Trey followed Flos out into the corridor. He walked seven steps, then felt someone grab his tunic from behind.
“Wait a second. Don’t follow him.”
“Teres! What are you—”
His sister pulled the startled Trey back into Flos’ room. Then Teres shut the door. Trey stared at her in disbelief.
“Teres! What are you doing?”
“I’m staying here. I’m not haring off this time without knowing what’s going on.”
“Yeah, but he—but—”
Trey stared at the door. Flos had been striding down the corridor. What would happen when he noticed the twins were gone? Would he notice they were gone?
But there was no arguing with his sister. Trey knew it just by looking at Teres’ face. Her jaw was set. Teres was still breathing heavily, her cheeks flushed from her earlier outburst.
“I think he’s going to be pretty cross when he realizes we’re gone. We’re supposed to follow him everywhere, remember?”
“Well I’m bloody tired of it. Aren’t you?”
Trey gave up. He agreed with his twin sister. He just wasn’t sure being rude to a King’s face was the best way to go about it.
Resigned, he stared around Flos’ room while Teres crossed her arms and stared at the door. There wasn’t much in the bedroom at all. Except for the head—Trey hurriedly averted his gaze, relieved it was facing the wall—he couldn’t spot anything remotely interesting. Besides the dresser, there was a wall closet, and a door that led out onto a balcony. But no objects of note. None whatsoever.
Well, there was an empty scabbard propped up against one wall. It was like a footnote, especially since the sword it belonged to was nowhere to be seen. Trey stared at it. That wasn’t the same scabbard Flos wore at his side. This one looked fancy, dark crimson and black leather or fabric capped by metal filigree at the tip. The metal looked like gold, and it shone dully the longer Trey stared at it.
He wondered where the sword had got to while he waited. Trey kept staring at the door. Would Flos notice? Or would he send someone to get them? He’d feel like a complete fool if he and Teres ended up staying here for hours.
One minute passed, then two. And then Trey heard footsteps, and Flos thrust open the doors to his room. He stared around, a confused and mildly miffed expression on his face. He caught sight of Trey and Teres and stopped.
First the King looked quizzical, and then his expression shifted to annoyed, and then amused once more. He smiled ruefully and chuckled before thrusting the door wider.
“What is it you two young lions object to this time? I asked you to follow. Honesty is one thing, but I do require a pair of legs so you may follow me about.”
“Will you explain what we’re doing first?”
Teres glared at Flos. He blinked at her, and then at Trey. The young man had crossed his arms to show solidarity with his sister.
“I am not used to explaining myself.”
“Well, we want to know.”
It was not witty repartee, but it worked. Flos laughed, and stroked his beard as he regarded the twins. He looked thoughtful, and happy again for some reason.
“Too long. Too long since I have heard dissent. Too long since I remembered—yes I will. I will explain myself. Thank you Teres.”
He turned and walked around the twins, towards one of the windows that looked out onto the city. Flos stared down at the streets and people below before turning his head.
“I am Flos. The King of Destruction.”
“We know tha—”
Teres’ peeved voice shut off as Flos raised a hand. This time Trey felt his jaws clamp down, though he hadn’t tried to say anything. There was a difference in the way Flos spoke now. He was serious, quiet and thoughtful, as he spoke.
“You have heard of my legend, at least, part of it. Once I ruled over this continent, and sent my armies to the other continents of the world. Some may have said I was poised to create a kingdom that would last a thousand years. But at the moment when the world feared me most, I gave up my throne. I recalled my forces and let my kingdom fall to ruin. I slept. For ten long years, I slept.”
Trey had heard all of that before. But seeing the King’s face change, he felt like he understood far more. Flos’ face was bitter with regret.
“So I slept. The sleeping King of Destruction, sitting in his rotting kingdom as other nations picked apart my empire to pieces. My vassals scattered, and only Orthenon stayed by my side. Until I woke. Now my kingdom stirs, and my people rejoice. They say the King of Destruction has awoken, and that is true. However, that does not mean I am yet ready to act as a [King].”
He looked at the twins, something like pain in his eyes. That was a human expression, a mortal one. Not the look of a King. It was intimate, private. Perhaps not even the Seven had seen Flos look like this before.
“Ten years. I feel as though I am still sleeping some days, Teres, Trey. It is not as if I can begin again so easily, you see? I doubt myself. I fear I have forgotten how to be myself. And yet, I must be myself, and as sure as I have ever been. Because now I am awake, I owe it to my people not to disappoint their faith again. And yet—”
“Earlier I mentioned my fears. I fear what I must do next. You see, I am a specific kind of king. You know it is my class as well as my birthright, don’t you?”
The two twins nodded. Flos smiled unhappily.
“Ah, but do you know the secret of rulers? Not all [Kings] are the same. Those who sit upon thrones become different kinds of rulers. Some pursue peace, and their Skills and classes reflect that. Under their rule crops grow mightily, and their people rest under an aegis of protection. But not my people. No, my kingdom knows only one thing. War. I am a King who pursues war. It is in my nature, and when I act, it will be to lead my people into battle, not replenish the land or rebuild.”
A king who specialized in war. Trey released the breath he had held and asked the only question he could think of.
“Are you afraid of war?”
Something shifted in Flos’ eyes. He smiled, and his gaze revealed something hungry and eager. And just as quickly it was gone, replaced by another, somber thing.
“I am not afraid of war. I do not fear battle. I long for it. But it is the cost I think of. I cannot shake the cost from my mind.”
The cost in bodies? Lives lost? Trey only half understood. Flos nodded back to the window.
“That is why I wish to listen to my people. To understand if they fear what I fear. I do not know. I must confess—that has never been one of my strengths. I can know the will of my people or hear their supplications from their lips, but I often fail to understand the why of it.”
“So what are we doing?”
Flos looked surprised as he stared at Teres.
“Listening. We will walk among my subjects and listen, today. It is time for it.”
Trey and Teres exchanged a glance.
“But…how can you listen if they know you’re there? Are you going to ask them?”
Flos blinked in surprise, and then smiled.
“No, we shall do it in secret. With this.”
He held up the broach in his hand. Trey stared at the yellow jewel embedded in the center, nonplussed. Flos stared at his confused audience and sighed again.
“Oh, I had forgotten you would not understand. I should activate this now, perhaps, so as not to surprise you. Very well, observe.”
He touched the broach and—changed. Before Trey and Teres’ astonished eyes, Flos turned from a King into—an ordinary fellow. Trey didn’t actually witness the change—one second Flos was there, and the next a slightly shorter, less impressive man stood in his place.
He didn’t have reddish gold hair, and his eyes were hazel. His belly had more flab and there were wrinkles in his face and grey mixed in with his dark hair. He didn’t look bad—but no one would ever confuse him with Flos.
Even his voice was different. It wasn’t as resonant, and it had a nasal quality.
“There. You see? A perfect disguise. Now that I think of it, it is better that I used it here, rather than where others might see me.”
“How did you—was that magic?”
Teres rolled her eyes as Trey stared at the broach. She jabbed her brother in the stomach with an elbow.
“Obviously it’s magic, idiot!”
Flos nodded, showing the twins the broach. It sparkled in the light from the sun, but didn’t shine or twinkle or do anything else that gave away its nature.
“It was a gift from Mars, years ago. It allows me to assume the shape of an ordinary person, a common man wherever I go. I have made use of it on occasion to learn from my people. I will do so again now.”
“So you’re going out looking like…that?”
“Indeed. And so shall the two of you! Yes, I think that would be best.”
He thrust the broach at Trey.
“Here. Touch the stone in the center.”
Hesitantly, Trey did so. He heard Teres gasp and looked down at his body. He didn’t see anything wrong. He stared at Teres. Her eyes were wide as she looked him up and down.
“What? What is it?”
“You look different!”
“How? Am I uglier?”
“No—well, you were never a looker but—you’re just different, alright?”
