Authors: Igor Ljubuncic
Others were there, too, each with his own shred of heroics, and Bart was wondering if these men should be forbidden from taking any more action, because their image had become more precious than their combat skills. Unfortunately, his officers insisted they should continue fighting, because they could not spare any warriors, great or otherwise.
The least Bart could do was lavish them with praise and money in front of their units.
His entire staff was arranged behind him in a proud semicircle, trying their best to look presentable, although some looked positively ill from too much wine last night. Uncle Karsten was there, not to be bested, and even Constance.
She had become quite cheerful in the last few weeks, ever since Bart had taken more interest in his son, ever since he had
decided to name the boy. It gave her hope that maybe, maybe Bart would learn to love the child and that she might gain her rightful place at his side.
He had named his son Adam. He loved the irony.
Constance was standing at the end of the line, shoulder to shoulder with one of her she-devils and a pair of bodyguards. Young Adam was perched on her chest, moving his tiny hands. Constance had brought him out so he would
some of the majesty. Bart was still convinced that children couldn’t really see, hear, or understand anything in their first year of life, but he had indulged his mistress.
“For your valiant service and selfless acts of courage in the face of certain death, you are each awarded a gift of one hundred gold coins, as decreed by His Majesty Lord Bartholomew of Barrin, the Viceroy of the Realm,” Velten’s aide announced. There was an appreciative sigh in the crowd behind him, coming from the common soldiers. This was a small fortune, but Bart did not doubt it would soon be wasted on drinks and whores. Such was the life of a soldier.
He stood a little to the side so he could watch both the heroes and his officers, and behind them, more importantly, a bevy of his lords and ladies. Both Countesses Anniken and Ernsta were there. While they had mostly kept out of his way ever since the attack on Somar had started, Bart did not doubt they kept scheming quietly behind his back, doing their best to make sure he was removed from power once the war was ended. There were others there, some who openly supported, others who covertly hated him. Margravine Diora seemed to have mellowed her opposition, but that meant nothing.
Well, Bart had new, secret weapons he intended to use.
He had unleashed his mother against them.
And he intended to have a quiet word with Lady Melicent, Sonya’s mother and his mother-in-law.
Shit and gold attracts all kinds of insects
, Bart mused, and sometimes, it was really hard to know the difference. They buzzed and buzzed, and their touch often left you feeling filthy.
He had no particular reason to hate the mother of his wife, except that she had birthed and educated her daughter, and he could not really let that slide. Unlike Sonya, she was far more delicate about her goals and ambitions and usually tried polite, shy charm first. Getting her daughter married to Bart had diminished her need to fight for wealth, so she had mostly spent the years at her family’s small estate in the southwest. Now, though, she clearly understood the peril, both of losing Sonya and—once Sonya was safely rescued from Somar and the war ended in an overwhelming Eracian victory—of not having Bart leading the nation.
That was probably the best motivator for Lady Melicent of Leighmoors to behave like innocence incarnate.
She stood near the other harpies, smiling softly, her eyes trained on him. Bart stared through her, pretending to scan the crowd. Commanders Faas and Velten were walking down the line of heroes, shaking their hands, asking silly questions, patting them on the shoulder or back—and handing them large, heavy purses of coin. The soldiers looked all too humbled by the attention, the demons of their experience hiding behind the tense lines round their mouths and eyes.
“I am honored to lead such brave men,” he blurbed into the expectant silence.
Applause exploded through the audience. Some of the soldiers hooted and whistled right into the ears of the nobles arrayed before them. Bart was pleased.
The ceremony ended, and the gloomy autumn morning descended once again. Not far away, Somar burned. The Eracians were holding almost half the city, having paid the price in seven thousand more dead. Fingers of black smoke rose from at least ten different locations inside the capital, and Bart knew the fighting would be fiercest there. Just like last night, just like two weeks back, the Kataji were fighting with mad ferocity, not giving up one inch of the occupied soil.
The bleak scene of troops marching to their deaths had become a routine. No one really paid it attention anymore. Most of the soldiers had toughened up, losing their humanity before they lost their senses. It made for a camp of brutal, cold, dispassionate warriors. If Bart had wondered about Eracia’s military before, he no longer did. He had secured the next generation of killers. Whoever survived the horror of Somar would be an excellent soldier of the realm for years to come.
