Two days after Flos returned to his city with an entire village at his back, Trey woke up at the crack of dawn. It was part of his new routine.
He woke up when Teres took his pillow away. That was a surefire method to waking Trey up. He opened his eyes grudgingly and saw she was already dressed and staring at a wall.
That was normal. Trey changed out of his clothes as Teres stood in place. They were used to giving each other privacy, but he suspected Teres wouldn’t have looked around in any case. Sure enough, when he stumbled over to her, her eyes were closed and she was swaying in place.
He pushed her towards the door. Teres grudgingly moved rather than fall over.
This was their new day. And it was, to quote Teres, complete bollocks. Trey preferred outrageously bollocks, but the feeling was the same.
They had to get up at dawn, without eating brekkie, and head over to the training grounds.
People were already up and about at this time of day. But it did not make the twins any happier to see people walking about briskly, looking like fresh daisies. Trey would have loved to sleep in until at least seven or eight—Teres would prefer ten. But here they were.
For once, Orthenon did not receive the shy smile from Teres. She glared at him, which did not faze the steward in the slightest. He beckoned to Teres with a wooden sword in hand and she stomped off after him.
“Trey! Excellent! Good to see you up!”
The booming voice reminded Trey of the time he and Teres had snuck some of their father’s alcohol into their room and tried it. The morning after had felt something like this. He winced and turned to bow towards Flos as the king strode towards him.
“I feel so as well. Come, Mars and I have been sparring lightly.”
The King threw an arm around Trey’s shoulders and half-dragged the young man towards Mars. As always Trey fought to keep his eyes on her face. There was always something eye-catching about Mars, but he was beginning to suspect at least part of the attraction he felt towards her was magical. It made sense, right? Mars wasn’t known as the Illusionist for no reason.
And as Teres has snidely pointed out, no warrior could get away without having any scars from battle. Flos had several on his arms, and Orthenon had a few. But Mars did not. Gazi didn’t either, actually, but Trey hadn’t bothered pointing that out to Teres.
“Trey. Ready to learn some more sword techniques?”
Mars greeted Trey cheerfully and he managed to nod without yawning. She laughed, tossed him a sword which he managed to catch this time – the last two days he’d dropped it – and they began training.
It was actually as dull as dull could be. Trey had expected practicing swordplay with the King of Destruction and one of the most high-level warriors in the world to be more exciting. But Mars and Flos just swung their swords in exaggeratedly slow motion, which looked easier than it was as well.
Trey tried to copy them, but he found that while he could deliberately swing his sword slowly the first eight times or so, his arms got really tired after the thirtieth swing. And his mind was extremely bored the entire time. By the time he was done, Trey was sweating and his arms hurt. But they weren’t done. Not even close.
After that, he hit a cloth dummy with his sword as Flos and Mars made him strike with proper footwork and form. Now Trey had to be quick and precise, neither of which felt easy when he watched Flos hit his training dummy hard enough to make the wooden pole it was attached to crack. Faced with that example, every time Trey swung the sword he’d been given, he felt slow as an ox and weak as a baby.
“Alright, now it’s practice time! Come on, hit me!”
Mars always said the same thing. She would grin and lift a shield up and rap on it with her practice sword. Trey would do his best to tap her with his sword, but she’d block him every time, often pausing to tell him why he’d failed to hit her as hard as possible.
It wasn’t fun. When he was done for the day—a good hour later it felt—Trey was miserable. And his arms hurt. And his legs. He felt like his hands were getting blisters, and he just wanted to have something to eat.
“Ah, Trey. Don’t look so depressed.”
Flos jovially slapped Trey on the shoulder. Now Trey’s shoulder hurt too. Trey glared up at the King of Destruction.
“I’m not good at fighting. Do I have to do it?”
“Unless you prove you can shoot lightning, or you find another class more suited to you, yes.”
Flos smiled at Trey as Mars practiced against an invisible enemy with her sword and shield. She was always in the training grounds, even far later in the day. She often hung about, but she would train like that for hours on end.
Now she paused to look at Trey.
“You haven’t gotten the [Warrior] class yet, have you Trey?”
Flos shook his head at the same time Trey did.
“I asked both Teres and Trey to refuse any classes for the moment. Until they were sure of their choice.”
Mars’ eyebrows rose.
“Refuse a class? You can do that?”
The King nodded. Trey had been so amazed to hear the voice in his head the first time he wouldn’t have known to stop it unless he’d been told. But Flos had told him that very night to do just that. The King frowned at Mars as he wiped some sweat from his brow.
“I could have sworn I told you about that, Mars.”
She shrugged, looking slightly guilty.
“I may have forgotten…”
“No matter. But I am not sure a [Warrior] is the class for Trey. Teres might find some success there.”
Trey looked around. Teres and Orthenon weren’t in the courtyard. Apparently, Orthenon preferred other, less populated places to practice, and so every day Teres would leave with him and come back looking like she’d run a marathon.
“Why aren’t I training with Orthenon? Is it because you think she’ll be a better [Warrior] than I will?”
He didn’t meant to sound hurt, but it must have come out, because Flos looked surprised as he turned towards Trey.
“Teres? Ah, well…yes.”
He blinked as Trey sagged.
“Surely you noticed, Trey? Teres is a bit more instinctual when it comes to fighting than you are. I recall seeing it the first time I sparred with you. She tried to stab me several times. Quite viciously, too.”
“So she’s got talent?”
The combination of Flos and Mars was destroying what little ego Trey had. But Flos shook his head slightly as the young man sighed and lowered his head.
“It isn’t skill in my eyes so much as attitude. She takes to battle with a passion. You think more, Trey, which is why I decided to split you two up.”
“But why? Is Orthenon a better swordsman or something?”
The King and Mars paused. They shared a glance. To Trey’s immense surprise Flos nodded.
“No he’s not.”
Mars scowled and folded her arms. Flos smiled at Trey conspiratorially.
“In truth, Orthenon isn’t a match for Mars. But his skill with a sword is—different from ours. He learned his style from a foreigner, and as such, doesn’t fight in a way that Mars or I could emulate. We learned how to fight on the battlefield and from experienced warriors. But Orthenon studied.”
“He’s not better than me.”
Mars kicked at the dirt, looking stubborn and petulant. Flos sighed.
“But it is not his main class, so he is not comparable to someone like Mars whose Skills are all geared towards combat. I thought Teres would be a good pupil for him for other reasons, though. His temperament and hers are quite similar.”
Trey shook his head instantly. He couldn’t imagine Orthenon, always calm, always polite and thoughtful, being anything like his sister. Teres could be all those things, but she got mad. But to his great surprise, Mars was nodding along with Flos.
“Orthenon? He’s got a temper alright.”
“No. You’re taking the Mickey out of me!”
“I am being quite serious, Trey. I have never known Orthenon to ever unsheathe his sword without a bit of wrath. I have seen him lose his temper on the battlefield, and it is a sight to see.”
“He gets really mad, Trey. Did you see what happened when he met Venith? He knocked him straight off of his horse with one blow!”
Mars laughed as she recounted the tale to Flos and Trey. Flos nodded.
“But he controls his temper. Well, usually. Orthenon wields his anger just as keenly as he does a blade. If he can teach that to Teres, she will benefit greatly. Or so I feel.”
Trey could just shake his head at this new revelation. He felt like he learned something new about the people around him every day. Mars slung an arm around Trey’s shoulder and laughed when he blushed.
“Don’t be too upset though, Trey! Orthenon’s not fun to practice with at all. And he’s strict! You’ll have a lot more fun with our King and me.”
Flos grinned at Trey. He and Mars laughed as they began talking about having Trey join them on morning runs around the walls, a pair of exercising loons. But Trey was stewing on what Flos had said, or rather, wasn’t saying. The King turned to Trey, smiling.
“I realize you may wish to join your sister, but she is taking the path I feel most suited towards her, and you will do best with Mars and I instructing.”
Trey stared at him and a piece fell into place in his mind.
“And you want to separate us up, is that it? You don’t want us to be together all of the time.”
Flos blinked. And then he burst out laughing as Mars stared at Trey with a look of surprise. Flos turned to her, smiling jovially.