Trey saw what she meant when Teres copied him. Her features altered. She didn’t become uglier or fairer, but her hair and nose and mouth and skin tone changed to make her look more like the people of Flos’ kingdom, rather than a London-born girl from another world. Flos nodded in approval as Trey and Teres stared at each other. Trey had to poke Teres experimentally to make sure she was the same underneath, and Teres exclaimed as she felt at Trey’s features and felt his real face underneath the mask.
“It is a temporary illusion. It will last for several hours if memory serves. We shall mingle with my people while we wear it.”
Flos looked happy at the prospect. Trey and Teres exchanged a glance.
“I suppose that’s alright, isn’t it?”
The strange girl standing next to Trey nodded, looking resigned.
“So we’re just going to wander about?”
“Perhaps. We shall see what occurs.”
Flos rubbed his hands together, looking pleased. He paused as he strode over to the door. Trey had a hard time keeping his eyes off of Flos’ face. There was no longer that strange magnetism around the man, and that was almost as disconcerting as his new features.
“We should avoid going near any of my vassals.”
Flos smiled, and it was another man’s lips which turned upwards.
“They would be able to detect the magic. Orthenon is alert for such tricks and Gazi would be able to see through such illusory magic. Perhaps even without her main eye. As for Mars, she might not notice, but I would prefer not to risk it.”
That seemed weird. Wasn’t Mars the one who’d given Flos the broach? Flos opened the door and after glancing around for a second or two, quickly strode out. Trey and Teres hurried out the corridor. Not too many people were about, and they didn’t look twice at Flos, despite him walking out of the King’s own bedroom. They didn’t look twice at Trey and Teres either, which he supposed was part of the illusion.
“Few will notice us, unless they are actively looking.”
Flos spoke out of the corner of his mouth as he walked more slowly down the corridor, the twins following him closely. Trey nodded.
“Um, my K—”
Teres elbowed him. Trey stared at her, and then remembered.
“It has been a while since I heard that name. What is it, Trey?”
Trey gulped. He forgot the last question he was going to ask and blurted out his question about Mars instead.
“Why wouldn’t Lady Mars be able to see us? Doesn’t she know a lot of illusion magic?”
The man Flos had become raised his eyebrows, looking amused.
“She is called the Illusionist, but not because she knows any magic of her own. Rather, she possesses many trinkets such as these.”
“I remember now. She told me. But why is she called the Illusionist if—”
Flos turned his head and quickly stepped out of the way. Trey yanked Teres back as four men carrying heavy sacks of something or other walked past them. One cursed the trio as he went past.
“Keep to the right side, fools! Unless you’re carrying something heavy, keep the corridor clear!”
Startled, Trey looked at Flos. The King looked nonplussed, but as he and the twins looked around they realized that they were getting dirty looks.
It suddenly occurred to Trey that they were walking like they had been before, straight down the center of every corridor as people hurried around them. It was so natural that they hadn’t realized it. But that was how the King and his sworn vassals walked. And once Trey looked, it was obvious they were making a mistake.
The servants, workers, and other people bustling about the palace did not walk down the center or wherever they pleased. Instead, they walked on the right side of the corridor while people going the opposite way walked down the left. The center was reserved for people in a hurry, or carrying things too bulky to go with the usual flow.
“I believe we should walk on this side.”
Flos stepped closer to the right wall, smiling at an older woman who did not smile back.
“Hurry up and move. We ain’t got all day.”
Trey and Teres stepped smartly and followed Flos on this new, more proper route. They no longer walked at their own pace; they were now following the person in front. When they slowed, the three had to slow as well or run into someone.
Flos, Trey, and Teres were all unaccustomed to walking that way. But they obediently followed the flow of people on the right side of the corridor, chatting quietly as they did.
“Fascinating. I had no idea there was a system for such things. I suppose Orthenon must have implemented it for convenience’s sake. It is this sort of thing that I wish to experience.”
“Getting yelled at?”
Trey and Teres stared dubiously at Flos. They didn’t think there was too much special about this, but he seemed privately delighted.
“Yes, and yes. How can I lead my people if I do not walk in their shoes from time to time? It is this experience which—”
He didn’t get to finish his proclamation. An annoyed woman’s voice called out to the three and they saw a grey-haired lady hurrying over to them with a scowl on her face.
“What are you three doing? You’re not part of the interior staff!”
Trey stared anxiously at Flos, but the King smiled.
“We are laborers, Miss. We did not have any work at the moment so we—”
He got no further. A huge scowl replaced the smaller one and the woman snapped at the three.
“If you’re not busy you should be reporting to wherever you were assigned for more work, not wandering about the halls getting in the way!”
Flos bowed his head, looking contrite.
“I am terribly sorry, Miss. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Too right! Now if you’re done wasting time—we’ve quite a lot of supplies to be moved. Another [Trader]’s come by and we need all the goods taken up to the storerooms and the kitchens within the hour!”
She pointed down the hall and Trey noticed a stream of people carrying heavy loads coming their way. He expected Flos to refuse, but the man just smiled.
“We would be delighted to help, Miss.”
His comment didn’t impress the woman.
“Too right you will, or I would be having a word with Lord Orthenon directly after this! Get moving you two—I’ll send some others to help unload.”
“We can take care of it ourselves. My two…my niece and nephew here can help me. I’ll carry everything up.”
“Oh, a [Laborer] are you?”
The woman paused to look Flos up and down skeptically. He grinned at her.
“No. Just strong. We’ll have your supplies in a moment.”
Despite herself, the woman smiled. Even with another face, Flos’ grin was slightly contagious.
“If you can do it quick, I’ll have a cold drink waiting for you. For now, bring anything edible to the main kitchens and the rest to the store room next to the library. You know where that is? Then get moving!”
She strode off. Flos nodded at Trey and Teres, and they followed him again, this time heading out of the castle.
“We’re not going to carry stuff, are we?”
Dismayed, Trey stared at Flos. His arms still hurt from practicing with Mars earlier. Flos nodded.
“Of course! I gave her my word I would help unload that cart. A bit of work won’t be wasted while we observe the others.”
Trey didn’t get any further. In moments he found himself struggling to carry a heavy sack of something on his shoulders. He staggered after Flos as Teres did the same with an equally heavy bag. The King strode back through the castle, carrying five heavy sacks at once. Trey stared, and some of the other people carrying things made startled comments as Flos passed.
“Don’t kill yourself there, Mister!”
“Those bags of flour will wait, no matter how loudly the [Cooks] yell. It’s not worth a broken back!”
Flos laughed and responded jovially as he marched through the halls. He stepped into the huge stone kitchen and after being directed where to put his load, he and the twins set down their cargo and headed back for a second trip.
Trey was massaging his shoulders as he hurried after Flos. The King smiled at him.
“If your shoulders ache after only that, we’ll have to build your muscles, Trey! A set of good armor might not be as heavy, but wearing it for hours on end is far more exhausting.”
“Is that why you can carry all that at once?”
The King laughed as he strode down the corridors, following the right side’s flow of traffic.
“Hah! Well, I must admit that I’ve grown weaker than before. In fact…”
He frowned and his smile vanished.
“That was actually quite unpleasant. Carrying such heavy loads…it is little wonder few choose the [Laborer] class. I am beginning to regret volunteering to carry all of the [Trader]’s goods myself.”
Trey and Teres glared up at Flos. He laughed again.
“Never mind. A promise is a promise. Onwards, you two!”
He strode down the hallway, giving neither Trey or Teres a chance to object or throw something at his head.
An hour later, Trey would have sorely loved to kill Flos for volunteering them to carry an entire wagon-load of goods up several floors to the various store rooms and the kitchen. But any possible threat of violence was impossible; Trey’s arms could barely move and his entire body hurt.
He sat at a table in the banquet hall next to Teres. She was slumped over, but sitting next to her, a loud and obnoxiously good-natured Flos was sharing a drink with some of the other servants taking a break at the same time.
