restless. You did well. Do not be ashamed. Now stand back as your father collects his head.”

  Arthfael dutifully took a step backward, glancing down to see what he was stepping on. Some bit of flesh.

  King Lugubelenus kept only one hand on the handle of his massive sword; the other, surprisingly, he placed halfway up its polished length, like a spear. He advanced on Androkles quickly and stabbed the tip at his heart.

  Androkles deflected with the spearhaft and stabbed downward at the King’s knee. The King stepped to the side and stabbed several more times in quick succession. Each time, Androkles easily deflected the attack.

  Out of nowhere, their weapons became entangled. Spears had no crossguard; giant swords did. It was a move Androkles could never have anticipated, but which the King had clearly been planning. The King twisted to rip the spear from Androkles’ hands, and it worked. He quickly flung the spear aside and stepped back, keeping the sword pointed at Androkles.

  Lost it twice in one day. Thais would skin me for that. Androkles kept his hands ready and circled, waiting for an opportunity. That sword was big. He could only move it so quickly.

  Androkles subdued his killing intent. If it was not going to harm his enemies, then there was no use letting it run rampant, especially if Flower was still alive in that mess of bodies near the door.

  He darted for a shorter sword on the ground and brought it up just in time to deflect a lunge from the King, who now held the handle with both hands for maximum range.

  The King swung in a whooshing sideways arc, far too quick for Androkles to step in and exploit. Then he swung down at an angle, leaving Androkles room to sidestep and move in. It was another trick--the sword circled around into a concealed thrust that came from under the King’s arm. Androkles saw it just in time.

  The King kept the sword flowing into a heavy downward strike, but this time it was Androkles’ turn to play a ruse. He pretended to be off balance and unsure in his own defense and deflected the stroke weakly. The King swung downward yet again, and Androkles only barely got the sword up in time. This second blow knocked Androkles’ little sword from his hands.

  The King sliced down in a triumphant third blow, but Androkles lurched forward. He caught the crossguard while the massive sword was directly over the King’s head and pushed it down into the King’s winged helmet with a loud clang, then ripped it away from his hands.

  The King stumbled back a few steps, surprised, and righted his helmet. He did not even attempt to duck the swing Androkles aimed directly at his neck. The sword flung itself upward of its own accord and the attack passed harmlessly over the King’s head.

  It took a moment to realize what had happened, during which Androkles gaped in bewilderment. He tried again, this time swinging at an angle to cleave the King from shoulder to hip, but again, the sword changed its own trajectory mid-swing and passed harmless alongside its target. He swung again, and again, each time the same.

  “Do slaves kill kings where you are from, Smudge? Have the gods so abandoned your people that such things are possible?” said the King.

  Androkles tossed the enchanted sword aside and threw a punch at the King, but his fist passed harmlessly alongside its mark. His second punch had too much weight behind it, and he lost his balance and nearly tripped over an unconscious man wheezing his last.

  The King kicked him in the stomach before he could right himself, so hard it lifted his feet from the ground and knocked his lungs empty. Then the King reached down and lifted him bodily off the ground as easily as a child, even though Androkles was twice his size, and threw him ten paces across the room to thud painfully into a supporting beam of the wall.

  Androkles rolled unsteadily to his feet and wobbled in the direction of his spear as he tried to force his lungs to take in air. He had once killed a goddess with that spear; if anything could save him now, it would.

  The King saw him reaching for it and tried to kick it out of the way, but the spear spun on a pivot instead and Androkles managed to catch it near the head. He rolled backward onto his feet and whipped the butt of the spear upward just in time to catch the approaching King in the side, under the ribs. It connected.

  The strike hadn’t been hard enough to cause much pain, and if the King felt it, he gave no sign aside from raising his eyebrows in surprise. Androkles immediately took a half step back and thrust for the King’s face, again with the butt of the spear. This time, the King dodged.

  Androkles grinned and pressed his advantage. A series of rapid stabs and swings had the King practically leaping backward until Androkles finally struck true, directly into the King’s gut, before the man had time to get away.

  The point of the spear penetrated no deeper than the first knuckle of a finger before Androkles’ arms stopped moving.

