The six of us gathered in a starlit field, distanced from the encampment and casual observers. An uneasy silence had gathered with us. No one questioned why we had met. No clarification was necessary. All were in agreement as to the identity of the problem. Still, the evening’s debate had not gone smoothly. Each had argued for a different solution. Some had argued more loudly than others. Some merely entertained ideas. These were easily allied to the stronger personalities in the six. I allied two others to myself, rhetorically. A fourth stood alone with her own dark plans. And the fifth and sixth greedily strove for the power they perceived dangling in front of them. Before these tidings could be drawn to their conclusion, I needed to know what were the plans of the dark one. A majority was all that was needed.
“So,” I started, “we are in agreement, then.”
“No!” another whispered violently. “We are not in agreement. All we’ve done for the past two bells is argue!”
“You are the one who has argued, General,” I answered. “you and your assistant.”
The man next to the general stiffened at this title. “I wield the significant military power of my entire family, priest. I ‘ally’ myself to the General … we assist each other in this matter.”
I nodded. “My apologies, Sir Knight. Still, there are four among us that would agree to the same course of action.”
“That is not the case,” said the knight. “She,” he indicated a woman cloaked in a black robe with red borders, “does not agree with you at all.”
“On the contrary,” she spoke slowly. All eyes turned to her. Her voice was strained, escaping from her like a promise of death. “I agree with both of you, on two different topics. You, General, and the knight,” she indicated to the armored individuals, “would kill our quarry and continue this endeavor for land and power. While you, priest,” she pointed to me, “would merely convince our quarry to withdraw his efforts.” She slowly breathed in the night air, her lungs straining with the effort. “I, however, find a happy medium with both of you. Our quarry should be killed. But we must not continue in this endeavor.”
“It is obvious, as a priestess of Amante,” I said, “that you would choose to kill our quarry. However, that a priestess of the goddess of death does not want … this endeavor, as you put it, to continue seems peculiar.”
She sat motionless. “It rushes man and beast to the final destiny. They are not ready for their journey, and Amante rejects them until they can be prepared. Death is a natural order, that all of us — even you, priest — must eventually embrace. But not before our time.”
“Untar has brought his time upon himself.”
“The war has aged him,” Sir Horace thought.
“What is it, Sir Horace ?” Untar asked. “Another god arising in the Baranurian ranks, defeating my armies and killing my chief magus?”
Untar was speaking, of course, of Sir Luthias Connall, Knight Captain of the Northern Marche. In the last eight months, Luthias Connall had risen from a minor lord to a Count who commanded roughly half of the Baranurian armed forces. He had also escaped Beinison’s prisons, and slain the Emperor’s chief magus Mon-Taerleor. Now, however, Sir Horace approached his Emperor with a more mundane threat — yet one that could destroy Beinison’s already diminishing chances of winning this war.
“Sir Horace?” the Emperor called, jarring Sir Horace from his thoughts. “We are not in the habit of repeating ourselves. What is it you wished to discuss?”
“Uh … yes, your Majesty.” Sir Horace replied, noting Untar’s use of the royal plural. He only did so when aggravated. “My apologies. There are two matters which must be addressed, concerning the war.”
“And so you approach us in the late of the evening, when most of our advisors are not in attendance? Would these topics not better be addressed in Council, with our other military advisors present?”
“My liege,” Sir Horace started, “I believe one of these topics to be extremely sensitive … ”
“And the second?”
“Had you visitors, I would have had a reason to be here, without raising their suspicions.”
“I am not certain, your Majesty. That is why I approach you in the privacy of the evening.”
Untar paused a moment. “Speak, councilor.”
“Yes, sire. The first issue I wish to address — the least of the two — is the morale of the fighting forces. Or, more accurately, the honor of our fighting forces. As you know, Sire, there have been horrendous acts committed by our men as we further our occupation of Magnus. Where Baranur has been driven from its capital, fire has swept the streets. Our men are burning and pillaging these sections of the city.”
Sir Horace looked into the blank face of his emperor. “Sire, even the mercenary divisions are more respectful — and chivalric — toward this city and its inhabitants.”
“I have been informed,” the emperor stated. “The priests of Amante and Gow are working together -”
“Amante and Gow!” Sir Horace exclaimed. “Sire, those two are as night and day! Why – ” Suddenly, Sir Horace realized he had interrupted his emperor. “My apologies, Emperor. Please continue.”