True to her word, the woman in charge of supervising the servants had given Flos, Trey, and Teres a half hour’s break to have a drink and a bite to eat. Trey had been too tired to do more than chew the hot, doughy crescents of spiced bread – a popular snack in the region – and sip some water. Teres was the same, but Flos was sipping at his drink of ale and laughing with a group of men and women as they sat and talked among themselves.
“I’ve only ever met a few men capable of carrying that many sacks of grain by themselves. You’d better watch yourself, or you’ll find yourself assigned to ferrying supplies up for good!”
“There are worse fates, I suppose. But I hardly think you all lag behind. I simply feel invigorated today, that’s all.”
Flos smiled as the man sitting across from him, a balding man with scars on his arms, laughed. Someone reached out to slap Flos on the back.
It was a strange thing. Wearing a different face and speaking with a different voice—even without his aura of command, there was something about Flos that drew people to him, made them listen to him. It wasn’t just that he’d done twice the work of anyone else in the same amount of time. It was that he cared. When he spoke, Trey believed without a doubt he was telling the truth from the bottom of his heart.
“In truth, I feel far more tired than I should be. Tell me, has it been so busy every day?”
“Aye. And then some. But we have our breaks and hot food and no one could ask for more. Besides, you know how it feels. We’re alive at last, and a few sore muscles means little for that.”
The man sitting across from Flos sighed. There was a smile on his lips, and a light in his eyes. Trey heard people murmuring agreement around him. A woman who’d been in the kitchens raised her mug.
“Our King has awoken.”
“He is awake.”
The man sitting across from Flos raised his mug to that. He didn’t cheer and no one toasted. But people drank and sat in silent reverentially, as if those words were a prayer. Trey reached for another piece of fried dough, but Teres had taken it. He looked up at Flos, and saw the man’s smile had become shadowed.
“Ah yes. The King. I haven’t heard much in the streets. What goes on in the palace?”
“Not much you wouldn’t hear about. Gossips always go into the inns at night to talk—”
The others agreed, laughing about how a few tidbits was worth a free drink in any tavern. But then the balding man clicked his fingers.
“What about those two twins, though?”
Trey sat up anxiously.
“What about them?”
The man sitting across from Flos laughed.
“Haven’t you seen them, lad? They’re scarcely older than you—but they’re a different type than you and I. Foreigners, from Terandria perhaps.”
“I heard they were from further than that. But I’ve not caught the name of the nation from which they hail. No one has. Only our King knows where they came from.”
Other heads nodded. The bald man grunted, looking less pleased all of a sudden.
“I don’t know what purpose those two serve. Aye, they’re young, but Lady Mars said she has no clue why our King keeps them close.”
Flos stared intently at the man. He drank slowly as Trey and Teres hunched over at the table, feeling guilty.
The bald man nodded. He leaned forwards conspiratorially, but kept his voice loud enough for everyone at the table to hear.
“She says they’re completely unskilled with any weapons. And that’s true enough. I saw them in the training grounds, flailing about with swords as if they’d never held one before. That brightened my day.”
“I’ve no qualms with them being here, but I’ve been told they’re to be treated with the same respect as one of the Seven. Imagine that!”
“Lord Orthenon seems to respect them, and I have no earthly idea what Lady Gazi thinks. Lady Mars seems to share our opinions, but she’s respectful enough. I wonder what merits our King’s trust in them…”
The others around the table began gossiping about Trey and Teres. Trey was relieved that none of them had specific complaints, but he felt wretched. He was relieved when Flos cleared his throat.
“The twins are one thing. But what about the King?”
“What about his Majesty? I saw him walking down the hall just this morning. He met my eyes and I’ll swear to you all, he was the same man he once was. Just as great.”
The balding man spoke proudly and everyone nodded. But Flos shook his head.
“If he is as he was, that means war is coming, isn’t it?”
“And if it is?”
The man stared challengingly at Flos. The King did not respond. The laborer drained his mug, speaking loudly to everyone at once.
“If it comes to it, I’d be the first to grab a sword and follow him into battle. He has but to ask. Once our King raises his banner, we’ll follow him as before.”
The female [Cook] said that, and the people around her nodded. Trey blinked as he saw every face just as resolute as the balding man’s. If he but asks, we’ll go to war. He looked at Flos and saw something different written on the man’s face.
Anguish. It was there for a second, and then gone. Flos turned to look at Trey. Then he resumed listening to the people talking in loud, excited voices.
What did it mean? Something had bothered Flos. And it was why he had come here. Trey understood that without needing to be told. But what?
“Why is he upset?”
Teres whispered into Trey’s ear. He shrugged and looked around the room. No one looked upset. Just the mention of war had made other people come over. Some, most were civilians who’d never fought, even before Flos had slept. But a few at the table including the balding man had been soldiers. They spoke proudly of battles past, and of battles to come. There wasn’t a trace of fear or hesitation in their eyes.
So what had Flos seen?
It was a slow realization. It dawned on Trey as he watched Flos mingle and talk with the other servants and laborers, ordinary citizens, craftsmen and soldiers. It was in their wrinkled faces, the way they doted on Trey and Teres, asking where they had come from, where their family was—questions the twins had a hard time answering honestly let alone dishonestly.
When Trey saw the youngest woman in the room, the young [Cook] in her mid-twenties, that he finally understood. He nudged Teres at once as he watched Flos laugh uproariously at a joke someone had told.
“I get it, Teres.”
Trey hesitated. How could he explain? He thought and whispered into Teres’ ear.
“Think about the Great War, Teres. The Lost Generation—you know? Think of it like that. Only the opposite.”
She looked blankly at him, and then her eyes widened. She took in the room, the aged faces. The lack of young ones.
It wasn’t the faces Trey saw that had bothered Flos. It wasn’t the living. It was those who weren’t there. The children. The young people. There were scarcely any people Trey and Teres’ age, and he had seen…how many children over the month he had been here? So few.
It was a flash of insight. Flos, the King of Destruction would go to war. He would ride off, and his kingdom would rise with him. They would follow his banner into war again, as they always had.
Only this time, no one would come back. Or rather, there would be no one to come back to. This time, there was no generation of young men and women to fight. It would be the fathers and mothers who took up arms, every living soul. There weren’t enough bodies left. This generation would be the last.
This was Flos’ kingdom. Dying. They had come to life, but that life was fragile. Tenuous. They were what remained, but if Flos rode to war, there would be nothing left.
Trey looked up and saw Flos looking at him. The King nodded, and turned back to the laughing men and women. When he spoke, it was quiet, but his voice quieted the loudest laughter.
“What a terrible King.”
He sat at the table as sound died around him. Trey saw every head within earshot turn. The balding man stared at Flos, joviality gone.
“What was that, fellow?”
“I said, what a terrible King he must be. To ask you all to fight and die again. What sort of King could ask that of his people?”
No one spoke. Trey looked around at the suddenly hostile faces. The balding man pushed away his drink.
“Are you new to Reim, stranger? Or did you never lay eyes on our King before now?”
Flos met his gaze squarely, without passion.
“I have seen him before. As he lay slumbering while his kingdom fell to ruins.”
“Then you know nothing.”
The bald man stared at Flos, face reddening. He pushed back his chair.
“If you never met our King before, then you’ve no right to speak of it. He may have slept, but we kept faith with him. We waited, and when he calls, we will go to war and yes, die for him without fear. Because he is our King. Now, I’ve got to be getting back to work. And you had best leave.”
He stood up, staring at Flos. The King stood as well, and Trey and Teres scrambled out of their seats. Everyone was staring at them. But Flos didn’t turn to leave. He stared curiously at the balding man, as if he were staring at something he’d never seen before.
“Why would you follow a King who abandoned you? Who left his kingdom to rot? Why would you love such a worthless King?”
The bald man stared at Flos across the table. His face went crimson, and then white with anger. His voice was barely contained.
“Because he is our King. Because we love him. Because we would follow him to the ends of the earth. Because he is worthy of respect.”