“There, you see, Mars? Trey has seen the truth. He and Teres are valuable to me, I tell you. More valuable than you or anyone else knows.”
“I didn’t think he’d figure it out.”
Mars grinned as she eyed Trey. He felt a bit nonplussed. But Flos was nodding.
“You are right, Trey. I wished you and Teres to be apart from each other more.”
He looked at Mars, growing more serious as he gestured at Trey.
“The twins truly are a gift in my eyes. Teres speaks the truth to me. She is unafraid to point out my failures, to stand up to me in my moments of wrath and folly. But Trey is different. Trey understands how I think at times. He sees into my heart. And that is a gift worth far more than gold.”
And that was something else. When Flos said something, he meant it completely. Mars smiled at Trey as the young man turned red and tried to deny something. But then Teres came back, looking like road kill, and Orthenon joined Flos and Mars and asked what was so funny.
And the worst part was, Flos recounted the entire moment to Orthenon and Gazi with pride over breakfast. And he didn’t lower his voice, so all the servants soon heard Trey’s amazingly not-amazing bit of deduction.
In truth, Trey understood what Flos meant. He remembered the conversation they’d had, and the little secret of Flos’ poetry that apparently not even Gazi knew about. Sometimes he felt like he understood Flos, as strange as that might be.
At other times, the King was as distant and unexplainable as the stars. Like when he decided the policy of the realm. But he did try to explain himself.
After going to Manimar, Flos had changed his daily routine. He no longer strode about the castle inspecting every little detail of his kingdom. Rather, he left most of that to Orthenon, allowing the steward to inform him of notable events. Directly after breakfast he would retire to his throne room, where he would consult with his trusted vassals.
Among that number was now Lady Maresar. Regardless of whether she was present at breakfast, she would come striding into the throne room at the same time Gazi appeared, to stand before their King and listen and speak to him.
She was tall, dark, and more handsome than beautiful, but Teres had punched Trey in the side for making that joke. Lady Maresar didn’t scare Trey exactly, but she was hard to read. She didn’t speak much in her slightly slurred, deep voice, like Gazi. But when she did speak it turned out she had a sense of humor.
“It is good you sit on your throne, my King. Else we would have had to kick you off the chair you sat on yesterday.”
That had been the debate of yesterday, which had lasted two hours. Flos sat on his throne, looking down at Trey, Teres, Orthenon, Mars, Gazi and Maresar. He wore no crown, but he sat on the throne as if he belonged there.
He was a different person on that throne. Flos’ lips quirked upwards in a smile at Maresar’s words, but he did not laugh uproariously as usual. He nodded down at her.
“Your words struck a chord in my heart, Maresar. I dislike going back on my words, even those uttered in passion, but it seems many of my vassals will be weeks or months in returning to me. If at all.”
His vassals shifted at that. Orthenon crossed his arms, scowling. Gazi kept smiling. Mars scuffed at the ground with an armored foot. And Maresar nodded.
“My husband will return, my King. But he will take time, like the others. They must see that you are back not just in body, but spirit.”
“True. And I rather disliked that chair.”
Flos smiled quietly. Then he turned his attention to Orthenon.
“My steward. Inform me. What news?”
“Three more villages from Lord Venith’s lands have declared their support for you, my lord. They are travelling towards the city, carrying all they can carry. Two more in adjacent provinces have sent messengers to see you. Word is spreading like wildfire, although it appears the local [Rulers] are attempting to halt any rumors of your return.”
Flos leaned forwards on his throne.
“Have we space for these villagers? And how dangerous are the roads they travel on? I had heard word of [Brigands] and [Bandits] infesting the realms around my kingdom. They must be wiped out, saving Lady Maresar of course.”
He nodded at her. Maresar nodded back. Trey stared at her and scratched his head. Orthenon shook his head calmly.
“I have already dispatched a group of [Riders] to ensure they arrive safely. As for [Bandits], none have ever dared venture too close to the city. Unless you have information I do not, Lady Maresar?”
She shook her head as all eyes turned towards her.
“I have not talked with many, but I do not think the most daring [Bandit Lord] would dare approach your kingdom. They still remember what happened to the ones that Gazi hunted down.”
“Do you think she was a [Bandit], Trey?”
Teres whispered to Trey as the others talked about where to put the villagers in the meantime. He opened his mouth, but Maresar turned her head towards them. Orthenon broke off as she nodded to the twins.
“I was a [Bandit Lord] of renown before I was defeated and pledged my service to his majesty.”
Trey stared at her. Mars grinned and laughed.
“Everyone thought Maresar was a lord, because they never saw her! That’s how she got the class, isn’t that right?”
Maresar looked disapprovingly over at Mars and shook her head.
“No. There is no [Bandit Lady] class. That is all. All leaders are known as [Bandit Lords], regardless of gender.”
Mars scratched her head and blushed a bit. Flos cleared his throat and all eyes turned back towards him. He didn’t seem to mind the interruption, although Teres and Trey’s ears were red.
“What of the other cities and larger towns, Orthenon? If any would join me now, I would rest easier with their stores of grain and food added to ours.”
“Not to mention additional soldiers.”
Gazi nodded in agreement. Orthenon sighed, looking visibly annoyed.
“I have sent messengers to the cities of Rast, Belevadim, and Chalm bearing word of your return. I have yet to hear a response from any city.”
“No doubt they are considering their response. Which means their rulers deny me, or the citizens do as well.”
Flos shook his head.
“No matter. For now, continue training and drilling those who have chosen to fight. We have the makings of a decent army here, but I take it you still lack the numbers you desire, Orthenon?”
The steward nodded.
“I have a good number of veterans, some quite old. I have given them the arms that Lady Mars obtained and they will act as a strong elite force. However, the plain truth is that we lack the proper numbers for a true army, and our newest recruits are of very low level.”
“The latter problem will be solved by the first battle. As for the first…well, I shall rely on the efforts of you four to overcome any difference in numbers.”
His vassals straightened and nodded. Flos pondered for a moment and then turned to Maresar.
“Maresar, would you take those you deem fit and train with them exclusively? I would like you to lead the archers in my army. I realize that was not your role before, but in absence of any other warriors of note, I ask it of you.”
“I would be honored, my King.”
“Very well. Mars, if you will train with the newest soldiers and if both Gazi and Maresar, will assist Orthenon in drilling the army to fight as one…”
They nodded at him. Flos turned his attention to Trey and Teres.
“Orthenon does not have the time to exclusively attend to the army. Lady Maresar and Gazi have both commanded units of soldiers and small armies of their own and know what is needed. Do you understand why we must train this army, despite having veterans of countless wars?”
It was far worse than being called on by the teacher in class. Far worse. Tongue-tied, both twins shook their heads. Flos nodded, not disappointed by their honesty.
“An army must fight as one. They must learn to follow commands given out by [Strategists] or [Tacticians] as a whole, which each smaller unit of soldiers must obey. A simple command like advance or retreat requires drilling, and the most elite armies are capable of maneuvers that can change the entire battlefield.”
Trey nodded. He glanced at Mars.
“Um—why wouldn’t Lady Mars train the soldiers?”
She was a [Vanguard], which was an advanced type of the [Soldier] class, Trey knew. Flos hesitated while Mars herself flushed red.
“Mars is…not suited towards leadership, Trey. She is a [Soldier], yes, but one who fights, rather than takes up the mantle of a leader.”
The other vassals shifted and didn’t quite look at Mars. Trey felt incredibly guilty, but Flos simply nodded as if he’d asked an important question.
“Each one of my vassals stands out in their own way. Mars will teach the newest soldiers, those who have never held a sword before in their life, how to fight. That is what is needed. Now, I believe there is nothing left to discuss. If Orthenon receives a reply from any of the cities, we shall meet again. Until then, I shall attend to my daily lessons with Teres and Trey.”
The audience was over. Orthenon left at speed after bowing to Flos. Gazi vanished quickly as well, and Maresar and Mars both headed towards the training grounds. And Flos stood up from his throne and smiled. Teres and Trey exchanged a glance, and they came to the oddest part of their daily routine.
Teaching Flos. Story time with the King of Destruction. Flos’ school hour. No matter how Trey said it in his head, it didn’t feel any less surreal.
