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Chapter XXIV

“May I present Sirrah Devyn, leader of the Black Coats.”

There was no question as to why they were called the Black Coats. Every member of the mercenary company wore a long, black coat over chain-mail armor. Most of them also wore wide-brimmed black hats, and carried both a sword and a spear.

The one called Devyn had a gash across his left cheek which curved down from just under his eye down to the corner of his mouth. As Legate Atius watched him approach he noticed that both of his hands were covered in black, leather gloves, but the fingers on his left hand never moved.

Once they sat down at the table in Atius' tent together, Atius asked, “So tell me, Sirrah Devyn, why should I hire a cripple to fight for me?”

“A cripple?” Devyn asked.

“You're missing your left hand.”

Devyn chuckled. “How very observant of you.” Devyn removed the gloved, wooden hand and placed it on the table in front of Atius. “I hardly see how this makes me a cripple, however. Yes, I was left-handed when I was a child, but I lost that hand to a vicious dog when I was only eight. A mad rottweiler, might I add. I lost my hand, the rottweiler lost his life. A cripple is someone who loses a leg, a hand, an arm, or his eyes and decides from that moment on 'I can't' is the answer to all of life's problems. Let me assure you, I can.”

“You can?”

“I can wield a sword. I can fight even some of the most skilled warriors in the world. I can kill, and I do. I daresay I'm a better killer than many of your own soldiers.”

Atius shook his head. “Doubtful. This is all very inspiring, Sirrah Devyn, but I'm not considering you as a motivational speaker.”

“Are you not?” Devyn asked. “A man who can motivate soldiers is the best kind of leader, let's be honest. You see all those men out there, my company? I don't take any of their excuses. Any man who falls behind, falls short, or fails is punished severely, no matter the circumstances. I maintain discipline at all times, and there's not a man in my troop who doesn't know that. If any man tries to say his injuries make him unable to follow orders I slap him in the face with my wooden hand.”

“Impressive,” said Atius.

“What about you?” Devyn asked. “Why does the Digan Legion need to hire mercenaries to fight? You've got me more than a little curious. What is your target? Surely you know that even if you do hire us you cannot conquer all of Arx.”

“As we conquer town after town we'll continuously send slaves back to Diga. This will fill Emperor Cyril's purse until he can fund an army large enough to take Arx,” said Atius. “At least, that's the first phase of the plan. Ultimately, we plan on taking Caelum.”

“The paladin academy? Seriously?”

“Indeed.”

“No one has ever done that before...”

“I know, that's why we have to do it,” Atius said. “The capital has been taken a handful of times in Arx's history. A coup here and there, maybe an invasion, because it was built originally as, well, a city. And then they built walls and fortifications around it. Caelum, however, was built as a fortress long before it became an academy. It used to be that the King of Arx ruled from Caelum, not from Aius. King Melech, the first King of Arx, ruled from Caelum, back in a time when Arx's entire army was made up of paladins. The history is rich, and the fortress has stood for all of Arx's history, untouched, unblemished, and unbroken. When my army breaks it all of Arx will feel it. No one in all the land will feel safe anymore once that invincible fortress falls.”

“I'm assuming you have some sort of clever plan to breach its walls?” Devyn asked.

“I am the best strategist the Digan Empire has to offer. My military career is flawless. I will come up with a plan once I have seen the fortress. It's bound to have a weakness.”

Devyn raised an eyebrow. “Does a boulder have a weak-point? Even if it has a tiny crack in it, can you break it in two?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I can,” said Atius. “I always find a way to win, no matter what it takes. And you will be there when I do it. Think of the prestige that comes with that. Sure, I'll pay you all well enough now, but after its over the legend will spread of how the Black Coats helped take Caelum Academy. Nihilus is close to regaining its independence, after they get word of what you've helped accomplish imagine all the offers you'll get.”

“Only a man's reputation lives on after he dies,” said Devyn. “We all know that. It's why we don't mind risking our lives for coin. Best to have a respected memory. We're still talking about fighting paladins. And golems, for that matter.”