Flos shook his head.
“He is not.”
Silence. Trey saw the tendons bulge on the balding man’s neck. He saw his hand move in slow motion—and then the man threw a punch at Flos.
It was so quick that Trey missed the blur of movement. He only saw the second part of the punch, as Flos leaned backwards, avoiding the blow.
The balding man leapt onto the table and started swinging at Flos. The King dodged backwards, letting each punch miss him by inches. But there was only so far he could back up. He blocked one punch towards his chest, took a step back, and ran into Trey. Flos took the second blow to the face which sent him sprawling and a kick to the stomach before people pulled the bald man off of him.
“Get out. Take your uncle with you and don’t set foot in the palace again if you want to walk out.”
The balding man spat at Flos as Trey and Teres helped him up. The other servants and workers held him back, but no one spoke up in defense of the twins.
Trey and Teres pulled at Flos and he let them pull him out of the hallway. Once they were out, Trey and Teres set a fast walk, hurrying Flos down the corridor. Only when they were a good minute away did Flos speak.
“Well, that was enlightening.”
The twins stopped and stared at him. Servants behind them cursed and dodged out of the way as Flos rubbed at his cheek. It was already swelling up.
“What? What do you mean, it was enlightening?”
“Exactly what I said. I am glad to have spoken to that man. Although I wish you two would have backed up. I needn’t have taken that punch otherwise.”
The mildly reproving tone and glance towards Trey nearly made him lose it altogether.
“That wasn’t our fault! You started that fight! Why didn’t you punch back or—or stop him?”
The King stared in confusion at Trey as if he were the one not making sense.
“Don’t be ridiculous. What sort of King would attack his own subjects?”
Trey’s mouth worked helplessly as Flos led them on again.
“The…kind that doesn’t want to be hit?”
“Hah! Good point.”
Flos grinned at Trey as he rounded a corner, tapping the gem in the center of the broach twice. One second he was a wincing, commonplace laborer, the next, he was a King. Trey wouldn’t have noticed the slight swelling around his cheek at first glance. The sheer…Flos-ness of the man overwhelmed details at first glance.
“My King! Good morning to you!”
“Good day to you.”
Flos waved at servants who exclaimed upon seeing the King appear out of the middle of nowhere. Trey saw the corridor full of people behind him do a sudden double-take and stare in amazement at Flos. They called out greetings too as Flos abandoned the right side of the corridor and strode down the center again. It was better that way; people got out of Flos’ way no matter where he walked.
“I can’t believe you let him hit you. Why did you call yourself a bad King?”
“Because I am. Because it is true. They may see me as a King worth following, but I will not give myself such laxity. I have failed them. That they would follow me is a mark of the worth of my subjects, not myself.”
Trey stared at Teres. She shrugged. Then she frowned at Flos.
“Why didn’t you tell them you were the King, then? Then they wouldn’t have kicked you. Or thrown beer on your head.”
“Was that what it was? I thought it was water. But why would I reveal myself?”
Flos felt absently at his damp shoulders. Trey tried to explain, feeling all the while that he shouldn’t have to.
“Well, isn’t that what you wanted to do? It’s like…it’s like all the stories.”
The King halted in the middle of the corridor. He made Trey explain to him what he meant.
“In stories of…King Arthur, I guess, he pretends to be a beggar, or an ordinary knight. He goes around doing good deeds and learning about folks, and then he reveals himself to them afterwards as the King.”
“Why would I do that?”
Flos looked blank. Trey opened his mouth and paused.
“Because…because then they’d know it was you?”
The King shook his head, frowning.
“If I were to do so, then that man would have realized he raised his hand against his King. I would not trouble him with that knowledge. And besides, it is best I keep such tricks secret.”
“But you got punched.”
“Yes, I did. But it was important. And I have a healing potion in my rooms. Follow me.”
Flos refused to continue the conversation until they were in his quarters. There he took a bottle of clear blue liquid from his drawer and let Teres dab a tiny bit of it onto his cheek.
“My stomach will be fine. But a King cannot be seen with a swollen cheek. That much is true.”
“So why did we do all of this?”
Trey complained as he eyed the potion bottle. He was wondering if he could use some on his sore shoulders. Or arms. Or legs. Or if he could take a bath in it. Flos sighed.
“You saw what will come, did you not? Death. Death for my kingdom and my people. It is war I walk towards, and it will take their lives.”
“Isn’t that how war always works?”
“It is. But I had not thought of the cost of it until now. When I was young I did not know why my people followed me, even to their deaths. Now I know, and I am humbler for it. They showed me their feelings—”
He winced as Teres touched his swollen cheek.
“—Quite clearly. And it is good that I know it. Because I must be the King to fulfill such expectations.”
He sat on his bed, head bowed as the healing potion worked its magic and his cheek returned to normal in seconds. At last, Flos raised his head and smiled tiredly at the twins.
“Children, did you see the other part? When I became a King again, did you see it in the eyes of my people?”
Flos smiled bitterly. He stretched out one huge hand and stared at it as he spoke.
“They do not see me. They stare right through me, at something else. An illusion far more complete than any Mars could create. At a dream.”
Teres was the one who hesitantly replied.
“You mean…at the King you used to be? Before you slept?”
“Not even that.”
Flos shook his head.
“They see a King who never existed. Their ideal King, the ruler they made from shattered dreams as I lay slumbering. A King without fault, who will bring them salvation. I am not that King. I never was. I never will be. And yet, that is the King I must be.”
He stood up. He took the bottle from Teres and gently put it back into the drawer of his dresser. When he turned, he stood taller than ever, or so Trey thought. And when he spoke, it was as a King, so that every word hung in the air.
“My subjects dream. It is a King’s duty to turn that dream into reality. I am a King, and I must act like it. I cannot hide behind petty tasks anymore. It is time to be a King in truth.”
He gestured towards the door, and this time the twins walked out with him behind them. Flos explained as they walked through the corridors, every head turning and bowing towards him.
“In truth, Trey, Teres, I have not acted as I should. You have seen me supervising the repairs of a wall, or managing supplies, dealing with the affairs of my kingdom. And while those are true and pressing tasks, they are not mine. I have always left such things up to Orthenon, my [Steward].”
“Of course! He is far more competent than I at such matters. Whenever an issue of logistics popped up I believe I said…what was it now? Ah, yes. I would probably say ‘Orthenon, take care of it’ and leave it to him.”
The twins gaped at him. Flos raised his eyebrows.
“You didn’t even say ‘please’?”
“Should I have? I am a King, and he is my [Steward]. My faith in him is complete.”
Trey shook his head, an activity he had come to associate with Flos. He looked around, frowning, as he realized where they were going.
“Are we headed to the map room?”
Flos smiled as he threw open the doors to the room where strategy was planned and Orthenon occasionally tutored the twins. He surprised a woman organizing the carefully arranged maps. He nodded to her.
“Will you fetch us a map so I might view it. I would like a…modern map of the surrounding area. Please.”
He looked vaguely pleased with himself for adding ‘please’ at the end. The woman bowed and immediately found him the required map. Flos unrolled it and the twins stared at the inked lines on parchment.
“Hm. This is only a few years old. But I see.”
Flos sighed as he stared down at the countries and nations marked out on the map. Trey and Teres stared. Compared with the map Orthenon had shown them earlier, this map was completely different.
Most of the nations to the west had been swallowed up by a new empire, the one ruled by the Emperor of Sands. Whereas, around Flos’ kingdom of Reim…
The King traced his finger around the tiny, almost ludicrously small plot of land that was his kingdom. His hand moved up, and he went from nation to nation, staring at the tiny names listed there.
There were so many small plots of land around his kingdom that it looked like a spiders’ web. Trey saw Flos’ finger point to a tiny sliver of land to the north, directly next to his capital city.
“I remember these lands. I remember…ruling them. Now each one is ruled by a [Lord], or part of a larger kingdom.”