Untar breathed in slowly. “They are working together to quell the situation. If that is not good enough for you, Sir Horace, perhaps you can suggest a more strategic plan of simultaneously recognizing the representatives of two of the most prominent religions.”
“No, your Majesty.”
“Excellent. Now that I have your approval on that topic, what is the more sensitive matter that you desire to discuss?”
“My liege,” Sir Horace began hesitantly, “you must understand that this morale situation, as well as our recent defeats, has weakened our effort to support this war. Of the three most prominent families, you have only the undivided support of two. The third sides with you, officially, but politically it sways with the winds. It always has.”
“You tell me nothing new, councilor.” Untar rested his head on his hands. He hoped that this would not be a long, boring dictation on situations he already knew. At the same time, he hoped that Sir Horace did not suddenly present him with information that would destroy his efforts to expand Beinison’s territory.
“My Emperor, I have knowledge that a group of powerful representatives are meeting in secret.” Untar looked up from his seat. “The exact nature of these meetings is unknown to me, but it would seem most likely they are planning something other than military maneuvers.”
“Who are these ‘representatives’, Sir Horace? What do you know about them?”
“Only that they have met privately, to discuss matters of some … secrecy. I know nothing further.”
“And how did you come to learn this knowledge?”
“I have a spy. I will not say what relationship he plays with this group, except that he knows something of their activities.”
“And what did your spy tell you?”
“Your effort to win this war — your very life! — is in danger, sire. You must re-think recent events.”
“Are you saying I should abandon the war at this late stage? We are besieging the capital city of Baranur, and we have taken and burned several sections of the city, as you yourself have been so careful to point out just this evening!”
“Sire, if you’ll forgive me — ”
“How much more can We forgive you, this evening?”
Sir Horace blushed and caught his breath. “Sire, the sections of Magnus under our domain are all part of the section referred to as the ‘Fifth Quarter’. It is the single largest breeding ground for filth, poverty, and the criminal element in all of Baranur. We’re probably doing Baranur a favor by clearing it out and purifying it in fire. Haralan might otherwise have hired a fighting force to do just that.”
“And the rest of Magnus?”
“We have yet to cross the Laraka or enter the other two sections on this bank. There is still heavy, sporadic fighting in the Fifth, and the bridges that cross the Laraka are heavily defended. We will have to devise another means of fording the river.”
“So, you are advising me to retreat from Magnus, now that Baranur is feeling our divine grip?”
“I’m advising you that internal forces are planning to resist your advance on Baranur, and that if you don’t re-think your political actions, you may end up being removed. Your Majesty!”
“You dare threaten me!” Untar stood on his feet, kicking his seat backward with the force. Immediately, a guard stepped out from behind Untar’s position. He drew his sword and advanced on Sir Horace .
Sir Horace stepped back a pace. “My Emperor, you have known me for some years. You know that I do not threaten you.”
“Your implications, however, threaten my existence on this throne! Sir Horace, do you care to reveal the source of your knowledge, or the members of this ‘secret group’ you claim exists?”
“I cannot, sire.”
“Then I suggest you vacate my pavilion immediately. Do not think to suggest my course of action be changed on your word. You are not held *that* highly in my court.”
The emperor’s guard stepped between Sir Horace and Untar, and gestured toward the door. Sir Horace bowed. “Good evening, my Emperor.”
When Sir Horace was gone, Untar looked to his guard. “So, Thieryn … what do *you* think of Sir Horace ‘s tale?”
“Me, my Emperor?”
“You have been my personal guard for seven years, now. Your family has maintained watch on the royal lineage for generations. Surely, if I cannot trust your judgment, I can trust no one’s. Is that not so?”
“Your life is my first concern, my Emperor.”
I looked around at them again. The six of us, all representing major powers within the Beinison ruling class, sat in a small group several miles from the Emperor’s encampment. We were deciding the fate of nations. It was a mighty undertaking, full of hundreds of unforeseeable consequences. Most people could not contemplate the actions we were taking, for fear of losing control. But that is why we were the ruling class: we were able to maintain control, even in the midst of chaos. And Beinison was in chaos.
The dark priestess of Amante has made herself known to us, rhetorically. She asks questions that steer the others toward the answers she desires. They know she plans something; she does not hide it. But what? All I wish is the cessation of this bloody war, and a return to neutrality, if not outright peace. I feel peace, however, may take many years.