  He felt a dozen iron hands gripping him tightly and looked down to see ghostly imprints deep in the flesh of his forearms. He tried to shake free, but they were implacable. The horror of it nearly banished Androkles’ fury, throwing his mind into a state of terrified confusion.

  The King stepped back from the spear-point to let a narrow rush of blood run down his silver garment and drip slowly off the hem at his knees. Behind him, Arthfael was holding up his hand in a strange sign and muttering under his breath. Androkles heard a thump on the wall nearby and glanced over to see some of the decorative severed heads swaying and bouncing against each other. Taking a quick look around, it seemed most of them were in motion.

  He struggled against his invisible bonds with every bit of strength he could gather, but it resulted in nothing but bruising. He was trapped. He would die here.

  The King straightened his clothing and went to retrieve his enormous, two-handed sword.

  Bitterness over death filled Androkles, which surprised some other part of him. He had always been bitter over life, not death. But now his children would suffer because of him, and he would die knowing how close he had come to achieving his goal. His silver was right there.

  Androkles stopped struggling against the invisible hands that squeezed his arms and instead tried to find a way to lean comfortably against them. He saw a hint of motion over by the door and glanced over to see Flower squirming out from under a dead Allobrogian. His white hair and ears were mostly red and pink from blood, as were his sleeves. Androkles’ blood chilled, and his bitterness turned quickly to dread.

  The King and Prince gave no indication they had noticed, and Androkles quickly looked away so as not to draw their attention in that direction. If Flower could make the door, he might survive to hide, and if he could hide, he might survive until Wolfscar found him. Wolfscar might be able to lead him to Agurne, and then…

  It was hopeless, but even so, Androkles knew he must do whatever it took to keep their attention away from the door.

  He breathed deeply and resumed his struggle against his restraints. He strained and flexed with all his might, but as before, the invisible hands held his arms perfectly steady and immobile, as solidly as a City wall.

  The King picked up his enormous sword and inspected its length to see if it had bent. It had, apparently, and he straightened it with his knee. The King swung the sword in a long, intimidating arc, then spun it gracefully several times to either side. In the corner of Androkles’ vision, Flower pulled himself far enough out that his tail was now visible, also red with blood.

  Androkles struggled all the more and spat at the King. “My head will be a curse to you, not a guardian! Slaves will piss on your grave! May all the gods make you wretched! May your son die before you!”

  He had the King’s attention, and the Arthfael was fully involved in maintaining whatever sorcery held Androkles captive. The Prince’s hands never wavered from the strange sign they made, nor did his voice cease the quiet, rhythmic muttering of the spell.

  Flower rose unsteadily to his feet; he had merely to get out the door, and he was in the god’s hands. “Palthos Orphanminder, my sons go back into your care…” he muttered as the King strode angrily toward him, sword raised.

  But Flower didn’t flee. Instead, he moved toward Arthfael. Androkles shouted, “No! Run!” but it was too late; the kit was committed.

  The King turned to see what was going on and lowered his sword again. Androkles couldn’t see the King’s face, but he could tell what the man must be thinking. Flower was unarmed and his movements favored an injury in his left leg. What did the boy think he was going to do?

  Flower stopped a couple paces away from the Prince and looked calmly around the room. He stood straight and clenched both fists, shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and sang.

  The boy’s voice was high, clear, and perfect as ever, sweet as the nectar that sustained the gods. Its power soothed and calmed the troubled heart and mind, and Androkles relaxed in his restraints. He discovered that he had pulled so hard against the invisible hands that his skin had torn in more than one place. The pain did not trouble him, however; in fact, nothing did.

  The music banished the bitterness and pain in its perfect beauty. Not only was he calmed by it, but the King and his Prince as well. The King let the tip of his sword rest against the ground, and he relaxed his posture to listen. Arthfael soon ceased his mumbling and lowered his arms, looking half-surprised that he was doing it. But there was no more violence in the air, only rest. Nothing but music, and rest.

  Androkles wanted desperately to listen to Flower’s song, but he was too tired. He had fought too long and too hard, and his exhaustion was more than he could withstand. Even so, he tried. He breathed deeply. He shook himself. He pinched himself. He reminded himself of his duty. None of it did any good—before he knew it, he was nestled in between two warm corpses, eyes shut, watching the sunrise from horseback.

