DargonZine 3, Issue 2

Conflict of Interest Part 2

Nober 2, 1013 - Deber 17, 1013


This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Conflict of Interest

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

2 Nober, 1013 B.Y.

 

Sir Edward Sothos, Knight Commander of the Royal Armies, stood in front of the mirror in his quarters and adjusted his badge-of-office for the tenth time in as many minutes. The silver Maltese cross set with a ruby in its centre rested lightly on Edward’s chest slightly above his family’s coat-of-arms; an eagle grasping a lance in each claw, and below the eagle a great sword facing right, a flail facing left. Satisfied that his uniform was satisfactory, Edward stepped back a pace in order to scrutinize his over-all appearance.

 

At thirty, Edward looked ten years older. His experiences had matured him faster than he had liked; three short years of mercenary life had hardened him mentally as well as physically. His lean, tough body bore many scars, large and small, obtained in countless battles.

 

Edward smiled wryly as he gazed upon his reflection. At five feet ten inches and weighing one hundred seventy-five pounds, he was not exactly the classical image of a knight. Indeed, he thought, his aide and friend Jan Courymwen was taller than he; half a foot taller. In Galicia, western Galicia at any rate, he was considered tall. Here, he was of average height. He thanked Nehru that at least the people of western Galicia had the same hair and eye color that a good deal of Baranurians possessed. The only things that set Edward apart from native Baranurians was the cut of his hair and his accent. In Galicia, young men cut their hair short during their military training so that everybody would look no different from his comrades. Edward finished his compulsory training when he was seventeen but kept the style throughout the rigorous training required to attain knighthood and after receiving his Wreath of Honour, a Galician knight’s symbol.

 

Edward had hesitated briefly over his choice of uniform for today; normally, he wore the fine clothes that any knight wore, the only difference being his badge-of-office and Baranur’s crest. But not today. Today’s function was anything but normal. Today the Council began. Today he would confront Baron Myros for the second time in forty-eight hours, a confrontation he and the King had hoped to avoid. Edward thought it ironic that the uniform he chose for today was the same he had worn when he and Myros first met seven years ago. Edward’s brown eyes narrowed and his gauntleted hands clenched at the memories of that meeting. The scar running from his right forehead to his left cheek was one of those memories.

 

Edward was wearing the suit of chainmail he received as a gift from his father before journeying to Count Janos’ castle to begin his training to be a knight. The only change he had made to the armour in the thirteen years he’d owned it was to have his helm and shield blackened after he was exiled. Over the chainmail he wore the black livery displaying his family’s coat-of-arms. His shield also carried the same display emblazoned on its surface. His father’s bastard sword he wore on his left hip. His great sword, crossbow, and case with thirty bolts were left safely secure in the chest with his other personal belongings. He was wearing both daggers; one on his belt, the other hidden in his right boot.

 

“Come,” Edward responded to the knock at his door.

 

Jan entered the room wearing the blue-and-gold dress uniform of The King’s Own, the infantry contingent of the Royal Guard. Before she was transferred to Edward’s staff, Jan had been a captain in command of one of the ten companies of The King’s Own. Now, at twenty-two, she was the youngest person ever to hold the rank of commander. She moved to stand behind her commander and her friend. At six feet four inches, she towered slightly over Edward. Yet whenever they spoke, it was she who felt like she was the one looking up. “It’s time, Edward,” she said nervously.

 

Edward half turned to face her. “Nervous?”

 

“Bloody right I’m nervous!” she said, belatedly adding, “sir.”

 

“What’s to be nervous about?” Edward asked innocently. “Only the most important nobles from across the entire Kingdom are here,” he joked.

 

“You really know how to steady a person’s nerves, don’t you, sir?”

 

Edward chuckled. “Sorry, Jan. Couldn’t resist. Let’s go.” Edward strode out of the room, his manner changing from one of familiarity, present when he was alone with his close friends, to the stern, distant manner he assumed at other times.

 

As Jan followed two paces behind and to the left, she reflected on the friendship she and Edward shared. At times, Edward Sothos could be a hard man to understand. But no matter what happened, Jan knew she could always count on him to be supportive. She looked at Edward. She had come to deeply respect and admire him and knew that if he asked it of her, she would die for this man.

 

***

 

Jordaan and two of his men entered the Fifth Quarter, a haven for those who engaged in less-than-honourable practices. The three Galicians walked cautiously down the Fifth Quarter’s main street, aware they were being watched. A group of thugs passed by. Jordaan could tell they were gauging his group’s abilities. At a glance, Jordaan had evaluated the thugs’ own capabilities. They were poorly armed, but they did have the advantage of numbers. As well, two of their number were huge strong men. Ten minutes’ work, he thought. Perhaps less. He quickened his pace. If they wish to assail us, let them. As long as they don’t hinder my task.

 

Thirty minutes later, the three found what passed for a marketplace in the Fifth Quarter. Jordaan quickly spotted the man he was sent to meet. The man was selling food from a cart. Motioning his men to follow, Jordaan walked over to the cart.

 

“G’day, guv,” the man said, expression brightening. From their look, these three were obviously foreigners. Today was going to be a good one after all. “What’ll it be?”

 

The amulet given him by the Dark One enabled him to understand the vendor’s words. Unfortunately, the amulet did’t allow him to speak them. “Information I seek,” Jordaan said in Merctalk.

 

The vendor’s eyes narrowed. “Information I have. Cost you it will.”

 

“Price you name, money I have.”

 

“Twenty silver. Questions you ask.”

 

“Not here. Seen I cannot be.”

 

The vendor stroked his beard. Something wasn’t right. Yet this foreigner agreed to the price before I even named it. He must want what I have very badly. “Difficult that is. Place I know. Talk there we can. Seen we will not be.”

 

“Show us you will.”

 

“For a price.”

 

“How much?”

 

“Two gold.”

 

“Take us you will. On arrival, pay you I will.”

 

“Come.” The vendor led Jordaan and his men down an alley to a small door. The vendor opened it and motioned for his customers to step inside. The room was bare. The only illumination was provided by a small candle.

 

The vendor held out his hand. “Payment.” Jordaan handed over a small pouch. The vendor opened it and counted. He smiled, closed it and put it in his purse. “Gold?” Reluctantly, Jordaan fished two gold out of his own purse and handed them over. “Questions you have?”

 

Over the course of the next twenty minutes, Jordaan asked detailed questions regarding the recent troubles between Baranur and Bichu. The answers he got were well worth the price he paid. He still had orders to carry out though.

 

“Satisfied?” the vendor asked when Jordaan had finished with his questions.

 

“Yes,” he answered. “What cost to send information to Crown Castle?”

 

“Five gold,” the vendor replied. He could hardly believe his luck. Here was the chance of a lifetime. This foreigner was obviously linked to one of the embassies at the Castle and wanted a steady source of information.

 

Jordaan hesitated for a moment. “Agreed.” He reached for his purse. The vendor’s eyes were glued to Jordaan’s right hand’s movements so much so that he didn’t see Jordaan’s left hand as it shot out and grabbed his left arm.

 

Jordaan hauled the vendor’s left arm upwards in an iron grip. With his right hand, he quickly drew the dagger at his belt and drove it to the hilt into the vendor’s body just below the armpit of the man’s upraised arm. The vendor gasped in pain. Jordaan gave the dagger a vicious twist and the body of the vendor fell to the floor, his sightless eyes staring at the ceiling as his punctured aorta pumped an astonishing amount of blood onto the floor.

 

Jordaan wiped his dagger on the vendor’s clothes and retrieved his money. He ordered his men to make sure no traces remained that could point the finger at them. When both indicated they had completed their sweep, he ordered them outside.

 

He and his men were met by the group of thugs that passed them earlier. Most were armed with clubs or daggers and a couple even had short swords. If they’d been intelligent, they would have left the three warriors alone. Instead, they attacked, seeing only what the three foreigners would yield after their death.

 

Space to maneuver in the small alley was sparse. This gave the Galicians an advantage they would not have had were they facing opponents armed and armoured as they themselves were. Although they weren’t aware of it as yet, the thugs were dead men, walking corpses.

 

Jordaan and his men stood shoulder to shoulder against the thugs’ charge. The Galicians’ swords flickered now forward, now backward in the fencing strokes taught by the Galician swordmasters.

 

Two assailants perished within seconds of one another. The six remaining attackers continued their assault even though they had been bloodied without a blow being struck in return.

