“They say there will be war with Ailendamus soon. If it occurs, it would be the entire kingdom versus Kaliv, Calanfer, and Gaiil-Drome, assuming the old pact holds. Phaislant would be included as well, given their relationship with Ailendamus.”
“I predict Taimaguros would side with Ailendamus—they have a defensive alliance, and the war would benefit the Taimaguros Dominion. So that would mean two major powers and all the allied nations fighting the traditional Saiver Pact plus Phaislant.”
“Doesn’t Phaislant have the Order of Seasons? I remember the games at Daquin, seeing their [Knights] there. House Kallinad, correct?”
“Correct—but the Order is one [Knight] order. Ailendamus might well call upon its orders, and [Knights] are few in number.”
“Intriguing. How would this affect us?”
The Emperor of Sands paused. She looked at herself. Another aspect of herself, rather. A head sat on the arm rest of her throne. It, like she, was made of cloth. But cloth that lived, and breathed, and spoke.
String People. The [Empress] nodded at the head, which lived despite lacking a body. He was her, a young man, in the fires of his youth. And she was the [Emperor of Sands] as well, although she styled herself [Empress] when she wore this head. She was—had been—the most beautiful and intelligent [Emira] in her nation before she had become the [Empress].
She was the [Empress], he the [Emperor]. Both the same being. If the distinction was confusing, well—even other String People would have found their nature perplexing.
Even horrifying. For, the [Emperor], the [Empress], the ruler of the Empire of Sands was a String-Person. That was easy enough. But where they differed from the artificial folk who hailed from Chandrar was that they could sew and replace any body part they chose.
Even their head.
Most String People had a mortal flaw, in that while they could replace limbs, organs, any part of their body as they chose, changing material and cloth and cut to make their arms more attractive, stronger, and so on—they could not replace their heads.
The head contained the String Person’s original thread, from which their life originated. It was the most magical part of them—although [Alchemists] the world over were banned from ever experimenting with it on pain of death in any country ruled by the String People. And any rumored to be experimenting with it outside of Chandrar’s domain died.
Long ago, the String Folk had won their freedom, and they were no one’s puppets. The living string in each String Person’s head grew with them. A String-Child had but a thread; an elder who died of old-age—and String People could live into their hundreds, if seldom—would have a small skein of thread that would turn to dust shortly after their death.
You could not replace it. Even creating a new child was painful, and yes, sacrificial on the parts of the parents. Thus, the String People, who could be vain indeed, never replaced components of their heads save at more dire need. That was how their caste system worked; no matter what you became, someone born of hemp would show it, in their face if nowhere else.
String People valued cloth like other species valued strength, beauty, fertility, and so on. Those who had been made of silk or rarer fabrics stood at the height of society, beloved and envied. Below them were common fabrics, known collectively as cotton. At the bottom were the rough, hardy folk. Hemp.
That was what the String People of Chandrar were. Highly social, even bitterly so, reclusive about some secrets, but strong fighters, a people who had built themselves and were thus comparatively new to this world. They had many advantages in life, including their ability to repair even crippling damage, but they seldom left the deserts.
Like every species, String People had fought in wars of conquest and defense, but String People had seldom threatened the world for one simple reason: they burned. And if you damaged the magical string in their brains, they died like anyone else.
Now, the Empire of Sands. A growing power in the west of Chandrar, a nation ruled by String-People. It was already considered to be one of the great String Folk powers, behind Nerrhavia’s Fall, but new. Growing. The [Emperor] who ruled the nation, the Emperor of Sands, was a mysterious figure.
Male. Female. They had multiple heads. Most String Folk died if you cut off the head; the magical string needed energy, and without a body to sustain it, it died fast. And how could one being have multiple heads, anyways? Let alone…
The [Empress] stretched lazily. She wore a body of silk, so languorous and beautiful it would have driven a thousand [Poets] to composing odes to her beauty. But none were present; she sat in her throne, which was made entirely of sand, comfortable to some degree, yet hard as any stone.
She did have a motif. And the head of the [Empress] was beautiful.
Once, she had been called Emira Saet-rei of Doran, a small nation subsumed early by the Empire of Sands. She had led the defense of her nation well, Emira Saet-rei. But in exchange for the safety of her defeated folk, she had agreed to a deal by the then-[Emperor]. She had vanished.
And the [Empress of Sands] had worn a new face from then on.
You didn’t need to be a genius to figure out a trend, especially since the [Emperor] had nearly a dozen faces. All of them String-Folk, by the way. The young man whose head was conversing with himself had been a fearsome [Lieutenant]. Now he was an [Emperor] and united in purpose with his other heads.
But each head was a different personality, a different strength. The [Empress] smiled down at her younger self.
“War in Terandria? It matters not at all. Unless you care to think of advantage. Terandria has always meddled. The nations of the continent will be more focused in that war. Perhaps there is even room to alter events.”
“What do I care?”
The young man’s tone was brash, unrepentant. The [Empress] sighed at herself.
“I care because all news is worth knowing.”
The young man’s head looked up at his smiling face.
“Put me on. And I will know all that is worth knowing.”
“No. I am impetuous when I wear you. And this is not a time for impetuousness. When I must lead a battle, you may come out.”
The head on the armrest glowered.
“I should be worn. He is out there. What care have I of Terandria when the King of Destruction hounds my dreams? When his vassal incites rebellion and musters other nations against me?”
The [Empress of Sands] sighed. It was true. Takhatres of the King’s Seven was a growing name in her vast, growing empire. She had sent armies against him specialized in defeating Garuda. After two battles in which he had dealt as much damage as his tribe had received, he had retreated. Now, he was a moving force, striking weak targets and worse—rallying enemies of the Empire of Sands against her.
And there were many. The [Empress of Sands] was expanding her reach, nation by nation. Alarmed, the other nations of Chandrar were mobilizing to curtail her power. The only reason why her name was not screamed across all of Chandrar as a watch-word was because one voice was louder.
“Flos of Reim.”
“His kingdom is still small. Put me on. And I will lead six of our armies across Zeikhal! The Great Desert is vast, but I have the resources. Let me crush him now, before he absorbs another nation.”
The younger head urged his older self. The [Empress] turned her head.
“No. I do not gamble with the fate of my empire. And even now, facing Flos of Reim and needing to march so far is a gamble. I will arm other nations with blades, but it is far better to create an empire so vast that he is helpless when we finally clash, rather than risk it all now.”
“I am a fool.”
The [Empress] glared at herself. It was, indeed, an odd sight, to see the ruler of a nation bickering like this. But whom else could she trust? The only voices she respected were her own.
And now they came, echoing down from the throne room. Both heads of the [Emperor of Sands] looked up. And listened.
“The King of Destruction is a mighty foe. Before I was [Emperor], I saw the extent of his might. I fought with him until he fell into his slumber. I should remember.”
Both heads glared up at a third disembodied head, sitting on a pedestal where it could watch all that passed in the throne room. The old [General] glared back.
“Put me on.”
“No, put me on.”
Another head, a grinning face twisted by a scar. The [Empress] eyed her other self distastefully.
“No, and no. Some of my selves were a thing of necessity. This head makes me a genius, but too ambitious by far. And this one—I regret adding so many aspects of myself at times. When I wear this head, I am debauched, murderous.”
She stared at the scarred head. He grinned at himself.
“If the King of Destruction were a head, what might I be if he was me?”
A third head mused quietly from her pedestal. Aside from the head she wore, there were only two female heads in her collection. The [Empress] thought that was a fault; because she had worn so many male heads, they kept adding to their number of their gender.
But she wore this head because all of her, even the male personalities, knew that this one was the most complete. The most reasonable, if not the best suited to personal combat, or war.
The [Empress of Sands] lifted a hand and the bickering heads quieted. She looked past them all as her attendants waited. They could replace her head at a moment’s notice, change her very body to suit her new form.
“Let us think. Flos of Reim. How do you kill such a man? We know so much. Yes.”
“Everything there is to know.”
“Unless he has grown.”
The [Empress] nodded to herself.
“Which is why we know his flaw and strength. He could destroy me, perhaps even with six armies at my back. If he were prepared. If he saw me coming.”
“His [Army of the King].”
The young man’s head silently agreed. The other heads above fell silent, so that two of the [Empress’] thoughts could air themselves.
“It has a great flaw. But with it, even with a far smaller army, he could humble even Nerrhavia. That is why the other nations fear to invade, as much as his Seven. But if he uses it once, he is vulnerable.”
“It is not invincible. He used it at Reim. And he would have lost, but for the grand enchantment on his city! I did not know Drevish had created it!”
The [Empress’] face was sour and dark.
“He kept it from us. I should not have executed him. But I was wrathful and without reason when I wore you.”
She pointed up at the old [General]’s head. He did not respond to himself. The [Empress] shook her head.
“I will not wear that aspect of myself for a long time. If he had joined us—Flos of Reim might have fallen. But he used his Skill and he can use it again. If he is to fall, he must use his [Army of the King]—and then be slain before he is able to use it again.”
All of the [Empress’] heads murmured acknowledgement. The young man glowered.
“And so we do what? Wait, and try to hunt one of his vassals?”
The whisper came from above. And even the [Empress] was silenced by herself. She nodded. She knew her other self’s thoughts and will, if not the nuance.
“Yes. We grow. This is the wrong game I think of when I wear my personalities of war. Clashing with Reim is foolhardy. Let other nations burn themselves against him. The Empire of Sands grows. As do I. And when the time is right, I shall throw every measure against the King of Destruction. Then, and only then, I will shout my name to the world.”
“And if I lose?”
The same whisper. The [Empress] looked up and met her own gaze. Dark amusement behind a ruined face. She nodded, acknowledging her dark humor. Her twisted desires that could sabotage herself. The head she had worn but once.
“Then I was not fated to rule Chandrar. But I do not believe I will lose. After all—”
“—I have perspective he does not.”
Half the heads groaned aloud. The [Empress of Sands] when she wore Saet-rei’s head had one great flaw; her love of poor puns. Indeed, the young man grumbled and glared as she placed him on a pedestal, to wait until she needed to be someone else.
“You wear your perspective too long, myself. I have little care for frivolity. Or my lovers. Make them female.”
He seemed offended. The [Empress] laughed. Attendants came into the throne room, bearing some of the heads away on pillows. The ruler of the Empire of Sands was said to be able to be in many places at once. And they were—just not in one piece. She called out, although she knew what she was going to say before she said it.
“I embrace all my lovers when I wear this head. My other selves are strong in cunning, war, leadership, and violence. But not love. Not empire. Now, I have work to do. Manage my empire, my selves. Plan cities. Lead, decide. Hunt the Lord of the Skies. Leave King of Destruction his dues. He has sworn peace.”
“It will never last.”
The [Empress] looked up at herself.
“He lost Tiqr to hold to his oath. Now, he is trapped by his words. Who would be foolish enough to force his hand now?”
She waited. But all the [Empress] heard was her own laughter.
Flos Reimarch. The King of Destruction. Such a grand name and such a title for one man. But it was true he deserved it. Once upon a time, he had made other nations shake at the possibility of war. He had united a continent under one banner.
And it was Chandrar, the land of sand, often scorned because it lacked the richness of soil or the benefits of other nations who had caused other continents to fear what the desert-nations might do. That was what Flos Reimarch had done as a young man, until his slumber.
Now, he rode forth again. And his deeds were as notable in what he did directly—and what he inspired in other people. Flos Reimarch was like a stone in a stream; he distorted the current. People had to make plans around him, or be swept away.
The [Empress of Sands] was not the only one to make plans. But her sanguine discussions were different. She had power and space and time on her side. Other rulers had none of the above.
“The [Army of the King]. In regards to defeating the King of Destruction, that seems to be the common issue, along with his Seven.”
A man spoke heavily from his throne. His crown lay wearily upon his brow. No one answered him. He could hear whispers from the back of his court.
“Did you see the battle with the Wyverns at Pallass? A good show, that.”
“I missed it. I don’t keep a scrying orb at home. You must tell me about it. Wyverns? I don’t believe I know them.”
The [King] was fit. In mind and body. His hair was dark, brown—hardly like the fiery reds that Terandrians claimed was a sign of royal blood. But he had a trace of royalty in his appearance. His mother had passed down some traits via her Skills, and her son had been born without physical flaw.
Indeed, he was tall, handsome, even. The court below him had not had the benefit of bloodline-based Skills. But they were rich, so while some were portly, others could buy tonics or potions to achieve their desired form, despite being fleshy Humans. Or at the very least, illusion spells.
An exceedingly handsome man in his mid-thirties spoke up now. He was under an illusion spell. The [King] could see right through the magic at the more plain fellow beneath. He really didn’t need the illusion, that was the sad thing. He wasn’t that fat or ugly; it was just that he seemed to regard age as just as great a flaw.
“Your Majesty, surely it isn’t a topic worth worrying about? The King of Destruction has pledged peace. So long as no one offers him a cause for war, he is, in effect, helpless.”
There were murmurs of support from the court. The [King] didn’t shake his head. That was too dramatic a movement for such an intimate setting. Rather, he frowned slightly. Just a crease of the brow.
“Reim has Hellios and Germina. Surely you do not suggest the King of Destruction should be ignored, Warden Dulfe? With his Skill alone, he could sweep the Realm of Jecrass apart.”
The whispering went on.
“Huge, scaly beasts. These ones breathed ice of all things! Nearly took the city. Oh, and there was an Antinium.”