  He turned the horse and rode south, toward the beach. All the skeletons that followed him kept pace, he saw as he smiled. They kept good discipline as well, their feet falling in perfect unison as they marched. Who would have guessed they’d make such good soldiers?

  Once he got back to Dikaia, he’d have some explaining to do, of course. And in fact, this might be easier if…

  “Papa!” whispered Flower.

  Androkles was dragged back into wakefulness, but he struggled to move, or even open his eyes.

  “Papa, wake up!” whispered Flower again.

  “I’m awake,” he whispered back. He forced his eyes open. Flower hunched over him, an absolute mess of dried blood.

  Androkles’ heart burst with relief. He sat up and pulled his son into a tight hug and they kissed several times. Hot tears fell from his burning eyes and dripped down his face, only to mix with Flower’s where they pressed their cheeks together.

  For a time, they both wept quietly and clutched each other as tightly as they could. Androkles watched himself swept up in emotion as if separate from it. How deep had been his shame and worry these last few months, for their reunion to have such an affect on him? But he couldn’t stop himself and wouldn’t have wanted to even if he could. The tears on his face were a salve on his heart.

  Flower, surprisingly, was the first to cut it short. He whispered, “We should hurry before the King comes back.”

  Androkles rose to his feet, a little unsteady on his feet, and quickly looked about the Great Hall. Corpses littered the ground from end to end, and with the room so quiet and still, the light of the lanterns seemed subdued and inadequate.

  Flower whispered, “The Prince is sleeping over there, but the King ran away before he fell asleep. I looked outside, but I don’t know where he went.”

  The King was indeed nowhere to be found, but Arthfael lay sprawled right where Flower pointed. Androkles smiled slowly, anticipating. That bastard deserved to be killed in his sleep. Androkles listened carefully for a moment, but heard nothing, even though the open doors of the Great Hall. He quickly stepped over and peeked out the door, but saw no one. Not a soul. Not even a lantern moving. The King’s fortress was utterly still.

  Well, no one would bother him, at least for a moment; so he started hastily rummaging for supplies. He threw a thick woolen shirt onto Flower, then took one for himself that looked like it might stretch enough to fit. He grabbed several bearskins and had the boy hold them. “Papa, my leg…”

  “I saw it. I’ll carry you. Just hold this.”

  Once he found a sack, he stuffed it full of half-eaten loaves of bread and dried fruit. All the meat he could gather from the mess was cooked, not dried, and would spoil, so he left it.

  Then it was time to gather up his money. Ten whole silver talents, in gold. It’d all fit into a single, very heavy sack, and the Skythanders had been kind enough to leave him the ones they’d brought it in. It was wise of them to run at the first sign of trouble, but that also meant his enemies in Dikaia would know what had happened here.

  Nothing for it now. He filled the sack with every last one of the gold coins, all ten shining talents, then put that sack into the other one just in case and slung it over his shoulder. It was heavy, but he’d been expecting worse.

  Flower dropped his bundle and pried a sword from a dead man’s grasp. He came to stand over Arthfael and with a quiet but firm voice said, “Papa, I want to kill him.”

  Androkles nodded and said, “Why you? Why not let me do it?”

  Flower thought for a moment before answering with the same quiet voice. “The old Flower can’t do it. I have to know.”

  Usually, when some powerful emotion gripped Flower it led him quickly to the verge of tears, even if he was just too happy or the food was too good. Something about the boy’s demeanor indicated that this was different, however. This turmoil in his heart ran deep, too deep to trouble the surface waters.

  His little songbird had a gentle soul; he was a domestic creature, fit for safety and peace and civilization, not danger and struggle and wilderness. The family all knew it and loved him all the more. Garbi had even said once that Flower’s name fit him because he belonged in a garden. But boys, even the dearest ones, must someday become men. Androkles reached down and gently took the boy’s shoulder. “Very well. So where are you going to stab him?”

  “The neck, by the collarbone.”

