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Chapter V

“So, you’re Grand Duke Sahar. It’s about time we met in person,” said Mahla. She was surprised by the young Duke’s appearance. It wasn’t often that you met a young man with white hair. Even rarer were his eyes, which were a deep black from pupil to iris.

“It is,” said Sahar. “Seeing as we’re family and all.”

“We are not family,” Mahla said. “You were adopted as Jachai’s heir. We share no royal blood.” Mahla turned her head from Sahar and out her office window.

“Glad you see it that way, because I’m here to propose marriage.”

Mahla burst out laughing. Sahar smiled and nodded while she collected herself. Once she’d finally managed to gather her breath she said, “Well, that was romantic. Location, delivery, timing…all perfect.”

“We both know you don’t give a damn about romance and all that schyte,” said Sahar. “That’s not why I’m proposing.”

“You heard what happened to my last fiancé, yes?”

“The Shadian prince you slaughtered in his own bed? Yes, I heard the story. That level of cunning is…endearing, one might say.”

“Oh, you flatter me. Speak more of these beautiful words, lover!” Mahla laughed again.

Sahar waved his hand and rolled his eyes. “I’m proposing because a marriage alliance would be prudent. Have you heard the rumors about you lately?”

“I’ve heard many.”

“The ones about you and Lila?”

Mahla’s smile disappeared and she stared at Sahar in silence.

“I thought that might get your attention,” said Sahar. “In order for a king or queen to gain support there has to be promise of the bloodline continuing. Nobles are allowed to adopt heirs, but the people of Arx cling to the Scriptural promise that Melech’s bloodline will always rule over the land.”

“Thank you for the politics lesson, I’m well aware.”

“Are you also aware that word of Lila’s profession of love to you has spread?” Sahar smirked as Mahla’s face turned red, then white. “Scandalous! Rumors abound! Many are saying that you and Lila are secretly lovers. Some have even gone so far as to question how fit you are to be queen, given that you prefer women. Can't produce heirs with Lila, can you? She lacks the parts.”

“I don’t prefer women!”

“I know, your Majesty. I know that, but the common people, and even the nobility, are inclined to believe anything. Furthermore, if the Inquisition comes to believe it you’ll lose their support. They...rather frown on that sort of thing. That’s why it’s important that you get married soon. You’ve reigned on your own for what, two years now? About time you had a king by your side.”

“Why does it need to be you?” Mahla asked. “Like you said, it’s just important that I marry.”

“As Grand Duke I control the largest army in Arx. You have no support from the common people. The Agalmite Church has denounced you, hence you are having their clergy wiped out. The noble families follow you, but even they are having second guesses at this point. Let’s be honest, your whole claim to power right now is military might. Fear keeps you on the throne, not your bloodline. Marry me and everyone will know that attacking you would be suicide.”

“You’ve already pledged your allegiance to me. Publicly, in fact.”

“A marriage alliance is far more…solid, your Majesty. Nobles have broken their vows before.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No! Not at all, not at all, your Majesty!” Sahar shook his head. “What I’m saying is that those who might betray you will know that I would never abandon you. If they’re afraid, we can prevent war from ever happening in the first place.”

“Fair point.”

“Besides, out of all of the suitors who’ve expressed interest in you I’m the only one who’s been this handsome.”

“You’re not handsome.”

“Yes I am.”

“…Yes, you are.” Mahla smiled, conceding.

“And you’re beautiful yourself, under all that harshness.”

“Such sweet words, again. Surely you are a poet.”

Sahar chuckled. “Surely not. Poets are fools who spend their lives writing pretty words to silly girls who will never return their affections. They starve to death with a quill in one hand. A real man makes his own way in the world, takes action, whether by the plow or the sword.”

“And you’re that kind of man?”

“The only kind of man there is.”

“Very well. I accept your offer, Sahar.”

At that same moment, in the foothills of the Arxian mountains, Tamas plotted the deaths of his traveling companions. He looked them over, trying to figure out how he was going to go about this. These were all proficient killers. They’d have to be to have been selected for this mission. One misstep, one tiny mistake and Tamas would be dead, but he needed to act soon, or they would arrive at Aryn’s camp and kill her. Aryn was his only chance to bring justice back to Arx. It occurred to him that if he was willing to spill his own blood he could conjure a legion of daemons to aid him, but the last thing he wanted to do was draw attention from the angelic armies under the ground. He’d have to handle these three on his own.

Lila was reclining by the fire, taking drinks from her water-skin. She was small, with a thin frame, but her arms and legs were toned. Certainly she was quick. If Tamas missed the first blow he’d almost definitely be dead in seconds.

Tekumah was a man (at least Tamas thought he was a man) who was covered head to toe in gray bandages. Over those bandages he wore raggedy, burlap clothes. Only his eyes were visible, and they gave a lifeless stare. He had large forearms, which meant that he was likely used to grappling his victims. Tamas knew he couldn’t get too close to this witch-hunter when he decided it was time to slay him. Even as big as Tamas was, he was certain that if Tekumah got his hands on him it would all be over.

Then there was Melva. Melva used a typical sword and shield combination, common for knights. She was not very tall, but she was stocky, strong. She wasn’t likely to pull any cheap tricks on him, not while clad in heavy armor as she was. This one he could engage in a straight fight. She’d have to be last.