 

Again skill and experience won out over brute strength. This time, three bodies were added to the growing pile at the Galicians’ feet. The thugs turned to flee. Jordaan shouted a command and he and his men charged the enemy. If any of the thugs escaped, word would get out that Jordaan had been in the Fifth Quarter. That would result in too many questions being asked. Questions Jordaan, or his liege, could ill afford.

 

His men finished two of the fleeing thieves. The third was well ahead of Jordaan; he feared the thief would gain the marketplace. Jordaan put all he had into a last burst of speed.

 

The fleeing thief was almost to the entrance when he tripped and fell in the mud and snow. Jordaan caught up to him as the thief was trying to rise. A sword stroke to the neck and the thief died, his blood mixing with the churned up snow.

 

Jordaan quickly wiped his blade clean and he and his men made their way unhurriedly back to the King’s Quarter. When the bodies were found later that day, an investigation was begun. The investigators, being overworked, conducted a cursory inquiry, after which they decided that the thugs had probably assaulted the vendor found dead in a small room off the alley in which the thugs’ bodies were found and that the vendor’s associates had exacted payment. All in all, an everyday series of events in the Fifth Quarter.

 

***

 

Edward strode out of the council chamber, a dark expression on his face. It was becoming more and more difficult to avoid a serious confrontation with Myros. After all these years, he finally had a chance to avenge the deaths of his men and Haralan had expressly ordered Edward to avoid Myros as much as possible. Add that to the insults Myros had heaped upon Edward and the Sothos family name and it was all Edward could do to keep his temper in check. Deciding that the best course of action would be to return to his office before Myros exited the chamber, Edward had just entered the corridor leading to his office when he was stopped by a voice.

 

“Your Excellency!” Jan called. “Sir!” She hurried to catch up to Edward.

 

Edward turned to face his aide. “Yes, Commander?” he asked in a this-had-better-be-good tone.

 

“You wanted to speak to Lord Morion after the Council session, sir,” Jan cautiously reminded her superior. She had learned years ago to be careful when dealing with high-ranking officers in a foul mood.

 

“Yes. I did.” Edward’s anger dissipated somewhat. “Thank you, Commander.” He set off for Morion’s quarters, arriving ten minutes later. Edward paused at the door, bringing his anger at Myros under control. He waited five full minutes before knocking.

 

“Come,” a voice said.

 

Edward entered the room and closed the door. “Forgive me for disturbing you, Lord Morion, but there is a matter I wish to discuss with you.” Edward glanced uncomfortably at Kimmentari. “I would prefer we discussed this alone.” Morion made as if to protest, but Kimme prevented any argument. “There is no need for anger,” she said to Morion. “I am a stranger to Sir Edward. His position and his background demand that he treat me with suspicion in this matter.” Turning to Edward, the blue-haired Araf said, “Your uneasiness has no foundation, Sir Edward. I understand your reasons. I take no offense.”

 

Edward bowed slightly and held the door open for Kimme as she made her exit. When she had gone, Edward turned back to Morion. “Lord Morion,” Edward began, “let us be brutally frank with one another. When the King informed me of the special dispensation you had received, I had my reservations.”

 

“Oh? And by what right do you, an outsider, question my right to rule my own lands as I see fit?” Morion asked angrily.

 

“By the right of my position as Knight Commander,” Edward replied calmly. He did not want to anger this man; indeed, from what information Edward could gather, Morion was an honourable and just man. A worthy ally. “Understand, Lord Morion, that I will allow nothing that will harm Baranur.”

 

“And you think I will?” Morion queried, on his feet now.

 

“Not intentionally.” Edward held his hands up in a gesture of pacification. “Before you respond, try and consider this from my point of view. I have five Regiments, aside from some Militia and House units, to defend the Northern Marches. Now I learn that there is a noble with independent landholds close to Dargon and the Coldwell, a noble who’s reputation as a soldier merits my attention.”

 

“The King has told me this noble will probably support Baranur when war comes. As you and I well know, ‘probably’ is not good enough. Not when the Northwest’s major trade route is threatened by this same noble should he so choose. This forces me to restructure my deployments. My troops are spread thin as it is. In order to properly protect the Coldwell, I’ll have to pull an entire Regiment from duties elsewhere, thus putting further strain on the four remaining Regiments. Knight Captain Sir Ailean, as you can well imagine, is not happy.”

 

“You are saying to yourself, why can’t he take a Regiment from the south? Normally, I would. But the situation is far from normal. I dare not reduce our strength in the south, especially in light of the information our trade caravans are sending back.”

 

“As a soldier yourself, you can understand the position this puts me in. The King highly respects this noble, yet I am forced to make contingency plans, secret plans, to conquer this noble’s lands should the need arise. I have no desire to make war on this noble; indeed, I have a deep respect for this man as well. But my first duty is to King and Country and if am forced to take harsh action, I will.”

 

“In short, Lord Morion, I need to know how you stand: when war comes in the spring, will you give your support to Baranur, or will you wait and force me to take unpleasant action?”

 

Morion’s ice-grey eyes narrowed. When he responded to Edward’s question, he spoke in low, measured tones. “Were you anyone else, I would hand you your entrails.” Morion paused, visibly forcing himself let go of his anger. “As you say, we are both soldiers. Were I in your place I…would have said the same. If Baranur is attacked, you will have my support and my troops. Otherwise, I remain neutral.”

 

“Thank you, Lord Morion,” Edward said, relieved. “That makes my task much easier.”

 

“Do I sense a ‘but’ somewhere, Sir Edward?”

 

“Lord Morion, you run a training school for warriors, do you not?”

 

“Yes,” Morion answered warily. Edward’s unexpected question caught Morion off-guard.

 

“I am told that the quality of your students is excellent.”

 

Morion inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of Edward’s praise. He said nothing, however; he felt he knew where this was leading.

 

“Indeed, I get daily requests from my generals suggesting that we make an arrangement to recruit directly from your school. Knight Captain Sir Ailean is most vocal in his exhortations. He thinks he could raise an extra Battalion or two from your graduates, something that would please him greatly. But that is not what I want to discuss.”

 

“It seems to me,” Edward said, adopting a thoughtful pose, “that for newly graduated students to fetch such praise requires an instructor of immense talent.”

 

“No.” One word, but quite powerful when spoken by the right man.

 

“You haven’t even heard my offer, Lord Morion.”

 

“I’ve told Haralan every other time he asked and I’m telling him now. No.”

 

“Lord Morion, this request comes from me, not His Royal Majesty. Haralan told me not two days ago that it was useless to try and persuade you. But I did not survive three years of war by taking no for an answer.”

 

“Well, ‘no’ will have to satisfy you now.”

 

“Will you at least hear me out?”

 

Morion hesitated before answering. He had no desire to return to the King’s service and he would not. And yet he sensed something different about this man’s offer. “Go ahead.”

 

“I know of your reluctance to come back to the King. So this is what I propose: I’ll send the troops to you and you train them.”

 

“But I wouldn’t be under the King’s suzerainty?”

 

“Not at all. Morion, I’ve begun bringing the Reserve Regiments up to strength. It will take time to train them, time I fear is in short supply. I need someone who can whip them into shape. Fast. I think you’re the man to do it. Will you agree?”

 

“I’ll have to think about it,” he answered. Seeing Edward’s reaction he said, “For now, it’s the best answer I can give you.”

 

“Well enough.” Edward and Morion shook hands in the way of warriors, right forearm clasped to right forearm. Edward turned and left, one of his many problems solved for now.

 

When Edward returned to his office, he found a message packet waiting for him. He entered his office, sat at his desk, and opened it. Inside was a note written in handwriting he hadn’t seen in years. He read it, not daring to hope that what he had dreamed of since his exile might be coming true. He re-read it once, twice, three times, each time his hope increasing. Realizing the danger to the writer, he destroyed both the note and the message packet it came in. He gave instructions to Jan to the effect that urgent matters prevented his attending dinner with the King and His Royal Majesty’s guests. Then he went to his quarters and waited.

 

***

 

Others that evening had expressed their regret at not being able to dine with His Royal Majesty. Baron Corneilious Myros, his chief advisor Sir Grange Rarrack, and Celeste (known as the Dark One to all save Myros) sat in Myros’ quarters listening to Jordaan’s report on his day’s activities in the Fifth Quarter.

 

“You are certain you were not seen?” Rarrack questioned Jordaan.

 

“Quite certain, my lord. This ‘Fifth Quarter’ is a haven for criminals and other vermin, my lord. I do not think it likely they would have been overly curious about us.”

 

“Is this information accurate?” Myros inquired of Jordaan.

