Authors: Igor Ljubuncic
“He’s too young to really care,” he reasoned. Constance did not seem to agree. From what he knew, babies really started to pay attention to their surroundings close to their first name day. So he still had plenty of time before he had to begin considering the dangerous legacy of his liaison.
Midwife Irma glided past, scalding him with her eyes. Behind her, Junner was watching and grinning. Edgar looked like he was trying to steal a game piece from the board.
“I have to go, the army, you know,” he mumbled. Like a man retreating from a snarling dog, he fled the scene, and was almost too glad to step into the command lodge, only to remember he did not really fancy talking to his staff either.
There was a ripple of salutes, and the two dozen chairs screeched as men rose to acknowledge him. Only the guards stood silent and unmoving.
“Your Majesty,” Commander Faas greeted. “We require your consultation.”
Bart was glad there was one sane man in this entire camp. Faas had accepted Bart’s argument he was not the best man to discuss war affairs, so his ideas were not taken as suggestions, nor directives. There was only one order expected from him.
“Please.” Bart sat down. Ever since his arse had gained monarchical status, chairs would magically appear whenever it
yearned for a seat. Servants also rushed to offer him drinks and meats. He waved them away.
Colonel Ulrich cleared his throat. He pointed at the city map spread on the table in front of him. Bart could see the tip of the cane was touching the riverfront area. “Your Highness, we know you are concerned a direct assault might lead to heavy casualties. Well, one of my men had an idea. He thought we could try to infiltrate the city through the fish market. Swim upriver under the cover of night, get a few dozen men into the nearby streets. Then, they could cooperate with the women and maybe get the gate unlocked.”
“What do you think?” Bart countered immediately. He wanted to hear their opinion first.
Ulrich grimaced. “It’s very risky, but it’s neat. If we can do this, we save several thousand lives battering the walls down.”
“We could just hurl stones from afar, get the walls destroyed,” Velten said.
“Yes, but then the nomads can do inside the city as they please,” Ulrich disagreed. “We want them engaged heavily on all sides so they’re busy manning the walls, and then they don’t have time to cause damage or death inside Somar.”
Which meant once the battle started, it had to go on until the city was taken or the attack repelled, Bart realized. That was a costly prospect. Sieges were supposed to be a simple, dull affair. One army in, one out, disease, hunger, and maybe a big clash. There were not supposed to be thousands of women and children locked inside, the mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters of the men on the other side of the walls.
No one liked this, Bart least of all. He did not wish to go down in history as the man who made Eracia empty of women. That would be as good as killing everyone and saving them a generation of misery.
“The nomads could have killed them anyhow,” a baldheaded major argued.
“But then they know for sure we gonna kill them,” another nameless face added.
“This way, they wait. And maybe hope we break.” Bart recognized Colonel Maurice.
“What are the risks?”
Ulrich grimaced again. “If our sneak force is detected, the Kataji might construe this as a prelude to an attack and turn on our people. We might have to be ready to attack if the diversion fails.”
“Are we ready?” Bart asked.
He heard a cluck of yeses and noes, and then he saw the officers and assembled nobles exchange well-honed political glances, trying to outstare one another. Some favored action; others resented or feared it. Some preferred a peaceful course; others just wanted revenge. There were as many opinions as faces, probably more.
Master of Coin Lorcan did not bother to hide his disdain for the viceroy. “Every day we delay costs us eighteen hundred gold. Our coffers are near empty.”
That did not mean the man wanted war, Bart knew. He was just making an effort to be unhelpful. Bart had considered removing him, but he kept him just to confuse his nobles, those opposed to him, at least. He wondered if Junner might not want to earn some extra coin from a few more silent assassinations, but that would not do. Everyone would know and blame him for all those other deaths. Here, at this provisional court, he would have to practice more restraint.
His uncle was sending money, wagons of it, making the Barrin household poorer with each shipment. But there was no
other choice. Even the most fervent Eracians would not fight for their nation hungry and penniless.
“Basically, the army is ready. It could be readier,” Velten offered. “We can wait awhile longer, but we must make a decision before autumn.”
Make a decision
. His wife was in the city, presumably alive, held hostage. Liberating Somar meant many things, perhaps also saving his wife from the nomads. That meant making
decision, about Constance and his newborn son. He would have to battle these difficult choices, and none seemed simple or pleasant in particular.
Waiting was easier.
Getting rid of Sonya would almost be a blessing. But a tiny part of him wanted to see her, to see her reaction to the news of his stellar advancement, to see that old, familiar scorn, to see envy engulf her as he told her about his bastard. He wanted to see how she would react to his mistress. Then again, he didn’t really want any of these to transpire at all. It was a dark, bittersweet torture of his. The same way you fantasized about killing someone familiar, someone you hated. You imagined wielding a large sword, and you saw their head detach from the neck in a flurry of crimson blood, rolling and tumbling in slow motion. Then, you would just walk away as if nothing had happened. As a younger man, he had caught himself daydreaming that scene a few times. Only he had never acted upon it, because he had always feared being discovered, caught in the act and judged. Because he had been a coward, a noble, and a politician, a wretched combination.
Well, now he was leading armies, getting ready for war, getting ready to sacrifice thousands of his countrymen, and he could really order heads decapitated with impunity. Yet, the
responsibility, the weight of leadership, had blunted his edge, so to speak.
Make a decision
Bart realized he didn’t have anything smart to share with the staff, nor did he have a decision. In fact, he did not want to be there at all. He didn’t want to be anywhere around this camp. He was too distraught to read or write, too nervous to talk to people. He was not in a mood for hunting or poetry or anything really. He felt in a kind of mindless stupor, smothered in lethargy and anxiety.