He turned quickly away from the map. He nodded at the woman and she rolled it back up quickly.
“That was all I needed to see. Come, Trey, Teres. There is something I must do with the two of you.”
Trey didn’t get it. But he followed Teres and Flos out the door.
“What are we going to do?”
“I wish to see for myself what Mars saw. I should have sparred with the two of you myself, rather than leave it all to her. If she does not know your worth, then how can she evaluate you properly?”
“Wait, you don’t mean—”
Trey balked the instant Flos led them back to the training grounds. He and Teres backed up to the doorway as men and women training with weapons turned and called out exuberantly to their King.
“We’re tired. We can barely lift our arms!”
“Good! That means you’ve been exercising. But I would like to see your lack of skill myself. Ah, Mars.”
Flos turned and smiled in greetings as Mars hurried over. She blinked at the sweaty and irate Trey and Teres.
“Are you going to have them train again, my lord? I gave them a workout earlier. They might not have the energy for it a second time.”
“Just a few swings. It has been far too long since I wielded a sword in earnest myself.”
Flos accepted two training swords and tossed them at Trey and Teres. Both twins failed to catch their swords and had to pick them up laboriously. Trey froze when he saw Flos had unsheathed the sword at his side.
“Why do you have a real sword?”
“Don’t worry. It’s not enchanted.”
Trey bit his tongue as Flos swung the sword through the air. It was fast in his hands. He saw Mars staring with what looked like love at her King as he held the sword. Flos beckoned at Trey and Teres as they held their blades uncertainly.
“Come. I won’t injure you two. I simply want to see you strike.”
Trey couldn’t remember how Mars had taught him to hold the sword. Reluctantly, he swung at Flos’ left as Teres viciously poked at his stomach. Flos’ sword blurred and he knocked Trey’s blade aside as he parried Teres.
“Good! That was quite a determined thrust, Teres. Try again, Trey. Strike with all the force you have! Don’t worry about me.”
Gritting his teeth, Trey did. He slashed down at Flos and felt like he’d hit a wall when the man blocked. The sword tumbled out of Trey’s hand from the impact. He scrambled to pick it up, hearing laughter as he did.
It wasn’t fun being laughed at. Trey’s ears were red. He raised his arm, ready to try again, only to see Teres try to cut Flos’ head off. She looked as annoyed as he felt, but Flos was encouraging her.
“Good! Spirit! You have a good thrust—you might have run me through there. Perhaps Orthenon would be a good teacher for her, don’t you think, Mars?”
“If you want to give her over to him, I won’t object my lord. But he and I don’t see eye to eye on how to fight.”
“Mm. True. Well, what about you, Trey? Perhaps we should let you train with Mars or I while Teres learns from Orthenon’s style.”
Flos turned to Trey, casually blocking Teres as she tried to stab him in the back of his leg. He motioned her back and raised his sword.
“Mars has taught you to strike, but how about blocking? Come, we’ll take turns.”
He let Trey strike at him, his sword not budging an inch as he blocked. Then he showed Trey how to hold a shield in his other hand. Trey flinched as Flos raised his sword, but the King laughed and gently swung down.
“Brace yourself as I strike. And don’t let your shield stray from your body. When you strike, don’t expose your arm or I might lop it off. Good! Keep your shield up as you stab—there.”
Within minutes he had Trey gingerly keeping the shield in his left hand up as he struck and blocked Flos’ gentle taps to his shield. Soon, Flos had begun using more force. Trey felt heavy buffets threatening to knock his shield away. He braced himself, letting his legs cushion the blow as Flos struck downwards.
“I think I’m ready to stop.”
“Nonsense, you’re doing splendidly. Come, strike at me.”
Trey saw Flos’ face smiling broadly as he peeked around his shield. He also saw approving looks on the faces of the others watching him, and a smile on Mars’ lips. That gave him the strength to weakly cut at Flos’ side.
“Excellent! Raise your shield—I’ll be striking from the left. Harder this time.”
Despite being ready for the blow, Trey felt his arm compress against his body. He made a wheezing gasping sound as he stumbled back. The King beamed at him.
“Trey wants to quit.”
In his heart Trey blessed Teres. She glared at Flos, ignoring the disapproving faces staring at her. Flos eyed Teres and sighed.
“One last blow then, from each of us.”
That sounded fine. Trey managed to tap Flos’ sword. Then he raised his shield. Flos was smiling.
“Very good. You’ve the makings of a good warrior, Trey. Now—block!”
He raised his sword high, giving Trey a chance to raise his shield. The young man did, bracing himself. It was just one more strike. But then the sword came down like lightning. Trey froze. It was too f—
The sword struck Trey’s shield. It didn’t cut through the metal, but the impact of it knocked Trey flat.
Trey didn’t feel his knees give way. He slammed back-first into the ground, hearing his back go crack in various places. Trey felt as though his entire body was whumph. The entire impact ran through him and for a few seconds he just stared at the sky. Then he remembered he wasn’t breathing and tried to gasp for air.
Once hearing had returned he heard Teres’ voice, and felt people crowding around him. Someone opened an eyelid and Trey tried to make his eyes focus. He heard his sister shouting angrily at someone and a contrite voice that was Flos’.
The wind was knocked out of him and it wasn’t coming back. Trey sat up at Teres’ insistence, but then lay back down. He felt…floppy. Could you hit someone so hard their bones turned into rubber?
He felt like he should stand up, but he couldn’t. Trey felt himself being picked up and was carried somewhere. He must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he realized he was sitting up in the room he and Teres shared, in his bed.
His sister was standing over him. She had a bottle of yellow liquid in her hands. Trey opened his mouth.
“I don’t want to drink that.”
“You don’t have to. It’s a healing potion.”
Trey thought about that.
“Can you pour it on me?”
“No. Hold still, I’ll rub it onto your back.”
“And my arms. They really hurt.”
Teres helped Trey partly undress. Trey groaned as he saw the bruised skin underneath his clothing, already turning spectacular colors.
“Hold still. I’ll have you right as rain in a moment.”
He let Teres rub the yellow stuff into his skin. It stank horribly, but the agony went away every place she touched. Trey whimpered as she got to his back. Teres was scowling.
“Where’s the King?”
“I dunno. I shouted at him and then took you to our room.”
“I can’t believe he hit you that hard!”
“I can’t either.”
“He could have killed you! I thought you were dead when you didn’t move.”
“I thought I was dead too.”
Teres glared at Trey. Then she slapped his back. He yelped. She poked him hard in the back.
“Don’t be smart.”
After a while, she finished with his back and Trey felt well enough to rub the healing potion onto his legs himself. Teres sat with him, applying a bit to her own arms.
“What was it like?”
“Being hit? It looked like he squashed you with his sword.”
“That’s right enough.”
Trey had to think as he tried to explain the feeling.
“Remember when Trevor Martin got hit by that car and had to stay in the hospital for two weeks?”
Her eyes went wide.
Trey felt at his chest and back again.
“Actually, I think I’d rather trade places with him. That hurt.”
“Well, he’s not doing it again. He’s mental, that one.”
“I thought he said he was out of practice.”
Trey winced as he handed the mostly empty bottle back to Teres. She rolled her eyes.
“He says he’s not good at holding back.”
“That was him holding back?”
“Yup. That’s another thing he’s not good at, then. If he’s so special that everyone loves him so, what’s he actually good at to begin with?”
Trey thought about that for a moment.
He lay back on his bed, trying to block the horrible healing potion smell from his nose. Teres lay next to him.
“Do you think I can go to sleep, Teres?”
“I think so.”
That sounded like an awfully good idea to Trey, so he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, after what sounded like minutes, it was to hear Teres arguing with someone at the door.
“We don’t care what he wants. If he wants us, he can come and say so himself.”
She slammed the door. Trey closed his eyes, and went back to sleep.
Sometimes later, Teres woke him up. Trey got out of bed, still feeling foggy, but hungry. Which was lucky, because he’d apparently slept till dinner time.