 

“Aye,” Celeste said in answer to Myros’ question. “My contacts here assure me the man’s knowledge hath never been proved wrong.” She carefully watched the reactions of Rarrack and Jordaan. Neither had known that Celeste was a woman. Indeed, until now Myros was the only member of the embassy who knew Celeste’s true identity.

 

Of the two, Rarrack reacted the least strongly. He had suspected for some time that the Dark One was not what he, she rather, seemed. Rarrack had five decades of experience in the political arena behind him and had learned long ago never to take matters at face value.

 

Jordaan, however, was another story. It wasn’t the concealment of knowledge that bothered him so much as it was the fact that the Dark One was a woman. Like most Galicians, Jordaan believed that a woman’s place was in the home making sure the household operated smoothly. Yes, unmarried women who had reached the age of majority at twenty-one should undergo the same military training required of all males upon reaching the age of fifteen, but the training was meant to provide a means for unattached women to fend for themselves until they chose a husband who would undertake that responsibility. The concept of women in combat, be it magical or mundane, was unthinkable. Granted, women did fight at times during The Wars, but those were desperate times and called for desperate measures.

 

“Something distresses thee, Jordaan?” Celeste asked.

 

“This goes against all law and custom, my liege!” he said to Myros.

 

Taking Jordaan aside and speaking in a low voice, Myros commented, “Whether it does or not, the Dark One is skilled in the Art. I, for one, do not wish to challenge her. Do you?”

 

“No,” Jordaan reluctantly admitted.

 

“Good. Don’t forget that she is loyal to me. She has aided me greatly in making contact with the correct people here. Men that will support our cause. When the time comes for us to challenge the Emperor directly, she will prove most useful.”

 

Jordaan acquiesced. “I submit to your will, as always, Your Lordship.”

 

Myros returned to his seat, speaking in normal tones once more. “Continue with your report, Captain.” Jordaan spent the next thirty minutes relating the last of the knowledge he had gained that morning from the informant in the Fifth Quarter. The four of them spent the next several hours discussing the ramifications of what they had just heard.

 

***

 

Edward made his way along the eastern battlements of the inner wall as silently as possible. The note he received earlier told him he could find the note’s author here. Edward very much wanted to meet with the author. It had been far too long since they had spoken to one another.

 

He saw a hooded shape ahead, silhouetted in the torchlight. He quickened his pace, a thrill of anticipation coursing through his body. The person heard his footfalls and turned to face him. Hands went to the figure’s hood and removed it. Edward stopped and stared. “Elaine?”

 

“Yes, Edward. It’s me.”

 

“Why did you want to see me?” he asked, drawing closer.

 

“It’s been nearly nine years since we saw each other, Edward,” she said, looking up at him. “I didn’t know what had happened to you. Were you alive? What were you doing? What happened since you left? And when I saw you two days ago, everything came flooding back. That last day. The pain I felt when you rode into the courtyard with Father and we saw the verdict.”

 

“Edward, I love my husband! But when I saw you two days ago, feelings I thought I’d buried years ago came to the surface.”

 

“Then why did you ask to meet me?!”

 

“I saw you still had feelings for me. Even though we only glanced at each other, I could see it in your eyes. I wanted to make you understand my feelings. I thought that if you knew I loved another, then perhaps your feelings towards me would change. And I wanted to know why you hate Corneilious so.”

 

“Corneilious Myros,” Edward said in disgust, “is a cold-blooded butcher.”

 

Elaine rose to her husband’s defense. “My husband–”

 

“Your husband,” Edward snarled, “ordered my men put to death after I had surrendered to him.”

 

“I don’t believe you!” she said defiantly. “Corneilious would never do such a thing!”

 

“Oh wouldn’t he?” Edward was nearly shouting, not caring who heard or saw them. “Ask him, Elaine, about the battle we fought in Alnor. Ask him about the men who died afterwards!”

 

“You say that only because you are jealous,” Elaine said coldly. The look she gave him matched the frigidity in her voice. “We have nothing more to discuss.” With that, she turned and walked away.

 

“Nehru’s Blood!” Things weren’t going at all like Edward planned. He hurried after Elaine, blocking her way.

 

“Get out of my way!” she said and tried to go around him.

 

Edward grabbed her arms and spun her to face him. “Not until I get the answer to a question.”

 

Elaine coldly regarded Edward’s hands around her arms. “Is this what living with these barbarians has done? Where are your knightly virtues, Edward? Have you forgotten what my father taught you? What would he say if he saw you now?”

 

Every question Elaine asked struck home like a spear to the heart. Edward released her, ashamed at his actions, Elaine’s questions echoing in his soul. What would Count Janos say? he asked himself. The answer came swiftly. He would say you lost a part of yourself during your years as a mercenary, Edward. A part of yourself you must regain if you are to remain a true Knight. He stood aside to let Elaine pass. She walked past without saying a word, her hood drawn over her head. “Elaine, wait.”

 

The pleading tone in Edward’s voice stopped her. “What do you want?” she asked, her back still turned.

 

“I had something to ask you, remember?”

 

“What is it, Edward?” she asked.

 

“Tell me what really happened to my father?”

 

“About three years ago,” she began, a slight tremor in her voice, “Duke Markin accused your father of treason. The charge was dismissed by everyone as ridiculous. Then Markin produced evidence. Neither I nor my father accepted Markin’s evidence, but others did. A trial was held and your father was found guilty. He was taken to Zourkhos’ Square where he was given to the Executioner.”

 

“Gods no!” he swore, his voice barely above a whisper.

 

“I’m sorry, Edward,” she said, unsuccessfully trying to keep the emotion from her voice. She seemed to be about to say more but couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Elaine fled, leaving a stunned Edward Sothos staring silently out over the battlements at the ice floes slowly moving down the Laraka River to the sea.

 

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

7 Nober, 1013 B.Y.

 

“Edward, you’ve been like this for five days now. What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing, Jan.”

 

“Nothing? Nothing?! You may be able to fool everyone else, Edward Sothos, but not me.”

 

“Oh?” Edward asked in a deceptively calm voice.

 

“That’s right,” Jan answered. “I know you too well. Out with it.”

 

“Oh you know me, do you? Well then you know that I don’t like people interfering in my personal business. You’re not my keeper, Commander. My life is my affair!”

 

“Edward, this is me, Jan Courymwen, you’re talking to. I thought we were friends.”

 

“Friends don’t butt in where they’re not wanted and they–”

 

“Dammit, Edward, this isn’t like you!” Jan said in a raised voice. “I’m worried about you!”

 

That struck home. What Edward had been about to say died on his lips. He rose from behind his desk and went to the window. He stayed there for several minutes, pondering how much he should tell his aide. Jan, for her part, was smart enough to keep silent and let Edward come to a decision without her interference.

 

Turning from the window with a sigh, Edward said to his friend and aide for the past three years, “Sit down, Jan. We have a lot to talk about.” He spent the next hour filling Jan in on the parts of his past he had chosen not to tell her about previously. She learned about the events surrounding his departure from Galicia, how he met and came to despise Baron Myros, his relationship with Myros’ wife, Elaine, and finally about his father’s death and how it affected him.

 

“Edward, I’m sorry,” Jan said. “I had no idea. I truly am sorry.”

 

“I know, Jan. I’m glad there’s someone I can share this with.”

 

“The King doesn’t know?” Jan asked incredulously. Edward and Haralan were very close. If Edward hadn’t told him…

 

“No. I…I can’t. You know most of the nobles here still regard me as an outsider. If Haralan knew my father was convicted of treason, it would be one more thing he’d have to keep buried away, one more reason for him to be concerned about me.”

 

“But wouldn’t he want to know? He is your friend. Surely he’d want to help?”

 

“Yes, he would. But then he’d be worried about the information coming to light. No. He has far too much to occupy him already. I’ll not increase his burden.”

 

“Speaking of burdens, this has been weighing down on you. I can see it, and something has got to be done about it.”

 

“There is nothing that can be done. Nothing can wash the stain of treachery from my family’s honour.”

 

“If nothing can be done, what’s the use in worrying about it? Weren’t you the one who told me that if nothing can be done about a problem you should accept things the way they are and move on?”

 

“This is different, Jan. This is a matter of honour.”

 

“No it’s not different, Edward. Your family’s honour may have been stained, but your personal honour hasn’t. And that is what will count in the long run.”

 

“I can’t just alter my principles on a whim.”

 

“And I’m not asking you to. Perhaps you will be able to prove your father innocent one day. But until then, concentrate on keeping your honour, your’s Edward, intact. I think you’ll find people will soon forget about events that transpired in Galicia.”