“Paladins are just men, when all's said and done,” said Atius. “And women, occasionally.”

“What about golems?”

“I have in my ranks Acolytes of the Father. Their magic can deal with the golems. We conquered Kolob in short order, in spite of their angel-conjurers. Golems should be no problem.”

Devyn had heard that Kolob had fallen, but only now was it really sinking in the magnitude of that. Approximately two years ago the Inquisition had developed angel-conjuring magic, and that gave them an edge when they helped Mahla take the throne. Other than daemons called up by Nihilite warlocks there didn't seem to be anything that could stand up to angels. Atius had found a way to rob them of that advantage. Perhaps they did have a chance of taking Caelum after all.

“I may be out of my head, but you've convinced me,” said Devyn. “The Black Coats will fight beside you.”

. . .

“The nominations are in,” said the royal messenger as he rushed into the throne room.

“Ah, perfect!” Aryn said as she took the slip from his hand. “Thank you, Malachi.” Aryn unrolled the slip and read the names of those whom the people of Arx were nominating as their new chancellor.

“Dag, son of Yahm.”

“Emet of Chai.”

“Tabor of Mamzar”

“Milo, son of Isu.”

Aryn re-read the last name a few times to make sure she'd read it right. Her father, Milo, was one of the candidates? Well, it made sense when she thought about it. The common people were nominating their representative in the capital, someone who would have a strong hand in the kingdom's economic policies, trade laws, and tax laws. Milo was a hero of the people, someone whom the common folk looked up to because he'd risen from humble beginnings. Usually they selected a rich merchant or banker to be chancellor, but here was a commoner who had not only risen to become a paladin, but had become father to the Queen. No commoner had ever risen to such heights before.

“Malachi, I have another task for you,” Aryn said. “Please take this same message to Milo. He should be on the western road, half way to Caelum by now.”

“Yes, your Majesty. I will make sure that he gets it,” said Malachi with a bow.

Once Malachi had left again, Sarahi whispered to Aryn, “Who were the other candidates?”

“Dag, son of Yahm, Emet of Chai, and Tabor of Mamzar, why?”

“I'll order the spies to keep an eye on each of them,” said Sarahi. “Do not assume that because the people love them they are virtuous. If you remember your history lessons many candidates in the past died under mysterious circumstances. Even in an elected position there's a history of these people killing their political rivals.”

“You think one of them is a threat to my Father?” Aryn asked.

“It could be the real reason why Erelah sent him away,” said Sarahi. “He might very well be safer on the battlefield, fighting the Digan invaders than he would be here in the capital.”

“That's absurd!” Aryn said.

“Is it? On the battlefield he'll be more on guard, and he's an excellent warrior. Here he'd be more relaxed, an easier target,” said Sarahi.

“Fine, send the spies. I suppose we should be keeping an eye on whomever might be part of the Council some day,” said Aryn. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to take a bath.”

“So soon?” Sarahi asked.

“I don't feel well. Relaxing in some hot water might help calm my nerves.” Aryn left on that note. It was true, her nerves were on edge as of late. When she'd first taken the throne over two years ago she was determined to be a kind and generous ruler. She wanted to be a champion of the people, a queen whose virtue was beyond question. Now, thanks to Erelah and Sarahi's advice, she was taking hostages, spying on her own subjects, and sending her own father off to fight a war. Another war. Did it never end? All the lies, all the violence, all the scheming. She wanted to be a kind and just ruler, but she'd learned during Mahla's coup that being too soft only got one's people killed. Yet, she'd learned from Mahla's reign that being too cruel led to revolution. The throne was like a boulder balancing on a pin, only by some miracle did it manage to stay up.

These days the only comfort she found was in the luxury of a hot bath. And, of course, the comfort of her lover's arms. She had the servants draw the hot bath for her, then told both them and the guards that she wished to be alone and dismissed them. Once they were gone she stripped herself down and slipped into the hot, steaming water and let the smell of lavender soothe her.