“Really? In Pallass? And ice? I wouldn’t mind such a monster to cool my drinks!”
“I actually have a recording of the battle. Wistram is selling these—these trinkets that play the entire thing on demand. They cost blood and water, but—”
A man standing next to the throne cleared his throat meaningfully. Geril, an old and faithful retainer to the [King], glanced over the court. The chattering ceased.
And the [King] sighed again. But through his nose. He sat with his back straight, his posture perfect. That was no difficult feat. The difficult feat was organizing his court to any semblance of serious discussion.
His name was Raelt. King Raelt of Jecrass, sworn protector of the Realms of Jecrass, guardian of horses, and all that. He occupied one of the nations bordering what was now the King of Destruction’s territory.
And he was not a happy man. Raelt went on, doggedly.
“The [Army of the King] is his most famous Skill. Believed to have been granted to the King of Destruction at Level 50. With it, he can transform any army into a force capable of wiping out one many levels above their own. In almost every major battle for the conquest of Chandrar, Flos Reimarch used it—once in a battle against an army five times his size. It is speculated that if he had landed on Izril as he had intended, he could have used it with his Seven to take the Walled City of Zeres.”
“Yes, your Majesty. But the King of Destruction has sworn an oath. Tiqr fell without his interference. Surely worrying about one Skill or—or strategizing is pointless? If he tries to invade any nation, all of Chandrar will fall on him.”
A breathy voice. Another River Warden. That was what the nobility of Jecrass were called, those who controlled, well, the rivers that made Jecrass so rich. Not in produce, but horses. Jecrass was known across the continent and perhaps the world as a place to buy good horses. They competed with nations in Terandria known for the same.
And the River Wardens would argue forever about the quality of their horse breeds versus Terandrian ones, but they couldn’t entertain the thought of the King of Destruction for more than ten minutes without gossiping. Raelt didn’t quite glare at Warden Winta.
“That may be so, Warden Winta. However, consider what might happen if the King of Destruction does break his oath. The armies of Chandrar fall upon him.”
“Yes, your Majesty?”
Another member of the court stared blankly up at Raelt. The [King] paused.
“What happens if he wins?”
The River Wardens fell silent. That was their problem, Raelt supposed. They were willing to gossip, to entertain petty rivalries. If another nation had threatened war, they’d shake their fists and some would be ready to fight to the death. But in the face of a true threat, the kind that would roll over Jecrass without a moment’s pause—they were terrified to even contemplate it.
“Surely, your Majesty jests. Nerrhavia borders Reim.”
“Indeed. And the [Army of the King] could destroy Nerrhavia’s armies in any one single battle. The flaw of his Skill is of course that the King of Destruction can only use it once every so often. But how often? No [Historian] agrees. The possibility exists that Jecrass may come to blows with the King of Destruction. If not invaded directly—as allies for when he forswears his oaths. Can we triumph over such a Skill, let alone his Seven?”
Raelt prodded his subjects. The River Wardens looked at each other, paling. The [King] smiled, politely and artificially.
“I have, of course, convened my trusted court to discuss the matter. It would not do to be unprepared.”
Dead silence. Raelt was waiting for one of his River Wardens to come up with a brilliant suggestion. They were, after all, peers of the realm, below only him in stature. The [King] regarded his subjects with great expectation—or at least, they assumed. Raelt was more trying not to fidget.
“The kingdom could increase its budget towards the army.”
One of the River Wardens muttered at last. He received instant looks of annoyance from his peers. They’d be funding that idea.
“An excellent suggestion, Warden Telimt. However, would that be enough? I would not wish to tax my River Wardens unduly.”
A few heads in the court brightened; the rest looked suspicious. That wasn’t the royal position…ever. But the [King] was smooth. He turned his head slightly, his posture unchanging.
“Is the scope of Jecrass’ army an issue, General Lael? Your thoughts? What would be the result in a scenario where the King of Destruction were to invade Jecrass?”
The court fell silent. Not all of those present were River Wardens. Now, a woman wearing armor stepped forwards and clasped one hand over her heart as she bowed smoothly.
General Lael, high commander of Jecrass’ armies, known for their emphasis on cavalry and speed, to guard the wide, open realm. She was a Level 27 [General], one of the highest-leveled assets of the Realm of Jecrass. Young too, in her early thirties.
“By your leave, your Majesty? I cannot fathom a scenario where Jecrass’ armies would triumph over Reim’s, even if the army were three times its current size. Not if the King of Destruction and his vassals rode together.”
Outraged murmurs. No one liked to hear that. But General Lael kept her gaze on her [King], reminding the River Wardens they were in his presence. Raelt regarded her.
“Honestly said, General Lael. Then, what would you do in an invasion scenario?”
He waited as she considered her response. The River Wardens eyed her nervously. Raelt could hear whispers.
“…not even Level 30…”
“…really the right sort? Perhaps if we sent for a commander from Baleros…”
Raelt ignored the whispers. [Generals] were a funny thing. Each nation had to have one supreme military commander—preferably more than one. A [King] could carry that role, but most weren’t specialized in or adapted to war, with a few notable exceptions. So you hired a [General].
But from where? If you were lucky, you had one from the last regime. But what happened if the [General] had been slain along with his [Queen], or, perhaps, started a coup? That was one of the questions no one had thought to teach Raelt when he’d first taken the throne.
As it happened, there were, in fact, actual wandering officers and even [Generals] who would come apply if they spotted a vacancy in a kingdom. Or you could send for them, see if they worked. And wasn’t that an odd thought?
‘Come on over, lead my armies for a year or two. See if we work well together. I’ll give you a nice horse.’ But it happened. That was how it worked. Sometimes it was a good [Warlord], or a [Colonel] serving in an army you could entice with the offer of a new class, an army to lead, and good pay.
Raelt had had a number of offers, from all over the world. [Strategists] from Baleros, mercenary commanders, a [General] serving in another army—it was a tricky choice. He could easily offend a distant or not-so-distant nation by poaching their leadership, and you had to be sure you could trust the person in charge of your armies.
In the end, Raelt had gone for the second route—promotion from within his own kingdom. But he’d put a twist on it and hired from the nation next door to his, the Republic of Belchan, a democracy known for its mage-schools and gold mines.
He’d promoted Lael because Jecaina, his daughter, had suggested her. And not just because she was a woman. [Commander] Lael had served in Belchan with distinction until she’d been disciplined for striking a [Politician] for what she claimed was a bribery attempt. She’d been demoted until Raelt had contacted her.
It was a good choice, and Raelt had hired Lael for loyalty over levels. Not that he was ever going to get a Level 40 [Firestorm General] without offering too much, but he could have gotten a Level 30+ one with some enticement. But loyalty was valuable, and Lael had proven herself over the years as incorruptible, at least to the River Wardens.
Today, though, Raelt did spare a wish for a [General] that might have made Flos Reimarch think twice. Lael was a good leader, but no one would ever call her…brilliant. Neither was she flawed, but a decent [General] without flaws wasn’t much to put up a [King] who was known as the ‘King of Destruction’.
Credit to Lael, she was not literally shaking in her boots at the prospect of fighting the King of Destruction. She swallowed hard before replying.
“In an invasion, your Majesty? I would decline any direct assault on Reim’s forces. The King of Destruction has his grand Skill, and his vassals are just as dangerous. I would instead splinter my armies, raiding and harassing Reim’s.”
“Not even an attack on one of his vassals? What if the King of Destruction splits his forces?”
“Not even then, your Majesty. Each of King Reimarch’s vassals was considered to be on par with a [General].”
And they have about twice as many levels as I do. Or more. Raelt let that unspoken message from Lael sink in. The River Wardens were silent as he motioned Lael to go on.
“Then what, General Lael?”
“I would use Jecrass’ mounted armies to continue to push at Reim’s armies, wearing them down with fast raids, cutting off supplies where possible. I would not engage any of the Seven or the King of Destruction directly, and avoid any direct, prolonged conflict.”
“An army has to eat. They’d struggle to claim all of Jecrass with that kind of harassment. We do have the fastest cavalry.”
Warden Winta speculated. Some of the River Wardens murmured. Taking pride from this imaginary scenario. Raelt rolled his eyes in his head. Playing the listening [King], he motioned at Lael.
“But surely any war must come to a direct conflict. If Reim’s armies make for the capital—here, what would you do, General Lael? Muster the River Wardens and all forces, given your raids are effective?”
Another pause. The [General] was giving Raelt a look. She knew that he knew what her answer was. But she said it for everyone to hear.
“At that point, I would hope for reinforcements from other nations, your Majesty.”
A stir among the River Wardens. More outrage, but it was turning into nervousness. Raelt waited, his face grave.
“And if you had no reinforcements and just the armies of Jecrass at your disposal, General? And a battle was inevitable?”
A long swallow. Lael looked around and bowed again, clasping her fist to her heart.
“All things being equal, your Majesty? I would negotiate with the King of Destruction for the favorable surrender of Jecrass’ forces.”
Someone bellowed that on top of the loud gasps. Raelt raised one hand.
“General Lael has proven her loyalty over the years. General, would you not do battle at all?”
“Your Majesty. Had I an army ten times Jecrass’ size, the King of Destruction and his vassals would still have the advantage. Without his [Army of the King]—it would be a fair battle, one I would not care to take. With an army ten times Jecrass’ size.”
Lael repeated herself through bloodless lips. Raelt now heard only silence. You could be outraged, yes. But—he looked over his court. Many of them were as old as he. They remembered the King of Destruction before his slumber. Now—they did remember him. And try as they might, they couldn’t ridicule General Lael’s words.
If there were reinforcements from other nations. Without his [Army of the King]…a lot of ifs, for Jecrass to repel the King of Destruction. Raelt let the tension rise for a few seconds. Not too long, or he might be seen as fearful himself. Which was why, as he rose, he did so lightly.
“This council of strategy has been productive. I shall ruminate on what I have learned. And of course, my Wardens, I ask only that you act with all your wisdom towards the safety of Jecrass. The Realm is not at war with Reim. However, people claiming fealty to him are passing through the realm with each day.”
The court stirred. He’d whipped them into a frenzy of uncertainly and now he was dismissing them? But Raelt’s words reminded them of their grievances.
“These—these refugees are a blight, Lord Raelt. They’re responsible for thefts, they cause trouble, and they breed [Bandits]. Surely Jecrass should close its borders?”
A female River Warden protested. Raelt looked at her.
“Yes, Warden Cerani. I have noted your complaints, and I am not without sympathy. However—Flos Reimarch has declared all those who wish to join Reim his subjects. All of them. One wonders what might happen if they were to fall prey to accident or bandits? I trust you have all carried out the royal command to escort such groups?”
The River Wardens paled. They looked at each other. Warden Dulfe murmured.
“Only naturally, your Majesty. I’ve put out numerous escorts myself.”
“Excellent. We will give Reim no reason to quarrel with Jecrass. General Lael, let us discuss the matter of Jecrass’ armies later. But war is the least desired of our outcomes. It would not do to arouse the King of Destruction’s wrath.”
Raelt nodded, and his servant, Geril, dismissed the court. They went, murmuring nervously. More than one looked at General Lael as she bowed and knelt before the throne. Perhaps, she was discussing in detail some secret plan. But against the King of Destruction? They thought about the bands of refugees.
The King of Destruction had proclaimed peace. He would make no war, unless his kingdom or his people were attacked. And he had also demanded that any people in any nation who claimed loyalty to him be given free passage to Reim.
Outrageous demands, but he had kept his word as Tiqr fell. And now more and more of his people were actually coming, making the long journey across the continent. The River Wardens had been annoyed at the caravans passing through their borders. And they had conveniently forgotten Raelt’s decree to give them aid. Now though…
“Thank you, [General]. That will be all.”
King Raelt had no secret conference with General Lael. She saluted, still pale in the face. She had not liked giving such a blunt answer. But Geril came forwards, bowing.
“Well done, sire. I believe they will begin patrolling and guarding the refugees more studiously now.”
“One can only hope, Geril. General Lael, you have my gratitude.”
“I spoke only the truth, your Majesty. But I would like to increase the army by another five thousand. At least.”
The woman bowed towards Raelt. He paused.
“Let the River Wardens stew on the thought of an invasion another week, General Lael. But go ahead and make readiness.”
She bowed. Raelt sighed.
“You are dismissed. Geril.”
He left his throne room. Raelt felt extraordinarily tired, as if he’d been at his personal practice court for a few hours. But meeting with his royal court was just as tiring.
Outside of his throne room, Raelt was a bit less kingly. He was still a [King], but he walked with alarming speed. Raelt moved fast when he wasn’t on parade before his subjects and his [Head Servant], Geril, had to hurry fast to keep up. The [King] was actually a fairly athletic sort, and so joined the group of people who thought speed-walking was an optimal way to go about life.
“All that to make a point. Get me an orange, Geril. I’m going to hit one of them with it.”
It was Raelt’s hobby to eat half-rotten oranges and then accidentally toss them out the windows of his palace and hit visitors exiting his castle. He was headed towards the Sunset Retreat corridor, where he could ‘accidentally’ brain one of his subjects with a fruit. Unfortunately, his huffing elderly aide, Geril, had to stop his [King].
“I’m afraid we are out of oranges, sire. You went through them all this week.”
“All? I thought the [Gardener] had a huge plot of oranges. He knows how much I…love them.”
Raelt hated oranges. He hated a number of things in his kingdom. His River Wardens, oranges, and horses. Ironic since Jecrass had all three in profusion. Geril ducked his head apologetically.