But it happened. Every day. Flos would walk to his room with the twins in tow, and they would sit in his personal quarters, on the padded seats that had been placed in the room, in front of a gilded table adorned with snacks and cool drinks, and tell him about their world.
Flos settled into his chair with a sigh. He took the snack of the day from a silver platter in front of him and eyed it curiously.
“What is this I have to sample today, Teres, Trey?”
“Yorkshire pudding, I think.”
It wasn’t quite like the good stuff back home, but Trey had to admit the [Cooks] had done a pretty good job of imitating the food from a description alone. Flos listened with appreciation as Teres explained what Yorkshire pudding was, and how you ate it. With beef drippings and gravy.
“Ah, I see we have some provided for us.”
Flos reached for a gold-and-porcelain gravy boat. Trey and Teres exchanged another look. It was surreal to eat the food of their home on plates meant for royalty. But that was Flos. He wanted to try every food from their home, and so every day the kitchen staff would try to create something from earth with mixed results.
“Mm. Far better than that black pudding that was served yesterday.”
Flos chewed down three Yorkshire puddings with delight while Trey and Teres shared one. They’d just had breakfast after all. Then Flos leaned back, a cup of mulled wine in his hands, and a Yorkshire pudding in the other.
“Now, on to the most delightful moment of my day. We had talked yesterday of your world. I understand the geography, although I can scarcely comprehend that every part of your world—a round world, no less!—is mapped. I thought long about what you had told me about the nature of planets last night. Is it perhaps that the edge of the world is linked by magic to the other edge of your world?”
Teres groaned and Trey shook his head as Flos stared at them expectantly.
“No, we told you, there’s no magic in our world!”
“That you know of.”
“Yes! And we know a lot!”
“Hmm. But then, your world truly is round, and there is no edge? No…place where the ocean ends?”
Flos shook his head in amazement as the twins shook their heads in exasperation. He had the worst hangup about some things. Flos readily and estatically accepted the idea that the moon and the stars were other planets, far, far away. He was completely happy to listen to the twins tell him that lightning could be harnessed, steam could be turned into an engine, and oil could be made into a fuel that allowed men to fly in metal birds through the sky.
It was almost incredible how easily he accepted such things, actually. But there was one thing Flos couldn’t understand.
“Yet you say your laws apply to every planet. Each one is…round.”
“Yes, Flos. But it doesn’t feel round. You can walk across the entire world, or sail, and you’d never feel it getting curved. It would feel flat, but you’d be able to go the whole way around because it’s round, you see?”
Teres took over for Trey while he sipped some water, preparing his throat for a lot of speaking. Flos scratched his head.
“I believe I understand. And yet, that is not true of this world.”
Exasperated, Teres’ sister glared at Flos.
“I know this world is big, but if you took a ship—look, you could calculate the earth is round by looking at the sun and shadows! People in Greece did it thousands of years ago!”
“I have no doubt you are telling me the truth. But this world is not round.”
“How do you—”
“There is an edge of the world. A place where the sea ends.”
Flos held up a hand to forestall Teres. She broke off, staring. Flos frowned.
“I have never seen it. But there have been mighty [Captains] and fearless [Sailors] and [Travellers] who have attempted to find the edge of the known world, Teres. If the world was round they would have come around the other side and said so, yes? But they do not. Out of every thousand ships that has dared to travel to the edge of the world, past Baleros, past Rhir, only one or two ever comes back.”
Flos nodded, meeting Trey’s gaze somberly.
“Yes. They come back screaming of a blackness which the water pours into, a place where light does not exist. The end of the world. So you tell me the world is round in your world, and I believe you. But what is true in your world is not true here.”
The twins stared at the King and felt the ground beneath them shift. A world with an end to it. Trey sat up in his chair, heart racing at the thought.
“How—how many people have seen the edge of the world? I mean, really?”
“In this lifetime? I doubt you would find more than one or two alive, if any. But those who have come back have been written of, and I have read many books which say the same. And the [Sailors] have their own tales. They believe it. As do the islanders.”
“I told you of them, did I not? They live on an archipelago, closest to that end of the world. The next time Orthenon shows you his maps, ask him to point it out to you. They know not to sail too far in one direction, less they vanish forever. And—there are stories that sometimes something comes up from that place. Things that kill all they encounter and die slowly, if at all.”
There was suddenly a bit less warmth in the room. Trey shivered. He unconsciously reached out and Teres gripped his hand and squeezed it tightly.
“I have never been to the islands, so I do not know if those rumors are true. If I ever meet an islander that is not trying to kill me, I will ask. For now, let us speak of more pleasant things.”
Flos shook his head, and the dark atmosphere dissipated. He looked at the twins, and now there was excitement in his eyes.
“I asked you about the history of your nations yesterday. But do you recall what I wished to speak of today? Heroes. Tell me of your heroes and leaders, those who shook your world.”
“Okay? Um—anyone in particular?”
“The most famous ones. The bravest, the strongest—and the ones which exist only in legend.”
“What, you mean like stories? Like Hercules and—Superman?”
Flos leaned forwards, scooting his chair forwards, suddenly filled with excitement.
“There is a hero known as a Superman? Tell me about him first.”
“No—he’s a superhero. Not a real person!”
Teres held up her hands. Flos stared at her, eyes shining.
“A superhero? What is that?”
That was how Trey and Teres found themselves eating Yorkshire pudding in a palace, sitting with a [King] and telling him about Superman. Flos sat forwards, forgetting to eat or drink as he listened, enraptured, to stories about their world. He was like a child in that he demanded to hear stories of Earth, everything from the food Trey and Teres had eaten, to things like the shows they watched on telly, and what a telly actually was.
Flos was in love with the idea of comic books, of tv shows and video games when he got his head around the idea of them. He was a boy listening to tales of another world when he sat with Tres and Trey. But he was not like a child in how he reacted.
As it turned out, Flos was not interested in Superman at all, but found the idea of Batman intriguing, and Spiderman fascinating. He kept asking questions about him, and Teres, who’d read a few comics while browsing bookshops, struggled to answer properly.
“And you say these heroes exist in another world, made up in the minds of the people?”
“No. Yes! It’s a story. But there’s movies about them, books, comic books, video games, songs…”
“Songs? Sing one for me.”
“It’s embarrassing. Trey, you do it.”
“Why me? You do it, Teres!”
Embarrassment over singing the Spiderman song aside, Teres found that Flos was soon bored of superheroes. When he heard that most, if not all of them had died at one point and come back to life, Flos just shook his head and asked to hear about real heroes. So they told him about the people that had conquered entire nations when they lived.
To his surprise, Trey found that Flos was not interested at all in Alexander the Great. Privately, the boy thought Flos and Alexander sounded very similar, but Flos did not enjoy the comparison.
“A [King] who failed to fulfill his dream? He wished to see the sea, did he not? And he failed? What good is his dream then? No—what sort of [King] would fail his subjects so? They shared his dream, won him victories and carried him across countless lands. But he failed them. No, I do not wish to hear of a failure such as that.”
Flos paused, and laughed shortly.
“He is too much like myself, I fear.”
The same went for King Arthur, strangely. Even though he probably hadn’t existed, he was a point of pride for Teres and Trey, that their country had claim to one of the real heroes of legend. Yet the King of Britannia pulled little weight in Flos’ books. He just muttered to himself about arrogant [Mages] when he heard about Merlin, and had to be convinced that King Arthur wasn’t just a pawn of fate. He wasn’t impressed with the act of drawing a sword out of a stone, either.
“I can do that too. What measure of a King is this?”
Trey exchanged a glance with Teres. He had no doubt Flos could actually pull a sword out of a stone, but he was at a loss as to how to explain the difference. Flos just shook his head dismissively. He looked at Trey.
“A real leader this time. Please.”
“Okay. What about…Genghis Khan?”
“Ah. That is a worthy name. Tell me of him. Or her?”
Trey had to do almost all the explaining this time. Teres didn’t remember much, so Trey had to wrack his brains for any details. Of the twins, Trey knew more about history than Teres and it was he who spoke up more when it came to people who had actually existed, rather than mythical people.
“I have fought mounted raiders like these Mongols as you describe them. It is not a pleasant experience. I could well imagine them conquering a vast portion of the world if not checked.”