 

“You have an old mind in that young head of yours, Jan Courymwen.”

 

“Merely following your example.” Jan retrieved her cloak and Edward’s from the chair they had been flung over and proceeded to put hers on while handing Edward his.

 

“What’s this?”

 

“We’re going to a tavern I know in the Merchant’s Quarter. Don’t raise your eyebrow to me, Edward Sothos. I haven’t once seen you go outside the Castle unless it’s on King’s business and it’s damn well time you did. Enjoy yourself a little.”

 

“People will talk. Remember what happened to the Princess’ marriage because of such talk. No. I can’t jeopardize the respect of my office like that.”

 

“To the crows with what people say! We’re just two friends, soldiers, going out for a night on the town. I won’t take no for an answer.”

 

The two stood motionless for several seconds, locked in a friendly contest of wills. Finally, Edward acquiesced with a smile and a nod of his head. “Alright, Jan–”

 

“Coury, Edward,” Jan corrected him. “My friends call me Coury.”

 

“Alright, Ja…Coury,” he said. For some reason he couldn’t identify, he felt strangely uncomfortable using Jan’s nickname. Perhaps it was due to the fact that in Galicia, a man didn’t use such a term of familiarity with a woman unless the two were intimate. Nonsense, he thought. Jan and I are just friends and that’s all there is to it. Still, one part of his brain persisted, she is a beautiful woman. Any man would be overjoyed to have her. Enough! Edward said to himself. I will not think such thoughts!

 

Later that night, or early the next morning, rather, when Edward had divested himself of the last of his clothing and climbed into bed, the thoughts he had been suppressing came to the fore again. It was then he realized that until that night, he had not thought of Jan as anything but a friend and subordinate in the three years they’d known each other. He hadn’t stopped to consider her as a woman. She is a beautiful woman, he admitted to himself through the dull pounding of an alcohol-induced headache. Very beautiful. And with that thought, Edward drifted off to sleep.

 

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

21 Nober, 1013 B.Y.

 

Celeste locked the door to her room and laid a powerful warding spell upon it to ensure she would not be disturbed. Crossing to the window, she closed the curtains to keep her activities from prying eyes. Content the room was as secure as possible, she went to the closet and withdrew a small, plain-looking wooden chest. Opening the chest, she removed a finely crafted hand-mirror and stand and proceeded to place stand and mirror against the closed closet door. When satisfied the mirror was securely fastened to the stand, she stood back and spoke the word of command that caused the assembly to enlarge until the mirror had changed from a small hand-held variety into a body-length mirror.

 

Celeste positioned herself exactly three feet in front of the mirror and began to cast her spell. The Spell of Mirror-Talking was a complex one that placed a great strain on the caster. The fact that Celeste was attempting to use the spell over such a great distance only made things harder. To her knowledge, no one of her Order, save possibly the Primus, had ever successfully used the spell to communicate over a distance of more than five hundred leagues. Her intended receiver was many times that distance away.

 

As she cast the spell, she would pause periodically to withdraw spell components from concealed pouches within her night-black robes. First, she withdrew a handful of sand, which represented the mirror, and sprinkled it on the floor in front of her. Next, she took out the feather of an eagle, which served to assist the caster in obtaining the desired distance, and placed it on the sand sprinkled moments ago. As she was drawing near the spell’s completion, she drew a small vial of water, representing the glassy-smooth surface of an undisturbed pool, from her robes and sprinkled the contents around the perimeter of the sand making sure the water and sand never came in contact with one another.

 

Celeste finished her chant and as she did so, all three spell components burst into flame and were consumed. The smoke that one would expect from such an occurrence was not present. Or, rather, it was not present in the room, but in the mirror.

 

Celeste stood, exhausted, as the grey mist the smoke had become swirled and billowed in the mirror. This was a good sign, for the smoke became mist only if the spell had succeeded. All that remained to be seen was whether or not the signal was strong enough to be noticed by the intended receiver.

 

After several minutes of waiting, minutes in which Celeste managed to assemble the outward appearance of normalcy, the mist gradually began to slow its motion, finally stopping and fading entirely. “Cho dakh, Primus,” Celeste said in greeting to the black-robed figure in the mirror.

 

“Cho dakh, Celeste,” the Primus returned in his whispering voice. “Thou hath done well in contacting me over such a great distance. Thou hath some information to impart to me?”

 

“Aye, Primus. The situation here hath changed drastically. The strife between Baranur and Bichu was the product of foreign intervention in Baranur’s affairs. Beinison is responsible. As thou would’st expect, King Haralan hath taken grave offense at this blatant interference in his domain’s affairs. Indeed, His Royal Majesty called a Council which convened not five days ago. The delegates hath split into two factions; one calling for war and the other counseling caution and diplomacy. Neither faction hath gained the upper hand as yet.”

 

“And what of Myros?”

 

“His Lordship suspects one of his advisors is an agent of our Master. He hath asked me to determine who the culprit might be. I hath been giving the Baron vague answers in response to his queries. I hath been unable to uncover any evidence of treasonous activity. Myros guards his secrets well.”

 

“What of this friend you mentioned? The one Myros used as a pretext for his journey to Baranur.”

 

“As I thought, Primus, he and Myros are enemies. Indeed, Sir Edward and Myros came near to exchanging blows. The animosity between the two is readily apparent during the Council’s daily sessions.”

 

“Sir Edward? Sir Edward who?”

 

“Forgive me, Primus. Baranur’s Knight Commander, Sir Edward Sothos.”

 

“Dion Sothos’ son?” the Primus said with undisguised surprise in his voice.

 

“Aye, Primus,” Celeste said in a neutral voice.

 

“It seems Edward hath done well for himself these past eight-and-a-half years,” the Primus said more to himself than Celeste. “This is an unexpected and pleasant turn of events.” Speaking to Celeste once more he said, “The evidence against Myros I hath long sought for may soon be delivered. If it is as I suspect, thou wilt receive instructions to move against Myros within a matter of days, perhaps hours. When thou dost, take care that thou dost not harm, nor allow others to harm, Sir Edward. The Sothos family hath long figured prominently in our empire’s history. Edward is the last surviving male to bear the name Sothos. The line must continue. Dost thou fully comprehend what I am saying?”

 

“Aye, Primus,” Celeste replied. “It shall be as thou commands.”

 

“Good. Cha loth, Celeste.”

 

“Cha loth, Primus,” Celeste said, bowing. When she straightened, the Primus’ image was gone, the spell terminated. “What hath I stumbled upon?” she said, thinking out loud. “Why is the Primus so concerned about thy well-being, Sir Edward Sothos?”

Stormhaven, exact location unknown, Galician Empire

21 Nober, 1200 G.Y.

 

“Cha loth, Primus,” Celeste said, bowing. The Primus terminated the spell and was about to go down to the Library to consult with Xavier, The Order’s current Lokhmahst, when his manservant, Lothan, entered the study.

 

“The Sehrvat Primus wishes to speak with you, my lord.”

 

“Send him in then, Lothan.” Lothan bowed then opened the door and ushered Derek, Sehrvat Primus of The Order, into the study.

 

“The translation is complete, Primus,” Derek said without preamble.

 

“Dost thou hath the documents with thee?”

 

“Aye, Primus. Thou wilt find them most interesting to read.”

 

“Then give them hence.” Derek handed several scrolls to the Primus without a word. The Primus quickly scanned the twelve pieces of parchment. When he was done, he looked his manservant full in the face and said, “Get thee gone. Pack enough belongings for a journey to Rhylon. We leave in one hour.”

 

Lothan paled under his master’s gaze. Few would not. Stammering acknowledgement of his orders, Lothan bowed, turned, and hurried to the Primus’ quarters. Much needed to be done, and an hour was not much time.

Imperial Palace, Rhylon, Duchy Rhylon, Galician Empire

22 Nober, 1200 G.Y.

 

The aged and frail man who sat upon the throne of Galicia was near death and knew it. At age eighty, Emperor Nyrull, his full title being Protector and Defender of the Twelve Cities, Duke of Rhylon, His Imperial Majesty Emperor Nyrull (“a title you could choke on”, the former soldier, who loathed ceremony, called it) was the oldest and longest reigned Emperor in Galicia’s sixteen-hundred year history. In addition, his sixty year rule had seen the beginning of Galicia’s Golden Age, a time that saw the previous Galician policy of isolationism end and Galicia’s return to the web of international politics. Now, all he had worked for was coming undone. His most trusted and loyal subject, the wizard known as the Primus, had unearthed a plot to seize his throne. The Primus now stood in the throne room reading the names of the conspirators to Nyrull’s inner circle of advisors and generals. The Emperor listened to those gathered debate which course of action to follow. Nyrull, as he had always done, sat and listened, content to let them voice opinions they would not have voiced had they been speaking directly to Nyrull.