“And so, we are drawn on two issues,” the priestess of Amante spoke. “The continuation or discontinuation of this war effort, and the worth of the Emperor to Beinison’s future.”
“I, for one,” spoke the Knight of the Star, “equate the Emperor with Beinison. He has no heirs. And his sister is not well loved by the court.” He was referring to a scandal that had removed Beinison’s princess from the capital city, and forced her into a sort of self-exile in the countryside.
“There are other ruling powers in Beinison, aside from the royal family’s.” This was spoken by the nobleman.
“Such as?” I asked.
“Such as his own,” offered the Amantean priestess.
“Yes, you Amantean witch! Such as my own. But there are several others, and I feel confident that among the forces gathered here this evening, we can work out a temporary hierarchy until a situation that satisfies us all can be arranged.”
“An interesting concept,” offered the priestess. “And one which might well pit the religions against each other, giving more power and stability to the nobility. I do not relish a religious war with the priests of Gow, or the priestesses of Alana.”
“Nor do they wish one with you,” I offered. There were several chuckles. The followers of Amante were more assassins and thieves than commoners. Their religious order practiced sacrificial rites and self-inflicted pain, and harnessed the darkest of energies. On an open field, Gow’s warriors could annihilate the warriors of Amante. But it would not be a war fought on open fields. It would be fought in secrecy, under cover of night, with poisons and curses.
“There is yet another concern,” spoke one of my allies. “Sir Horace, a Knight of the Star.”
“What of Sir Horace?” asked my other ally, a nobleman.
“He knows about these meetings,” the first replied.
“Of course he knows,” the nobleman spoke. “He is the highest representative of my household, outside of Beinison. He was to be the representative of our family. I am acting in his stead.”
“And you have told him of our plans?” I asked. “You have told him that Untar’s life hangs in the balance?”
The nobleman stood up, nearly shouting his defense. “I *report* to Sir Horace. He must know what occurs in these meetings. Only then can I act out his will.”
“You have been foolish,” the Amantean witch stated. “Horace’s loyalties have always placed the royal line before Beinison.”
“The royal line *is* Beinison, bitch!” Hissed the nobleman. “Untar is the last of his line; his life must be preserved. The military has the power — ”
“The military,” I spoke, “has had all but the very worst luck, in recent months, Sir. That issue is not to be debated, at this time. Presently, the six of us are in conflict. There is no cessation from either side. But involving Sir Horace has been a mistake.”
“One that must be dealt with,” the dark priestess spoke.
“He is my lord,” protested the nobleman. “I cannot –”
“You have little choice.” This was the General, speaking at last. “Horace is an excellent knight, and your leader … here. But your true fealty lies to your family, in Beinison, and Horace threatens their existence by making our presence known to Untar. He must be dealt with.”
“But how?” my ally spoke. “He is still well loved by the emperor. No challenge to his honor would even be believed.”
“I shall arrange it,” spoke the Amantean priestess.
The Knight of the Star and the General rose simultaneously, placing their hands on their swords. The Knight spoke. “No assassin is going to stab Sir Horace in the back, witch. Your blood will spill before his.”
The Amantean priestess smiled, the wrinkles splitting face into a thousand pieces. A pleasant appearance came upon her, and it frightened me. It frightened all of us. We could hardly imagine what pleased her. “Untar himself will give the order for Horace’s execution.”
“You have summoned me, my emperor?” Sir Horace asked. Untar sat in his pavilion, on a temporary throne, his personal guardsmen in attendance. Untar’s royal cloak hung from tired shoulders, and his eyes stared forward with determination. Again, Horace realized how much older Untar had become. He looked, now, like an emperor — no more the youth Horace had known.
Untar’s gaze focused on Horace. “Tell me about your secret group, Sir Horace. I have reason to believe what you say is, at least, partially true.”
“I can say no more than I have already told you, my emperor. I am unaware of the exact participants within the circle. I could only guess.”
“I do not want guesses from you, Horace.” Untar stood up. “I want the truth! You enter my pavilion, approaching me in secrecy, and attempt to dissuade me from my assault on Magnus. Why?”
Horace stood silent; shocked.
“Then you inform me of a secret group, who decides my very fate. Why?”
“My emperor, I — ”
“THEN! Then you tell me that we are being ineffectual against Baranur! Why?”
“I — ”
“SILENCE!!” Untar approached him. Horace looked around himself, alone in the room with the Emperor and all ten of the Royal Guard. Untar never kept all of his guards with him at once. This was an inquisition, Horace thought, albeit a benign one.
