Authors: Igor Ljubuncic
“If we assume we never get Athesia back,” he began.
“That land is rightfully ours,” Lamprecht goaded.
“If we assume that, then we must ask ourselves, who do we prefer at the throne? Adam’s daughter? Or the Parusite king? Do we want religion back in the lives of the small folk?”
Doris squirmed. “The Parusites must not be allowed to control Athesia.”
“How can we oppose them?” Uwe again.
“We recruit armies. Simple.” Helmut was standing now, drawing attention to his fat bulk.
“Even the simple threat of our intervention could swing the situation in our favor,” Desmond said. “The Parusite king relies on our neutrality to complete his conquest. Once he has the whole of Athesia in his hands, we will be facing a much bigger problem.”
“We must try to save Lady Rheanna,” Stephan told them. “She is the only one among us who managed to gain the upper hand with Emperor James. Otis and Melville tried coercion
and trickery, and they paid with their lives. Perhaps we could convince Amalia that she poses no threat. Perhaps Rheanna might give up her claim to the throne in return for her freedom. We might forge an alliance with the Athesians. That way, we could legitimize all the fighting our troops are waging against the Parusites, Athesia becomes our protectorate, so we get our lands back, and that way, we gain power to threaten King Sergei.”
And we best the Eracians
, he did not add.
“Will Sebastian support us?” Evert voiced. He was drinking his third cup that morning.
That was a difficult question. The last thing anyone needed was a division between the Caytoreans. But then, it had already started two years back.
Empress Amalia was probably facing the same problem he was, wondering who among her followers might choose greed over loyalty, who might decide that warring was too risky and just go back to being a loyal Caytorean once again. Stephan sure did not favor an outright war, like Doris, but he knew that weakness and indecision would keep Caytor on the losing end against King Sergei.
Recruiting fresh private armies might make sense, too, but paid soldiers were almost always a bad investment. The High Council still had a lot of wealth, but it was draining quickly now that the roads west were closed. Peace in Athesia was imperative. Stephan wished he had Adam for his enemy. The one man who had turned the gangrene in Somar and Eybalen to everyone’s prosperity. Now, there was a bunch of crows, fighting over the rotten leftovers.
He looked at his comrades. They all waged their own personal wars; they all had their hidden motives. He would not put it past some of them to have engaged in secret negotiations with this or that ruler. They had plotted against Adam, tried to
rally imposters against his bastard. Bloody Abyss, James himself had almost been an imposter.
Stephan didn’t like the fact they would have to face Amalia. Women were difficult. The young empress had seen her little empire destroyed, and still wouldn’t budge. He had no idea how her defeat might have changed her, but he did not expect any miracles.
Rheanna’s plan had been genius. She had gone for the simplest solution of all, marriage. Empress Amalia remained without a husband, and that made her extremely vulnerable and yet immensely powerful. She could easily offer her maidenhood to any of the three realms and see them fight for the privilege. Reconcile with Sergei, marry one of his surviving sons? Reconcile with Eracia, find a suitable noble? Among those who still lived, that was. Offer herself to the High Council?
Who might be a lucky candidate?
A name popped into his head.
Now, if he could somehow convince his fellow councillors that it was the sensible thing to do. He doubted they would sympathize with his logic and ambitions. They all wanted to get richer and more powerful the next summer. That was the one thing that had never changed. Neither the Feoran Movement, nor Emperor Adam, nor all the wars had ever affected that.
Lady Rheanna herself was a valuable asset, but what she stood for was even more critical. If she died, there could be no peace with Athesia. If Amalia killed her, the High Council would be forced to side with King Sergei. No one wanted that. For generations, the religious fools had kept to themselves in their sunny south. Their presence in the heart of the realms threatened everything.
There would be a new civil war, Stephan knew. He just knew. The mercenaries serving Amalia would turn against one another, switching sides as this or that Caytorean paid for their services. The councillors would be forced to commence on a journey of assassinations to keep their agenda afloat. After last year’s dreadful experience with the imposters, Stephan could only imagine the magnitude of terror that would gush through Eybalen and other cities.
Lady Rheanna had to live, if only because she symbolized hope for profit.
We take a stance, for a change
, he mused.
We go against the Parusites
. Not a pleasant prospect, but then, war never was. Only, for once, Caytor might actually come out as a winner. They had desperately avoided confronting their foes, one after one, and kept losing. This time, it could be different.
He had a plan. He had a scapegoat. What he needed to do was convince his colleagues to cooperate.
Then, a more troubling thought bloomed in his mind. If the empress somehow miraculously agreed to release her hostage, something she had refused to do the last time, what kind of reaction should he expect from Lady Rheanna? Would she be willing to forget the slight? Business as usual? For that matter, few of the nobles released from Roalas had any great love for King Sergei. In fact, most resented him, if only because he stood for something they never would. Worse, women were not as simple as men. They might take this kind of thing
The potential for catastrophe was immense. Two women, both with a taste for power, both sniffing round the title of “empress” like hungry dogs. Oh, there was not a bard in Eybalen who could put it in words.
I am the bravest man in the realm
, he thought. Because he was going to risk his body and mind and soul for the sake of national prosperity. And his own, of course.
“I might have a solution…” he told the council.
acmad stood on the table, holding the shrieking baby above his head. “I have another son!”
The crowd of his tribesmen exploded in a wild, loud cheer. Sonya had to cover her ears to numb the pain of their deafening roar.
Her captor handed the child back to its mother, then hopped down, shaking hands with his warriors. A very emotional display for such a primitive race, Sonya thought. Men ought to be aloof and distant from birth affairs, but she could understand Pacmad’s savage pride, even if it concerned yet another bastard, born to a lowly Eracian woman.