Not all had the strength to shut their minds to the terrors. Every now and then, a blubbering idiot or a stone-faced man would be led away from the camp, to join the slow procession of cripples going to Ubalar, with a letter of early discharge and a tiny retirement bag, mostly loaded with coppers.
Still, the attacks continued, day and night, relentlessly.
Not stopping until Somar was freed.
Bart waited until the audience dispersed. He noticed some of his noble friends and foes trying to get near him, but he had instructed Major Paul to keep them away. He would meet them when he felt like it. What he really wanted to do was see Junner about his surprise.
Sloshing through old, regurgitated mud, Bart walked toward Junner’s garrison. It was well marked by a fence, with every third post flying a flag or some odd ornament, usually an animal head. The Borei made sure their privacy was respected,
even if they took every pain to disregard everyone else’s. Even from a distance, the size of those gray animals took Bart’s breath away. Every time. He could imagine them plowing through Somar’s lanes, leaving human pulp behind, some Kataji, some Eracian. Not what he desired, but he was beginning to wonder if he ought to get his mercenaries busy. Even if just for the sake of appearances.
Junner had more than proven his worth in the past, and Bart was indebted to him. Without the mahout, he would not be the viceroy now, maybe not even the lowliest member of the exiled Privy Council. Somar would most likely still be fast held by the nomads, and the Eracian pride would be in the gutters.
The mahout was standing near the entrance to their enclosure, talking to two other Borei. One of them was idly flicking his olifaunt switch against the post. Soon enough, Junner saw him approaching and grinned. “Lord Count!”
Bart kept his own grin away. “You promised me a surprise,” he said.
Junner turned serious for a moment. “Ah yes. Indeed.” He looked past Bart, at his small retinue of guards. “Alone.”
“Lads, make sure you do not lose any money,” he told his soldiers and stepped into the crazy world of the Borei. It was as if an invisible veil was lifted, to reveal charms, wonders, and smells. The color, the thickly studded mess, the absolute lack of any semblance of order assailed his senses. “How do you manage to run your camp this way?”
Junner clicked his tongue. “Ah, Lord Count. It is a disguise. Keeps thieves busy. What’s the point of sorting out everything neatly so your enemies will find it all easily?”
There was a mad logic to it, Bart had to admit. He realized the mahout was taking him toward a tent that had more
patches than original cloth, with a goat head bolted to one of its masts. There was an unusually large gathering of the Borei in front of the tent, and they seemed to be arguing. One man was holding a small notebook and writing feverishly in it; another was collecting money from the rest. A bet of some sort? Most likely.
“Come inside, Lord Count.” Junner beckoned with all the charm of an expert storyteller.
Bart entered and had to blink a few times until his daylight blindness evaporated. He had expected to find the tent crammed with loot and junk. Instead, it was empty save for a single chair and a table with breakfast leftovers on it. In the chair, though, there was a man, hands bound behind his back, legs tied to the chair legs, and weighted with a chain, his head covered with a black bag.
“Remember two years ago, during the Balance, how that Athesian empress kidnapped the Parusite heir right under his nose? That was brilliant, you have to admit. Well, we thought we ought to try something similar. So there you go, Lord Count, a present for you.” He approached the bound man and removed the head bag with a flourish.
Bart frowned. He did not recognize this…prisoner. It was a fairly nondescript face, made even plainer by a solid dose of beating. The man’s nose seemed to have been broken, and he had livid spots under his eyes.
Well, he could be a Kataji soldier
, Bart thought.
Junner chuckled, reading his confusion and anticipation. “We couldn’t find the Kataji general. No, that was too much of a task. But we managed to nab the chieftain of the Lomyedi tribe. Their clan is closely allied with the Kataji. This is their leader, Semgad.”
Bart remained standing near the entrance, his head spinning. “Your men sneaked into Somar? You managed to capture this man alive, amid all that chaos and killing?”
Junner nodded. “Chaos is our friend.” He chuckled again.