  “Good. Until you’re stronger, you avoid anywhere they might have thick clothes or armor. There are blood vessels in the neck and inside the collarbone that’ll spurt like mad if you cut them. He’ll fall unconscious and bleed out pretty quick that way. I’m pleased you remember. How are you going to do it?”

  “I’ll jump and push with my stomach.”

  “Good idea. It has to be deep enough to slice the vessels completely, or he’ll die slow. Now kill the bastard’s bastard.”

  Flower hesitated for a moment as he repositioned the sword several times, but Androkles said nothing. Finally, the boy’s face twisted into passionate fury, and he jumped onto the hilt with a boy’s high-pitched snarl and drove the sword a hand’s width into the Prince’s neck.

  The Prince awoke and flailed as he tried to regain his feet, but it was too late. His lifeblood poured from the cut like wine from a pitcher. He tried to call for help, but the air gushed from the wound in a gurgle. A few heartbeats later, Arthfael shuddered and fell.

  Androkles rolled the man over onto his back to watch until the blood stopped pulsing out with the final heartbeats; it took only a moment more. Satisfied, he smirked and said, “Pepper is going to have a hard time topping this, isn’t he?”

  Flower tried and failed to force a smile. He looked pale, even for him.

  Androkles patted the boy’s head, and Flower stiffened. “Be proud, boy. You saved me and everyone else today. You feel sick, don’t you?”

  Flower nodded.

  “It’ll pass. We’ll talk about it later, so focus on right now. Let me see your leg.” Androkles knelt and pulled apart the cut in Flower’s pant leg to get a good look at the injury. Whether from Arthfael’s thrown dagger or bad luck in the tumble afterward, Flower’s pale thigh sported a vivid line of red—a thin cut an inch long and at least that deep. It bled heavily, but the cut was clean and it seemed like once the blood dried, it’d hold itself closed as long as Flower didn’t move his leg. It was bad, but it could’ve been worse. Could’ve hit his kidney.

  Something rustled, followed by faint whispering. Father and son spun toward the source of the noise to see one of the severed heads rocking, almost imperceptibly, where it was tied to the wall.

  “Papa, they’re waking up,” whispered Flower, putting his hand on Androkles’ arm.

  “I hear it. You need a bandage, and then we’re leaving.”

  “Papa, what if that’s the King coming back?”

  “Then I’ll get to kill him now instead of later. Hold on.”

  Androkles tore around the room until he found some clean cloth: a new fur cloak with a good linen lining, which he ripped out. He tied it around the wound for a bandage while the boy winced and whimpered and gritted his teeth. Androkles tenderly scratched his son’s head between the ears, knowing how much worse it would hurt when it got sewn shut later.

  Once they finally stepped outside, the cold night air bit deeper than he expected, but at least no armed welcoming party lay in ambush. Nor anyone else—the King’s fortress remained quiet and dead. There should be slaves running all over, fetching firewood and water and bread, or seeing to their masters’ animals, along with plenty of Allobrogians themselves going about their business.

  Instead, most of the lanterns and torches had been extinguished, and if any slaves were doing chores, they did it sneaking through the shadows. Androkles supposed the locals had tasted his killing intent and chosen to hide indoors from whatever evil passed by this night, not knowing what it was. All the better for him. He lifted Flower onto his shoulders, then handed up the furs and his spear for him to carry. He took up the rest of the supplies in either hand and made his way toward the King’s stables.

  He found it curiously unguarded. Perhaps thirty horses, several of them still hitched up to ornate barbarian chariots, fed and drank at troughs or huddled together for warmth. Any time he’d come here before to tend the horses and gather dung, no fewer than five slaves waited at the ready to attend the King’s guests at all times.

  Androkles knew he was no master judge of horses. He chose the chariot that had the biggest horses attached, and hoped they’d turn out to be the strongest and healthiest. He did, however, check under their harnesses and such for sores, and found none.

  Chariots in the Glories were built for speed and almost never had room for more than one rider. Here in the north, however, they made their chariots wide enough for two men to stand side-by-side, and occasionally even wider. Furthermore, where Glories chariots stood open and spare and were seldom armored in any way, these chariots were spacious and fitted with solid, heavy planks that formed a wall nearly up to Androkles’ waist, although it was lower in the back to let a man step in and out easily. They were often brightly painted and quite ornate as a show of wealth.