Seeing the Father of the Bear gloat over his offspring did not bring her joy. That was her weakness right there, the inability to squeeze babies out from between her legs. Every one born was a potential enemy, one that might interfere with her plans. But a frown similar to hers creased the face of Baroness Richelle, and that
bring her joy.
The whore had given birth to a girl. Pacmad had been visibly disappointed, Sonya markedly relieved. Her fear of becoming his second favorite at the court had come undone. Richelle might be a baby smithy, but she gave off rusty products. Like all stupid men, the nomads praised sons, always forgetting it
was women who brought them into the world. Now, Pacmad might fuck the baroness again and again, until she whelped him a son, but that gave Sonya enough time to plan and prepare.
Any day now, she hoped, any day now.
The feast began. Sonya moved to her place by Pacmad’s side. Two dozen Eracian women were serving food, moving gingerly about the already drunken crowd of nomad warriors, mindful of their ill tempers and groping hands. It was as if the siege around the city did not matter. Pacmad was celebrating the birth of his first Eracian bastard, and he would not let anything spoil his fun.
Sonya stabbed a quick look at the mother. Not a lady, even. Just some common slut, with a big nose on her silly red face. She seemed to be in shock, smiling inanely, probably wondering if the child offered her immunity against beatings or maybe promised her another hot meal or some trinket. Sonya had no idea who she was, and did not care. The woman was irrelevant, meaningless, a peon in a whole different game.
Sonya thought she should feel elated to have been allowed to sit by her captor. He had allowed no other woman nearby. For some reason, he had summoned her and placed her at the same table with his killers. A fleeting thought of a mass rape crossed her mind, but she quickly dismissed it.
Pacmad’s eyes were glazed. Was he drunk? She doubted it. He must be pretending. For him, this celebration was all about asserting his power. But it also gave him a splendid opportunity to study his men at their weakest, when they were relaxed, fed, and inebriated.
Sonya realized she was biting her forefinger. She stopped. She was doing that too often lately, and her skin was callused.
“Something on your mind?” Pacmad asked her, looking at her from the corner of his eye.
She cursed herself silently. She could not lie now. “Yes.”
He leaned on his right elbow, toward her. “What it is, tell me.”
“I am worried about the siege.” She stalled, confessing a different kind of truth.
Pacmad clapped his hands. This was a sign for the cooks to remove the crispy goat from the spit and start carving the meat. “Worried? Are you worried that I might win? Or that you might lose?”
The throne hall was unrecognizable, Sonya thought as she gazed around her. There was nothing familiar there. The space was crammed with tables and benches, filled with smelly nomads, the air filmy with soot and smoke from the fires. Once a symbol of national pride, it was now just a filthy altar where the Kataji chieftain humiliated the captive Eracians.
“I am worried that many innocents will die,” she stated carefully.
Pacmad grinned mirthlessly. “If your women do their job, the city will stand.” He shrugged with his left shoulder. “If they don’t, they will die.”
Sonya wondered when her brave husband might finally commence his assault against Somar. For the time being, he was tightening the siege, making sure not even a lone warrior could sneak out. The Kataji were completely isolated. Pacmad’s efforts at negotiation had failed utterly. Even the promise of treason by some of the Eracian lackeys had borne no fruit. One day, Lord Rotger had simply vanished, never to return. Soon enough, three other traitors had stopped sending their information. The situation seemed rather hopeless for Pacmad. He was outnumbered, and he had a den of Eracian women as fickle allies in the siege. Only a real fool would trust them.
Food levels were still decent, but soon enough, they would run out. With this kind of celebration, sooner than later.
Yet, the general seemed unfazed. Either he was hiding his fear or he knew something else. That infuriated Sonya.
As a loyal wife, she had to assist her gallant husband any way she could. That meant planning patriotic sabotage for when the assault finally came. The city guilds and businesses were firmly behind her. Eracian pride be damned, they all had men to avenge. Pacmad’s conquest was grinding to a bloody halt.
But the bastard was smiling, unconcerned, a mongrel.
Sonya was angry at herself for not knowing, angry for not being able to crack his secrets. Even now, after so many months of her most dedicated scheming, he still mistrusted her, still kept things from her, made sure she was jealous and misguided just enough so she could not hope to best him. Her best sex tricks didn’t seem to work. Her utter dedication, almost beyond being just a mere act, didn’t make much difference. Under any other circumstances, she would have felt privileged to have found such a man, one who truly deserved her respect.
As a soon-to-be queen, though, she was above such trifles. She had a duty to her nation.
Pacmad made a happy sound when a plump servant placed a large tin plate full of steaming goat before him. He picked the hot meat with his fingers, chewed loudly, studied her from the corner of his mongrel eye.
Sonya cracked a perfunctory smile when the woman placed her own portion before her. She picked up the knife and fork and sliced a thin cut.
Pacmad drummed his greasy fingers on the edge of the table. He was staring at her now. She could not read his gaze,
and that frightened her a little. Always, always, there was that tiny seed of fear that he somehow knew what she planned, that he had discovered Bart’s identity, that someone had told him about her plan. She never forgot he had Richelle and Aileen and all those other whores and that he might choose to replace her with one of them.
Finally, she had to admit, after a year of life-and-death scheming, she was getting a little tired. She could feel the end of it, the day Bart defeated Pacmad, and that hope made her nervous and weak.
“I haven’t seen a report on the city’s readiness yet,” he said in between mouthfuls. There was a thread of muscle or sinew stuck to one of his teeth, and he didn’t bother removing it.