Flos nodded. He looked at Trey and Teres, impressed for some reason.
“You two are well versed in the stories and history of your world. Tell me, were you scholars? How did you come to know so many tales?”
“Our da told us a lot of stories when he’d get home from work. When he did, he’d talk with us until he fell asleep in his chair.”
She smiled and Trey grinned at her, as they remembered those happy moments. Then the smile vanished; they remembered they hadn’t seen their father in over a month. Flos cleared his throat and the twins looked at him. But he didn’t change the subject.
“I regret that I have not met him. Perhaps one day I shall. Tell me about him, if you would.”
So they did. Their father wasn’t an exciting man to them; he was a good father, but he had a steady job, a slightly boring one. Teres flushed a bit when she told Flos he was a train guard who travelled a lot and seldom came home. Trey looked down moodily and Flos noticed.
“A working job is a fine one. What is there to be ashamed of?”
Teres bit her lip. Trey tried to explain. It wasn’t that being a train guard wasn’t bad—it just wasn’t being a conductor, or a train driver. It wasn’t the worst paying job, but it was the kind of thing you could get into fights over if you went to a nice school where some kids had parents with ‘better’ jobs.
“Ah. I see.”
Flos pondered, and then shook his head.
“Actually, I fail to. I can imagine such squabbles being similar to those I have seen in courts, where the daughters and sons of the lesser aristocracy squabble with those of a higher rank…but I have not experienced that directly myself.”
Trey bit his lip, remembering he was speaking to a [King]. Flos frowned as he bit into his pudding.
“I must confess, I understand little about money. But your father works hard, does he not?”
“Then he is worthy of praise. That is all I understand, and all I care to. Those who work hard should be rewarded, regardless of station.”
The twins fell silent at that. There was a dismissive tone in Flos’ voice. Not dismissive in a bad way. Just a fact. The world is the way I say it is, and so I am right.
“I note that Trey seems to know more of such figures than you, Teres. Why is that?”
“I like school and studying. That’s all.”
Trey hunched his shoulders a bit guiltily, but Flos nodded.
“What is there not to like? A place where the young may learn free of danger, in their own time. I have not encountered such a system in this world, nor thought to implement one myself. There are academies, institutions where the gifted may learn. Some to become [Tacticians], or [Knights] who serve first as [Squires]…and of course there is Wistram which trains mages and other mage schools. But never a place where all may learn, free of charge. Where all must learn. It has a certain attraction to it.”
He paused, frowned, and then sighed, suddenly dispirited.
“And yet, these ‘schools’ are dangerous in of themselves. If being a student is a class—and you seem to describe it as such, I fear I must not allow any schools to be created. At least, not as they exist in your world.”
They looked at him, surprised. Flos hesitated. He looked around the room, oddly, as if he expected someone to be listening. But Flos had banned servants from entering when they’d glared at Trey and Teres for calling Flos by his name. He looked at Trey and Teres and seemed to come to a decision after a moment of thought.
“I am a [King]. I have lived many years, and come to understand the way in which leveling works. I know secrets, Trey, Teres, of the true nature of classes and Skills. Other rulers lack my knowledge, simply because they have never reached the level I possess. I shall share one insight with you, but you must keep it secret.”
They nodded, fascinated. Flos took a breath and glanced at the door. Then he leaned forwards and whispered to the twins.
“The more classes one has, the weaker they become. Or should I say—the weaker they will become over time? What I mean is, a person with a single class will always reach a higher level than one with many classes.”
They stared at him. Teres coughed.
The King of Destruction looked bemused.
“That is an important secret! It is a secret of rulers, and why they forbid their offspring to take up common classes.”
“Yeah. That makes sense.”
Their cavalier response seemed to irk Flos. In truth, it made sense to Trey. He’d played videogames. He knew how such systems worked. But this was some grand piece of knowledge in this world, apparently. Flos frowned as he bit his lip.
“I admit, it is not an earthshattering secret. But what about this one? Some classes are simply better than others.”
He paused and frowned.
“No, again, perhaps better is not the right word. I can understand what I mean in my head, but out loud I struggle to explain. Let me try again.”
Flos thought for a moment and then nodded.
“Many classes are specific to one need. A [Farmer] grows crops and manages his land and his livestock. A [Weaver] creates things made of thread; a [Blacksmith] works with iron. They can expand their skillset, but a [Farmer] will never acquire skills to aid in dancing. He may well gain a Skill that allows him to defend his land in combat, or one that allows him to lead others that he might expand his helpers, or one that helps him heal injured people or animals. But he is still locked into his path, you see?”
The twins nodded. That was straightforward. Flos dipped his half-eaten Yorkshire pudding in the gravy again, which made them both stare at him. He ate it down, ignoring their looks.
“But some classes have more…opportunity. And more force in them. A [Survivor] has many Skills, but a [Lord] will have more powerful Skills, although he may take Skills from many walks of life. And a [King] stands above all other classes, one of the few that has the strongest Skills, the most powerful benefits. There are other classes, and other combinations of classes that have strength too. But if you aim to reach the highest level possible, you must know what it is you search for, not squander your strength. That is why I have prevented you from taking useless classes like [Servant] or [Warrior] without knowing what you will become. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Does this mean you know of some…combined classes?”
“A few. But I would not necessarily steer you towards such classes. In the end, you must still find what suits you. It will become obvious in time. But enough of my world. Back to yours.”
He looked expectantly at Trey. The young man scratched his head. Teres nudged him.
“What about Churchill?”
They had told Flos about World War II in the broadest of terms, but he was fascinated to hear the role that Britain had played back then. However, Flos was less enamored of the great Winston Churchill, for a reason that seemed petty to Trey and Teres.
“You think his joke is bad? It’s just a comeback! ‘You are ugly, tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be ugly. That’s not nice, but it is funny!’”
Flos shook his head, crossing his arms adamantly as Teres argued with him.
“A ruler should not speak so to his subjects, or to anyone else for that matter. Humorous it may be, but a common insult is just that. Common.”
Thereafter he completely lost interest in any more tales about Churchill, much to the twin’s private indignation.
“I have heard of great leaders, but these are your people, are they not? Tell me of your greatest enemies, those who made your nation shudder in fear. I would know of them too.”
That was a loaded question, and though one person immediately sprang into Teres’ mind, Trey had another thought. Perhaps it was inevitable that Trey thought of Gandhi. Because he was everything Flos was not.
And he fascinated the King of Destruction.
The instant Trey began telling Flos about Gandhi and what he had done—taking his home country of India back from British rule with nonviolence, with peaceful protest and the idea of passive resistance, Flos had to stand up and pace about the room. He couldn’t contain his excitement.
“That is a far better tale than any you have told me thus far. Gandhi. A name to inspire. You say he took a country, a nation without a single death? And it happened? Truly?”
Trey hesitated. Teres stared at him and they shared the same thought.
“Not exactly. I know some people died—that was when Gandhi fasted. He refused to do anything and starved himself unless people were nonviolent.”
“And they did. He held his life over the heads of his people. Magnificent.”
Flos shook his head, eyes alight with wonder.
“There were deaths. I understand. It is a consequence of leading that not all obey. But still. To do such a thing—”
He broke off. Flos had to pace around the room in his excitement.
“I am moved. I am in awe. I would like to see if I might do the same. To do what he did. But…no. Perhaps it is not the time. This British empire, your land’s rulers…they gave in because they cared that they did wrong. I regret to say that if this Mahatma Gandhi were to appear before me, he would not succeed in his quest.”
He drooped. Trey and Teres stared at him.
“What? What do you mean?”
“Were such a man, a [Pacifist] or…no, his very name is the class, is it not? A [Mahatma]. If such a one were to appear before me, well…I would like to imagine that my people would never be so dissatisfied with my rule as to rise up. If such a person appeared before me, I believe I would be able to find some common ground. But if not, if words failed and such an opponent were to send my kingdom into turmoil, I would remove him.”
Chilling words. Trey could barely bring himself to ask.
Flos did not immediately answer.
“There are many ways to stop such a man. I could lock him away, not for years or decades, but forever. I could send him to a far continent. Kill him? No. I would not do that. But the problem with this brave soul is that he can only exist in your world. In a place where empires and nations care for notions like morality. Were he to come here, most [Kings] would execute him on the spot. And I…would not let his rebellion pass either.”