“Tell me one thing, Horace,” Untar pleaded. “You have been well-loved in the court. I have found evidence that you plot against me. It is difficult to believe. Prove your loyalty to me. Who is in the group?”
Horace was stunned. “Emperor, I have never –”
Untar whirled suddenly, slamming the back of his fist against Horace’s jaw. “Do not insult me again! Thieryn, bring the other prisoner.” Untar’s personal guard signaled, and a body, heavily bloodied at the mouth, was dragged into the room.
“I have, as you can see, your protege, Sir Rosgood. His tongue has been removed. Heavy interrogation by Thieryn has determined that you were the principal element in leading your secret group towards your own secret ends, and the ends of your household. It is sad that his fealty to his own household crumbled in the last instant. Before he drowned in his own blood, he indicated your activity in the group, and lead us to these papers.”
Untar walked to his throne and picked up a parchment with Horace’s family crest. It was a parchment sent to Horace, requesting that he meet with the six members of the secret group.
“Emperor, that document only requests that I meet with the group. It indicates nothing else. I did not even attend those meetings! I sent Rosgood in my stead!”
“And so, your lies meet an end,” Untar said. Untar looked sad, worn, and at the edge of tears. Horace, with his very life suddenly depending on the outcome of this audience, still felt pity for Untar. He loved his emperor.
“This document,” Untar continued, “indicates a secret treaty that your family has initiated with Haralan, King of Baranur. It further gives you authority to grant special dispensations to the other members of your group, should they be convinced to pledge fealty to your family. YOUR family!” Untar slapped the scroll across Horace’s face. “What have you to say in your defense?”
Sir Horace was speechless. The document never stated anything of the kind, he thought. It only requested his presence.
And Rosgood … Gow, Rosgood had been his closest advisor. Untar knew this.
“There is nothing I can say, my emperor. I am innocent. I request a trial by my peers –”
“You request nothing,” Untar began. “This is treason on the highest level. We are in enemy territory, in the midst of war. And you plot against me.
“Thieryn!” Untar called. “Take him away. We want his head on a pike, in the middle of camp, and his body hanging from the tallest tree. Let us show his compatriots what happens to those that plot against our divine will!”
We met again, for the last time. This time, however, there were only five. We all had questions to ask her. Why Rosgood? Why implicate one of our own? But we knew the answer. She had decided it was safest for the rest of us, and had acted as she saw fit. We could not question her. We had had little to do with it. But I would still attempt to sway her from Untar’s death, or block her ability to order it.
“In light of recent events,” I began, “we are without our Sir Rosgood, a nobleman and leader. However, I feel his family should still have representation. Therefore, I suggest we honor his family by requesting they appoint a new representative.”
As I looked to the faces in the group, I knew they would all support me. No one felt comfortable with the dark priestess’ plan to remove Rosgood. He was not part of the deal. I stared at her. She met my gaze calmly.
“I agree,” she said. “However, since Untar is certain to begin moving his reserve troops against Rosgood’s household, it is unlikely that they will send another representative.”
“But they must be represented,” I said, “or this council is invalid.”
“Then I suggest we request the advice of the highest ranking official of their bloodline that is present at this war front,” Amante’s daughter spoke.
I agreed. We all did.
“Then we shall reconvene tomorrow night?” I offered.
“No,” she stated. “Our meetings have drawn to an end. We must act upon our majority rule.”
The General spoke. “But we must find the representative –”
Once again, she smiled. It was all she needed to halt his speech. “I am that family’s highest ranking official. Horace was my brother.”
We all stared. I was dumbfounded. I had attempted to circumvent her plans, but had given her the key. And then I knew why she had removed Rosgood from our circle. Now she held two votes.
“Then our mission is complete. Rosgood opposed your desire to remove Untar.”
“That was the issue in conflict. And now this council is no longer divided. We can act.” Peacefulness rested on her shoulders.
“I protest!” shouted one of my allies, Thieryn. “Untar’s life is my charge!”
“And yours shall be the sword that ends it,” she answered. There was nothing we could do. Our council had met to decide the fate of a nation, and we had done so. “Untar has brought his fate upon himself.”