 

“Perhaps,” said Julius Valerius, the Empire’s chief diplomat, “we can reach an agreement with the cabal’s leadership that will avoid bloodshed.”

 

“Avoid bloodshed? Avoid bloodshed?! They should all be taken to Zourkhos’ Square!” That from Proconsul Veers, one of Galicia’s top soldiers.

 

“I’m sure my esteemed colleague was referring to the inordinate amount of very undesirable disruption that would be caused by such a disturbance,” commented Julian Adininos, head of the Finance Ministry.

 

“Proconsul Veers is right,” said Admiral Xertes. “These men are traitors and we must move against them before they can further increase their forces.”

 

“Need I remind you, Admiral, that such a course of action would cause undue disturbance in our most agriculturally important regions?”

 

“This is war, Adininos! You can’t just bury it in a ledger and hope it’s forgotten!”

 

“Calm yourself, Admiral,” Valerius cut in. “Anger will get us nowhere.”

 

Xertes’ response was a snort of contempt. He would have said far more if Veers hadn’t asked a question of the other man in the room besides the Emperor and the Primus. “Well, Janos? You haven’t said much. What’s your opinion?”

 

Emil Janos, late the Count of Nogrom until Duke Markin stripped him of that title and now Weapons Master to the Imperial Guard, took time to order his thoughts before speaking. “Both opinions have merit. A civil war would destroy everything that has been accomplished since The Consolidation Wars. Yet we cannot simply turn a blind eye towards these noble’s activities. I propose that we assassinate all save the cabal’s leadership.”

 

That got approving looks from both bureaucrats and soldiers. “What do you have in mind for the leaders?” Veers asked.

 

“That they be drawn and quartered as you suggested, Proconsul.”

 

“No.” All eyes turned toward the throne. “No,” Nyrull repeated. “Not all the leaders.” Frail as he was, Nyrull could command a room if he so chose. His blue eyes became as cold as ice and his voice as hard as steel. “Proconsul Veers, you will take the Imperial Guard and whatever other forces you deem necessary and you will march on Markin’s stronghold. No quarter will be given. Everyone–man, woman, and child–in New Valencia is to be put to the sword.” He leaned forward. “Do I make myself clear?”

 

Veers snapped to attention and saluted, right arm out from the body, fist clenched. “You do, Sire.”

 

“Good. You have a question, Admiral?” Nyrull asked in a dangerously quiet tone.

 

“Do you think it wise to send the Imperial Guard, Sire? Who will protect you?”

 

“I believe The Order can handle that. Correct, Primus?”

 

“Of course, Master.”

 

“What of the assassins, my liege?” Valerius asked.

 

“The Order will handle that as well,” Nyrull answered Valerius while looking at the Primus.

 

“It shall be as thou commands, Master,” the Primus said with a bow.

 

Nyrull sat back and smiled.

Crown Castle, Magnus, Royal Duchy, Baranur

17 Deber, 1014 B.Y.

 

Jan sat at her desk struggling valiantly with a mountain of paperwork that had built up during the two weeks the Council had been in session. Today was the seventeenth day of the new year and the forty-sixth day of the Council. Jan had argued, begged, and pleaded with Edward to allow Daniel Moore to take her place so that she could attend to the business of making the army’s paperwork flow smoothly. “Or as smooth as it ever flows,” she said to herself. She smiled a little and said, “Edward is going to have a fit when he sees his desk.” Sighing, she returned to her work.

 

***

 

Six figures materialized from the cold night air of Crown Castle’s Inner Courtyard. A seventh was waiting for them at the entrance to the Diplomatic Wing, two dead or unconscious guards lying in the snow. Three of the new arrivals walked over to the waiting black-robed figure. Before they had even crossed half the distance, the center figure of the similarly black-robed triad that had accompanied them spoke words of magic and all three vanished.

 

Justin resumed his pace towards the wizard–he’d had his fill of wizards lately–that he and his two companions would be working with. The newly fallen snow crunched under his boots and his breath misted in the crisp air. Nochturon was a pale disk in the cloudless night sky. The stars could be seen with great clarity. Such a night is one for celebrating, Justin thought, not this dirty business.

 

The wizard led Justin and his two friends into the Diplomatic Wing’s foyer. “Sit,” Celeste told them. “I shalt bring some mulled wine and then we may discuss how to execute this operation.” She walked over to the bored clerk sitting behind the reception desk, ordered the wine she had promised, and returned to the three adventurers. After a short delay, two attendants brought the wine to the four.

 

Julia finished her wine quickly, revelling in the warmth flowing through her veins. “We’re not assassins. So why are we here?”

 

“I am no assassin either,” Celeste responded coldly. “Thou art here to protect my person and to ensure the mission is complete, should I fall.”

 

“So we’re to keep the grunts”–Tarn named the derisive term that referred to all soldiers–”busy while you work your spells?”

 

“Crudely put,” Celeste said, giving Tarn an icy stare, “but essentially correct.”

 

“Who are we after?” Justin asked, getting down to business.

 

“Three men: Baron Corneilious Myros, his chief advisor, Sir Grange Rarrack, and Jordaan, Myros’ Captain of the Guard. Myros and Rarrack are still in today’s Council session. Why it hath gone on so long I know not, nor doth it concern me. If need be, we shalt penetrate the Council chamber and execute the traitors. Jordaan is in his quarters here in the Diplomatic Wing along with three of Myros’ top advisors and a guard of fifty warriors. Our only targets art the three previously mentioned. However, if someone should’st seek to prevent us from accomplishing the task at hand, they must be dealt with.”

 

“When do we attack?” Julia asked, her warrior’s mentality showing in the way she phrased her question.

 

“If thou and thy companions feel ready, we can begin now.”

 

“Let’s do it and be done with it,” Justin said, clearly not happy with the task.

 

“Follow me.” Celeste got up and led the three past the clerk and up the stairs leading to the rooms occupied by the Galician embassy. Once at the top of the stairs, she led them fifty feet down a corridor where they came upon a side passage that led directly to the embassy’s rooms. The four made their way thirty feet down the corridor to a door. Celeste opened it and all four filed through. The corridor continued for twenty more feet before turning to the west. At the turn stood two of Myros’s guards, armoured in platemail and carrying shield and longsword.

 

A third guard came out of a room from which many voices could be heard and stumbled slightly as he made his way towards Celeste and her group. When he noticed them, he straightened as much as possible. “Dark One,” he said with the voice of one who has had too much to drink, “didn’t think you’d be here. And who are these three?”

 

“They art retainers of mine. Stand aside. I hath important business to discuss with Captain Jordaan.” Celeste continued on and motioned for Justin, Julia, and Tarn to follow.

 

But the guard, with the dogged persistence too much drink can give a person, kept with his train of thought. “Wait. I don’t recognize them. Let me see their papers.” When the four did not stop, he lurched after them. “Stop!” When they still refused to heed his command, he made a clumsy attempt to draw his sword. By now, the guards at the corridor’s turn had had their attention drawn to the scene being played out.

 

“Now!” Celeste said. Tarn whirled and fired an arrow at the drunken guard. He died before getting his sword half out of its scabbard. Julia and Justin drew steel and charged the two remaining guards, who already had their weapons out and were shouting the alarm.

 

“Tarn!” Celeste called, as Tarn was about to go to his comrades’ assistance. “I need thee! Make haste!”

 

“What?” he asked, running back to Celeste.

 

“I shalt cast a spell. When I begin, thou wilt hold the door open,” she said, indicating the door through which the drunken guard had come, “and when I am finished, close it with all haste and flatten thyself on the floor.”

 

Tarn nodded and Celeste began her spell. “Ast thrak”–Tarn opened the door–”Uth harn”–Celeste reached into her robes and withdrew a pinch of sulphur which burst into flame and was gone–”Ost”–Celeste pointed a finger at the startled and confused guards in the room–”frelbarl!” With the utterance of the last word of the spell, a ball of flame shot from Celeste’s outstretched finger. At virtually the same instant, Tarn slammed the door shut and both he and Celeste dove to the floor.

 

Inside the room, the fireball exploded not two seconds after Celeste had worked her magic. The fireball was primarily intended for combat against a large group of adversaries outdoors. In a small twenty by twenty room, the explosive force of the fireball was contained and reflected back from the walls. The door, along with bits and pieces of animate and inanimate objects alike, was blown out into the corridor in flaming chunks which just narrowly missed Tarn and Celeste.