Trey felt a shiver run down his spine. There was a grim, sad look on Flos’ face. He remembered something he’d heard once, something that had been said of Gandhi. Even he would not have known how to stop Hitler. Or was it that even he would have failed? Trey couldn’t remember what he had been told, but the thought bothered him greatly.
Flos noticed. He always seemed to notice when Trey bit his lip, or shifted.
“What have you thought of, Trey?”
The boy coughed.
“Ah. You do not wish to tell me. Which must mean what you are concealing is important indeed. Speak…please.”
For a little while Trey resisted. But then he told Flos.
“So I remind you of a man named Hitler in some ways, do I? Who was he?”
Teres looked at Trey. He nodded, and she took a breath and looked Flos right in the eye.
“He was probably the most vile, evil man who ever lived.”
He didn’t react to the implication. He only nodded, and settled back in his chair. He was no longer smiling. Now he was listening intently.
“All the more reason to tell me, then. What did he do?”
They told him about World War II. They told him about Hitler, about Nazis, and what had started it all, the Third Reich and its consequences. Flos listened silently, unmoved by all of it. He had seen worse. But he shifted when they told him about what had happened to the Jews. And when they talked of the worst of it, the concentration camps, the gas chambers, and the rest, he grew very still.
When it was over, they waited for him to speak. Flos’ head was bowed, and when he raised it, there were tears in his eyes. But he said only one thing that made Trey very afraid.
“From what you have said, I must call this man Hitler a great leader.”
He held up a hand as Teres leapt to her feet.
“Listen. A great leader, and a poor thing not worthy to be called a man. That is what he was.”
Slowly, Teres sat down. Flos stood up, and turned his back to stare out of the window.
“Hitler. There is a name that rings throughout your world. Understand me, Teres, Trey. Yes, I admire this man Hitler as a leader. I reject his ideals, his beliefs, and the empire he created and the things he did. But he commanded the hearts of a nation and forged a defeated people into a blade that sought the throat of the world. He created darkness I had not dreamt of. He tried to kill an entire people. How can such a man not be worthy of praise, damning though it may be? And yet. He was no [King]. And he was not worthy of such a title.”
He left it at that. Slowly, the conversation moved to other things. Flos was nearly in tears when the conversation went back to Gandhi, and they told him how he had died, assassinated in cold blood.
“These guns of yours…you speak of them and I find myself less enamored with the thought of them with each passing moment. One slew a man of peace, Gandhi. They are no proper weapon. They have brought low your world.”
It was hard to argue against that, though Teres did try, if only to explain to Flos how dangerous guns were compared to swords. But he was against them with all his heart.
“If any leader can be killed by a fool with a second of training, how can your world have heroes? How can people look up to those who would inspire them, when they are as vulnerable as the next person to a weapon which kills in an instant? How can children sleep safe at night, when they know their lives may be snatched away in a second?”
“You could do that with a sword!”
“But a sword does not reach out and kill people. Arrows do that, but a child cannot hide a bow and use it in a moment. I cannot hide a crossbow so easily. And in this world, a fool cannot so easily snuff out hope in a single moment.”
He looked away from Teres, who had no reply, and at Trey.
“The world must have heroes, Trey. It must have leaders, and men and women to shake the hearts of many. Guns are a foolish thing. I am only grateful that they might be overcome if they were to spread to my world.”
It was inconceivable for Trey to imagine knights or men with swords trying to fight an army with machine guns. But Flos seemed confident, even dismissive.
“I can think of two ways I might easily defeat an army armed with…guns.”
His nonchalance enraged Teres.
“What about a battalion of tanks and fighter jets? Or a nuke?”
They had to explain again what all three things were to Flos. But when he understood, he just shook his head.
“There are ways. If your world has no magic, these weapons are fearsome, but not insurmountable. Such an army could slay a thousand conventional armies, I will admit, but I wonder how Amerys would do against such a force. If it came to it, I could devise a method to catch a ‘jet’ capable of flying through the air ten times faster than Takahatres. The same goes for the armor of your tanks, or defeating these bullets.”
He would not elaborate in detail, no matter how the twins pestered him.
“This world will not bow so easily if yours seeks to challenge us. I promise you that. But enough. If it comes to it, I shall see the terrible weapons of your world with my own two eyes. In the meantime, I have indulged my interests too long. Thank you for talking with me, Teres, Trey. Now, it is time to talk to Orthenon. Alas.”
They jumped in surprise, because a moment after Flos said that, someone rapped urgently on the door.
A servant appeared, with a request to meet Orthenon in the throne room at once. A reply had come from one of the cities. Flos was out the door and striding down the corridor before Trey and Teres could hurry after him. Trey grabbed a handful of Yorkshire puddings as he left.
When they got to the throne room, Flos was already seated on his throne. Nervously, the twins edged into the room, but the others greeted them warmly. Orthenon blinked at the Yorkshire pudding Teres offered him, but he took it readily enough.
“What news, my steward?”
Flos regally dipped a Yorkshire pudding into the gravy that a servant had brought. Mars was already chewing down her third pudding as Orthenon straigtened and spoke.
“They have denied your return, my King.”
Flos sighed. But Orthenon wasn’t done.
“That is the official response. The messenger I sent was not allowed anywhere in the city, no doubt to prevent rumors spreading. And she was escorted a good distance away from the city before being released. However, she encountered a [Trader] on the road. No doubt he and other travellers are silenced under threat from speaking when entering the city, but he was able to give her a clearer image of the situation Rast faces.”
The way he spoke made it plain that there was a problem. Flos sat up on his throne, food forgotten.
“The city is destitute, my King. The [Trader] received offers from the ruling [Mayor] to exchange his wares for promises made against future payment, but refused. As he was part of the larger network of [Merchants] his goods were not taken, but he had to fend off [Thieves] along his entire trip. He was fearful of being ambushed despite the presence of his guards. What was more, not all of the thieves were [Thieves].”
It took Trey a moment to figure that out. But Flos had understood at once.
“The people are hungry?”
Orthenon nodded. He looked grim.
“They are not starving yet. But there is little trade, and the crop harvests have been bad again this year. Few cities or villages are doing well. You could say Lord Venith’s lands are an exception to that rule, but it is only through his hard work his people have prospered.”
Maresar looked pointedly at Orthenon. He bowed his head.
“My deepest apologies, Lady Maresar. You and your husband have been successful where few else have. In this case, the city of Rast is not dying of famine, but they are desperate and fearful of the future.”
“And the homeless and poor do starve. Is that not so, Orthenon?”
The steward didn’t reply. Flos’ head bowed.
“Where the average man goes without, the poor man dies. That is how it has always been. You do not need to tell me it is so.”
He stared down at the Yorkshire pudding in his hand and made as if to crush it. Then Flos stared at it and ate it in one bite. Orthenon turned his head, and the servants carrying the food instantly retreated out of the room.
“Hold. Distribute that among the others with my blessings. I know you would have already, but I ask you yourselves to try some. They are quite good.”
Flos’ words made the servants turn. He smiled at them, and they bowed or curtsied before leaving. Then he lost his smile and looked back at the others.
“It is my fault.”
Mars opened her mouth as if to protest, but she stopped. No one else had spoken. Flos nodded as he looked at the twins.
“My fault. You see, Trey, Teres, I once ruled these lands.”
Trey didn’t see the connection, and Flos noticed. He looked tired as he explained.
“I took these lands by force and claimed their people as my own. After my kingdom fell to pieces, some lands were absorbed by other kingdoms, or became independent. Those who swore themselves to other [Queens] or [Kings] survived. But other lands failed. Because I, their [King], had abandoned them, abandoned my throne. And as the [King] fades, so too does the land.”
That was like a legend too. Trey tried to imagine it. If the [King] was healthy, the land was bountiful? Was that like King Arthur? He couldn’t exactly remember any tale like that. But then Trey had a thought. What if the [King] died? Did the land die? Or…
“If the issue is that, my King, why not declare war? We could feed them with our supplies, surely.”
Mars offered the idea to Flos hopefully, a hand on her sword’s hilt. But Flos only shook his head.