“Apparently there was an infestation of fruit flies.”
“That’s fine by me. Bring me five.”
“I’m afraid the [Gardener] destroyed the fruits, your majesty.”
Raelt sighed. He’d have eaten a nasty bit of fruit if it meant he could hit some of his wardens with them. Accidentally. But it was just as well—they were starting to catch on to all the ‘accidents’. Raelt’s love of fruits was well-known, but there were limits to how long you could get away with it.
“Very well. In that case, I will retire to my quarters.”
“Very good, your Majesty. Shall I prepare a refreshment?”
Raelt left his servant, a man who had helped raise him as a child to go issue orders. The [King] walked through his castle, acknowledging servants unconsciously. It was his home, and he was used to being a [King]. In fact, so trained was Raelt that he only let out an angry sigh and let his royal façade slip when he was in his rooms. Then he pounded one knee before the water arrived.
Dead gods damn it, they had an army! And Jecrass had been to war during Raelt’s reign! General Lael had fought some splendidly mundane battles against Jecrass’ northern neighbors, pushing back incursions into Jecrass. But Jecrass hadn’t fought in any major wars since…well, they’d been part of the King of Destruction’s empire.
Raelt thanked the young boy who’d delivered the pitcher and poured himself a cup. He drank gratefully; Jecrass was blessed with more water than the southern nations like Hellios or Reim thanks to its rivers, but Chandrar was a hot, dry place. And water was a luxury. Rhir’s hells, they even sold some water each month to Khelt.
Was that a bad idea now that Khelt was at least marginally cooperating with the King of Destruction? Perhaps he should ask his friend, the ruler of Belchan, Prime Minister Lyfelt if it was a bad move to continue trade. Lyfelt was a political person; he would know. But—Fetohep paid dearly for water that Jecrass could spare. And with increasing the funds to Lael’s armies…
Raelt’s head hurt, so he pressed a cool bit of ice from the pitcher against his forehead. Another extravagance, but there were chilling spells to produce some of the precious ice in the cellars. The [King] let his head work over the issue of water. And in his way, he too was ignoring the huge problem.
Flos Reimarch. Raelt had convened his court to make them take the refugees crossing Jecrass’ borders seriously. He hadn’t really entertained a war with Reim. Because…what could you do?
“The [Army of the King].”
Raelt bowed his head as he sat on his silken bed sheets. Restlessly, he got up. Maybe he’d practice a bit with the sword. He was fairly good with one, and it calmed him down. But he couldn’t help but feel anxious. If it came to a war—he and Lael were in agreement. The King of Destruction wouldn’t be stopped with Jecrass’ armies.
“Even a combined military force—you’d have to bait him into using that Skill. It could destroy an army many times his size. But how do you allow that to happen when his vassals could win a battle for him? You’d need—two huge armies. One just large enough to force him to use it—and then that army is gone, and his army’s leveled up, so the second one has to be able to defeat him before he retreats and has time to use it again—”
The [King] did a slow lunge, letting his muscles relax as he moved his legs. He actually exercised quite often, even without the sword. He had to do it in private, though; the sight of a [King] doing exercises like shuffling his feet across a room was considered ‘unkingly’. And part of being a [King] was your public image.
Something went pop as Raelt stretched his body. He grimaced. Raelt was not a young man anymore, a thought which was mildly peeving to the [King]. His daughter, Jecaina, was twenty two, and acted like she was still in her teens at times. But Raelt himself was exactly forty years old. He supposed that was still a bit young, for a [King]. But his father had been scarcely older when he’d died.
His father, [King] Meriden Leysars of Jecrass had been a good [King]. Beloved by all, popular with the people, a decent fighter, a good father, and wise enough to know to bow to the King of Destruction. He had a statue in Raelt’s palace, and one in three cities. Raelt had commissioned half of them, himself, but he’d been pleased when the other two popped up.
King Meriden had seen the King of Destruction rise to power and he hadn’t gone to war when a young Flos Reimarch had marched towards Jecrass with an army thrice as large as Jecrass’ at his back. He’d pledged Jecrass as a vassal to Flos, and in doing so, preserved his country from pillaging and reaped some of the benefits of Flos’ growing power.
Of course, then there had been reparations after the King of Destruction had entered his slumber and like all nations, Jecrass had fallen into a decline, but Meriden had weathered it well and brought Jecrass through the turmoil.
For a short while. Meriden had died of a heart failure a few years after the King of Destruction had entered his slumber. Peacefully. Still…still too young. [Prince] Raelt, then a young man barely past his majority enjoying peace in Terandria, had been summoned home. He’d found his father dead, and his mother, rest her soul, followed soon thereafter.
That left the young [King] Raelt with a kingdom to manage, a new class, and uncertainty. And to cap it all off—his half-sister had helpfully abandoned her royal class for a love-marriage, and then abandoned her baby in the royal palace.
He’d done it all, back then. Raelt stared at the ceiling. And somehow, he’d never gotten a wife. Which was fine. He had a daughter. And he’d been so busy trying to measure up to his father’s legacy without knowing how.
King Meriden had been a good man. Fond of horses, unlike his son. He’d had all kinds of royal advice, although neither he nor Raelt had expected him to die so soon. But what he’d imparted had mostly been how to rule a kingdom…in horse analogies.
‘A kingdom is like riding a horse, Raelt…’
‘You can know a good man to trust by the way he treats his horse…’
‘War’s like horses…’
Some of it had been good, sensible advice. But Raelt wished he’d sat his father down as a young man and said—
“Look, father. Can you just give me a list of things to do and not to do? How do I handle trade negotiations with Belchan? What’s a good tariff to put on Terandrian goods? How do you discipline the River Wardens without them making a huge stink and trying to withhold taxes?”
Raelt muttered at the ceiling. He could almost imagine his father’s response. Raelt wished his face were clearer, but he had to look at a picture these days to capture everything. Time…
‘The River Wardens are like horses, Raelt. All of ‘em bastards who need a bit, a bridle, and a carrot to go with the sticks up their asses.’
The [King] smiled and laughed as he lifted his sword and did a careful lunge, to avoid hitting one wall. The problem with analogies was this: a kingdom was like a horse, until it wasn’t. Because it was a damned kingdom. Still, Raelt managed as best he could.
His father had been a good ruler. A good [King], and a good man. Raelt knew that because he’d investigated after he’d gotten to know his new position. It was a terrible thing, to ask. But every nation had secret records. Another thing that no one told you.
But he had been a good sort, the late Meriden. He hadn’t done terrible things. Just made normal, mundane faults. Raelt had discovered his three illegitimate siblings, arranged to meet them without their knowing, and ensured they’d live comfortably without ever knowing their relations to the crown. His half-sister was bad enough. She had only one good thing in this world. And, true to her nature, she’d left it behind.
Ding. Raelt paused with sword in hand as someone thrust open the doors to his chambers. Not his bedroom; he had a royal suite.
Few people could do that. Raelt had guards on the doors who announced almost everyone, a magical key, and his rooms were warded against [Assassins] and so on. General Lael, Geril, and a handful of others could just walk in. Like Jecaina, [Princess] of Jecrass.
Raelt knew his daughter was approaching by the chiming of her bell. And as she strode into his private study, Raelt walked out to meet her.
Jecaina had hazel-green hair, because she took after her mother, Raelt’s half-sister. Green hair was fairly abnormal, but not too much. Jecaina, like her father, was tall. And she was just as quick and limber. She wore a tunic and leggings, to move about freely in. And at her waist sat an enchanted foil, a [Fencer]’s weapon, and a silver bell, attached to the handle.
She never went anywhere without the bell. It was a mark of skill, which meant her skill as a [Fencer] was recognized the world over. Jecaina wore it proudly.
Raelt, as it had been established, hated horses almost as much as his River Wardens and oranges. He also hated bells.
“Father? Oh good, you’re done with your court.”
Jecaina greeted her father brusquely. She had something in her hand and Raelt’s honed father-senses told him immediately she wanted something. Jecaina was in her wild years; Raelt could empathize. As a [Princess], she was doing what most [Princes] did in their youths—travel about, explore the world, before they had to become [Kings].
Raelt had gone to Terandria before his youth had been cut short. Jecaina wanted to go to Terandria, but Raelt wasn’t sure he trusted her judgment yet. She’d nearly worn him down before the King of Destruction had awoken, and then she’d kept begging to ride to Reim and meet him herself. She had somehow fallen in love with the idea of the King of Destruction, the legend of Chandrar. Just another reason to resent the man.
But today, Jecaina was more intent on something in her hand. She thrust it at Raelt’s face.
“Father, you must listen to this. Mellia just brought it to me.”
“What is it? And hello, Jecaina.”
“Hello, father. It’s a recording crystal! It holds sound! Look! It’s by the Queen of Pop!”
Raelt went over to a plush armchair and sat down in it. He waved at the fireplace and magical fires sprang to life. Jecaina stood in front of him, expectantly, her eyes glittering with excitement. Raelt sighed.
“Is she an actual [Queen], Jecaina?”
“She might as well be. She’s the greatest [Singer] to ever have been born in ten thousand years! She has tons of albums, and everyone’s talking about her! Listen! Wait—I think you play it—”
Jecaina began to fumble with the magical artifact. Raelt watched her. She definitely wanted him to pay for more. He sighed.
“What’s an ‘album’? Jecaina, it has been a long day and—”
Music began to play from the crystal. Raelt jumped as a female voice began to sing. But not just a female voice. Raelt had heard musical instruments, but the concept of a bass or guitar was new.
As was the style of the song. The [Singer] had an accompaniment, and a beat. And—Raelt stared at Jecaina as she smiled.
It was of course, pop. A song from another world. But Raelt didn’t know that. He only knew that was a foreign song. Jecaina began dancing a bit. Raelt stared at her. His own foot began to tap to the beat, but he caught himself.
When the first song ended, Jecaina insisted on playing another one. Raelt liked the first song, but the second one got on his nerves. His daughter seemed to enjoy it, though.
“It’s quite original. Is this some new musical trend? Where’s it from?”
“Terandria! There’s a famous [Singer] there! And she has these—these recordings! Albums, they’re called! This is only a three-song recording. But she has tons of them!”
“Well, I’m sure a [Bard] will begin playing them soon enough.”
Raelt temporized, knowing where this was going. Jecaina scoffed.
“You can’t copy her music! Did you hear the drums? And the other things? She’s got new instruments, they say!”
The [King] had to admit he couldn’t see a [Bard] or even a performing troupe imitating the strange style he’d heard. He sighed.
“The Realm’s finances are stretched, Jecaina…you have an allowance.”
“I know that!”
His daughter sounded hurt, but Raelt didn’t miss the flicker in the crown princess’ gaze. She paused, clearly rethinking.
“You could…invite her to Jecrass. People would pay to see her! And she’s only in Terandria, for now. She might listen to a [King], if you requested it.”
Raelt looked at his daughter. She shrugged.
“She’s famous. She’s played for royalty! She’s all the rage in Terandria.”
“Well, I suppose I could write a letter. Then again, if you wanted to travel…it’s a bit tricky in Terandria I hear, with Ailendamus, but Lyfelt assures me it would be safe. Why not? You could bring some of your friends.”
Raelt muttered, trying to weigh the risks of sending Jecrass’ [Princess] abroad versus keeping her here. Jecaina brightened—and then frowned at her father.
“Oh no. I want to meet the King of Destruction first.”
“If I beat you in a duel, how about it? I’m not going to swear myself to his service, father.”
Jecaina drew her foil and pointed it at her father’s chest. The [King] ignored the threat to his life and sighed.
“He’s sworn to peace! And you said you met him! You never talk about him, but the other River Wardens say you and grandfather fought in his armies.”
“Twice! Jecaina, the answer’s no.”
“What will he do, imprison me?”
“It’s not you, it’s the politics of the matter.”
His daughter rolled her eyes. The [Fencer]-[Princess] shook her head.
“You’ve been in the vault, talking with Lyfelt with your statues again.”
“He’s my neighbor and a fellow ruler. I trust his counsel, Jecaina. Moreover, I wouldn’t put it past you to challenge one of the King of Destruction’s Seven to a duel.”
Jecaina innocently cooled herself with one of the magical fans that young people loved to wear. Raelt glared at his daughter.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about, Jecaina. You are a [Princess]! And aside from politics—you’re overestimating your skills. A silver bell does not mean you’re equivalent to one of the King’s Seven.”
The [Princess] opened her mouth and imitated Raelt lecturing until he glared at her.
“I know that! But I can’t train my class on most people in the kingdom! Just one trip, father. And then—I’ll go to Terandria and meet the Queen of Pop and learn from [Fencers] there.”
Her eyes glittered with eagerness. Raelt felt a father’s despair and worry over his daughter. And stubbornly ignored all thoughts that he’d been like her when he was young. Geril kept mentioning it, but the old man was growing senile.
This was King Raelt’s day. He was probably a good [King], although he just took it one day at a time and planned for the next days. But like everyone else, he was moved and influenced by the King of Destruction. Flos was always there, a reminder, even though his kingdom had been quiet since summer began.
Until the moment he wasn’t just a reminder.
Daughter and parent were arguing lightly when the door burst inwards. Both turned, and both had swords in hand. Geril raced into the room, panting.
Jecaina lowered her sword in astonishment. Raelt had already sheathed his.
“What is it, Geril?”