“And now?” Bart asked. He was talking to a Borei. Nothing was free. The frenetic chatter outside only strengthened his suspicion.
“A gift for you, Lord Count. We heard how your lords and ladies grumble about us being useless, so we thought to prove our worth. For you. For free.”
Bart smiled. “Nothing is free, my friend.”
Junner hissed. “Very good, Lord Count. You are learning.”
Bart realized something else. He pointed behind him. “That bet. It has to do with this prisoner.”
The mahout clapped his hands. “In a year’s time, you could become a Borei. Honest, Lord Count, you are such a quick learner. So…what do you want to do with the captive?”
They must be betting what my next action will be
, he thought.
. “You have interrogated him, I am certain?”
“And you have gleaned all of the valuable information this man could offer you.”
“So now you want to see what I’m going to do.”
Junner was waiting, his mouth open.
What now? Do I ransom this man back? Kill him? Torture him?
Bart stepped closer. “Are you Semgad, the chieftain of… the Lomyedi tribe?”
The tied man worked his jaw and gobbed a wad of red spit. It landed impotently between his feet. “Fuck yourself,” he lisped, his lips torn and swollen.
“On my honor, Lord Count, he is,” Junner supplied. “We have captured four of his men, too, and killed half a dozen during our risky endeavor. So what are you going to do now?”
Bart looked at his Borei friend. “I assume you have a suggestion.”
Junner closed his eyes and let out a small chirp of victory. “I knew I could count on you, Lord Count.” He approached the trussed nomad and yanked him to his feet, holding him by his right elbow. Then, he pushed him out of the tent, the large chain dragging. The prisoner seemed to be in a great deal of pain, and he limped stiffly.
Outside, the crowd of mercenaries went silent in an instant, all eyes on Junner, his captive, and Bart, who was wondering how much money this little game was going to cost him. But he would indulge the Borei. After all, it was his one genuinely fun moment this morning.
He was already contemplating the consequences of Junner’s raid. The nomads might get spooked, realizing their enemy could get into the city and abduct their officers and chieftains with impunity. In turn, this could trigger panic and a quick defeat, or make them do something rash, unpredictable, and extremely costly for the Eracians.
For instance, they might decide to finish off their hostages.
But it was too late for any regret. Bart was not going to stop. Even with half his army destroyed, he intended to keep on fighting until Somar was freed or every Eracian warrior died trying. Negotiations were out of the question. Anything less than a total defeat of the nomad menace was simply not acceptable.
So he knew what he had to do. He would not trade Semgad back. He had no interest in keeping him as a prisoner. At this
point in the war, the Lomyedi chieftain was just another soon-to-be corpse.
“Comrades, Lord Count has chosen to hear
idea,” Junner announced, to the obvious dismay of the other warriors. A handful of bags quickly switched hands. Bart realized he had just secured the payment for the previous night’s escapade. Junner looked at him. “We have this game. We play it with respectable enemies once they fall into our hands while still alive. Do you consider these nomads to be a respectable foe?”
Bart wondered what he felt toward the Kataji and the other clans. Resentment? Hatred? A definite dose of respect for their tenacious bravery and cunning. He had to admit that much. “Yes.”
Junner raised a hand and pointed at the man with the ledger. He mumbled something in his tongue, but it obviously meant more money for the mahout. “The game is called the Cinnamon Challenge,” the Borei said in Continental. All around, deft hands began producing all sorts of items, a tiny bag with a powerful smell of the expensive spice, a small water clock, a wooden spoon. “If the player can swallow an entire spoon of the spice powder before the water runs out, and survive it, we let him go. Simple, no? We play, Lord Count? Do you wanna bet?”
Bart glanced at the battered Lomyedi. He did not seem so defiant right now. “Continue.”
The mercenaries pushed the man to his knees and spread a white napkin before him. Then, carefully, they laid out a large, brimming wooden spoon of the copper-colored spice. It was worth its weight in gold, Bart knew, and to use it this way meant either genuine regard for the player—or utmost derision. He was not really sure what the Borei had in mind. Still,
he was not really sure what was so dangerous or enticing about this game.