“I will not declare war. Not now.”
Mars opened her mouth. Flos looked up.
“No war, Mars. I have no cause for it, no reason.”
“But your people are hungry. Surely that—”
“They have been hungry for a long time. Why should I care now? No. I care with every part of my heart, but it is not enough of a reason.”
Flos stood from his throne. He stepped down from the dais and paced back and forth in front of his vassals.
“I have not heard them cry out for my aid. I have not received supplication, nor seen the failure of their rulers for my own two eyes. I will not march my armies on a thought, any more than I would declare war against a nation without just cause.”
“Then you won’t fight?”
Maresar asked the question quietly. Flos looked at her.
“I would declare war for a child. I would burn a country to ash to avenge a fallen comrade. But I would never declare war for petty things like land or coin or treasure. A [King] should wage war for his desires, yes, but never for greed. And despite my feelings, that is how I view a war to take back my lands. They have other rulers. To take it is greed at this moment. It is a fine line. But I will not cross it.”
His vassals looked at him, some resigned, others nodding. Flos sighed. He clenched his fist, so hard Trey thought—
“Yet they are dying.”
Something red ran from his hands. It dripped onto the ground and Gazi made a small noise. It sounded like pain. Orthenon started towards Flos. The King blinked, looked down. He saw the blood from where his fingernails had pierced his skin. He waved Orthenon away.
“I am fine.”
For a second Flos stared at the blood that had dripped onto the floor. Then he looked at his hand. He gritted his teeth, and then something changed. His head slowly turned. He looked at Trey and Teres. And then he grinned in sudden delight.
The change had caught everyone by surprise. Mars blinked and Orthenon stared curiously at his King. Maresar was watching him, but Gazi suddenly smiled again. She stared at Trey and Teres, and as the boy met one of her eyes, he saw her smiling at him. As if she’d realized something at the same time as Flos. And her smile looked genuine. It was actually not a half bad smile.
Flos tapped a finger to his lips thoughtfully, ignoring the blood. He stared at Trey and Teres, who began to have a very bad feeling, but it wasn’t they who he spoke to. He turned.
The man stood straight, clearly ready for anything. His eyes were fixed on Flos, expectant. There was a hush in the room, a waiting. A wanting.
“Yes, my King?”
“I am going for a walk. It will settle my mind, and perhaps the issue of this city. Orthenon, would you see to provisions for lunch and perhaps dinner?”
Orthenon stared at him. The twins stared at him. But Flos was suddenly smiling. Orthenon chose his words carefully.
“A walk…my King? Now?”
“Yes, I desire it. It will do me some good. Teres and Trey will come with me of course, but you are free to join me, my [Steward]. You too, Mars. Gazi. And Lady Maresar, your company would be welcome. A walk will do me good.”
“For the entire day?”
Flos nodded. Then he beckoned to Trey, who found himself already walking with Teres towards him. Flos began strolling out of the throne room. It took his vassals a moment to react.
“My King, are you going now?”
“Don’t fuss, Orthenon. Come if you are coming. Teres, Trey, let us walk and talk. This is a fine opportunity to talk some more, is it not? This way, out of the palace.”
He led them at a brisk walk out of the palace. Trey and Teres hurried after him, and they heard Orthenon shouting behind them.
The [Steward] didn’t follow them, but Mars, Gazi, and Maresar walked right next to Flos as he strolled out of the palace. People’s heads turned the instant they saw their King. They cheered him, but then paused when they saw who was following him.
Three of his vassals? They called out questions, but Flos just bellowed the same reply.
“I am walking! Would you care to join us?”
And what were they to say to that? Everyone in earshot immediately dropped what they were doing and began to follow their King. Trey and Teres stared. Within a hundred paces of his palace, Flos was already being followed by hundreds of people. And word was spreading like wildfire.
“Um. Where are we going?”
“Out of the city. But don’t mind the crowd. I am simply walking. Now, what were we talking about? Ah yes, heroes. Go on, tell me more stories.”
Trey stared at Gazi, Mars, and Maresar, and about a thousand people now, most following at a distance, but a good lot of them staring at him. At him. He felt lightheaded, and Teres was walking so stiffly she looked like a robot.
“Um. About who?”
“Anyone. You mentioned figures of legend. Religious figures? Yes, you mentioned that when speaking to me about Gandhi.”
Flos shushed Mars as he looked at Trey. Trey gulped.
“Religion. Yeah. Right. Well, there’s important—important people there all right.”
“Hmm. Not a name I have heard before. Explain him to me.”
“Well…he’s Jesus. Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth. Son of God. The Messiah. Emmanuel. Our savior. Uh—”
Salvation came in a figurative sense when Trey spotted someone racing after them. As Flos walked out of the gates he saw figures on horseback riding after them. Orthenon leapt from his saddle as Flos glanced at him. The King never broke stride, as a group of horsemen slowed to keep pace with him.
“You’re rather in a hurry, Orthenon. You could have caught up later. I am not walking that quickly.”
“Apologies, my King. But I had to organize wagons to bring provisions for you and so many people.”
Orthenon stared hard at Flos, but the King let the gaze slide right off him. He nodded genially, glancing at the riders with a frown.
“My thanks. And a few wagons to carry some small snacks and perhaps a meal would not go amiss. But I must insist on no horses.”
Orthenon nearly bit his tongue. Flos stared at him, pretending to look annoyed. But only pretending, Trey thought.
“I am going for a walk, Orthenon. Horses rather spoil the idea. Send them away. I do not mind others coming, but it must be on foot.”
For a second Trey thought Orthenon would explode. His face flushed, but the steward strode off. After a minute the horsemen rode back towards the city. Flos grinned and turned to Trey.
“My apologies, Trey. I did not mean to interrupt you. I am sure Orthenon did not mean to either.”
Trey glanced at the steward as he hurried back over out of the corner of his eye.
“Indeed. Now, that is a curious set of titles you mentioned. Jesus of Nazareth. That is a good name for a leader. But Son of God? The gods are dead. Ah, but in your world…no. It still sounds arrogant beyond belief to my ears.”
“Well, he was. I mean, it’s a religion…”
Orthenon joined the group of people staring at Trey. Tongue tied into knots and heart pounding out of his chest, Trey tried to explain gods to a group of people who kept saying the same thing.
“The gods are dead.”
“That is a fact. But not in Trey’s world. This is fascinating. So this god of yours…what did he do?”
“All kinds of stuff. God stuff. You know, creating the world and so on…”
Trey was treated to a blank look magnified a hundredfold. He realized no one besides Teres knew what he was talking about.
So for the next three hours Trey essentially narrated a good portion of the Old Testament of the bible as he remembered it. He hadn’t exactly read it end to end, but Teres whispered in his ears—she was far too shy to speak up in front of everyone—and he told the story.
In front of a crowd of thousands. Trey didn’t know how much of the city had followed Flos out, but when he looked over his shoulders—
He did so now and saw a procession of people filling the road, stretching back as far as the eye could see. Every face was turned in his direction, and people were repeating what Flos had said, what he had said to the people behind them—
Trey swiveled his head forwards so he wouldn’t pass out. But Flos just kept walking with him, asking questions.
“So this god made your world.”
“Allegedly. Some people think he didn’t. Others say it was a different god—but in this religion he created the world, and his chosen people—”
Teres volunteered that. Which led to a very confused explanation of the chosen people, and how they become slaves in Egypt, then been freed by the prophet Moses. Somehow, he found himself telling Flos about how they had marched around the walls of Jericho for seven days and seven nights, much to the King’s urbane amusement.
“And then they fell down, just like that? Would that Drevish could hear that!”
He laughed and the people behind him stirred. Trey chanced another glimpse and saw people laughing as well, or just smiling to see their King laugh once more.
“But that is a fascinating story! And rather similar to the tale of Gandhi, is it not?”
“It was nonviolent. And it gives me an ever better idea…”
Flos caught everyone staring at him and coughed. He smiled at Trey.
“There are similarities.”
“Well…afterwards the army invaded Jericho and killed everyone. Men, women, and children.”
“Ah, a practical god. And a cruel one. Or is it his prophet that ordered it? No—I am confused. I apologize, Trey, but perhaps you had better explain the aspect of god to me at a later date. I confess, I do not fully understand that issue.”