Untar parted the tent flap that led into his private chambers, followed closely by his personal guard, Thieryn. He had dismissed the others, wishing to be alone in his thoughts, but Thieryn had refused to leave him. In light of recent events, the Emperor of Beinison must not be left alone — and could not gain the privacy he desired. He sat in a chair, facing the only remaining friend he had.
“Sir Horace denied the pamphlet’s contents, Thieryn. And I killed him. No trial. He’s dead.”
Thieryn’s face was stone like in its lack of movement. His lips parted slightly. “We had evidence of his treason, my Emperor.”
“Couldn’t it have been a forgery?” Untar’s eyes were red, fighting back the tears that came with his loss. His voice cracked, slightly, and Thieryn realized his Emperor, with all his power, was still only seventeen years old.
“This war has made me mad,” Untar said. “Killing the people I would rather be ruling … how am I ever to trust these people? How could I know they loved me as their Emperor? What good is it to rule over people who would rather have another in your place? Would they not rise against me? Challenge my divine right as Emperor, and put a false king in my place? Were I killed and Beinison placed in Haralan’s hands, would you follow him so loyally as you do me?
“This has gone on too long,” Untar continued. “I am too tired of this battle. Thieryn, what if I’ve just condemned an innocent man? Set this man’s head upon a pike, as a testament to what happens to loyal subjects? He was one of my strongest supporters, and wisest advisors — but the pamphlet was so public! Thieryn, when you arrested Rosgood so publicly, you tied my hands. I had to show that I am a strong ruler. But did I have to kill him? I became so angry with him — and now I have failed a man that believed in me. I have killed a loyal subject.
“I am not a great ruler, Thieryn. I am nothing. I do not deserve to live. Horace tried to warn me — I am wasting lives, here, and accomplishing nothing. All my friends are gone — Horace, Mon-Taerleor — I am so alone. Except for you, Thieryn. I have caused so many problems, cost so many lives … for what? And how can I repair that which I have broken?
“I no longer want Baranur. This cold, desolate, barren land, not at all the like the beautiful mountains of Beinison, the long sloping planes of the Central Region, the warm waters off the western coast. Nothing but cold. With cold-hearted subjects that would attempt to assassinate me at every turn.”
Untar looked up at Thieryn. “But I cannot go home, can I, my friend? How do I tell the ruling families that the thousands of lives I’ve cost them were for nothing? Their sons, daughters, subjects, dead at my hands and nothing to show for it! I must die here, in Baranur, alone except for you.”
Suddenly, Untar looked brightly up at Thieryn, the tears running down his face glinting in the torch light of his tent. A spark of hope glinted in his eyes, and something akin to madness.
“Yes! That’s it! There is no other course! I must die. It must be here. And now! Thieryn, you must leave me. I have to be alone.”
Thieryn stood in shock. He had been sent to kill his emperor, but now Untar wanted to commit suicide. Untar’s family line would be disgraced. But it would save Thieryn the responsibility of killing him. Killing a man he had sworn to protect, whose life he had guarded for over ten years. But if he let his emperor commit this act, then it were as if he had struck the knife to Untar’s chest with his own hands.
“No, my emperor, you must not!” Thieryn stepped forward, grabbing Untar’s shoulders and turning him to face Thieryn. “Yours is a proud line, full of noble emperors generations in the counting. Your father conquered two kingdoms and took them into Beinison, and now the nobles are your loyal subjects. Your grandfather defeated the Lederian Invasion, pushing back their forces and claiming half their own lands. You shall be as victorious, one day!”
Untar looked at him, confused. “But … I have failed. I have nothing. The other families — ”
“The other families can say nothing. You have taken two full duchies with this army … Taken them from the largest force Beinison has ever faced. You have personally lead glorious battles! You could order the troops to fall back to Duchy Pyridain, fortify our holdings, and prepare another assault for the coming year. In a few months, Haralan will have no choice but to treatise with you to spare his very life!”
Untar stood up. “You are right, Thieryn.” He moved out of Thieryn’s grasp and turned his back to wipe his eyes. “You are correct. I have nothing to fear from the other nobles. I am the emperor! They will listen to us! *We* are Beinison!”
Thieryn noticed Untar’s usage of the royal plural. He smiled, even as a tear fell down his cheek and he silently drew his sword from his belt. He could not let his emperor die like a cowering, weak, terrified child. But an emperor, standing tall, confident in his power … that was how his emperor should be remembered.
A quick thrust. Torn fabric. No groan from his emperor. No sound of pain. Just a little bit of liquid soaking into the ground.