The elderly man was clutching at his chest, and Raelt feared he’d had a heart attack. Raelt was already reaching for one of the personal potions he carried. But Geril strode over to his [King]. There was shouting coming from the corridors. Jecaina and Raelt stared at him as the man gasped to speak.
“It’s—there is word from the borders! He is on the move! Heading here!”
“The King of Destruction. He’s leading a vast army! And his [Steward] and Mars the Illusionist!”
King Raelt of Jecrass froze. And his daughter’s jaw dropped. Raelt looked at Geril, and felt normality die. He was always there, in the background. Until he strode onto your stage and took your breath away. For a moment, Raelt wavered. Then he rose.
“Summon the River Wardens. Find General Lael! And—send a [Message] to Belchan! To Nerrhavia!”
“Is it war?”
The halls of Raelt’s palace ran with the question. King Raelt asked it himself, as he stood in the war room with General Lael and Geril. Jecaina hovered in the background. No one had sent her out, and she deserved to be here. Some of the River Wardens who hadn’t left yet were present as well. But Raelt only had attention for his manservant and [General].
“General Lael, is it war?”
“No, your Majesty.”
Lael licked her lips.
“Absolutely. The King of Destruction is flying the banner of truce. And he’s sent ahead messengers, a City Runner—he’s come to parley.”
Raelt exhaled. He looked around, some of the tightness in his chest easing.
“With an army.”
“Yes, sire. But I have this missive—and he is flying the banner—”
“Is the army deployed?”
River Warden Winta squeaked. Her face was dead-white. General Lael nodded.
“I’m placing them at the border, but holding back several miles. We do not wish to cause an incident—”
“Pull them back further.”
Raelt ignored the River Wardens. He looked at Lael.
“He has his [Steward] and Mars the Illusionist?”
“Yes, sire. But he is flying a banner. He wishes to parley with you. The missive—”
Geril offered it to Raelt. The [King] read it. He looked at General Lael. It was useless to ask her again. Raelt tried to think.
“So, he’s coming here. I’ll have to meet him.”
Everyone stared at Raelt. The [King] gritted his teeth.
“It’s just like him. Inform my River Wardens. We will ride to the border with a small escort.”
“But if it’s a trap—”
“Flos Reimarch doesn’t set traps. He’s coming to parley. Literally, to parley. Geril, send riders ahead to announce my arrival. How soon until he reaches the border?”
“He is using a Skill and marching his army fast. He should be there within six hours—”
“Very well. My River Wardens, you may bring a small escort, but no more than…twenty a person.”
“But sire, if it is a trap—”
“Then he is forsworn! But he won’t set a trap. That’s not Flos!”
Raelt snapped. The unexpected heat made River Warden Dulfe pause. There was a pause, then an excited voice.
“I’ll go too!”
Jecaina was adjusting her belt, eyes shining with excitement. Raelt looked at her, and then at Lael.
“General Lael, confine my daughter to the palace under guard.”
“You will not meet the King of Destruction. We will see him at the border, entertain his delegation, and send him away. He has no cause to attack, and whatever he wishes, Jecrass will refuse him.”
The [King] spoke firmly. The River Wardens were nodding. Jecaina was outraged.
“He is at our border! As crown princess—”
“You should be safe. In case I should fall. General Lael. Geril, come with me.”
The [King] felt bad, and knew he’d never hear the end of it, but Jecaina’s protests fell behind him as he strode through his palace. It was like someone had kicked over a beehive. River Wardens were racing back to the throne room, terrified, and more messengers were coming in second by second.
But Raelt was a [King], even if he wasn’t the most powerful one in the region. His attendants, led by Geril, closed ranks. Raelt was riding out of his palace towards the border within twenty minutes, and everyone had to catch up.
Half of the palace’s garrison was riding with Raelt, and General Lael herself. [Riders] were racing across Jecrass’ flatlands, calling for the army to muster. And still—Raelt rode, listening as messengers raced for him.
In truth, he didn’t need to do much. His role was to ride, and his people handled mundane tasks. That was—until the [Messages] started coming in, and City Runners started racing towards him.
“Your Majesty, the Empress of Sands is requesting an audience!”
Raelt spun on his saddle. Geril himself rode forwards, pale-faced. Raelt stared at the proffered speaking stone. Then he heard a babble of voices.
“Prime Minister Lyfelt is speaking, your Majesty. He requests a moment of your time at utmost urgency!”
“Medain’s High King—”
“Queen Yisame of Nerrhavia’s Fallen—”
Raelt stared at the first speaking stone. Then he took it.
“I am King Raelt of Jecrass, ruler of the Realm of Jecrass, Guardian of the Rivers and First Rider of the Fields. To whom am I speaking?”
A female voice answered him, soft, but piercing. Sound fell away as Raelt listened.
“King Raelt, I am Empress of Sands, ruler of my empire. I greet you and Jecrass. I have received word of the King of Destruction’s army. May we speak?”
She gave no list of titles, nor her name. The hairs on Raelt’s neck rose. He’d heard of her.
“Empress of Sands. I greet you and your empire. To what do I owe the honor?”
“The King of Destruction. I offer you the full support of my empire should he threaten your borders. As for his intent? Let us speak briefly, your Majesty. I would not wish to take from your pressing situation.”
Briefly, they spoke. Raelt felt sweat beading his forehead as he listened, replied briefly. He closed with a simple, hurried farewell.
“May the rivers never run dry, Empress of Sands. I am—grateful for your assurances and I shall bear them in mind. Until next we speak.”
He looked at Geril as the conversation ended.
“How many are waiting for…?”
The [Head Servant] held up two hands. Raelt stared.
Two hours later, Raelt finished with half of the people waiting to talk to him. He’d gotten through a number of conversations, some long, but the list of people waiting to converse with him at once had multiplied. Still, Raelt’s initial worry—a [King] did not panic—had subsided once he figured out what they wanted.
Almost all the conversations went the same way. Raelt impatiently spoke into the scrying orb.
“You have my word, Queen Yisame. I have no idea what has prompted King Reimarch, but Jecrass has taken no action towards Reim thus far.”
The beautiful [Queen] pursed her lips, perhaps at his brusque tone. Raelt tried to reconfigure his expression and tone, but this was the eighth such conversation he’d had.
“If the King of Destruction is unwise, Nerrhavia Fallen will of course take suitable action, your Majesty.”
“Thank you, your Majesty. I shall bear it in mind. I see my [General] calling me. May the rivers never run dry.”
Raelt pretended Geril had cut the transmission as Yisame replied. Diplomacy was not Raelt’s forte, and half of these rulers he’d met but once, or never. He’d spoken to two Archmages an hour ago! Dead gods!
“Who’s next, Geril? No—unless they’re as important as Yisame, tell them I’m busy.”
Geril was fumbling with the magical speaking stones. A Courier had raced towards Raelt to deliver one personally!
“Well, that would leave—four, your Majesty.”
“Give one to me, then.”
The [King]’s head ached. He collected himself, put a smile on his face as he took the next scrying orb which was being set to someone else. Raelt stared into the blank magic glass as he waited.
The conversations were the same. The [Empress] had unnerved Raelt at first, but she hadn’t been that different from the rest.
What all these important rulers and leaders wanted was to do three things: firstly, ask what the hell the King of Destruction was doing marching towards Jecrass. Then, assure Raelt that he would not lack for support in rebuffing the King of Destruction. Finally, making sure that was what Raelt intended, instead of giving Flos any kind of aid.
They said it directly, indirectly, with flattery or veiled threats in Yisame’s case. But their individual skill at diplomacy aside, Raelt had heard the same refrain repeated so many times the other rulers were rather stepping on each other’s toes.
They ‘would take action’, or ‘would stand by allies of old’. No definitive promises, the kind you could nail down with a Skill or recording or spell. The truth was—Raelt was a [King] so he thought he knew what they were thinking—they had no idea what Flos Reimarch was doing either and they didn’t like it.
But it was Jecrass that Reim was marching on. And Raelt was heading right for the King of Destruction and, apparently, an army of sixty thousand.
Small, in short. Just a small…army…led by Flos Reimarch himself, and his [Steward], Orthenon, the Left Hand of the King of Destruction. Oh, and Mars the Illusionist, his [Vanguard].
Raelt didn’t like the taste of fear in his mouth.
They reached the border within five hours. Raelt had his own movement Skills and Jecrass’ horses rode fast down the roads. An army was already waiting at the borders. Tens of thousands of [Soldiers], and more riding in every second.
All mounted. That was for speed, and General Lael had confided in her [King], to allow the army to fall back if worst came to worst.
Which it would not. Everyone was certain of that. And ‘everyone’ had the luxury of not being Raelt. The urgent demands for a chat had stopped, at least, and now Raelt waited with his army as more River Wardens appeared.
They came. That was the fascinating thing. Raelt half-expected some of them to pretend they weren’t able to make it, or that they’d missed the [Messages] and [Messengers]. But the River Wardens came, some with their entire army at their backs. Not a one stayed back.
He was…proud of that. Even if the River Wardens were convincing themselves that this would just be a show of Jecrass’ might. Already they’d brought double the army Flos was leading and it looked to be three times as large in the next few minutes as another River Warden arrived, bringing tens of thousands of troops.
Raelt was giving orders. Flos’ army was slowing as it approached the border and the [King] wanted nothing to go wrong.
“We will ride as I instructed, River Warden Telimt. Twenty followers per River Warden. No—ten. After the greeting.”
“Your Majesty, a show of force might make the King of Reim think twice—”
“Force? Show him what?”
Raelt stared incredulously at the River Warden. Telimt fell silent. Raelt turned his head.
“No one is to offer any provocation. On pain of death. No matter what is said, understood?”
The River Wardens nodded silently. Raelt looked past them.
An army waited at the borders. Ranks of [Riders], horses nervous and antsy. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands.
Nearly a hundred and seventy thousand [Soldiers] were present, and nearly half of them mounted. It was a huge portion of Jecrass’ military might. Jecrass had fought powerful nations before, like Medain, the Kingdom of Adventurers to the north. It had a powerful army.
Indeed, the River Wardens seemed to take heart from the host. More than one group began blowing horns, cheering as in the distance, the King of Destruction’s army was sighted.
First they were a shadow in the distance. Then, a growing number. Distant shapes. Raelt declined to use a vision-enhancing tool.
“The army of Reim is spotted! Sixty thousand and some! Mostly infantry!”
“Infantry? We could sweep them aside with just the horse!”
One of the River Wardens joked. The others were relaxing. Raelt did not. He looked at Geril. His oldest and closest retainer sat on the horse. He hadn’t armed himself; neither had Raelt, save for his sword. This wasn’t a battle, but both had seen it before.
“Geril, is Jecaina still locked up in the palace? I wouldn’t put it past her to try and escape.”
“She’s there, your Majesty.”
“I had her locked in the vaults. General Lael’s [Soldiers] are ensuring she doesn’t escape.”
The father almost smiled. His daughter would tear down his palace to know she’d missed this. But—he stared ahead.
“Only sixty thousand.”
Someone murmured. The air was hot, and it almost felt silly, such a vast army three times as large as the one coming towards them. But then—Raelt almost felt like the aggressor, coming to bear on the force that had become more than a distant shape.
The army of Reim did not spread out to fill the horizon. They marched in a long, winding column. And were made almost ridiculously small by the host of Jecrass by, say, anyone watching from a scrying spell. Which was probably half the world at this point.
Jecrass’ army began to cheer and blow its horns as the army of Reim approached. They set up such a din that Raelt’s own horse nearly unseated him as it reared. But the cacophony was impressive. Here, the army roared! Here is Jecrass!
And on came the King of Destruction’s army. A smaller force, on foot. Their armor did not shine with magic like in the legends they told. They were not an uncountable legion. Those watching, the River Wardens, the invisible watchers, even Jecaina from the vault where she was imprisoned, might have felt let down. A legend was just that.
Raelt waited. And as Jecrass’ triumph died down, hoarse voices subsiding, the silent march of Reim’s army began to take on a presence of its own. They were growing larger, now. And if you looked hard—
You could see him. A figure sitting at the front of his army, like a character from a story. An idiot, you might say, since he was without protection and you could easily shoot an arrow at him. But at his left rode a gaunt man as serious as the blade he carried.
Orthenon, the King’s Steward. And at his right, a beautiful woman, dressed in gleaming armor.
Mars the Illusionist.
Yet distant. Ordinary people. Even the distant [King] seemed too small. But what was he supposed to do, fill the horizon? He certainly had the ego for that, but the man himself was just a man. That was what the River Wardens murmured.
Yet onwards the army came. Now, there was silence. And Raelt began to feel something in the air. Something he, as a [King] identified, but the others didn’t realize was holding their voices down.
A presence. Pressure. An aura so vast it held down Jecrass’ army from cheering. Now came Reim’s army. And when they were close enough to fully behold, twenty minutes or so, there was sound.
Warden Winta started, staring ahead. The army of Reim seemed silent. But the rumble of so many footsteps had another layer of sound. Deep tones, like the largest of bells. Raelt watched.
Then, his eyes widened as figures distinguished themselves out of the mass of bodies. At first, you missed them from so far away. But the small Humans who marched in rank and file were not the singers.
It was them. Figures who towered over their smaller kin. Tall folk. Raelt heard a bass tone, female, as loud as the beating of his heart. He looked ahead. And the Humans realized some of the distant figures were much taller than the rest of the army.
They kept growing. Tall figures growing taller. Unbelievably high, as they covered the ground with long, slow strides. The fast-marching Humans could barely keep up with a single stride, even with a Skill hastening their steps. And onwards, they grew.