Flos sighed. He stared around, acknowledging for the first time that this was not exactly a peaceful setting. There was a hum in the air, people talking, walking, laughing—and there were thousands of them.
Trey glanced at Orthenon. The steward had walked with his King, listening to Trey speak. But he kept staring at his King, and Trey felt like everyone had the same question in their minds. So he asked it. Trey was surprised to find that much courage in him, but he had just (poorly) narrated a good chunk of the bible to an audience of thousands and a King.
“I thought I told you to call me Flos.”
Mars’ jaw dropped. Trey felt cold sweat on his neck as everyone—except for Gazi for some reason—stared at him.
“S-sorry. Uh, Flos, how far are we walking?”
“A good ways. I believe…well, we should get to our destination in two more hours.”
“Two more hours?”
Trey stared at Flos incredulously. But at his words Orthenon’s brows shot together. He stared behind him, and then with a curse called out. A group of armed soldiers rushed over—on foot—and he led them back down the procession at speed.
“It took him long enough to figure it out.”
Trey stared blankly at him, as did Mars. But Maresar glanced at Gazi and the half-Gazer returned the look in a way that told Trey that those two had figured out…whatever Orthenon was figuring out.
But now Trey’s attention was ahead. He spotted a village as they walked past. It came up quickly, but what was amazing to Trey was the reaction. At first, he saw people running back and forth. They probably thought an army was coming their way, and the people that had joined Flos were an army in themselves. But when they saw their King, they rushed towards him.
“Ah, we’ve come to places where my name has not spread. I am sorry Trey, but you may wish to stand back.”
Flos kept walking, and met the tide of people that rushed out of houses and ran towards him. They had tears in their eyes, some of them. He met them as he walked, touching them, speaking to them. But the words he spoke to them were the same mysterious statement and offer.
“I am walking. Would you care to join me?”
Soon, the procession behind Flos had swelled by over a hundred people. And that was not the only time. Soon, Trey found himself spotting other groups of people, heading towards them at speed. Other villages in their vicinity had seen the army and Flos.
“It’s been happening all this time. Haven’t you noticed?”
Teres pointed out another group of a hundred people streaming into the procession, hugging people they recognized, flocking to their King. And bringing food. [Farmers] came with wagons hauling all kinds of food, and people rushed to come back with food to feed the huge procession.
Trey didn’t understand what was happening. But from the smile on Flos’ face, everything was happening the way the King intended it. And part of the puzzle fell into place when Orthenon came racing back to the head of the considerably longer line of people, looking fit to kill someone.
“You’re using your damn Skill!”
He shouted at Flos, causing a localized hush. Flos only grinned in reply.
“Join us, Orthenon. I take it you had to run to catch up?”
Orthenon didn’t look too tired, but some of the armed soldiers looked positively exhausted. Trey stared at Flos. The King sighed.
“I suppose I should explain. Orthenon is correct, and Gazi presumably noticed it the instant we left the city. I am using a Skill on you all.”
“What sort of Skill?”
Trey couldn’t feel anything different about himself. Flos’ eyes twinkled, and it was Orthenon who snapped a reply.
“[Rapid March]. It is a Skill that [Generals] and other leaders have. It allows an army to move twice as fast on the road. And he’s been using it since we left Reim!”
“Indeed. And thanks to the pace I’ve set, we’ve moved a bit faster than normal. Now Trey, we’ve been marching for around four hours by my count. Think about that and understand why Orthenon is so upset.”
Flos grinned at his irate steward. Trey was uncomprehending, until Teres did the math for him.
“You mean we’ve already gone over twenty four miles by now?”
“A bit faster. We walk closer to four miles than three by my judgement.”
After a bit of calculaton with Teres, Trey’s face went pale. He couldn’t imagine going that far—and at a walking speed no less! Flos laughed at his expression.
“It is a powerful Skill. One that allowed me to conquer this continent without growing old. I apologize for not telling you Orthenon, but we are just walking.”
“No we’re not.”
Orthenon’s face was grim as he touched the sword at his belt. Trey stared at him uneasily.
“Where are we going?”
“If I am correct, we are no more than thirty minutes away from the city of Rast.”
The steward glared at Flos, and the King casually looked in the other direction. Trey exchanged a horrified glance with Teres.
“Are we going to attack—”
“No one is attacking. I am walking.”
“To what end?”
Orthenon asked sharply. Flos didn’t reply. The steward glared, but didn’t speak, probably realizing it was futile. But Trey saw the armed soldiers he’d brought with him slowly spreading out around Flos. He began to grow very worried, but Flos’ face and posture were as relaxed as could be.
And then they were there. Trey stared at the city that had grown larger the longer they’d walked. It had been just a smudge on the horizon, growing larger with every minute. And now…
The city of Rast lay before them. The walls were tall, made of stone; the watch towers all manned. Already Trey could see people rushing to and fro on the battlements and horns blaring. But Flos did not appear concerned.
Orthenon looked uncharacteristically worried. He glanced at the huge line of people, clearly wishing Flos was behind more bodies.
“Should we form up those gathered here?”
Flos looked at Orthenon in surprise, but with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Form up? We aren’t leading an army, Orthenon. I am simply going for a walk.”
The steward’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“I see. And are you planning to walk through the gates?”
“I note they are closed. No, I am not welcome here, remember? I do not exist, or so the [Mayor] has said.”
“I wonder what he says now.”
Mars stared at the wall, eying a line of people standing up there. They were holding bows. Trey stared at them as well, and wondered what would happen if they fired. But it was now Flos choose to speak. He faced his vassals.
“They will not attack us.”
The question came from Trey before he could stop it. Flos raised his eyebrows.
“The defenders of Rast. I see them, Orthenon. I am not blind. They are armed, and they would no doubt defend their city should we attempt to storm the gates, siege the walls, or do anything so foolish. But I doubt they wish to die, so they will not fire the first shot.”
Trey looked around. The army—and it was an army, no matter what Flos said—of people was now thousands strong. Men, women, and children were gathered together. If the archers on the wall fired they would kill hundreds. Trey’s heart lurched at the thought. But he was also certain that if they fired, the archers on the walls would be dead as the people literally overwhelmed them with sheer numbers.
And the people on the walls knew that too. There was an army here, even if it was an army of noncombatants, big enough to take the entire city. That was why a messenger raced out of the gates, waving a white flag. He came asking for Flos’ demands, and got a very strange, but predictable response.
“I am simply walking.”
The messenger was a pale-faced young man on horseback who stared at Mars, Gazi, Orthenon, and especially Flos as if he were staring at ghosts or monsters.
“But you are—”
“I am going for a walk.”
Flos said it calmly, looking the young man in the eye as his mount shied away from the vast number of people. Flos waved a hand at his followers.
“I am simply walking. These people have chosen to join me. Tell your [Mayor] that I do not intend to enter the city unless invited. You have a King’s word on it. I would swear that in blood if it were not so inconvenient. Tell him we will not attack without being provoked. Make that clear to him.”
The young man raced back into the city. Trey saw the people on the walls reacting. They lowered their bows slightly, but they kept watching. Every eye was on Flos now, and everyone was waiting. He claimed to be walking, but the King of Destruction had to be lying. Surely he was going to attack or…
Flos turned. His eyes found Trey. For some reason, Trey had expected that too. Flos walked over to him, and bent slightly.
“Do you know what I am going to do, Trey?”
It was a stupid response, but Flos laughed.
“Yes, but what else?”
“I have no idea.”
Trey thought there was something niggling at his brain, but he couldn’t put the pieces together. Something about today. About Rast, about the hungry people…it was no good. The current situation was far too distracting.
“What if I gave you a hint? One hint, Trey.”
The King leaned down and whispered to Trey.
“I had intended it another way, but your story about that god of Hebrews gave me an idea. But I rather think that what can be done in seven days I can do in seven hours.”
Trey stared at him. And then his eyes widened.
Flos strode away from Trey, practically laughing with delight. He raised his hands and they cheered him. The people on the walls watched, probably terrified out of their minds as thousands of voices shouted Flos’ name. Already Trey could see people, other people, gathered at the closed portcullis. Civilians, not soldiers, peering to see. They had to know an army was at their gates, but not why. They were desperate to know, fearful, yes, but curious. And that was what Flos wanted.