Every day, Flos dined in the banquet hall, at the high table with his trusted vassals while the rest of the people in the hall ate at other long tables. Trey and Teres sat at that table with him as well, but they were used to being overlooked.
Not today. This time, when Trey passed through the tables up to the hall he heard people calling out to him and Teres. Most of them just laughed as they asked Trey if he was alright, or if his head was still in one piece. It wasn’t mocking laughter though, and Trey himself could smile at the jokes.
People reached out, and a few of the older men ruffled his hair, or gave him a slap on the arm.
“Well done, lad. You took the King’s blow like a man.”
“Thought you’d nearly died there. But you sat up, so you’ve got some grit to you!”
It was embarrassing, but Trey still enjoyed it. At the high table, the vassals of the King had words for him as well.
“Trey. I trust you are recovered?”
Orthenon nodded to Trey. Gazi smiled at him, but it was Mars who slung an arm around his shoulder, laughing as she called for a drink for the both of them.
“I took a blow like that from our King once. I couldn’t see straight for two days, I’ll swear! If you can remember your name, that’s cause for celebration.”
Flos himself only laughed as he sat with Orthenon on his right and Mars on his left. The twins sat next to Mars, and Trey found himself in the enviable and difficult position of having to stare past her to listen to the conversation. She was distracting, and Teres kept jabbing him in the side when she thought his attention was wandering.
The thing about sitting at the high table was that the conversation topics were never dull. Tonight’s was especially focused, and Trey saw the servants serving food listening just as intently as the people around him.
“We have a few experienced soldiers, but I fear we must count on a mostly green army to begin with. With Takahatres keeping the Emperor of Sands occupied, our main focus must be on raising the level of our conscripted soldiers.”
“And finding an actual army. We can’t make everyone hold a sword or we won’t have anyone to grow crops, cook, and so on. Plus, we don’t have that many swords.”
Mars stabbed at a piece of chicken on her plate as Flos nodded. He turned to Gazi.
“Your thoughts, Gazi?”
She shrugged. Her eye flicked towards Trey and Teres, while her other three remained focused on Flos.
“We have Mars’ arms. We can outfit an elite core of soldiers.”
“Are you suggesting we take on another nation’s army with a few dozen warriors?”
Orthenon stared at Gazi. She bit into a Yellat and swallowed it before responding.
“We must retake our lost lands sooner or later. Once we do, we will have more soldiers to join us.”
“Declaring the King of Destruction has returned so early is not a wise move, Lady Gazi. It is better to wait for those vassals with their own forces to arrive.”
Orthenon stared hard at Gazi, not deterred by the fact that she had four eyes and he had two. Mars sighed gustily.
“You say that Orthenon, but how long must we sit on our hands here?”
“As long as it takes. There is much to do here, unless you had forgotten. The city is in sore need of repairs, and we can best spend this time planting new harvests for next year, training those waiting to be soldiers—”
Gazi said it impassively, but Mars nodded in agreement and Orthenon stiffened in his seat. He opened his mouth to reply, and Flos spoke, cutting the argument apart.
“Orthenon. Gazi. Enough.”
His retainers looked at him expectantly. Flos put down his knife and reached for his goblet. He stared into it and then looked around the table. His eyes did not miss Trey or Teres.
“I have heard counsel from all present. I hear Orthenon’s need for caution, just as I understand Mars’ desire to raise my banner once again. Tomorrow morning I will tell you all what I have decided to do.”
He looked around at his companions. All three nodded and sat back. The conversation turned to less intense matters, and Trey resumed staring at Mars covertly. She really was stunning. Were they really fake?
That night, Trey climbed into bed while Teres took the one on the other side of the room. He felt tired, but not sleepy, thanks to the long nap he’d had. Plus, the downside of using the healing potion meant his body was as energetic as ever. It thought it was time to be up and about, no matter how Trey’s weary mind tried to convince it otherwise.
Perhaps that was why he was still awake hours later to see the door to their room open slowly. Trey sat up, heart pounding as a faint candle’s light entered the room, held by a shadowy figure.
There were no locks on the door, or if there was, Trey and Teres hadn’t been given a key. It wasn’t generally needed in most parts of the castle and the servants were in and out of the rooms. But all that meant was that the mysterious intruder could be anyone.
Trey’s heart beat wildly as he looked at his slumbering sister. He opened his mouth to shout, and the figure brought the candle up to his face.
“Trey. It is I.”
Flos stared down at Trey. That didn’t make the young man feel any better. He stared at Flos.
“What are you doing here?”
This time he didn’t add ‘sire’, or ‘your majesty’. Flos smiled down at Trey.
“I apologize for the late intrusion. But I have business with you. May I sit?”
Trey felt the bedding shift as Flos sat on the his bed. He sat up awkwardly staring at Flos. The King hadn’t changed into his night clothes; he was still wearing the sword at his belt. He nodded to Trey.
“I trust you have healed from earlier? I did not have a chance to ask over dinner, but I am told you used the healing potion I had sent.”
“I did. Um, thank you for sending it.”
“You should not thank me for that. It was my own fault.”
Flos sighed. He looked ashamed as he stared at Trey, the candle only illuminating parts of his face.
“I was a fool. And your sister was right to call me such. I struck you far harder than I should. It is just that I wished to change the gossip about you and your sister. If you had blocked the blow of a King, it would change what was said.”
Trey recalled all the people who’d slapped him on the back and Mars’ words of praise.
“I…think you did that.”
“Yes, but I did not mean to harm you. That was my fault. I apologize, Trey.”
Flos’ head lowered. Trey stared. It took him a few moments to realize Flow was bowing his head. To him.
“It’s okay. Really.”
“It is not, but thank you for saying so. Trey, I realize today I have asked much of you. But I ask that you and your sister follow me one last time.”
“Follow you? Where?”
“Outside my city. I have had horses saddled in secret—a tricky matter, even with a [King]’s authority.”
Flos smiled ruefully. Trey stared at him.
“Wait, but where are we going?”
“A village. It is only an hour or so’s ride away.”
Flos clapped a hand over Trey’s mouth before he could shout.
“I know it is an imposition. But I ask it of you.”
Trey wanted to say no, but he couldn’t find the words. Instead, he resorted to a cowardly, if effective tactic.
“Only if Teres says yes.”
Flos nodded, and gingerly Trey went over to wake his sister. He had to shake her several times. She flailed at him until she sat up. She was ready to curse him out until she saw Flos. Her mouth opened as she glared at him.
“I am sorry for waking you, Teres. However—”
She pointed to the door. Flos bowed his head towards her.
“Teres, I have one last matter I must ask you to witness. It is of vital importance.”
“No! Can’t it wait?”
The King smiled.
“No, it cannot. Because this must be done alone. No one must know where we are going. Not Orthenon, or anyone else.”
The twins stared at Flos. Trey’s first thought was that he was running away. But that didn’t seem to be the case. Teres folded her arms.
“Why do we have to come?”
“Because I trust you two. And because you are reassuring.”
The twins gaped at Flos. He smiled, and rose.
And they did. Teres complained and Trey chimed in, but somehow they ended up dressed and in Flos’ room in minutes. There they stared at the King.
“We’re leaving the city, right?”
“Correct. We must do it in secret, without alerting one of the servants. They will have seen us going into my room, but so long as we are not spotted leaving any of the palace’s exits they will not wake Orthenon.”
“How are we getting out, then? Wait—are we going through a secret passageway?”
Trey immediately grew excited, thinking of revolving walls, illusory doors and magical passphrases. But Flos shook his head, looking wistful.
“I asked Drevish to build me a hidden network of tunnels, but he told me that he had better things to do than waste time creating secret walls and doors. He refused to put a single secret tunnel in my entire palace and told me that if I wished to escape my duties, I should find a way to do it myself without relying on cheap tricks.”
“It’s very simple.”