“Impossible. They can’t be that tall. They can’t—”
They were not all of equal height. But the smallest stood nine feet tall. The largest? Raelt looked up at a figure…thirty feet tall. Maybe more. She carried an axe on her back, a weapon larger than he was. And she was only…half. Maybe even but a quarter of the legend.
She alone shook the earth. And she rose. Perhaps Reim’s army had used an illusion to hide her at first. Mars the Illusionist smiled as the laughing, singing woman walked on, behind the [King]. And her kin walked with her, with footsteps and song that shook the earth.
Half-Giants. They strode ahead of the infantry, singing like the hills themselves had voices. They carried long axes or weapons. Some marched with great staves, and magic shone in their eyes. They rose, shedding the illusion that had made them look like a normal army.
The kindred of giants. Some were…small. Nine feet, eight feet. Most were no taller than sixteen, or twenty. But in a few, the old blood of giants ran strong.
Giants. They had walked the world once. And they lived now. Raelt looked up at a laughing face. And she sang and the earth shook. Sang a song for the King of Destruction.
“The Nomads of the Sky.”
Jecrass’ vast army looked up. Horses stared at the folk who had been made of mountains. Or so the legends said. Once, Giants had walked Terandria and every continent, taller than castles. Now, their descendants roamed Chandrar. And their blood was faint, diminishing with each generation.
But it still roared. The Nomads of the Sky hoisted their weapons and shouted as the army of Reim approached. They spread out to the left and right of the King of Destruction, and the beasts of Jecrass tried to flee their laughter and music.
More wings of the army were moving in concert. Behind the half-Giants, walking peacefully in unison were a few dozen…[Mages]. They walked with no staves, but parasols, each one colored art, twirling as they followed their [King]. As one, the [Mages] twirled their magical parasols, and Raelt saw them unfold.
Parasol Stroll. The [Mages] were followed by a laughing army of String Folk. Each one who rode or walked with vivid designs of serpents and the bright colors of poison etched on their armor and skin.
The Serpent Hunters. Raelt recognized the other company famed for its use of venom. He looked around. Jecrass’ army was silent. That pressure was—growing.
The King of Destruction was riding slowly. Straight towards Raelt. His half-Giants were still singing, but they abruptly fell silent. And a group of soldiers wearing dark armor marched forwards, flanking the [King]’s advance.
They were just a few hundred. But their blank faces and perfect movement was as unsettling as the Nomads of the Sky. Each one’s face was covered by a visor that let no one glimpse their faces. Their armor was dark, unnaturally so. And they seemed to be staring right at Raelt. Right at him. He felt like he could feel their gazes from behind their visors. An unending stare.
“The Rustängmarder. The army that doesn’t die or retreat.”
General Lael was staring at the elite [Soldiers]. Uneasily. Raelt nodded as well. He’d heard the rumors. And he had seen them fight. His skin crawled.
“Only a company of them. They won’t stop even if all their limbs are broken. You’d have to wear them down with arrows and magic, retreat, wait for them to die—”
Some of his River Wardens were staring at him. Raelt realized he was holding his sword’s hilt.
“We’re not here to do battle.”
He said it as much for himself as everyone present. But now the pressure was pushing down on him. Raelt stared at the man riding forwards.
The army of Reim halted on Jecrass’ border, a few hundred paces away from Jecrass’ army. They were small, compared to Jecrass’ might. But no one was jesting. The Nomads of the Sky waited, leaning on their weapons. The Rustängmarder paused, a line in front of the other [Soldiers].
And Flos Reimarch rode forwards. Orthenon and Mars waited as he rode forth a few dozen paces. The [King] looked ahead.
“A show of force.”
Raelt murmured. His was the only voice. The pressure intensified.
Slowly, Flos Reimarch raised his hand. He clenched one fist as Jecrass’ army watched. And his army roared.
“King of Destruction!”
Beneath him, Raelt’s horse suddenly reared at the sound. Panicked, it tried to turn. Swearing, the [King] fought it down. Jecrass’ entire army was in chaos as animals suddenly tried to flee. He heard shouting, confusion—then silence.
Flos Reimarch was riding further forwards still. He was grinning. That damned [King]. Raelt saw him spreading his arms, as if welcoming the army of Jecrass. He stopped and bellowed at Raelt, at Jecrass, and the invisible listeners in the sky.
“I am Flos Reimarch, the King of Destruction! King of [Kings]! Look upon my army, ye mighty and despair!”
Ridiculous words. But he bellowed them at the sky. And then he laughed. He laughed, as if it was all one great joke. But no one on Jecrass’ side could say a word. Raelt saw Flos Reimarch’s eyes fall on him. The [King] of Jecrass stood with his back straight, refusing to bend. But the pressure was aimed at more than him.
“I ruled Chandrar. And I have awoken from my slumber. I am your king.”
Three facts. Flos Reimarch raised a hand. And Raelt saw his army kneel.
Not all at once. [Riders] bowed in the saddle. Others fought their horses as even the animals began to take a knee. [Soldiers] fell to their knees in pockets.
[General] Lael was bellowing, riding down the ranks of her army, urging her forces to their feet. They did so, staring. But it was hard.
The Nomads of the Sky towered over the army of Jecrass. The Rustängmarder waited, the army of the repentant, who had embraced their deaths. Orthenon and Mars sat, as he laughed.
Here was a legend in the flesh. Just a man. A [King] with red and gold in his hair despite his age. Powerful, but one man. Yet he seemed to tower over even the half-Giants the longer you looked at him.
He was trying to crush all of Jecrass’ forces. Raelt saw Geril swaying on his saddle and biting his lips hard enough for the old man to draw blood. The [King] turned. He pushed at Flos’ aura. It felt like moving a mountain. But Raelt was a [King]. He took a breath.
The air around his company stopped shaking. Half of the River Wardens caught themselves, mid-kneel. They surged upright, faces pale. And Raelt met Flos’ gaze.
The [King] had stopped laughing. Now he leaned on his saddle, looking at Raelt. Slowly, his presence stopped pushing at the army across the border. Men and women relaxed. Animals stopped misbehaving.
And the air between Raelt and Flos became electric. Raelt dared not look away. He dared not blink. For a lifetime, the two looked at each other. Then, Flos Reimarch nodded. From one monarch to another. He raised his other hand, and Orthenon and Mars rode forwards.
Carrying a white flag. A sign of parley. The [Steward] himself rode across the border. Raelt exhaled, breathing raggedly.
Geril looked at his ruler. Raelt stared as Orthenon made the [Soldiers] back up by himself. He stared at Flos, his army.
“That damned [King] hasn’t changed one bit.”
That was all Raelt said. He stared at Flos as General Lael rode forwards to meet Orthenon, forgetting protocol. Damn the King of Destruction.
He was too large for a kingdom like Jecrass.
The two sides exchanged assurances of peace. That was simple. The army was one thing, and Flos’ stunt the other, but the rules of war were simple. A white flag was a binding oath. Even had Flos brought an army a million strong, in theory, if one side flew the white flag, the other had to at least consider the offer of parley.
And since both sides had observed it, there was no danger. Both armies pulled back. But still—Raelt had goose bumps and his River Wardens looked like they might be sick.
Because at the border waited Flos Reimarch. He had called for a parley, and set up a small space. Well, Raelt had called for the same. Provisions, drinks, even places to sit and talk.
A conference. It would not do to send the King of Destruction away rudely, no matter what the other nations would have preferred. That would be an insult.
So that was how Raelt of Jecrass found himself dismounting at the edge of the peace grounds, and walking with his River Wardens clumped up behind him towards a living legend. But here at least, the myth ended. Flos Reimarch spread his arms wide as he saw Raelt, and strode towards him.
“King Raelt of Jecrass. Well met!”
He clasped Raelt’s hand. One second he was standing there, the next, Orthenon and Mars were by his side. The River Wardens were petrified. Raelt stared at Flos.
He had aged. Flos was older than Raelt, and he had slumbered over two decades, so he had to be at least…
He looked like a man past his prime, but no less of a monster for that. Flos had resisted age and his beard and hair had not a hint of grey. He wore no armor, but the royal attire of a [King], altered for riding in hot Chandrarian weather. And his eyes flashed emerald green as he laughed.
“Well met, King Flos of Reim.”
It was a casual greeting, too casual for two rulers who had never officially met. But Flos Reimarch was laughing. He exclaimed, looking Raelt up and down.
“I remember you as a boy! But then I was barely a man then myself. You fought with your father under my banners twice, if I recall! It’s incredible to think but you must be what, forty?”
“Exactly forty, cousin.”
Raelt had to fumble with the address, wondering how informal he should go. At that, Flos burst into laughter. He slapped one leg, totally relaxed.
“Cousin! Ah, but I apologize. Let’s not stand on formalities, shall we? And are these your subjects? Your nobility?”
“I present to you the River Wardens of Jecrass, King Reimarch. And I greet you in the name of the Realm of Jecrass, under the flag of truce.”
The [King] of Jecrass replied somewhat stiffly. Flos sobered for a second. He nodded brusquely at the River Wardens, dismissed them with a glance. He looked straight through them.
“I have brought a small entourage with me. Let us eat and drink and talk, King Leysars.”
He looked back at Raelt, his eyes dancing with more mirth than his tone. Raelt sighed.
He really hadn’t changed.
In short order, King Raelt found himself reclining and speaking to Flos. The River Wardens were doing the same, speaking to members of Parasol Stroll, the leader of Serpent Hunt, even one of the Nomads of the Sky, who sat outside the pavilion, cross-legged. She was so tall she had to peer down at the people just to hold a conversation.
In truth, it was something of an outrage—the [Mage]-leader and a half-Giant weren’t nobility, so technically the River Wardens were being snubbed not speaking to Orthenon or Mars, who were attending their [King]. But the River Wardens were too awestruck to think of that.
Raelt had no one. Geril, his retainer, wasn’t able to join such an august company. If Jecaina had been here, she would have been present. But Raelt thought it was best that neither was at his side. Jecaina might have said something if Flos hadn’t blown her away with his sheer presence. And Geril would have had to suffer sitting next to Mars.
The Illusionist had on a very revealing set of armor. Raelt, who knew Mars the Illusionist, was sure the buxom, beautiful visage of the female warrior was fake. But it was an illusion his personal spells couldn’t see through.
She was on his right, eating a soft cheese with her gauntlets on. On Flos’ left stood the [Steward]. Orthenon was even more distracting. The tall, gaunt man was like…Raelt kept not looking at him, but he made the [King]’s skin crawl with unease.
But Flos Reimarch could pull your eye even with two of his mightiest vassals flanking him. The [King] was in great humor. And he was disarmingly frank and at ease after his dramatic entrance.
“Ah, but I apologize for the stunt. I wouldn’t have bothered, but I’ve been scried and a [King] must live up to his reputation, eh? I thank you for meeting me under such short notice. I sent word ahead of myself, but I forget what a stir a tiny force causes these days!”
He laughed as he plucked some fat grapes out and ate them. Raelt, who had no thirst or hunger at the moment, drank from his cup of iced water. Reim had provided some of the delicacies, but most of it was Jecrass’ bounty.
“What does bring you with an army to Jecrass’ borders, King Reimarch?”
The other [King] laughed louder at Raelt’s expression. He was in a great humor. He waved at the army waiting behind him.
“Come now. You surely heard my oath of peace? This army is purely for my protection. And exercise. I have yet to make an army worthy of the days of old out of my forces. Though they have the same will. But come, cousin! Let us catch up the years! I remember your father. I grieved to hear of his passing so soon. What was it?”
“A failure of the heart. Sudden. I remember you sent condolences. You have my gratitude.”
Raelt murmured. Flos waved a hand.
“The years seem so strange to me. I was in a slumber so long, I felt each second passing, and yet the years flowed by in an instant. I am a waking man in a changed world. At least I haven’t gone gray with age! Mars, stop eating that cheese by yourself. Is there good wine?”
Mars sat up and found a bottle. Flos had also shooed away any servants. Raelt was certain this pavilion was being warded from prying eyes or spells. He eyed the famous [Vanguard] as she offered to pour him a drink.
“I am well contented, Lady Mars.”
“Come, we must drink. I will pour myself. And then you will have no excuse. Do not be so reserved, Raelt! Or your Majesty if we must stand on formalities. But surely we may speak of times long past?”
Reluctantly, Raelt took the cup of wine. It was a good vintage. Flos drank deeply from his goblet.
“I’m afraid I was a boy at the time. I fought in two major battles.”
“Hellia’s Pass, and around Cadistell.”
“Ah, I wasn’t part of either battle. But I remember your father. A great [Rider]! And your mother—”
“She passed within a year of him.”
Flos’ face fell. That was one thing Raelt remembered correctly. He didn’t play games with polite emotions. It made him easy to talk to. Unfortunately.
“Alas. Love is crueler than poison. Then you must have been…barely twenty?”
“That’s right. I was in Terandria when I received word. It was—an unpleasant ascension to the throne.”
Raelt found himself talking with Flos about his first few years. The King of Destruction nodded soberly.
“Ah! Jumped up nobility! That’s one thing I managed to solve after a few wars. I had a rebellion—I never quite reinstated my nobility. I just promoted my vassals. Like Venith Crusland.”
He looked at the River Wardens and shook his head. The nobility hadn’t heard Flos’ words, but they bowed hurriedly. Raelt smiled for their benefit and raised his cup. He heard them toasting him loudly, professing their loyalty.