With the guards and servants gone, it was all too easy for Tamas to sneak in, just as she hoped he would. In he walked, with such confidence, that half-smile across his face. She hadn't needed to send for him, he was always eager enough for his next time to be alone with her that he kept his ears open to the words spoken amongst the servants. All she had to do was give him an opportunity, and he would take it.

The two of them made love again, this time in the bath, and while Aryn was in his arms, and straddling his lap, she forgot all about the troubles of the world. There was something so simple, so natural about being with him. In spite of all the people in Arx, and even in the lands outside of Arx, who wanted to kill her she felt so safe when he held her.

After they'd finished their love-making the two of them relaxed together in the bath in silence for a few minutes. All the while Tamas gently stroked Aryn's bare back, and Aryn pressed her cheek up against his strong chest.

Tamas cleared his throat before breaking the silence. “So, all of this sneaking around is thrilling and all, but I do have to wonder, how much longer must we continue like this? Honestly, it can be rather nerve-racking when someone comes up to me asking questions about you and I have to lie.”

“Who was asking questions about me? What kinds of questions? Are they onto us?” Aryn asked.

“See? Nerve-racking, isn't it? It's not like that, don't worry. Just, sometimes servants will come up to me early in the morning, shortly after I've snuck out of your bedroom, and ask me if I've seen you're awake yet. I don't think they're onto us, no. Still, I have to lie and tell them I have no idea.”

“Tamas, I know it can be a little difficult sometimes, I just...” Aryn thought for a moment. “I like that this is our secret. It's my retreat from the rest of the world. That goes away when the rest of the world knows all about it.”

“True.”

Aryn looked up into his eyes and smiled. “Besides, isn't having a secret affair exciting?”

“It is, I can't deny that. But I don't like lying to everyone like this. I've been lying about a lot of things all my life, I was rather hoping that I wouldn't have to lie anymore. I certainly don't like lying to your mother.”

“Has she been asking about us?”

“No.” Tamas shook his head. “But she did ask about me. She's talked with me about the possibility of me marrying an Arxian noble to help solidify peaceful relations between Arx and Nihilus.”

“What did you tell her?”

“I looked her in the eye and told her the biggest lie I've ever told. I told her I'm not interested in marriage.”

Aryn and Tamas stared at each other in silence for a few moments, the implications of Tamas' statement slowly sinking in with Aryn. Aryn sighed. “I have a lot going on right now, Tamas. I'm holding members of various noble families as 'guests,' I'm spying on political rivals, trying to rebuild a broken kingdom, many noble houses are still suspicious of me, and all of this while an empire from the west is trying to conquer my kingdom. I don't need everyone in Arx knowing I'm in love with a Nihilite.”

“In love?” Tamas asked.

Aryn's face turned a dark shade of red. She hadn't meant to say it, but it was true, she knew it was. She'd never really thought about it before, but the words just rolled out so easily, too easily to have been a mistake or a lie. She wanted to tell him, “Yes, I love you, Tamas!” but the only words she could get out were, “You heard me.”

A grin stretched across Tamas' face and he laughed lightly. “I love you too, Aryn. I've loved you since the beginning. You're the reason I stayed in Arx all of this time, and you are the reason why, in spite of everything I was taught in my youth, I know this world isn't as bad as my people say. You're the reason this world is worth fighting for. I'll face all the legions of the Void if I have to, just for the chance to be with you, to stay with you.”

Aryn was overwhelmed at such words. It wasn't as if sweet words had never been spoken to her before, no, her late husband had said plenty such words before he was murdered. But Paolo was just a boy, he couldn't possibly understand what he was really saying. Tamas was a man, he understood what it meant to love someone. Furthermore, he was an Aeon, he knew first-hand how terrifying the demons of the Void could be. Aryn struggled to think of something just as sweet to say back to him, but nothing came to mind. When she couldn't find the words to express how she felt she simply resolved to show him how she felt, once again, with her body.

. . .

“Mahla! Mahla, wake up!” came a harsh whisper through the dungeons.

Mahla shook her aching head and looked up from her cot. She couldn't see the source of the voice at first. Then, a shadow in the darkness shifted. “Lila?”