Flos went over to the balcony. He beckoned Trey and Teres over. Trey walked out into the very cold night air, expecting to see a rope made of bedsheets, or something else like that. He was not prepared for Flos to seize hold of him and then toss him over the balcony.
Trey’s scream was muffled by a huge hand on his mouth. He felt hands on him, and then an impact, reduced by the arms that held him.
“There we are. It’s lucky you’re not full-grown or I might have shattered a knee trying that.”
Flos remarked casually as he put Trey back on his feet. Trey stared at him, and then up at the balcony above him. It had to be two stories up. He felt dizzy and had to sit.
“Teres. Jump down. I will catch you.”
The King’s voice was low as he called up. Trey heard his sister reply—and thought she was probably making her opinion clear with a gesture as well. Flos repeated his command. Somehow, in between Trey trying not to throw up, he persuaded Teres to jump.
“There we are. It’s not quite as attractive as a secret passage, but I suppose Drevish was correct.”
Flos remarked to the two twins as they tried to follow him on shaky legs. He led them around to a stable where three horses were indeed saddled. Trey and Teres stared at the horses. Trey suddenly recalled what Flos had said and realized there was a huge, wonderful flaw in the King’s plan.
“I don’t know how to ride.”
Flow’s eyebrows raised as he tied a lantern to the saddle of his horse, a tall dark beast which snorted down at the twins.
“You don’t? Well, it’s quite simple. I’ll teach you to guide your mounts another time. For now, just hold tight with your knees. I can command three horses as easily as two.”
Ignoring their protests he put Trey on one horse, and Teres on the other. Trey started as the huge thing between his legs began to move. He clutched at the reins unsteadily as he saw Teres doing the same.
Flos sat on his horse as if he’d been born there. He clicked his tongue quietly and all three horses followed him as he led his out of the palace stables. He rode down the streets, heading towards one of the gates. It was open, despite the late hour. Flos waved up at whoever was on top and Trey heard a voice raised in reply.
And then they were out of the city, racing across dry, dusty ground. Trey stared around the dark landscape, where shrubs of tough greenery sprouted up from the arid earth. He had only been out of the city once or twice. Now the air blew in his face—so cold!—and Trey could look up and see a night sky full of stars. Two moons stared down at him, one pale and yellowish like the one back home, but tinged slightly blue, and the other a shade of purple, glowing brilliant in the sky.
After a few minutes, Flos slowed their rapid pace. He turned the horses at a crossroads Trey barely spotted and turned them up another road, making the horses trot quickly. Now they had a chance to shout, the twins did so. In turns.
“Hush. You might wake someone. Or something.”
Flos ignored their complaints as he smiled. He breathed in the night air and extended an arm, indicating the wide, flat land around his city.
“Look at this land, you two. This is Chandrar. My home. Where it is not desert, it looks much like this. Dry. Some would say inhospitable. But there are valley and places where nature blooms. And the people who live here are the strongest of spirit, the most resilient.”
Trey looked around. All he saw were rocks, hills in the distance, and a dirt, unpaved road underneath. But he held his tongue.
Beside him, Teres was fidgeting on her horse. Trey couldn’t see her face in the darkness, but he knew she was glaring at Flos. She turned her head to him.
“Why do we do it, Trey? Why do we keep following him about?”
“I dunno. Maybe it’s a Skill? Or maybe it’s because it’s him, you know?”
Trey searched for words to describe the feeling.
“It’s like, you know, even if something bad happens, whenever we follow him, something exciting happens. And it’s usually good in the end, right? It’s like the grandest circus and movie and video game all put together. You can’t help watching him, the King I mean. And you want to be part of it.”
“I don’t want to be part of this.”
Teres indicated the horse. Trey heard it snort. He nodded.
“Yeah, but I guess it’s like—you know, a package. You have to take the good and the bad.”
“So which is this?”
Trey didn’t know. He looked ahead at the King, riding without a hint of discomfort on his horse. Trey felt like his bones were being shaken out of his body, but the King of Destruction was at home here. And he was happy.
Flos was smiling, staring down the dark road lit only by his lantern. And there was something about the way he sat in his saddle, staring ahead, that told Trey something was going to happen.
“Trey, Teres, thank you for today.”
They looked at him. The King sat high on his horse, staring into the distance. He spoke loud enough for them to hear him over the sound of the horse’ hooves, but only just.
“This day was special for me. I realize it was difficult for the two of you in light of my errors. I made many, and inconvenienced you and others greatly. But that is what made it so precious for this foolish King.”
He waved his hand back towards his city, already part of the landscape behind him.
“You have seen my mistakes, born witness to my failures. I am glad you have seen me as a man, not as a King. I enjoyed today more than I could say, and I will remember it. But now I must be what I am. A King.”
So saying, he stared ahead. And in the distance, Trey thought he could see light. Around him, the darkness was complete. The only light came from Flos’ lantern and the stars. But there was a pinpoint of something that was not starlight. It was no electric glow, but it was light. And as they rode on, Trey realized there was more than one speck of light.
“Where are we going?”
Flos pointed towards it, guiding his horses along the road. Trey expected to reach the village at any minute, but as they rode on and on, he realized their destination was very far away. It was only because the land here was so flat that he saw it from far off.
“We have left my kingdom. In truth, we left it the instant we passed beyond my walls. This land has been claimed by someone else. A [Lord] or some other land owner claims this village, and receives a tithe in exchange for protection.”
The King’s voice was low as they drew closer. Now Trey could make out the outlines of houses in the distance. And a wall. There was some kind of wooden barrier around the village, obscuring all but the roofs of the houses.
“They did not have a wall when I last came here.”
Flos frowned as he spotted the wall. Teres looked at him.
“When did you last come here?”
He didn’t reply. Now the village was directly ahead, minutes away. Trey was shifting in his saddle, his thighs and other parts aching, when he heard a shout. He sat bolt upright as he heard it again. It had come from the village, from the wall.
“They have spotted us.”
Flos said the words calmly, but Trey’s heart was racing. He saw shapes moving in the distance, and heard more shouting. The lights flickered. A door opened in one of the houses, and Trey saw someone block the light for a moment. He realized the village was coming to life.
“You there! Halt!”
When they were fifty meters or so away from the village, Trey heard a voice. He saw someone standing on the wall, dimly illuminated by a torch’s light. He had a bow and he was staring right at them.
“We’re no easy prey for [Thieves] or [Bandits]! And we don’t deal with travelers in the night. Begone!”
“We wish to enter the village. We come in peace.”
Flos raised his voice to shout back. The person on the walls made no reply, but after a second Trey heard a whining sound and then a thunk. His horse reared and Trey had to hold on for dear life. An arrow had sprouted out of the soil in front of Flos’ horse.
“The next one will strike true! Leave us alone!”
“We should go. They’ll shoot us!”
Teres hissed at Flos, but the King made no response. He slowly got off of his steed, patting it to soothe it. He grasped hold of the reins on both Trey and Teres’ mounts and guided them off the road with his horse. Then he walked back onto the road and faced the village.
“I ask again. Will you let me enter? I bear you no ill will.”
Trey thought the person on the walls faltered. He was not alone; he could see other people manning the wall, also armed. But then the voice came back, loud and angry.
“If you are a Runner or a servant of some [Lord], state your business and offer proof of it! We cannot trust your word alone!”
Flos stared at the village. When he replied, it was in a ringing voice.
“I have a right to walk here. This land is mine.”
That silenced the person on the wall. Flos did not wait for a reply. He began walking towards the village, slowly, staring up at the people there.
“Hold your ground! Hold, I said!”
Flos made no reply. He kept walking. Trey saw the person on the wall move, and another arrow landed in the dirt next to Flos’ feet. The King paid no attention. He advanced on the village. This time, he stopped within sight of the wall, and stood there in the darkness, staring up at the figures on the wall.
“Will you not open your gates to your rightful ruler?”
Trey heard a nervous laugh from the wall.