“My pack of vultures is here to stay, King Flos.”
The King of Destruction laughed as Mars offered him a cut of meat. He ate—Raelt realized he had missed lunch. It was too cordial, sitting with the [King], talking about their woes. As if they were equals or this was a social call! He had to get to the point—
“Trade? Orthenon handles that. Do you have a fellow for it?”
“I’m afraid I have no [Minister], but I speak with the [Prime Minister] of Belchan. Lyfelt. He has given me some advice.”
“Lyfelt. Lyfelt…I don’t believe I know the name. And I don’t forget names or faces easily.”
“The Republic of Belchan is a democracy, your Majesty. Prime Minister Lyfelt has held the position less than a decade.”
Orthenon spoke up for the first time in the conversation. Flos turned to him, smiling and nodding.
“Ah, that would explain it. Republic? I thought it was a Magocracy.”
“They switched after the war ended.”
The [Steward] nodded towards Raelt. Flos raised his brows.
“Really? Well, much luck to their experiments. I’ve actually had this democracy idea talked up to me quite a lot, Raelt. But I think it doesn’t work with classes. A [King] must be strong!”
Mars interrupted her ruler. Flos nodded towards her.
“Or [Queen]. I admit, after seeing Calliope of Hellios, I’ll concede that a poor ruler is worst of all. Orthenon, any advice for King Raelt regarding trade?”
“I would not think to lecture a sovereign ruler of a nation, your Majesty. Jecrass has done exceedingly well competing in its breeds of horses with Terandrian influence. I could not think to do better myself, save for perhaps tapping into markets Terandria has suffered in. Izril’s trade routes have suffered from the Antinium Wars, and their history with Terandria is exploitable, but I am hardly an expert, and King Raelt’s acumen has enriched his nation.”
Orthenon bowed towards Raelt. The ruler of Jecrass inclined his head, although he couldn’t help but feel pleased by the legendary [Steward]’s comments. Well, he was being polite. Izril? Well, why not? He could look into it—
Then Raelt looked up at Flos’ smiling expression and felt a chill. Raelt glanced over Flos’ shoulder at his army to remind himself. This was not a friend.
“Orthenon is vital to me, Raelt. I am poor at everything but war, you see! But war I do well. And horseflesh is the reason I am here—but permit me my curiosity, please? Do you have a daughter? Orthenon mentioned as much.”
“I do. Jecaina. She is just past her second decade.”
“Oh? Will she be joining us?”
“I fear not. She is rather unruly, and I would hate to see her challenge Mars to a duel.”
Flos nearly fell out of his couch laughing. Mars laughed too, spilling wine all over herself. Orthenon glared at her, but the [Vanguard] didn’t notice.
“You should have brought her! That would be a sight! Ah—then, would I be meeting a Queen Leysars?”
Again, the King of Reim grew grave in a moment, as if it was personal to him to hear of a loss of someone he’d never met. Raelt found himself rushing to explain.
“No, Jecaina is adopted. My half-sister…”
“I see, I see. No wonder. Well, I should love to meet your daughter. If time permits. Which I suppose brings me to a question—would you entertain my presence within Jecrass, King Raelt?”
The question threw Raelt completely off-guard. He nearly spilled his drink and had to set the half-empty wine cup down. Half-empty? He grabbed his water. He shouldn’t be drinking!
“Entertain your presence? How do you mean, King Flos?”
“I’d simply like to cross your borders.”
Flos came out with it as he casually chewed on a piece of unleavened bread and soft cheese. Raelt stared at him.
“And your destination would be…?”
“Hm. Medain? I’d like to challenge one of the famous dungeons. Although I fear that might be tricky with the self-styled ‘Adventurer King’. I never did take to him. However, if you have any issues cropping up in Jecrass, I’d be happy to solve them.”
Raelt couldn’t resist a grimace of his own. But he stared at Flos.
“Yes! [Bandits]. Monsters. Dungeons would be preferable. Just point me in the right direction. I’d happily crush any large group of [Bandits]. I hear Belchan has a Manticore infestation, so I plan to drop by there as well. Assuming I am welcome within your borders?”
The King of Destruction looked at Raelt. The other [King] leaned back. He put a few pieces together quickly.
“…I’m afraid that would be an unfortunate decision for Jecrass at the moment.”
Flos sighed. He was eating a grape and he spat a seed past the carpet onto the sand.
“I feared you might say as much. But the offer is in good faith, Raelt. I would swear in blood that I meant to offer you no offense or danger. Consider it—my army is small, but you’ve seen some of my elite vassals. Orthenon alone could crush a [Bandit Lord]. Any bandits? A few Gold-rank monsters, perhaps? Some…evil and ancient entity?”
He gave Raelt a hopeful look. Instantly, Raelt had to suppress a litany of woes. Trolls hiding by the river, a group of speedy thieves who stole horses, those damn Manticores that Lyfelt couldn’t get rid of—
It was a handsome offer. The King of Destruction, playing a [Mercenary]? But this was exactly what the other rulers had worried about, no doubt. Raelt had to shake his head. Flos sighed.
“May we cross Jecrass’ borders?”
“Again, that would not be in Jecrass’ interests. I must apologize sincerely, King Reimarch…”
“Oh, don’t. I’m well aware of how Reim stands. The offense is mine for asking.”
The [King] sighed, his red-gold hair waving in a slight breeze. He paused for a moment.
“Well then, it may be a stretch, but would you permit me to buy any worthy horses?”
Raelt paused, gulping down more wine by accident. Flos nodded.
“Magical breeds. You may have noticed my personal stallion is hardly the best Chandrar has to offer.”
The Ruler of Jecrass had noticed that. Flos had a perfectly good stallion, fine lines from what Raelt had seen, but hardly a quality breed. Let alone…magic. Raelt frowned, though. Even this put him in a difficult spot.
“I’m afraid that would be unwise for Jecrass at the moment, King Reimarch.”
He braced himself for an ugly rejection. Flos Reimarch was beginning to look a bit put out.
“What, not even a Pegasus? I promised I’d buy one if I could. One of my vassals is quite taken with the idea of riding one.”
“I regret that we don’t have any.”
Raelt lied smoothly. Orthenon stared at him. Flos glanced up and shrugged.
“Nightmares? Or Nightstallions, I’m not picky. Galadrin-breeds? I’d pay double for one of the legendary lightning dune stallions. Even a bicorn!”
He was…pushing a bit. With his aura. Raelt pushed back, stubbornly. He thought quickly, and replied as he lifted his goblet.
“We have zorses. And I could arrange a kelpie for you, if you wished it, Flos.”
The King of Destruction’s eyes bulged as he took a drink. Then he nearly choked on his wine laughing. The River Wardens and others gathered in the pavilion looked over as Mars and Flos nearly fell over with hilarity. Even Orthenon had to smile.
Raelt breathed a sigh of relief.
A word on horses. Jecrass, as a famous horse-breeding nation, had rare magical breeds of horses as well as normal ones. Nightmares, the evil, inbred cousins of unicorns were notoriously dangerous. They left flaming hoof prints, and their hair was fire. They were also intelligent and ferocious in combat.
Galadrins were a breed of horses with magic in them, like how cows or even rabbits had evolved over thousands of years to use magic. They were known as dune-riders, horses who ran and collected lightning they could discharge in various ways.
Bicorns were horses with horns, like a bull. And they were generally as sturdy as bulls. Raelt didn’t like horses, but he had to know these things.
The joke that had gotten Flos laughing was that Raelt had offered him a ‘zorse’, or a horse crossbred with a zebra, whose only power was to be confusing. And a kelpie was a magical horse, but one that was aquatic. They would die quickly without a steady supply of water, and Jecrass had three of the damned things.
“Well played! Well played! Ah, I see this won’t be too fruitful, will it?”
Flos caught himself after a little bit. He looked at King Raelt, and the other [King] had to shake his head slightly.
“I regret to say all eyes are on Jecrass, your Majesty. And expedience…”
Flos sighed. But he nodded, and Raelt excused himself on the pretext of relieving himself to stand up. He was relieved Flos hadn’t pushed harder. But friendly or not, Raelt was going to be in trouble if he sold Flos a mount that the King of Destruction rode about while conquering nations.
“Geril, make sure all our rarer breeds of horses are pulled from the border. Especially the magical ones.”
The [King] whispered to his retainer. The man hurried off. Raelt lingered by an out-tent set up for privations since both armies were staring at the pavilion. While he was gone, Flos Reimarch looked at his servants.
“A shame Teres couldn’t be here. Or Trey.”
“Their presence would be noted, your Majesty.”
Orthenon looked pointedly back towards his army. Teres was amid the [Soldiers] somewhere. Flos nodded.
“And Trey is busy. Did Gazi say when they were expected to return?”
“No, sire. But I imagine their journey is nearing its conclusion given the speed of the magic carpet you loaned her.”
Flos nodded. Then he stared at where Raelt had been. The River Wardens were beneath his concern. But Raelt himself had sparked an interest.
“Mars, what do you think of this [King]? I did know him vaguely as a boy, but I have not visited him since. The man is new to me.”
“He walks like a [Fencer], your Majesty.”
Mars looked up from a bowl of nali-sticks. Flos nodded slowly.
“Hm. So he does. I forgot if he was ever good in war or not—Jecrass seldom fought in my personal army. I do recall that he visited Terandria before his father died. A [Prince]’s outings before he takes on more duties, you know. He came to his crown early.”
“Not as early as you, sire. He’s got the walk, but I hear his daughter owns a silver bell.”
Mars grinned, watching Raelt speaking to his people. Flos looked at her.
“Really? And she’s…?”
“Twenty two, I think?”
“At that age? Not bad. Budding talent, it seems.”
Raelt returned. The [King] was more at-ease. As far as he could tell, the negotiations were over. Flos Reimarch could have pushed, but there was a limit to what he could threaten, if the man had been that sort. There were just pleasantries left.
“Let us have a small lunch. I’ve been taken with some foreign foods, Raelt. If you would care to join me?”
There was no help for it, but Raelt did find the unusual foods he was being offered quite good. Flos pointed at one dish.
“A tortellini-thing. I was never a fan of…Izrilian cooking? I think that’s the closest approximation. Or Terandrian. But it’s quite good, for all it wastes water.”
Raelt murmured his agreement. The noodles were stuffed with meat and it was filling, rather than delicate. It was good fare for something an army was bringing on the move. Rough for a [King], but Flos Reimarch had spent most of his life on campaign.
“So, your army will go elsewhere next?”
“Since I have been rebuffed, I have no choice. If I can’t buy a horse or hunt monsters…on to Belchan, I suppose.”
The other [King] didn’t seem put out by the idea. Raelt paused. Some of his River Wardens looked like they’d love to ask Flos a question just for the daring of it, but Orthenon was casually holding down the table with a glare.
“Is it your intention to conquer Chandrar, King Flos Reimarch? Or was your speech just that?”
The question slipped out by accident. The table froze. Mars and Orthenon fixed on Raelt. So did Flos. His brows creased and then—he smiled.
“I meant every word I said.”
“But—er—your Majesty Reimarch, your oath…”
One of the River Wardens spoke up, half-choked. Flos looked at him and the man paled.
“Well, I stand by my oath. But I have no doubt Reim will be attacked. And if it is not, well, I have one enemy I have sworn eternal war against. The Empire of Sands. If I must cross Zeikhal to do it, I will behead the [Emperor of Sands].”
The table fell silent. Flos was smiling, but he had a glitter in his eyes that forbade silly questions. After a moment, the King of Destruction relaxed.
“And of course, I mean to conquer all of Chandrar! Jecrass has nothing to fear from me of course; I consider King Raelt a friend, and I owe him some gratitude. But I intend all of Chandrar to be mine, so there it is! Quite a conundrum considering my oath, wouldn’t you say?”
Relieved laughter ran up and down the table. Nervous too; they couldn’t quite tell if that was a joke. Raelt knew it was not. He looked at Flos, and then toasted the [King].
“It seems you were born in the wrong era, Flos. One far too small for a legend like yours.”
It was supposed to be an offhand remark, a joke and a bit of needling to break the tension again. But across the table—Flos’ vassals fell silent. The [Mage]-leader of Parasol Stroll, Ulyse, Orthenon, Mars—even Flos himself looked sharply at Raelt.
The table went still. Raelt’s smile stopped on his face. What had he said? Flos regarded the younger [King] and shook his head after a moment.
“You think so, eh, Raelt? I used to believe the same. Now? I fear I was born two decades too early! This era…is large enough for my ambitions, believe me.”
He fell silent, and his eyes were thoughtful. But Orthenon and Mars were nodding. King Raelt looked at them and then at Flos.
He did not like that one bit.
The lunch was somewhat quiet after that. Flos soon regained his humor, and he and Raelt were sipping from their second cups of wine afterwards. It was nearly time to leave and Raelt was about ready to ride back home and breathe a sigh of relief. He didn’t think he’d exhale properly until then.
“A true pity. I was hoping to buy a proper warhorse, but I can’t fault Jecrass, especially with the Claiven Erath and Medain at your north. Are you sure I couldn’t convince you? Mars has been itching to fight a proper monster. You don’t have an Elder Creler stashed anywhere, do you?”
“If I did, I’d welcome your army across my border, your Majesty.”
Raelt replied drily. Flos smiled. It was King Raelt who paused, and looked at Flos’ army and then the man himself.
“Jecrass is neither interested in cooperation or enmity, King of Reim. I hope you feel the same?”