“You're alive! Aryn didn't execute you!”

“She will once she realized I lied,” said Mahla.

“Pardon?”

“Never mind, just get me out of here. If you'd done your job to begin with I wouldn't be in here.”

Mahla's words stung, but Lila shrugged it off as best she could and walked over to pick the lock.

“Hurry now!” Mahla hissed. “I've got a throne to reclaim. We can kill that bitch together!”

Lila stopped picking the lock and took a step back. “After everything that's happened you still want to reclaim the throne?”

“Yes! You should have killed Aryn long before she had the chance to take it from me. I've been in this cell for...I forget how long, all because of you. I'll forgive everything, though, once I've reclaimed my birthright.”

“Mahla, you can't be serious!” Lila said. “You've been defeated, and your reign was nothing but unending violence!”

“That was Aryn's fault, not mine. She was leading constant insurrections against me. With her gone my reign will be secure, and I'll make all of the traitors who followed her pay for their crimes!”

“Listen to yourself! This isn't you! What happened? Where's the Mahla I grew up with?”

“She's still here, she's just realized her true calling in life, her purpose. I am the last living descendant of King Melech, it is my destiny to rule all of Arx!”

“No, Mahla, listen to me,” Lila said. “That life is over. You tried that. You tried and you failed. I failed you too. In any case, it's over. You have to start a new life for yourself. Come with me to Subra, or maybe to the West. You can live in the Digan Empire under a new name. Perhaps we can become hired blades for some of the noble houses out there. I hear they're always at each other's throats, and hiring mercenaries and assassins to kill each other. We'll put down slave rebellions and make a fortune doing it!”

“Lila, this is my birthright!” Mahla insisted. “Set me free so that I can reclaim it!”

“Do you really think killing Aryn will win you the throne? Even if we succeed her mother, or her lover, or someone else will come for revenge. We can't retake the castle with just the two of us!”

“God wants me on the throne of Arx! He blessed King Melech's line, and I am the only surviving heir of that bloodline. Best we not disappoint God.”

“If God wants you on the throne he can provide a miracle to put you there,” said Lila. “But so far all miracles I've seen have been against you. Besides, you never really believed all that nonsense about being ordained by God, you just wanted a better life for yourself. You just wanted the money and power.”

“I wanted what is mine. I still do.”

“The people don't want you for their queen! Not even the noble houses stand by you anymore.”

“Lila, please, you said you loved me. If you ever loved me give me this! Give me my freedom and my crown!” Mahla paused. “I'll be everything you want of me. I'll be your lover, like you always wanted.”

Lila blushed at the sound of that and pressed her knees together. “How can you? You prefer men. You've never been attracted to other women.”

“I'll learn to love you, learn to enjoy your touch! I'll share my bed with you, and do whatever you ask of me!” Mahla tore open the front of her sack-cloth tunic, exposing her breasts to Lila. “I'll let you do whatever you want to my body! Touch me however you will!”

Lila couldn't deny that she was tempted. She'd loved Mahla all her life, and here she was telling her that she could have her, finally, after all these years. Lila wanted to touch her, to kiss her, to make love to her, and for a moment she considered doing as Mahla asked. But then she remembered all that had happened during Mahla's reign. The regular mass executions, the constant fighting, Mahla's iron-fisted rule. She could not bring that back. Aside from that, it would be so empty to have Mahla's body but not her heart.

“No,” Lila said and stepped further away from the cell. “I came to give you a second chance and you rejected it.”

“Lila, please!”

“No. You stay here. You earned your place in this cell, and you're worth the wages of all your hard work.” On that note, Lila walked away, leaving Mahla sobbing and begging pathetically. The begging soon turned into threats, and finally into rambling, insane screams. Lila's heart broke as she thought about that little girl she'd met so many years ago, her childhood friend. The Mahla that Lila knew back then was gone. She'd been gone for years. It was only now that Lila realized that her friend was gone forever. Only now did she say a silent goodbye, and turn her back on the insane woman who'd taken her friend's place.

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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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