 

The force of the blast staggered the four combatants as well, sending Julia and her opponent to the floor. The guard recovered first, aiming a vicious downward swing at Julia’s prone form. He missed, sending sparks everywhere when his sword connected with the stone. All Julia had time to do was grab her shield and hold it above her as her training taught. Her opponent was raining blows on her and she knew that she couldn’t hold on to her shield much longer. Justin couldn’t help as he was locked in deadly earnest combat himself.

 

With a last blow that caved in the front of her shield and sent it flying, her opponent had her at last. Pausing, he saluted her, a Galician custom the origin of which lay rooted in legend. It was that custom that saved Julia’s life.

 

The guard raised his sword to plunge it into Julia’s heart. As he did so, an arrow sprouted in his chest. The guard dropped his sword and stood swaying for several seconds. He gazed at Tarn with a vaguely reproachful look on his face, as if Tarn had interfered with something he should not have. Then his face went blank and he toppled backwards.

 

Justin, meanwhile, was having a tough time with his opponent. Every thrust had been skillfully parried, every riposte harder and harder to avoid. These were obviously no ordinary guardsmen, but elite warriors taught by some of Galicia’s finest swordmasters. Already, Justin had suffered half a dozen small cuts with only one or two given in return.

 

Justin had help, however. Julia, by this time rescued by Tarn, had recovered her sword and came to her friend’s assistance. The guard, beset from two directions at once, never stood a chance. The fact he lasted as long as he did was testimony to his fighting prowess.

 

“The guards must surely be alerted by now,” Celeste commented. “We must press on before we meet more opposition.”

 

“Fine,” Justin said. “Tarn, you bring up the rear. Julia and I will lead. And you, Sorceress, will stay in the middle. Agreed?”

 

“Thy instructions art sound. I wilt abide by them as long as they remain so.”

 

Justin grunted in satisfaction and hurried down the corridor, Julia beside him bearing a guardsman’s shield to replace her ruined one. They hadn’t gone ten feet when five guards came running at them, weapons drawn. Justin and Julia braced themselves for the attack. It never came.

 

Celeste stepped between the two warriors and cast yet another spell. Justin was seized with fear by the power of the dark words Celeste spoke, and he wasn’t even the intended victim of the spell. A sideways glance showed that Julia was similarly affected. The effect on the advancing guardsmen was devastating.

 

Two guards died immediately, killed by their own fear amplified by Celeste’s spell. Another ran screaming in terror. The last two guards, stronger willed than their comrades, backed slowly down a side corridor.

 

The sound of many booted feet preceeded a large group of guards, perhaps twenty in all, led by Jordaan. Justin and Julia stayed where they were. Only Celeste could hope to deal with such a large force. Deal with them she did.

 

Jordaan didn’t waste time with questions. He ordered his men forward, hoping to overwhelm the Dark One before she could get a spell off. His hopes were in vain.

 

Celeste drew a small wand engraved with arcane runes from her robes. She pointed it down the corridor and calmly spoke a word of command. Lightning flashed from the wand, felling five guards and wounding two. Thunder echoed and rolled throughout the building. Lightning flashed a second time. Four more guards joined their brethren in death.

 

Jordaan recognized the futility of continuing. His only hope lay in forcing a fight in more open surroundings where his men wouldn’t be concentrated and his greater numbers would work to his advantage. “Back!” he shouted, his battlefield-trained voice sounding clearly over the deafening thunder. “Fall back to the keep!” He turned and ran, his men close behind.

 

***

 

Jan paused. She was about halfway through the stack of papers on her desk when she heard it. “Thunder?” she said aloud. “We can’t be getting rain this time of year.” She rose and went to the window overlooking the courtyard. The snow had started again, giving everything a peaceful demeanor. “Must be my imagination.” She sat down and went back to work. And again she heard it. A cold chill walked up her spine. “That wasn’t my imagination this time.” She was about to call for a guard when the door opened and one of the two guards outside her office stuck his head in.

 

“Sorry for disturbing you, ma’am,” he said. “I know this is crazy, but I just heard what sounded like–”

 

“Thunder?”

 

“You heard it too, ma’am?”

 

“Yes, but it’s not coming from outside.”

 

“Well it certainly couldn’t come from inside.”

 

“Gods! That’s it! Gregory, raise the alarm. Quickly, man! We have intruders in the castle!” Gregory saluted and was gone. Jan yelled for the other guard. “Haran!”

 

“Yes, Commander?” he asked, half in the doorway.

 

“If there’s not a squad in here pretty bloody fast, you’ll be cleaning stables for the next twenty years!”

 

Haran swallowed once and ran.

 

Jordaan ran through a door and found himself in the Hall of Warriors, a one hundred-foot long by forty-foot wide hall that arched to its ceiling thirty feet overhead. The Hall was dedicated to Baranur’s twenty greatest warriors. Their statues, ten each along the north and south walls, one every ten feet, stood in silent tribute to those who helped make Baranur what it was today. Jordaan couldn’t believe his good fortune. He was so relieved he shouted for joy, drawing the attention of the four guardsmen from The King’s Own.

 

Jordaan shouted at his men to deploy and then outlined the situation for the Baranurians. “Assassins have entered through the Diplomatic Wing. I fear they are after my Lord Myros. Will you join us?” At their nods, he stationed them at the east end of the Hall as a last defense should he and his warriors be defeated.

 

His men were deployed in a semi-circle facing the door through which they’d come. Jordaan drew steel and waited.

 

The door flew outward in a cloud of sparks as it was blown off its hinges by a word of magic. Celeste, Justin, Julia, and Tarn stepped through. Celeste took a step or two forward and stopped. “Yield thyself, Jordaan, and thy death wilt be swift and painless, I promise thee.”

 

“No, Dark One,” Jordaan said in a calm voice. “If you want me, or he to whom I have sworn my fealty, you must pay the price.” He lifted his sword.

 

“So be it,” she said in an emotionless voice. She leveled her wand at Jordaan and spoke the word of command. He was flung back ten feet, to lay unmoving on the floor.

 

The loss of their leader did not affect the Galicians as it would have other troops. These men were veterans who knew what must be done to survive in combat. As one, they flung themselves at the little band standing in the blackened doorway. They realized that their only chance was to slay the sorceress before she slew them.

 

Celeste realized this also. Not having time for a more complex, more deadly spell, she chose a spell she had learned when she first began her training, a spell that could be cast in seconds.

 

Dropping the wand, she began to chant the words to her spell, moving her hands in short, sharp passes as she did so. She spread her hands in a fan in front of her and seven glowing darts shot out, directed at the three nearest guardsmen. The closest guard received three of the darts and tumbled to the floor. The other two received two darts each, felling one guard. The third winced in pain and kept coming, only to die as Tarn shot him through the throat.

 

The immediate odds were now five-to-four in favor of the guardsmen. But when one considered the lightness of Tarn’s armour, and the fact that Celeste had none at all, those odds increased to two-to-one.

 

“Die well, my friends!” Justin yelled and launched himself at the enemy. Julia followed his example as well, screaming the ancient battle-cry of her ancestors at those who sought to slay her and her comrades. Tarn simply dropped his bow, drew his short sword, and prepared to exact a heavy toll for his life.

 

For the moment, Celeste was untouched as the battle raged on around her. To her immediate front, Justin fought with savage fury against the two guardsmen engaging him. To her left, Julia beat aside her enemy’s shield and ripped his throat out, all the while shouting her battle-cry at the top of her lungs.

 

Celeste heard a grunt of pain behind her. She whirled and saw Tarn, outmatched and fighting two opponents, bleeding from a gash to his right arm. Grasping the amulet at her neck, she raised her right arm, finger outstretched. She pointed at one of Tarn’s attackers and shouted, “Die!” The man collapsed to his knees and fell forward, blood streaming from his mouth, nose and ears. Tarn flung his sword at his opponent, forcing the guardsman to back away to prevent himself from being injured. Tarn took advantage of the reprieve to draw a dagger and send it thudding home under the man’s chin strap. Face tight in pain, Tarn ripped a strip of cloth from a guard’s tunic and used it to bind his wound.

 

By this time, the Baranurian guardsmen had, contrary to orders, come to the aid of the Galicians. One attacked Julia, one went after Tarn, and the remaining two charged straight for Celeste.