“Rightful ruler? You’ve lost your mind, stranger. This village pays tithe to [Lord] Venith and [Lady] Maresar. But we have no master.”
Flos’ voice was calm, distant. He spoke softly, growing louder until his voice filled the air.
“Once, I rode through this village. Many years ago. Yet I still remember that day clearly in my mind. I stopped here, and saw no hope, no dreams in the crushed souls of the people. So I planted my banner in the earth and claimed this land as my own. I told you to rise, to follow me and seek a brighter future by my side. Have you forgotten that day, oh villagers of Manimar?”
For a second, there was silence. Then a gasp. Trey saw the torch on the walls move. Someone took it up and brought it closer to Flos.
“It can’t be.”
They drew closer, and then Trey heard the gasp. The torch fell from the wall and landed on the ground. It cast Flos’ face into light.
Someone screamed. Another man shouted, and then there was a cry, not of anguish, but some other emotion. Trey saw the wall erupt into chaos, and then a voice, carrying above it all.
“The King! It is the King of Destruction!”
On the heels of that cry there was another.
“He has returned! Our lord, Flos has returned!”
“Open the gates!”
Within moments, Trey saw the gates open and light stream out. They encircled Flos, and he heard voices babbling, people weeping. The King stood in the center of it all, taking people’s hands, turning to touch people on the shoulder or head. He turned then, and stared at Trey and Teres.
They came closer, sliding off of the horses and stumbling towards him. Flos didn’t move as the gates opened wider and more people came stumbling towards him. He said only one thing.
“I have returned.”
He sat in the village’s town hall. It was a simple building, used for anything and everything that needed doing. Right now, it was filled to the brim. People filled every spot available, those closest to the King sitting and looking up at him, the rest standing around the edges, staring in through the open windows, crowding around the outside.
It wasn’t just one village. Trey had seen people racing on horseback or foot, telling other villages or finding farms. And so over the course of the fading night people had come streaming in, come to see the King of Destruction, Flos.
He sat in the center of it all, talking quietly. He just talked. He sat on a chair or stood, pausing as each person went to him. And he had a word for them all. Trey and Teres watched as he met an old woman who had seen him as a youth, or a man who had lost a son who’d joined Flos’ army, or an old man who’d fought with Flos on the battlefield.
They all knew him, had had their lives touched by him. And Flos knew them all. He knew every face, remembered people he’d only spoken to a decade ago. He looked at them all, and his eyes were filled with tears.
But he never wept. And as night turned into day and the sky began to lighten, Flos spoke.
“Long ago, I came to this very village. I rode through with an army and told you all to follow me. I told you I would overthrow every nation, every rule of law and every government. I asked you to break all bonds and follow me for a brighter future.”
All the voices in the room went silent. Flos looked from face to face.
“Ten years ago. No—more than that. When I was a boy, I called upon you to be my sword and shield. And you did. You sent your sons and daughters, and you picked up arms to follow me. You marched across nations, through rivers, from one end of the continent to the other.”
“And we will again!”
A man stood up. He was trembling.
“Ask it of us, your Majesty! Raise your banner and we will serve again!”
People cheered and shouted in agreement. But Flos raised his hand slightly and they were silent.
“You did once. How many came back from my endless wars? How many lie buried thousands of leagues from home?”
No one could answer that. Flos looked around the room and shook his head.
“So many were lost. Too many. And yet, each man, woman, and child died with that same dream in their eyes, that same fire in their heart. A brighter future. One worth fighting for. For that alone it was worth it.”
They nodded at that. Flos paused. His fist clenched.
“But then came the day when I faltered. I lost the will to continue. I stepped off my throne and put down my sword. I disbanded my armies, and left my vassals to scatter to the wind. I let all of you down, you that had journeyed with me so far.”
He looked at them, tears in his eyes.
“I failed you.”
Instantly there was a babble of dissenting voices. Flos raised his voice above them all.
“I failed you. All of you. I abandoned my duties as King. I slept! For ten years I slept and you all have suffered my neglect. I am not worthy to call myself your king.”
Again, they shouted in denial. But Flos kept shaking his head. He waited until they were all quiet again.
“And yet, I am your King. That fact will never change.”
He stood, and turned slowly around the room. Men and women stared at him, old warriors and mothers, farmers and shepherds. Widows and children.
“I am your King, by blood and by oath. I accepted your loyalty once, and no force in this world could break that bond between you and I. I am your King, and I will not run nor hide from my responsibilities any longer.”
They stirred. Flos stood taller. His voice grew louder.
“I have no right to ask it of you. No right at all. But ten long years have passed since I slumbered and the world has not changed. There is still little hope to cling to. People live and die in service to a faceless [Lord], struggle to eat and live, sleep in fear of monsters and bandits. This is not the way to live. There is a better life out there, beyond the horizon.”
He turned and Trey saw his eyes. They were burning. Flos stared from person to person, looking into their faces. They stared back, caught by his gaze.
“Come with me. Follow my back. Raise my banner one more time. One last time. This time, I shall not retreat. I shall not falter. I will go to the ends of the world and tear down every wall, every fortress of stone. You are not the villagers of Manimar, not the people of one single farm or villagers. You are mine. You are my people, and I ask you again. Join me. Your King has a dream. Will you follow me?”
For a while no one moved. And then a woman stood up.
“I will, my King.”
An old man was next. He smiled, tears in his eyes.
“We have waited for this day, your Majesty.”
“We are with you! Until the end!”
More people jumped to their feet. Young and old. They stood up, shouting and cheering. Trey looked around the room, and then realized he was on his feet. So was Teres. They gathered around Flos, reaching out to touch him.
Someone had a flag. It was old, a relic over a decade old, eaten away by time and rot. But when Flos touched it, the colors came to life. A black flag, stitched with gold around the edges. Trey stared up at it. There was something in the center of the flag.
It was a flame. A burning flame, woven out of gold and silver, white and purple, a flame that burned brightest in the dark. It flew above the wall as people cheered and called Flos’ name. He stared up at the banner and smiled.
The sun began to rise as, in the village of Manimar, people lit torches and gathered around their King. They had not forgotten their King. And he had never forgotten them.
Trey found himself standing with Teres. She was staring at Flos, head propped in her hands, dreamily. He sat with her.
They didn’t need to speak. They sat and watched Flos, at the center of the world, accepting people’s vows, talking with them. And Trey thought he understood how someone could follow him and keep faith with him after a decade. It was because when you listened to him, you could believe there was a better place just over that mountaintop. And you would fight for it. You could follow him for that dream.
Trey turned to look towards that horizon. His eyes found the lightening sky, and the hint of a sun in the distance. And past that the hills…
Trey frowned. He stood up and Teres turned. Something was coming. Flashes of light reflected off of armor, riders. Orthenon? Someone from Reim? Trey’s heart beat wildly. He had never seen that armor, nor the banners raised. There were two dozen riders, at least. And more—behind them Trey saw more moving shapes.
An army. Marching towards the village.
He turned to call the alarm. But someone had already seen the riders. They shouted. Flos turned. The villagers tried to close the gates, but there were too many people in the way. Trey heard screams, and the thunder of hoof beats. He saw the first rider race into the village, scattering people out of the way.
The man on horseback pulled his horse to a stop in front of Flos. The King didn’t move. He stared up at the armored man, wearing light chainmail armor the color of silver. He had a shield on his back and a sword at his side.
The man looked coldly down at Flos. The King stared up at him and smiled once.
“Venith Crusand. It has been a long time since I last saw your face.”
“King Flos Reimarch.”
There was no love in the man’s voice. He stared down at Flos as the other riders rode in through the gates. Flos nodded, looking around at the other riders without fear, but sadness in his eyes.
“I had heard you became lord of this village and these lands. Tell me, you who once rode with me. Do you come to fight by my side again, old friend?”
Venith shook his head. He stared down at Flos, and Trey saw the anger there. The anger and something else. He reached for his sword and drew it slowly. The other riders did the same.
“No. I have come for your head.”