“Enmity, no. Cooperation…”
Flos paused. And his eyes looked Raelt up and down again. He seemed to be trying to unravel Raelt’s very soul with a look. Flos Reimarch paused and shook his head.
“I bear you no ill-will, King Raelt. And I mean to keep my oath. So long as my kingdom or subjects are not imperiled, I will not declare war on Jecrass. You have my word as [King].”
Raelt sighed slightly. It was enough. Flos of Reim hadn’t changed that much. Raelt began to nod, preparing a formal goodbye speech for everyone. But Flos stopped him by laying a hand on Raelt’s shoulder.
It was the second contact between the two that day. Raelt stiffened. Flos looked at him.
“We have danced about the subject, but let me simply ask you outright: would you not consider joining Jecrass to my kingdom of Reim, King Raelt? Your father did, in decades past.”
The Ruler of Jecrass turned. Flos Reimarch stared down at him. He was not taller physically, but he felt it. He spoke slowly.
“I would vassalize Jecrass. You recall my first conquest of Chandrar, surely? Jecrass would not be a defeated kingdom, but one which rose with Reim. I have promised the Quarass of Germina rewards for her aid; I would consider Jecrass an ally under my rule.”
Raelt had to gather himself to say that. Flos Reimarch paused.
“True enough. I feel I still must ask. I can gain a measure of a person, or so I feel, and I would welcome you to my kingdom with open arms above the other rulers I know.”
The words were surprisingly…gratifying. Raelt paused, but only to figure out how to respond. Then he shook his head.
“I may be a small [King] compared to the legend of the King of Destruction, but I am still a [King], Flos Reimarch. What could you offer me that is worth more than my crown?”
Flos of Reim had to smile.
“Well said. I suppose that is an answer. But…”
He trailed off, looking for a response, and then had to shrug helplessly.
“Mm. In the future? Rewards as great as your deeds, Raelt. I know that is something of an empty promise, even from my lips, though. Today? I could offer you…Hellios.”
Raelt froze. He stared at Flos Reimarch.
The King of Destruction nodded, a bit ashamed, as if it was a small bauble he was considering, not one of Jecrass’ old allies/enemies, a nation unto itself.
“Hellios, indeed. Germina rules itself, but Hellios…don’t give me that look. I will conquer all of Chandrar once more. And further still. What is one nation to my ambitions? I mean what I say. I would hand you Hellios tonight if you swore alliance to me.”
His eyes sought Raelt’s. And again, Raelt felt like he could hear thunder. The two [Kings] stared at each other. And then Raelt turned. Flos’ hand left his shoulder and the Ruler of Jecrass bowed slightly. Just a small dip, from one ruler to another. But acknowledging a superior, in a way. And yet—
“I’m afraid you do not know me, King Flos. Not at all, to make me an offer like that.”
Flos’ gaze was steady. He inclined his own head.
“I suppose not. Time makes a mockery of my memories, King Raelt. How have the last decades treated you since last we met?”
Raelt paused, walking back to his delegation. He looked back at Flos and sought for an answer. At last, he replied.
“Almost as well as they’ve treated you.”
The two delegations gave a speech of farewell. For the benefit of the unseen listeners, Raelt reiterated his refusals. Flos’ reply was simpler. But he did add a twist as he stood to clasp Raelt’s hand on horseback, [King] to [King].
“One last thing, King Raelt. My refugees, my people returning to Reim.”
Raelt was on-guard at once. But Flos just smiled. He waved at Jecrass’ army as it prepared to withdraw behind him.
“I am told you give escorts to them as they pass through Jecrass, the opportunity to trade, and so forth. I am grateful. Some of my people have told me of privations or [Bandits] or worse on their journeys here. I owe you a boon for your kindness towards them.”
He actually bowed his head then, deeper than a formality warranted.
“Oh. It was only natural.”
Embarrassed, Raelt tried to wave it off. But Flos just looked at him and nodded again. Then he smacked one arm against his saddle.
“Ah! One last thing! I meant to show you at the beginning, but it slipped my mind! Here!”
He reached into his bag of holding and tossed something at Raelt. The other [King] caught a hard, cuboid object. Flos grinned at Raelt’s puzzled face.
“It is called…a rubik’s cube. It’s a little puzzle. You twist the sides to make them match up, you see?”
“I see. Is it some…[Strategist]’s toy?”
“Perhaps? I think it’s more of a game! One of my vassals came up with it.”
Flos waved off Orthenon and called out to Raelt as he turned around.
“Keep it! And may the rivers run forever in Jecrass, King Raelt!”
And with that, he was gone. Leaving only a memory behind of his presence. And an echo. But that was the thing about echoes. The louder you shouted, the louder the reverberation. And as Raelt rode back towards his capital, he heard the King of Destruction’s name everywhere.
Raelt wished he could hate the man.
That night, Raelt of Jecrass yawned as he poured himself another drink. By all rights, he should have not been drinking, and been in bed, but he couldn’t sleep with an army marching around Jecrass’ borders.
It had been a long day. Most of it Flos’ fault. The other world leaders had insisted on calling Raelt again after the meeting. To pry and ask what he might have said to Flos, any hints. This time Raelt had rebuffed almost all of them, keeping his own counsel. A fat lot of help they’d been.
Jecaina had, predictably, been furious at not meeting Flos, but her fury had been tempered by the impression Raelt had made. Apparently, standing his ground and even being chummy with Flos had given him a touch of the King of Destruction’s myth.
Just a touch, but Raelt saw his River Wardens and servants and [Soldiers] all looking at him with respect, and all of them were using his full title as they bade farewell.
It would wear off in a few days. What Raelt was afraid of was that the King of Destruction had been terribly clever. He’d gotten neither horses nor access to Jecrass, but his presence had already lit a gleam in Jecaina’s eye.
Worse, apparently hundreds of young men and women—mostly men—had tried to cross Jecrass’ borders to enlist in the King of Destruction’s army. He was a marching [Recruiter], Level 50!
“I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”
Raelt muttered as he yawned again. He was deliberately keeping himself from slipping off to sleep by alternating his drinks.
Shot of stamina potion, shot of alcohol. Kept you awake and drunk, just like when he was a young man. Strange—Raelt recalled it used to take more alcohol and less stamina potion for this to work.
But he’d done it. No war with Jecrass. The King of Destruction, met and sent on his way. It was a good outcome. Raelt looked around and his eyes alighted on a new addition to his private quarters.
The rubik’s cube sat on the table, all six sides showing one uniform color. Raelt wondered what he was going to do with it. He rather liked it, but how had Flos gotten his hands on it? Just another new thing, Raelt supposed.
It had been a long, weary day. But it was over. And whatever tomorrow brought—Raelt was certain it would be alright. That was what he told himself as his head laid on the pillow.
“For Izril, Wyverns! For Terandria, Griffins and Hippogyphs! Hydras in the swamps of Baleros! And Chandrar has—Manticores!”
The next day, King Raelt of Jecrass had a headache. And the little image of Flos Reimarch laughing in the scrying orb was not helping.
The King of Destruction was fighting Manticores. Not a city-ending army of a thousand—just a hundred or more.
‘Just’ a hundred. The kind of group you had to hire multiple Gold-rank teams to deal with, or even a few Named Adventurers, or bring your army to fight with casualties. A ruler’s headache.
But there he was. Flos of Reim laughed as the Manticores flew at him. Part lion, part scorpion, part bat, and all bad idea. The damn things could fly, despite being five times as large as actual lions or larger, and heavy with muscle—oh! And they had a stinger with lethal venom!
The army of Reim was fighting them—or rather, the elites. [Mages] were twirling their parasols, blasting Manticores out of the sky while they created barriers on the ground. Raelt winced as he saw one of the half-Giants swat a Manticore out of the air with a huge staff.
It was a rout. The image of the battle saw the Manticores being taken to pieces as the Rustängmarder refused to give one inch. In a last-ditch attempt, a remaining group of six flew at the King of Destruction. They had spirit and they must have sensed it was the [King] the army was based around.
But they never made it. Mars the Illusionist charged one and knocked it onto its back. She stabbed a glowing sword through its stomach and it died. Orthenon cut with his spear, severing another’s wings mid-flight. Then he hurled the spear through a second.
Flos of Reim took on one as his two vassals took on another Manticore apiece. Raelt watched the battle glumly.
“Not even a fight.”
The King of Destruction had a magical shield and sword. Nothing fancy. The Manticore hit the [King]’s shield with all of its weight. He grunted and his feet sunk into the earth. The shield glowed, and a burst of light blasted the Manticore back as the enchantment activated. The [King] lunged in.
“He went straight through its leg!”
Jecaina stared in awe as the [King] brought down the huge monster. He was far too strong. Raelt saw him shove the Manticore backwards before delivering a death-blow to the monster’s head. The King of Destruction raised his sword and his army chanted his name.
“Geril, enough. When was this?”
“An hour before you woke up, your Majesty. Wistram is somehow rebroadcasting it. They claim that this…channel they are operating will have noteworthy events or replays of previous recordings all times of the day.”
Raelt rubbed his head, motioning the scrying orb away. Jecaina was delighted. Raelt was peeved. He ate his breakfast, and then strode towards the secret vault in his palace.
“What are you doing, Lyfelt?”
The marble bust of a face blinked and then smiled, although it wasn’t Lyfelt’s face. The [Prime Minister] and King Raelt communicated via this magical statue system; there was a double in Belchan, the neighboring Republic. Right now, it was probably glaring like thunder.
“Didn’t you advise me not to give the King of Destruction any aid?”
“This is hardly aid, Raelt. And he is ridding us of that Manticore pack that has been troubling Belchan—and Jecrass—for months!”
“And in the doing so, he’s gaining experience, and making a spectacle for himself.”
Raelt paced back and forth in front of the statue. He glared at Lyfelt’s bust.
“You and every other ruler insisted I not even give the man a drink of water, and you let him into Belchan and hire him to hunt Manticores?”
The [Prime Minister]’s face was apologetic, and his voice was soothing. Raelt knew Lyfelt was using a Skill to calm him down, but it didn’t work at the moment.
“Firstly, you did get a poor deal. You were first, so naturally everyone was rather concerned, Raelt. But I saw the King of Destruction coming—you did give me a warning. And secondly, I had plenty of time to consider how to use him best.”
“He is not being paid to hunt the Manticores. Indeed, he might take their hides and parts, but the meat he will leave behind after feeding his army. He offered to settle the matter for free. I hope he will have time to deal with a group of [Pillagers] as well—either way, he gets his attention, I rid myself of the Manticores, and the world’s eye is focused on Belchan for a moment. Did you hear about their…magic-vision network?”
“I don’t care about that. Lyfelt! What do the other nations think of this?”
“Some aren’t pleased. But they understand my position. I had a number of very lengthy talks. Productive ones! Raelt, Raelt, I am a [Politician]. Events like this only serve to help me, and thus Belchan.”
“It’s a mistake. Lyfelt, if another nation sees this as giving Reimarch aid—”
“They don’t. Because I explained it to them, Raelt.”
Lyfelt’s voice had a tinge of impatience in it. Raelt hesitated.
“Of course I am. Old friend, Flos Reimarch may be clever about his goals—leveling up his army, getting attention—he’s stolen some of my young folk to his army, as he has Jecrass. But he’s playing politics, and he’s a novice in that realm.”
The [Prime Minister] sounded extremely pleased with himself. Raelt just had to shake his head.
“I think you underestimate him, Lyfelt, I do. You’ve given his army a boost.”
“How many? Raelt, his elites fought the Manticores, not his regular [Soldier].”
“They’ll level up from it.”
“They didn’t fight.”
The [King] liked his friend, the [Prime Minister], but sometimes he thought too much like a [Politician].
“Lyfelt, that’s not the point. Flos Reimarch is the King of Destruction. He could level an army just by breathing.”
There was a pause. Lyfelt’s expression of satisfaction changed slightly on the stone bust.
“That may be so, but it’s still to Belchan’s benefit. And there is his oath.”
Raelt sighed. He massaged his temples, and then looked at Lyfelt.
“Forgive me. I’m just worried for the future. There is the oath, but Reimarch seemed to believe he would have cause for war soon enough.”
“You must tell me what he said. I offered to host him for a dinner, but he declined. He spent longer talking with you.”
The other ruler sounded envious. Raelt shook his head again.
“You’re too trusting. And—Lyfelt, you should really watch your borders better. More of his refugees are coming through Jecrass, and I have had to mobilize my River Wardens to protect them. From [Bandits], monsters, and simply folk that hate them.”
In the best of times, refugees were not well-loved. And the King of Destruction’s people were doubly targets of hatred, abandoning their countries to serve him. Raelt had worked hard to ensure they were protected in Jecrass.
Lyfelt had not. The [Prime Minister]’s voice was scornful.
“Raelt, you work too hard to do good for people who will give you nothing. I’ve allowed refugees through the border. But as far as I’m concerned, that is where my aid to Flos Reimarch ends. Don’t mistake me—I am grateful to them. They’re the subject of ire in Belchan. Much hated—I think I can easily win a reelection this year.”
“Treat them well, Lyfelt.”
Raelt warned the other [Prime Minister]. He disliked this part of Lyfelt, though he’d never said it. The man could play with lives like they were numbers.
“I’m not ordering anyone to attack them. In fact, the standing proclamation is that they’re free to travel. But if some of my districts take objection? Better a galvanized nation against Flos, than one which admires him.”
The King of Jecrass bit his tongue. He nodded slowly, unwilling to say more. Lyfelt admonished him gently.