Three nights in a row now he’d simply sat down and watched them in front of the fire, and three days he’d watched every detail from the way they walked to the way they reacted to even the slightest snap of a twig in the distance. A few times, he even caught Tekumah silently studying him in turn. Tekumah never said a word, so out of all of them his motives were the most difficult to discern. If he was onto Tamas he would have to act soon.

As they sat, Lila took out her wineskin. Each night she drank just a little wine, just enough to help her sleep. Being so alert to every sound must have made sleep otherwise difficult.

“Might I have a sip of that?” Tamas asked.

Lila smiled and held out the wineskin to him. Such a friendly gesture just made this harder. As he approached, with his hand held out to the wineskin, he had to remind himself, “No matter how friendly she seems, this is an assassin I’m looking at. She’s mercilessly killed hundreds of people for Mahla.” He drew close, just within an arm’s reach of Lila. Progressively he’d brought the outstretched arm closer and closer to his own body to justify just how close he’d gotten. In his peripheral vision he could see the edge of a cliff nearby. They were in the Arxian mountains, after all. A fall from that height was almost sure to kill Lila, or at least injure her well enough so that she wouldn’t be able to carry out the mission.

Rather than grabbing the wineskin, as Lila was expecting, Tamas grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her forward. He then grabbed her by the leg with his other hand and sent her hurtling through the air at the cliff. She was surprisingly light, even for one so small, and sailed right to the edge. To Tamas’ horror, however, she grabbed onto the edge of the cliff and hung there. He’d botched it. He had only seconds to fix the situation.

Everything happened so fast after that, but it felt like a lifetime went by in those few moments. Tamas ran at Lila and kicked her in the face, hard. As she started to fall, Tamas picked his claymore up off of the ground and brought it up just in time to push it through Tekumah’s chest, just as Tekumah was about to pounce upon him. The momentum of Tekumah’s movement, combined with the sudden, jolting stop as he was impaled on Tamas’ sword, covered Tamas in Tekumah’s blood.

Had Tamas’ face not been covered in Tekumah’s blood he would have seen Melva coming. Had he seen her approach he could have moved out of the way of that first blow. Instead he felt a sharp strike on his right side, in his ribcage just under his arm. His armor saved his life, but the pain was disorienting. He flailed blindly for a moment, and Tekumah’s limp body struck Melva and knocked her over to one side. The body slid off the end of Tamas’ blade and crashed in the dirt. Tamas quickly wiped the blood from his face and took his stance, ready to fight back against Melva.

She’d scrambled to her feet and had her shield raised. “Traitor!” she shouted at him. “Murderer!”

What was so shocking about that second part, Tamas couldn’t help but wonder. As far as he could tell the whole reason any of them were picked for this mission was BECAUSE they were murderers.

Now he’d lost the element of surprise, and the bruise under his arm was making it hard to lift his sword as high as he needed to. If this fight lasted for too long he wouldn’t last. Melva shifted her steps slightly, until the campfire was directly behind her. With the light at her back, and Tamas’ eyes adjusting to its brightness, she disappeared into shadow, and he didn’t see her next strike until the last moment. Her sword was mere inches from his face when he saw the gleam on her blade, and he threw his head back to avoid it. Blindly, he swung out his claymore and caught her in the shoulder of her sword arm. There was a loud cracking sound as he sent her sprawling onto the ground again. Sparks flew from the spot where his blade struck her armor.

Without hesitation, he was on her again. He drove his sword through her chest, using the point and all his weight behind it to pierce her armor and push through. His eyes met hers just as her life slipped away from her. Tamas tried to give her the most apologetic look he could, just before he twisted the blade in her chest and yanked it out again.

His head was thumping as his heart pounded. His hands shook. Tamas was certain he’d never been so close to death before. He took a moment to survey the scene, take in everything that had just happened. Once he’d finally stilled his breathing he picked up Tekumah’s body and cast it over the cliff, to fall with Lila’s. He then dragged Melva’s body over and threw her off as well.

He was committed now. After two years of serving a ruthless and violent usurper he was on his way to find a queen worth serving.

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About the author

Nicholas S. Casale

Bio: Nicholas S. Casale, or "Nico" as his friends call him, was born on Vandenberg Airforce Base in California. When he was eleven years old, he moved to Colorado with his family for his father's new job.

He went to Lewis-Palmer Middle School, where teacher Mrs. Susan Doyle got him interested in history by expressing to him that it was not about facts to memorize, but about stories to be told. During this time, English teacher Mr. Todd Mucci also taught him how to write, and he began work on his first piece of historical fiction.

Though his family was fairly secular, he attended a youth group at the Little Log Church in Palmer Lake, Colorado.

In college, he majored in history, and studied various mythologies and religions throughout the world. After college, he became certified as a paralegal and worked at Wal-Mart for the next three years while he tried to find a job with a law firm.

After landing his first paralegal job, he still felt something was missing in his life, and struggled with bouts of depression and loneliness. That was, until he started attending a Messianic Jewish Synagogue in Colorado Springs, where he met the Hebrew class teacher who would one day become his wife.

He is now happily married to Jenifer E. Casale, who wrote "The Whispered War" with him and is currently working on a feminine counterpart to the famous "Hero's Journey" theory devised by Joseph Campbell.

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