  They also looked slow. What were they, if not small but glorified wagons? At least Flower could hunker down and be safe from arrows.

  Androkles took some of the better blankets from nearby horses and made a little bed for Flower on the floor of the chariot and lifted him onto it, since his leg was sore. Flower immediately sat up and peeked over the edge, resting his chin on the railing. “You’re gonna be sorry if we hit a bump like that. Just lay down until we get out of here.”

  As Flower tried to settle in and tried to make himself comfortable, a dark, restless, uneasy feeling fell over the area and began growing stronger. At first, Androkles thought it was merely his own apprehension at racing off into the wilds without a guide until Wolfscar managed to catch up, but it slowly grew stronger. It quickened his pulse and his muscles grew tense. Flower sat up again and practically hugged Androkles’ leg to get his attention.

  “Papa, what is that? Is that you?”

  “No. Get down.”

  The feeling grew stronger still, and Androkles began to feel nauseous. He gathered just a hint of his killing intent to ward it off, but something about it felt familiar. Akin to a seasoned fighter’s killing intent, but jagged and broken. Insane. Diseased. And then he realized what it was.

  The King’s demons.

  “So that’s where he went,” said Androkles.

  “The King?” asked Flower, still clutching Androkles’ leg while he looked around nervously.

  “The King. He must’ve gone to get his demons,” said Androkles. He grinned. “Took him too long, though, because we’re gone.”

  And they were indeed gone--Androkles snapped the reins and the chariot raced into the night. They thundered down the hard dirt roads of the fortress without seeing another living creature—even the gate was left unguarded and open.

  Another snap of the reins, and the chariot rode out the open gate into freedom. Forget the King’s pursuit and his demons and months of shame and worry—Androkles was a free man again, and all would be well. The joy of that moment overwhelmed him and he laughed, loud and wild. Flower looked up at him confused, but Androkles laughed anyway.

  The road ahead was long, straight, and lit by a waning but bright moon. It welcomed him, the cold of night feeling like the warmth of summer dawn. It was all coming together.

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A note from Ryan English

Hi all,

Thank you very much for reading my second novel, Doubts. When this book appears in print someday, there's a good chance it will have some changes and grammar corrections and perhaps a bit of new material, but the story will basically remain unchanged.

I am not going on hiatus. I'll continue posting Book 3 and any other books in this series here, as I promised.

I am, however, going to slow down my posting rate. I've got about 40k words of Book 3 written so far and I'll continue writing it until the series is complete, but I'll be starting work on a new project and my overall writing per week will probably slow down also. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, you may remember that I got permission from my publisher to post Obstacles here as a marketing project. Our hope was that I could build up a decent-sized audience to help sell future books or work toward supporting myself on Patreon eventually. Unfortunately, although the Acts of Androkles has a pretty decent rating, it never really caught on here.

Royal Road readers are awesome, but as a group, they're looking for a different kind of story than I provided with the Acts of Androkles. As such, aside from those of you who made it this far, this site is not the audience for this story. I'm not sure where that audience is, but I hope to find it someday.

As of this writing, I have 533 followers, 6 patrons, and have sold three or four copies of Obstacles. I'm grateful for all of that, and I mean that sincerely. You guys are awesome and I appreciate you, your readership, and your incredibly helpful comments. Posting here has been a blast. But in terms of building an audience or making any money, this project has been a failure.

I'm not sharing any details of my new project outside of my discord at this time, in part because I haven't decided on it yet. I have several ideas and some exploratory writing done, but nothing more than that.

Secondly, I'm starting a new job soon and my free time will decrease for a while as a result. With less overall free time to spend on writing, I need to make sure that time is as productive as possible, including making sure that the writing I do will help move my career forward.

I am not abandoning this story and it is not going on hiatus. You can expect whole chapters instead of sliced-up sections when I do post, and longer waits in between postings.

Anyway, now you know. Thanks for reading the Acts of Androkles and I hope you stick around until the end. Warm regards,

 

Ryan


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Ryan English

  • Brigham City, Utah

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