“Raelt, you are a kindly [King]. But to succeed with monsters and demons on each side, you have to be willing to play sides. Flos Reimarch is a larger monster than most, but even he has rules.”
“I hope you’re right, Lyfelt. What is Reimarch doing next, do you know?”
“He won’t go north. Claiven Earth and Medain would declare war before letting him cross their borders. I think he’s headed south, next. To try Nerrhavia. He’s certainly marching his army hard.”
“Leveling, Lyfelt. He’s leveling them.”
“As you say.”
The army of Reim, or at least, the army that marched with the King of Destruction was indeed a small one. But it was one Flos Reimarch himself had chosen to follow him for a number of reasons.
Firstly, it was small and consumed less supplies on the march. Fielding a huge army was still taxing on Reim’s supplies, although the spring plus the King of Destruction’s [Edict of Bloom] had begun to fill empty warehouses that had been long-abandoned since Reim’s decay.
Second, the army wasn’t that threatening to other nations. It was an army, but one small enough not to provoke a huge response or make other rulers paranoid. Teres sort of doubted Flos had managed that, but she conceded that they’d gotten to enter Belchan, even if Jecrass had been a bust.
And third—all of the [Soldiers] had been below Level 5 when Flos had formed the army. Today?
“Level 13? You’re sure?”
Teres looked at one of the [Soldiers] she’d gotten to know while on the march. She was a Garuda with pink feathers mixed with orange named Mefaa. She was in awe of Teres, but the two had a friendship of sorts—despite Teres being one of the King of Destruction’s personal servants.
The Garuda was nodding proudly, though. And Teres herself was impressed. Mefaa had been Level 2 when she’d begun the march. In less than two weeks, Flos had somehow made her Level 13—and she’d gained another two levels after the battle with the Manticores.
Despite never having taken part! It boggled Teres’ mind. She herself hadn’t fought either; Flos had forbade it. Manticores were above Teres’ level and despite the flexible leather armor she wore, she was considered at risk of serious injury or death.
Only Flos’ elites had fought, and the King of Destruction was well-pleased with the battle. Teres asked him about it after he came striding into camp, in a great mood.
“Why did Mefaa level? She didn’t even fight the Manticores?”
“Ah, but she was there Teres. She was moving in formation, readying herself if the Manticores broke past the Rustängmarder.”
“Which would never happen.”
Teres glanced at the serious, silent company of the elite army known as the Rustängmarder. They almost never removed their helmets and their armor covered their entire body. She had seen them practicing and she was convinced they could hold back anything.
Anything but the Nomads of the Sky. Some of them had joined Flos on his march and the giant-folk still awed Teres every time she saw them. One of them was ten meters high! Which was thirty feet, which was…
A giant. Teres stared at Zamea, the leader of the Nomad’s Sky, tallest of the half-Giants. Not even fully half-Giant apparently, but the one who has the strongest bloodlines. She was the one who was thirty-feet tall and she’d punched one Manticore in the battle; the rest had fled her.
“True, the Manticores would have never hit the army, but it’s the battle that counts, Teres. You’re not thinking about classes as they are. A [Soldier] is more than a [Fighter]. They are part of an army. Obeying orders, marching—that is what a [Soldier] is.”
“So that’s how they’re leveling? By just doing [Soldier] things?”
It didn’t quite seem fair. Apparently a good army had an average level of 10 among its normal [Soldiers]. Flos had just passed that in two weeks. He laughed as he cleaned blood off his sword.
“Teres, Teres. Regular conscripts are low-level by nature. Any army relies on a unit of veterans, say Level 20 on average, but the majority will be low-level. You supplement that with officers, elite forces. I’m just creating a slightly better army than most.”
“In two weeks?”
He spread his arms, smiling.
“Am I the King of Destruction or not? Teres, I have Skills that advance my subjects faster. I am also quite good at raising and leading armies.”
“True enough. So what now? You slew your Manticores.”
“Yes. I only wish there had been a thousand! Although they might have killed a fair number of our army since we’d have to fight them. Still—we have their hides. That Lyfelt fellow was agreeable. If not to my taste. Raelt was a far more intriguing sort.”
“I’ll take your word for it, since I didn’t meet either of them.”
Teres crossed her arms. Flos laughed again and examined his clean sword. He rose and ruffled Teres’ hair. She glared at him.
“Teres, the world will know you soon enough. But not yet. For now, I value your hidden qualities more than eyes on you. We’ll march south, I think. Trey should be returning with the Quarass and Gazi, and if I cannot cross into Jecrass, I might as well try Nerrhavia. Although Queen Yisame is bound to disagree with my presence!”
Flos Reimarch paused. He stroked his beard. He was happy about being on the march, Teres could tell. But peace did not sit well with Flos Reimarch. Even this battle with the Manticores left him antsy.
She wasn’t sure if he was thinking of breaking his oath, or finding trouble, or if he believed it was coming to him. But the Empire of Sands was distant, and no other nation had yet to provoke him.
“Well, yeah. Maybe I’ll do that. I might as well chat to Nawal. Or Zamea.”
Teres nodded lamely. She wished Trey were here too. There was a limit to how much the twins could entertain the King of Destruction’s interest. Flos could be moody. But the King of Destruction kept turning his head.
“Yes, do that. Trey should be back soon. The Quarass will bring good news, I think. Not of war. But…I do feel as though something is coming, Teres. Something I…dislike. Which is why the core of my armies cannot level quickly enough.”
He frowned off into the distance. Not at any one thing—turning his head as if to stare. Teres wondered what he was talking about. She slowly nodded.
“Do you—so are we marching off now?”
Her words made Flos start. He broke off, looked around, and then laughed again.
“Not this instant! Let us greet my subjects. My ride is bringing me thousands by the day, Teres.”
He gestured towards the edge of their camp. Teres looked around for Mars or Orthenon, but the [Steward] was managing the army, and Mars was…probably getting drunk. Flos Reimarch strode towards a crowd that had gathered on the outskirts of the camp.
Young men and women. Some old, actually. But—Humans from Jecrass and Belchan, who had seen the legend and wanted to be part of it. By the time Flos left both nations, he might have added ten thousand to his number. Or more!
And they would be [Soldiers] and gain levels too. Flos certainly had a working strategy. But still, the King of Destruction had been happier after meeting Raelt of Jecrass. He was looking ahead, perplexed.
They never made it to the volunteers to the army. Orthenon rode down on the two, as fast as always. His horse could run like a bolt of lightning when he chose, and he often chose to do just that. The [Steward], who made Raelt’s speed-walking look slow at times, bowed to Flos and nodded at Teres.
“You may want to see this, your Majesty.”
“What news, Orthenon? More Manticores?”
“No, sire. Another group of people claiming allegiance to you. Bound from Jecrass. They heard news of your Majesty’s arrival and immediately made for the army.”
“I did hear from some of my subjects that Jecrass was hospitable to their passing and Belchan was not. Shepherd Zamea, a word if you please?”
Flos mused, and then bellowed at the distant shape of Zamea. The earth trembled and Teres herself stepped back behind the [Steward] and [King] as Zamea towered over them.
Trey had met Zamea briefly, but he’d been whisked away by the Quarass to fly on a magic carpet. Teres was a bit annoyed about that, especially because they were going to visit the other Shield Kingdoms. Flos had kept her since he got bored without one of the two from Earth to talk to him, but Teres’ dream of owning a Pegasus hadn’t appeared.
Of course, Teres could talk with Zamea, a half-Giant. And she would! Or Nawal, or the Rustängmarder, or any of the other really interesting vassals who’d arrived in Reim. She was going to—Zamea just scared her. A bit.
“A word, Reimarch? How about ‘yes’?”
Zamea laughed. She was truly a towering figure, but she and Flos had laughed at the idea she was close to a true Giant’s height. Teres had no idea how anyone could have fed them, let alone the Nomads of the Sky, but the half-Giants didn’t seem to need to eat as often as other people.
And they were different, oh yes. Bold as could be, but cautious around the ‘small folk’. The ones who were taller even looked different than a Human scaled up. Zamea’ skin looked tough. Craggy, would be Teres’ turn of phrase. You couldn’t even call it ‘rough’.
And yet, the half-Giant woman was good-spirited, kind—like a certain [Groundskeeper] from a certain magical story. Where she differed was that she laughed as she culled her flock. Not her Nomads of the Sky, but the actual flock of creatures, including very large sheep and so on that the Nomads owned.
Zamea was kind to the small folk. But she culled animals for the slaughter with a laugh. And the small folk were below her in more than just stature. The only people Zamea treated like her fellow half-Giants were Flos, Orthenon, Mars, and Gazi. And perhaps the Quarass, but Zamea hadn’t met her.
“A good word, Zamea! But I crave two things! Do you see a group approaching us? More of my people, from the east? Also, I heard tell they came from Jecrass. Was that the preferable route for you?”
Flos shouted up at Zamea as she cupped one ear. The half-Giant paused as she shaded her eyes. She had excellent eyesight.
“Ah, I see them. From the east. Yes, they are there. Several thousand! Six?”
It wasn’t the largest number, but Teres was still impressed. These caravans kept rolling into Reim day by day! But for the [Edict of Bloom] and Reim’s recently filled coffers from the…selling of prisoners of war to [Slavers], they would have never fed them all.
“Six thousand is a good number. I will greet them, by all means. Jecrass over Belchan, Zamea?”
“We walked with the Rustängmarder. No one gave us trouble. The Nomads walk where we will. But the small folk we decided to escort—they feared to go by way of Belchan. Other nations were not kind to them. And that unkindness was sometimes word or arrow.”
Flos’ brow was troubled.
“I see. Perhaps this is something I should speak to their [Prime Minister] about.”
“Let some of my people escort yours! Arrow or word means nothing to our skin.”
Zamea laughed. She slapped her chest and the crack and rush of air made Orthenon’s steed rear. He soothed it as Flos nodded.
“Then, Shepherd, would you care to walk with me? Or stay with the camp? We owe the Nomads a feast of Manticores!”
“Stay. But come back from your little folk to dine with us tonight, King of Destruction! Food tastes better with one like you to enjoy it.”
Zamea smiled and the [King] nodded to her. By this point Orthenon had two more horses for Teres and Flos. They mounted up—Teres was a natural rider by now.
“Let’s investigate, Orthenon. I feel cooped up, even after that battle. We can discuss the battle and magical artifacts later. But I do want to replace my shield.”
Flos urged his horse out of the camp and Teres and Orthenon rode after him. The [Steward] was, as ever, fixated on work.
“Your Majesty, will we be marching onwards to the [Bandits] which [Prime Minister] Lyfelt recommended to us?”
His voice was disapproving—he had disliked Flos’ idea to roam around, offering his services like a [Mercenary]. Flos had loved the idea of a [Mercenary King].
“Not at all, Orthenon. I have no desire to catch them. We’ll head back to Reim. Ready the camp.”
“As you will.”
The [Steward] vanished for a moment, and reappeared a minute later as they left the camp. Which meant it would probably be packed up and ready to go by the time they got back. They had a lot of Manticore meat and Teres was willing to admit she wanted to know how it tasted when they stopped for dinner.
She, Flos Reimarch, and Orthenon rode out of the camp, in the direction Zamea had pointed. It was early summer, and Flos Reimarch sat in his saddle, at peace with the world. But he had gathered an army for war.
Which war? Teres didn’t know. Trey had his own mission, and she wondered how Flos or some other nation was going to dodge his proclamation of peace. Perhaps no one would, and Reim would just have to prepare for war…forever.
But as she looked at the King of Destruction, Teres felt certain something was coming. Because Flos had an instinct for war. And he had been restless. Perhaps that was why they were here.
Either way—Teres looked ahead.
“There. A group, just as Zamea said.”
Flos pointed. Orthenon signaled, and a group of veteran [Riders] fell in behind Flos, smoothly. They were used to their ruler’s flights of fancy. Flos took no notice. He just stared ahead.
“Odd. They’re on foot.”
“Probably poor. It’s hard travelling all this way, right? Maybe they sold the horses?”
Teres had nothing but her opinion, but she gave that willingly and unprompted. Flos laughed.
“No. My eyes aren’t what they used to be. Orthenon—”
“Yes, your Majesty. I think you’re right.”
Teres shaded her eyes, but she couldn’t see anything more than dots. The two men accelerated and Teres had to follow them.
Flos Reimarch rode hard and fast across the road of Belchan, ignoring the people who had come to stare at him. The King of Destruction rode, past a [Princess] who turned in her saddle to stare at his back. Ahead, at something new, even for him.
A change. Flos Reimarch drew closer as the group in the distance spotted him. Teres saw them hurrying forwards. And she heard…a howl?
She stared. What was she looking at? The King of Destruction stared too. Then he threw back his head.
“Do you see it, Orthenon?”
“I see it, your Majesty.”
Orthenon was smiling. Wary, but smiling, as if at some big joke. Teres just stared. But Flos, guffawed. He laughed and laughed.
“Look! My subjects from afar. Teres, do you see them?”
And finally, she did. Loping across the arid ground, howling, pointing. Teres saw her first glimpse of another species, a caravan of at least eight thousand…she stared.
“What are they?”
No, who were they? Flos answered for her as he began to ride towards the people claiming fealty towards him. The kind of people that made his enemies sweat, and eyes turn back to the world stage. For here came a group of Lizardfolk, and loping ahead of them…six thousand strange beings. He smiled as he raised a hand.