 

Celeste was growing tired. She had expended a great deal of energy in working her magic. She was confident she could go on casting the weaker spells indefinitely, but weak spells would do her no good now. And if she chose to cast her most potent combat spell, then she would be unable to work the teleport spell she would need to escape. As the saying went though, beggars can’t be choosers. All these thoughts flashed through her head in a matter of seconds; any mage that could not instantly evaluate potential dangers and their counter-measures was not a mage, or anything, for very long.

 

She reached into her robes for two pieces of black obsidian. Holding them together, she began speaking words of dark power, words that placed an immense strain on her very soul.

 

Her hands flew apart, the obsidian crumbling to dust. The torches in the Hall grew dim as a chilling wind blasted throughout the Hall’s length. A Gate, black as night and radiating a smothering evil, opened in the air before the two guardsmen now only fifteen feet from Celeste. From this Gate, Celeste had summoned a creature said to exist only in legend. A creature mothers used to frighten bad children. A creature from Man’s nightmares.

 

Celeste had summoned a demon.

 

***

 

Jan led her squad at a dead run towards the Council chamber. She feared she would be too late, that she would arrive to find the delegates dead. The thought that Edward would be among them only served to heighten her fear. She ran faster.

 

***

 

The demon strode through the Gate, wings rustling and muscles popping. All combat ceased as everyone, Galician and Baranurian, stood staring in pure unadulterated fear at the ten-foot tall apparition before them. The demon paid them little notice, however. All its attention was focused upon she who had summoned it to this plane.

 

Celeste knew that a test of wills was about to take place. If she lost, the demon would devour her and would be free to roam Makdiar at will. The demon’s dark red eyes locked with hers. She screamed but would not break eye contact. The demon smiled, sure it would have an opportunity such as it had not enjoyed in uncounted milennia.

 

But Celeste was stronger than the demon thought. She gathered her anger. Anger at the way she was treated as a child. Anger at those who denied her her inheritance. Anger at the Primus for trying to prevent her from joining The Order as her parents and their parents before them had done. Anger she hurled at the demon for daring to defy her.

 

The demon shrieked in pain and rage. Pain caused by the assault of alien human emotions upon its mind. Rage because this puny human female had beaten it and forced it to her will.

 

“Hazkaramatan!” Celeste spoke, arms flung wide. “Thou know’st me as thy master! Thou must do my bidding! Slay’st thee those humans thou see’st behind thee and thou art free to return to thine own plane of existence.”

 

The demon Hazkaramatan slowly turned to face the two terrified Baranurian guardsmen. It advanced slowly, spittle dripping from its two-foot long fangs. Smoke curled up from the floor where the spittle touched. The guardsmen screamed in stark terror. Hazkaramatan paused, enjoying the terror, absorbing it, tasting it, feeling it. When it felt the terror had gone on long enough, it raised its gleaming talons to strike. The guardsmen fled for their lives, but to no avail. The demon launched itself into the air with one stroke from its powerful wings and bore down on the luckless humans. It caught them as the reached the door, rending and tearing with talons and fangs, sending bloody gore everywhere, taking out its rage and frustration on its victims.

 

The task done, Hazkaramatan looked at Celeste and began to speak a dread promise should they meet again. But before it could even formulate the first syllable, the Gate appeared once more and the demon was drawn through. Celeste collapsed, nearly sobbing in relief. She had been very close to losing control. Five seconds longer and she would have.

 

***

 

An unearthly scream echoed through the halls of Crown Castle, bringing Jan and her men to a stumbling halt. “By all the gods!” the sergeant commanding the squad swore. “What manner of foes are we dealing with?”

 

Jan spun on him. “It doesn’t matter!” she said angrily. “You are sworn to protect the King with your lives!” she said to the frightened soldiers. She snorted in disgust. “Does the name The King’s Own mean nothing?!” she shouted at them. Getting no reply, she delivered the gravest insult one could give to a member of the Royal Brigade. “King Caeron would be ashamed of the lot of you!”

 

That got results. The mention of the man largely responsible for the creation of the Royal Army made the soldiers hang their heads in shame. “Well what are we waiting for?” the sergeant asked his men. He drew his sword. “For Haralan!” he shouted and his men echoed him. The guardsmen ran on.

 

***

 

The sight of Celeste collapsing seemed to be the signal for the fighting to start anew. The last two Galician guardsmen threw themselves at Justin, determined to exact vengeance for their friends’ deaths. Justin fought wildly, killing one man and receiving several deep wounds.

 

Tarn backed up until he was standing over Celeste, who was desperately trying to stand. Tarn knew he was outclassed. His profession was thievery, not fighting. Add to that that his opponent had a longer blade than Tarn and the outcome was never in doubt.

 

Tarn knew he had no chance, so he concentrated on defense, trying to buy time for Celeste to recover her strength and deal with his foe by magic. Time and again, he parried what surely would have been a killing thrust. But that is not to say he did so without cost. He had suffered a number of small cuts and gashes and the wound on his right arm had started bleeding more heavily.

 

He stumbled against Celeste’s leg and lost his balance momentarily. The Baranurian raised his sword and plunged it down, cutting through leather and flesh and bone. Tarn fell across Celeste, dead before he hit the floor. The guardsman was about to finish Celeste when his comrade fighting Julia yelled for help. The Baranurian hesitated briefly with indecision. His comrade shouted again and the guardsman ran to his fellow’s aid.

 

Julia had beaten her opponent back several feet so that he was backed up against a statue. He had lost his shield and was wielding his blade with both hands. Blood was running down one leg and he had taken several cuts to the chest as well. He shouted for help against this madwoman.

 

Julia threw her shield away as well, fighting as her ancestors had done. She beat her opponent’s sword down and aimed a thrust at his chest. He parried clumsily, knocking her blade up and through the side of his throat. He fell, spitting up great quantities of blood as he gasped for air like a landed fish.

 

Julia heard the running feet behind her at the last moment. She turned, but not quickly enough. The Baranurian’s blade slid deep into her left side. She instantly slammed her fist around it in order to trap it in her body and twisted, forcing the sword from her enemy’s grasp. The Baranurian scrabbled for his dagger but Julia drove her sword through his mouth and out the back of his skull. The body fell with the sword still embedded in its cranium, its sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. Julia fell back against the statue and slid to the floor in searing agony.

 

Justin advanced against his foe swinging his sword two-handed, ignoring the blood flowing freely from his many wounds. For every blow the Galician landed, Justin landed three. The Galician’s tunic was torn and red with blood.

 

Justin delivered a last series of blows that resulted in severing the Galician’s sword-arm at the elbow. Putting all his energy into one last swing, Justin sent his sword in a dazzling arc, sending his enemy’s head from his shoulders.

 

The fight done, Justin collapsed to his knees, his sword falling from his weakened grasp. He looked around, surveying the carnage. His gaze fell upon Tarn’s body. “You stupid bastard,” he said softly through tears. He had always thought the cheerful, irreverent thief would live forever. And now he was dead, his light extinguished forever. “You and Julia saved me more time than I care to admit, my friend,” he said.

 

“Julia!” She hadn’t come to help him, but he was too distraught with grief over Tarn’s death to notice. Please gods let her be alive! he thought. He twisted his body around, trying to find his long-time friend and companion. He caught sight of her slumped against a statue, sitting in a pool of her own blood. “No!” He began dragging his pain-wracked, bleeding body across the floor to her.

 

Five agonizing minutes later, he had dragged himself over to Julia, a trail of blood on the floor behind him to mark his passage. Julia’s eyes were closed and he reached a gauntleted hand up to touch her face. As he did so, her eyes slowly opened.

 

“You’re alive!”

 

“Not for long,” she said in a pain filled voice.

 

“Don’t say that,” he said desperately. “Hang on. Please.” His voice had taken on a pleading tone. “We’ll get the mage to give you something. You just stay alive!”

 

“Don’t try and fool yourself. Or me for that matter. I’m bleeding like a slaughtered pig and I can’t feel my legs.”

 

“Julia, save your strength.”

 

“It won’t make any difference.” She continued, her voice beginning to fade, her skin growing cold. “We’ve seen a lot together, you and I, haven’t we?”

 

“Yes we have.” Justin was crying now.

 

“No regrets?”

 

“No. None.”

 

“You were right,” she said, her voice barely a whisper.

 

“About what?”

 

“The way I fought,” she said with a weak smile. “You always said my ancestors would be the death of me.”

 

“Julia…”

 

“Justin,” she said, turning her head to look at him, “I’m scared. I don’t want to die.”

 

Justin put his arms around her and held her. “I’m here.”

 

“Hold me,” she said, her voice so low that Justin had to strain to hear.

 

“I am. I am holding you. I won’t let go.”