“Commander Faas,” he said, “I would suggest you make sure your men are handpicked and well trained for the infiltration mission. Well trained. And I want volunteers only. Do not send them out yet. However, they should be ready to move within an hour of an order being given.” He paused. “That is what I’d recommend, but the decision is entirely yours.”
“It shall be so, Your Majesty.”
Bart rose, and they all imitated him. The gesture annoyed him. He cleared his throat. “Right. Continue.” He exited the house, squinting into the glaring sunlight. Such a beautiful day, but he really couldn’t smile.
Edgar was coming toward him, shaking his tuft-eared head. “Your friend is cheating, Your Majesty.”
. Almost. “I saw you pilfer a piece off the board, Edgar,” he told the old man.
The servant waved dismissively and shuffled away to whatever task had interrupted his fun. Or maybe he had just run out of coins.
Bart felt himself drawn to that rough-hewn table and the polished game board. Junner was carefully counting his winnings, lips moving in a foreign language. The count-turned-viceroy
sat down. The wood was undressed, and it wept sap in a few places, snagging at clothes.
“Tell me something, Junner.”
The Borei raised his head. “Family problems, Lord Count?”
Bart sighed. He looked around him. There were so many people coming and going, busy and pretending not to pay too much attention to his doings. He was grateful for what little privacy he got in this chaos. At least he had that.
“You could say that.”
The mercenary aahed knowingly. “That is why we have many women, Lord Count. Saves trouble. If there are two, you must choose one. Not an easy task. Makes things difficult.”
“I can almost believe that,” Bart admitted. Sonya and Constance, eating biscuits and sipping hot tea together, chatting, gossiping. One or the other would end up stabbed with a spoon before the tea cooled.
“You have a boy; that is good. Strong blood, strong ties. You have a future now. You have an heir. This is important. Men will respect you more now.”
“Not quite.” He knew the Borei was all too aware of the political dynamics in the realm.
Junner placed the last coin in a pouch, pulled the cinch tight, and made a complicated knot. Then he deftly and quickly stashed it into one of the many pockets of his hide vest. “Gotta feed my olifaunts now.” He stood up, and cursed as the resin drops on the bench sucked on his trousers like a giant limpet.
Bart pointed at the game. “What, we don’t have time even for one little game?”
Junner seemed wary. “You want to play against me, Lord Count? Why?”
Bart realized he was grinning, his worries subdued for now. “Why not?”
The mercenary was staring at him very intently. He looked concerned. “You gonna cheat?”
Bart chuckled. “Come on, Junner, what do I know about cheating?”
“Oh, that worries me, Lord Count.”
Bart flicked his finger at one of the clerks. The man started, almost dropping his ledger. “Your Highness?”
“Do you have any gold or silver on you?”
The man’s eyes went wide. “Your Highness?”
Bart shook his head. “Never mind.” He looked back at the Borei. “We will play this game upon honor. You will remember your winnings and losings. And then, afterward, you will go to Master Lorcan and ask him to pay you, should you win.”
“No money now, we do not write anything down, just… word of honor?”
Bart chuckled again at the terrified expression the other man was wearing. “Yes. Unless you wish me to ask one of those adjutants to bring me some paper—”
“It is fine. We are men of honor, you and I.” Junner had that greedy glint in his eye again.
Bart felt a tingle on his left cheek. He realized Constance was still there, watching him, a mix of forlorn worry and female persistence etched on her pretty face. He ignored her. He did not understand women, or children, but he sure understood how to lose money to a Borei mercenary. With perhaps too deliberate of a motion, he scooped up his pieces.
“You don’t mind if I start?”
Junner was leering like a monkey. “No, no, Lord Count. Please. But I’ll be watching your hands.”
Laughing, Bart set about having some fun and depleting the nation’s coffers a tad more, ignoring reality, his wife, his mistress, and his potato-headed bastard of a son.
ergei pulled on the reins and made his filly stop. She was a new animal, still somewhat unsure about her owner.
He had named her Marusya. A fine, beautiful beast with a dark, glossy brown coat.
Riding a horse through the city and out of its southern gate to stand in the field outside was perhaps too much of a symbol of pomp, power, and pride, but today, it was necessary. Very much so. He had a proper entourage tailing behind him, half his court and a sizable body of his soldiers, all dressed for the occasion.
It was not a majestic procession, he had to admit, and the circumstances were almost comical. Roalas was a fairly small city, and it didn’t have the space and splendor of architecture that could create or amplify the needed effect of awe. Instead, he felt like a lazy, petty lord who could not be bothered to walk for a few moments at eye height with his citizens.
Theo had told him Emperor Adam would never ride through the city’s avenues and alleys, always walk. This humble sacrifice seemed to have resonated with the common people without reducing his might in the slightest. That was something he kept in mind and tried to practice. Only this midday, the occasion called for a horse.
In the field before him, several hundred Athesian soldiers stood, bony, weak, their skin pale like slugs’. Well, these men had lived like slugs for the past year, hidden in dark, dank cellars and dungeons, awaiting their deaths. They were thin, their hair and beards grown absurdly long. They were filthy, their rags a uniform color of stale piss and shit and maybe food leftovers. No one would take them for the once brave defenders of the realm.
They were looking at him, eyes squeezed almost shut, still not quite used to the glare of sunlight beating down upon them. It was warm and nice, but some of them shivered, and others were stooped and frightened, as if the daylight could hurt them.
Sergei had mulled for a long while what to do with these men. Kill them? Let them go? Allow Sasha to continue her pointless hanging rituals? His sister was away, fighting her war against Amalia—unsuccessfully. The city was entirely his to govern. He had pondered for quite some time and then decided on a course of action.