“What is he doing?”
Teres seized Trey’s arm, but Orthenon took her place. The steward’s face was focused, and his hand was gripping his sword’s hilt.
“Trey, is our King planning to attack?”
“No, no, he’s not! He’s planning to march!”
“On the city?”
Flos’ voice answered everything. The King pointed towards the city and bows raised. But he wasn’t pointing at the city.
“Around the walls! Let us march! Come!”
He began walking towards the city. Everyone stared, but Trey found himself walking behind Flos, towards the armed defenders. He could feel the tension rising as the horde of people walked towards the walls. The bowmen had arrows nocked and Trey could feel crawling fear all over him.
But no one loosed. The King had said he would not enter, would not attack. If they fired, they would die. That had to be in their thoughts. And Flos had to know they didn’t want to die. But what a gamble to make! The King kept approaching the gates, and then he suddenly turned left.
There was a ripple of surprise as his procession followed him. But now Flos was walking around the walls, following it closely. Trey could see the people on the walls racing to catch up. But that was all Flos was doing. He just walked around the walls of the city, slowly. That was all he was going to do, Trey knew.
He was going to walk and bring the walls down.
It started when Flos turned, mid-stride. He walked backwards, and raised his voice so everyone could hear. He had a massive voice when he cared to use it and Trey, walking just behind him, winced as Flos shouted.
“My people! We have come to Rast, but they will not open their gates for me! The [Mayor] claims that I still lie asleep! But you have seen my face! You know I have woken!”
His voice carried across the crowd, and huge cheers and shouting erupted as he spoke. Trey glanced up and saw, high above, pale faces staring down. Everyone had heard. Flos raised his arms, and the sound grew louder. People were cheering him, shouting for their King. And then he asked the question.
“Who is your King?”
“The King of Destruction!”
“Flos of Reim!”
Countless voices roared it. But that wasn’t enough. Flos raised his voice. He roared at his subjects, his people.
“What is my name?”
They all screamed the answer at the same time. Every voice, every child, every woman and man. A single word, multiplied thousands of times.
This time the word split the air. It was thunder, sound given form. Flos raised his hand into the air and the sound was deafening. Flos kept walking, leading his people around the walls. He roared again.
“Who is it that rules these lands?”
Trey shouted it too, and heard the ringing in his ears, the same word, all around him. It wasn’t just coming from the people with him. Trey heard it from inside the city. People were shouting his name.
“I am the King of Destruction!”
Flos bellowed the words so the people in the city could hear. His voice was louder as he halted and raised both hands up.
“And I have returned!”
Trey heard a loud sound, and then nothing. Something was ringing loudly. He shook his head and saw Teres doing the same next to him.
Slowly, noise came back. But it was thunderous, a beating wave. Flos marched on, and the wild cheering continued. But not for long.
“March! March, my subjects! Call out my name for the world to hear!”
Flos shouted and began to stamp his foot every fourth step. Without needing more than that, every person in the crowd did the same. Soon the sound of their fourth step was like a small earthquake. Then someone began shouting.
Every fourth step, they shouted his name. And then it really was like the entire world was shaking. Trey found himself doing the same. Every fourth step he landed as hard as he could and the word burst from his lips. He was shaking with wild energy.
The walls of Rast shook with the sound. Not in actuality, but Trey thought the mortar and stone should have been knocked loose from the sound. He stomped, and shouted. The word was deafening.
This time he knew he heard the word bellowed from within. And then the King raised his arms. He stopped in front of the gates, and shouted.
“People of Rast! Who is your King!?”
And the walls of the city came tumbling down.
“Perhaps it was simply a metaphor.”
When Trey could hear again, when the shouting and chaos had ended, hours, years later, that was what Flos said to him. It was what he said when the gates were thrown open, the people of Rast, his people, standing on the walls and cheering, the guardsmen and soldiers having either thrown down their arms and surrendered, or joined the people. They had opened the gates and flooded out, shouting and calling their King’s name.
The city was now the King of Destruction’s. The people had turned on their leaders, overwhelmed the few people who would have kept the gates barred. They had remembered their King, the starving poor, the homeless, and the hungry citizens. They had risen, and the walls of Rast had fallen in a metaphorical sense as they opened the gates for their King.
Not without blood. Trey heard it later. Some people had fought and died to prevent the gates being opened. The [Mayor] had fled, and been torn apart by a mob. That was the darkness in Flos’ victory.
But there was much to celebrate as well. Because the first thing Flos did was order Orthenon to ensure no one would starve. Already riders were racing back towards Reim, to return with food, and the warehouses were being opened and food carefully distributed to those in dire need.
They did not fling open the doors and let everyone eat their fill. Orthenon saw to that. In quick order he’d established control and posted guards on the warehouses. People would be fed, but it would be sensibly, and without exhausting the food they had. Winter would soon be here, and every sack of grain counted.
And yet, it was still a celebration in the streets. Trey still heard cheering, or he would have if his ears were properly working. They’d given up at some point and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever hear things properly again.
But he felt it in the air. Something electric and alive. Flos was walking his streets, still walking, but stopping to greet his people. He had an escort of soldiers around him, more to keep the King from being surrounded forever than anything else.
Trey sat on the battlements, sipping a drink. It was just water, but it was refreshingly cool, hauled up from a deep well. Teres wasn’t here; she was with Orthenon, following him about, watching him work.
She had a crush. But Trey was fine with being alone, for a little bit. He had chosen a quiet part of the wall, and so he was surprised when someone found him.
Gazi the Omniscient climbed up and sat next to Trey without a word. He stared at her. He thought about edging away, but didn’t.
“The city rejoices.”
The Gazer had a cup in her hands. Trey looked. It was water too. The Gazer’s head was staring down below into the city, away from Trey but she’d still seen Trey.
“There is not enough alcohol to celebrate. And so I make do with this. It is no hardship.”
“Oh. I uh—”
She turned her head then, to smile at him. Trey blinked at her as two of Gazi’s eyes focused on him. She was smiling as always, but there wasn’t anything scary about her right now. She was just smiling. Like a normal person. It was disconcerting, coming from her.
“He brought down the walls quickly, didn’t he? It was seven days in your story, wasn’t it?”
“But in your story the walls themselves fell. Is that the difference between a [King] and a god?”
She didn’t wait for a reply. Gazi took a drink from her cup and stared down into the city. Trey had a feeling her eyes were following Flos, wherever he was. After a few minutes, Gazi spoke.
“This is what it was always like. This is why we followed him. Not simply because he was a [King]. But because of this.”
It was a question that Trey hadn’t ever asked aloud. Gazi nodded at him.
“You have seen him as he is now. As he struggles to return to what he was. But we remember. This is why we followed him, we seven, his subjects. For these moments. For what he could do. Because he was a King.”
Trey had no answer to that, nothing he could say. But it wasn’t a statement that demanded an answer. He and Gazi sat on the battlements until the sun set. He rode back with Teres on a horse, reaching Reim in just over an hour. Apparently, the people who had followed Flos marched into the night, but met riders and wagons coming their way with food to keep them supplied. And their King walked with them the entire way, speaking with his people.
And so as Trey staggered to his room, before he fell asleep onto his bed, which was actually Teres’ and she fell asleep onto his, he heard it. The whispers.
They ran through the hallways, through the entire palace. They swept into the city, out of the roads, from person to person, by spell and letter. A rumor.
The King of Destruction was awake. He had returned, truly. And there was something else. He had taken a city. Not just taken it—he had brought the walls down. No, he had conquered it with just one word. He had stormed the city and taken it without a single life lost. He had marched up to the gates and brought down the walls with a single word.
That was rumor. But there was truth in it. And the truth was that the King of Destruction had awoken. It was no longer gossip, idle speculation, or a secret known by the few and powerful. Now it was a shout, and it spread like wildfire to the people who had waited for this day. It could no longer be ignored, and they called his name once more.
Flos. The King of Destruction.
He had awoken. He had returned at last. Trey slept with that knowledge ringing in his ears and heard.
The declaration of war reached the palace the next day.