 

She shuddered slightly. “I’m…so…cold.”

 

“It’s alright. I’ll keep you warm.” He felt her go limp in his arms. He reached for her pulse and found none. He cradled her in his arms, gently stroking her hair.

 

Celeste walked weakly over to the two companions, finally having wrested Tarn’s body off of her. “Justin, I am sorry.”

 

“No. Everything’s alright. She’s just resting.”

 

“Aye. Of course she is.” She hesitated before continuing. “Justin, I must go. Myros and Rarrack yet live and whilst they live, all this is for naught.”

 

“Go,” Justin said softly. “Julia and I’ll just rest here for a while.”

 

Celeste was about to reply when the sound of running feet could be heard plainly. “Go,” Justin repeated.

 

“What thee and thy companions hath done for my Master, the Emperor, wilt not be forgotten. On this I give thee my sacred pledge.” Then, not daring to delay any longer, Celeste strode through the double doors to the east towards the Council chamber.

 

When she had gone, Justin stopped stroking Julia’s hair. He was slowly slipping towards death himself. Not one to do anything slowly in his life, he chose to end his life in the same manner in which he had lived it. He concentrated on his pain and let it take him to the blackness.

 

***

 

Warrior and mage, noble and knight, subject and King stood ready to defend themselves. All faced the chamber’s doors in grim silence. The shock of seeing Luthias’ head tumble from the gold casket was slowly giving way to rage and a need for vengeance. After the horrible shriek that sounded just minutes ago, it would seem those assembled would be granted an opportunity to vent their emotions on something.

 

The doors had been barred, but Marcellon had quietly assured the gathered nobility that the doors would be brushed aside by the creature beyond as if they didn’t exist. He added that he wasn’t sure even he, one of the most powerful wizards of the age, could defeat the menace lurking outside. That did nothing to reassure the chamber’s occupants.

 

The doors were indeed brushed aside with little effort, but in not quite the manner Marcellon had predicted. The one-foot thick wooden beam barring the doors began to move, slightly at first then with ever increasing violence until finally it was flung from its brackets by some unseen force. The doors parted and a figure clad in night-black robes that hid all features strode slowly into the chamber.

 

“No farther,” Sir Edward said, moving forward a pace or two. The figure halted. “Who are you?” he demanded.

 

“I wilt not answer thy query, Sir Edward. Thou must turn to Baron Myros for the answer.”

 

Edward turned slightly to face in Myros’ direction. His old enemy’s face wore a look of astonishment and anger. “Well, Myros?” Edward’s voice was taught with rage.

 

“Her name is Celeste,” Myros said with disgust. “I had thought her loyal to me. It seems I was wrong.” There were startled gasps everywhere. Myros had spoken in fluent, if heavily accented, Baranurian. Since his arrival on the last day of Ober, Myros had projected the appearance of not being able to speak in any other language except Galician. The fact that he did speak Baranurian meant that he had known all along what had been said by those who thought he hadn’t.

 

“You’ll forgive me if I’m not overly distressed.”

 

Myros’ only response was a snort of dismissal. “What’s your game, Celeste?” Before she could answer his question, Jan and her squad came pounding up to the doors. “Edward! Your Royal Majesty!” Jan said with a surprised voice. “You’re alive!”

 

“So we are, Commander Courymwen,” Haralan said in a subdued voice, the grief over Luthias’ death returning now that the crisis seemed to have passed.

 

“What’s happened?” Edward asked.

 

“Intruders have penetrated the castle, sir. They appear to have been stopped in the Hall of Warriors by a combined force of Galicians and some of our own men.”

 

“Was the attack your doing, Celeste?” Edward asked.

 

“Aye. The deaths of thy guardsmen were unavoidable, Sir Edward.”

 

“What is your purpose here?” the King asked.

 

“Baron Myros hath been declared to be in rebellion against His Imperial Majesty,” Celeste pronounced. “All his lands and titles art forfeit to the Crown. In addition, the Emperor hath decreed a sentence of death upon Myros’ person. To be carried out with all due haste. The same sentence is imposed upon Sir Grange Rarrack.”

 

Edward again turned to Myros. “Well, Corneilious, it seems–” Before Edward could finish, Myros grasped his signet ring, spoke a word of command, and disappeared. “Typical. It seems your mission here was a waste, Celeste.”

 

“Not completely. I was sent to eliminate three conspirators. Jordaan, Myros’ Guard Captain, lies dead in the Hall of Warriors. And Rarrack shalt soon be dead.”

 

“But at what cost?” Marcellon asked harshly. “Four of our soldiers are dead because they simply got in the way!”

 

“Three young adventurers lie cold in death because of those four guardsmen, Marcellon of Equiville! And not only those. A great many of Myros’ former warriors art dead as well. Their loss was Galicia’s loss.”

 

“And what of the demon you summoned?” Marcellon’s face was an angry mask. “Do you have any idea what would have happened if you had made even the smallest mistake?”

 

“Aye, Master Wizard. I did not cast the spell lightly. I was fully cognizant of the consequences of my actions. I suspect I shalt answer for the deed upon returning to Galicia.” Her tone of sincere remorse seemed to pacify Marcellon.

 

“Now, I hath another task to perform. There is one among you to whom the Emperor owes a great deal,” she said, looking around at those assembled. Her gaze came to rest on Edward. “Sir Edward Sothos. Eight years ago, thou were exiled from thy homeland, never to return. With the death of thy father, thee art the rightful heir to the lands of Alphoria. Since the beginning of The Consolidation Wars that gave birth to the Galician Empire these seven centuries past, the Sothos family hath played an important role in Galicia’s history. Thou art the last descendant of thy family to bear the name Sothos. The Emperor feels that Galicia can ill-afford to be without the services of the Sothos line. Wilt thou consent to return with me to the land of thy birth and take thy place as Baron of Alphoria?”

 

There was stunned silence. Many of the nobles gathered considered Edward to be an outsider, an upstart wandering knight who happened to worm his way into King Haralan’s good graces and was not worthy of the honours bestowed upon him. With Celeste’s revelation, they began to see him in a different light.

 

There were those in the room who genuinely liked and respected the lonely, scarred, at times stern knight. Two in particular prayed that Edward would say no to this most tempting offer.

 

Haralan came forward and laid both hands on Edward’s shoulders. “We have shared a great many things, Edward. You have been my best and truest friend and the gods know I would not want to see you leave.” He sighed. “But I would not hold you back from something such as this. If you wish, I will absolve you of all oaths of fealty to me. I only ask that if you do go, never forget that I am your friend always.” Haralan stepped back and waited for Edward’s decision.

 

Jan, too, did not want to see Edward leave. Waiting to hear Edward’s choice, she felt as if she was waiting for the headsman’s axe to fall. The depth of her feeling surprised and frightened her. The more so because she wasn’t at all sure it wasn’t just a friend’s fear of losing someone.

 

“It is tempting…” he said, looking at Celeste. He caught sight of Jan standing in the doorway. The look in her eyes just then sent a jolt through him. He wrenched his eyes away, his emotions confused. He looked at Haralan, the first person besides Elaine that he had truly opened up to. The thought of never seeing his friend again filled him with anguish.

 

“I can’t,” he said at last. “I’ve made a new life and new friends here,” he said to Celeste. “Galicia is a part of me, but part of my past. Thank you, but…no.” Haralan broke into a wide smile and pounded Edward on the back in joy. Jan sent a prayer of thanks to the gods. She felt enormously relieved.

 

“Then I hath but one task left to perform.”

 

“Allow me one last look at the world?” Rarrack asked. “One concession to an old man’s dignity?”

 

“Thou die’st well, Rarrack,” she said in agreement.

Rarrack walked slowly and with great ceremony out of the chamber. Celeste made to follow but stopped when Haralan called after her. “Will Galicia aid us in our war with Beinison?”

 

Celeste remained silent for several minutes. When she spoke, every ear strained in anticipation. “Nay, Thy Royal Majesty. Neither shalt Galicia ally with Beinison. The time is not yet right for Galicia to fully re-enter the world. When that time comes, thou shalt hear from us.” With that remark, Celeste silently followed Rarrack out of the chamber and into the courtyard.

 

***

 

Rarrack stood admiring the beauty of the scenery for several minutes. He heard footsteps crunching in the snow behind him. “It is time,” Celeste said.

 

He nodded his head, back still turned to her. “It’s a good night to die.”

 

He faintly heard the sound of chanting behind him and then his world exploded in pain as seven burning darts pierced his body and he fell to the snow. It was wondrously cool. His pain faded and he died.

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