Matias Arton, Lord Captain within the 6th Division of the Imperial Army, sneered at his captor.
Josef Rahlun caught the look of contempt and grinned as the unbridled discomfort of his prisoner warmed his cockles like mulled cider on a winter’s day.
Lord Arton, dining upright as the poets of history dictated a gentleman should, turned his jaw ever so slightly from the sluggish lout, a move so brash that a pair of rapiers would be necessary within the minute to settle this insult against Rahlun’s honor. Twenty seven and with a receding head of blond hair, he returned to his poached duck in an overly salted butter sauce.
“Go onnnn, the bottle’s already open and the count’s going to believe you drank it anyway,” said Rahlun. He punctuated each slurred remark with a jab of his fork, sending bits of sauce flying across the table. All across the city the crowds were cheering, drinking themselves stupid at the sight of the empire’s finest running for their lives thanks to Rahlun and his men retaking Luustev. Two city guards remained in sight of the captive Lord Arton and would keep him under close watch until the empire had paid for his release. “Go on, Lord Twat. Drink it. Driiiink it. Might be the last thing you ever have in Luustev. If so, the count will want you to leave knowing that our hospitality is a delight for all. Even if they are twats.”
“Owen should’ve hanged you,” muttered Arton.
Rahlun poured himself another glass of wine. “If only he had been able to find me. And if you had found me too. But we found you and that will keep us going for a while.”
“The empire won’t make the same mistake again,” said Arton.
“Ha! What mistake? Giving command of the city to you?”
“Not to me,” growled Arton.
“Your friend then, whatever the hell his name was.”
Arton fired off a glare that was as well practiced as his penmanship. “You are speaking to a lord.”
Rahlun glanced over one shoulder, then over the other, until he landed back on Arton. Then with a magnificent bow he tumbled one hand through the air. “My most sincere apologies, Your Highness! Please, may I lick the muck from your boots so the dirt does not offend your eyes? Or can I help lift such a heavy fork to your lips so that you don’t die of starvation?”
A fire swept through Arton’s chest as he foresaw the glorious demise of his captor and the surrendering of Luustev which would come with it.
Rahlun merely grinned at the man-child sitting nearby. “You were caught with your pants down to your ankles.”
“I was not!”
“That’s the story we’ll be telling,” said Rahlun, with a drunken grin. “Lord Captain Arton, dick cleaner extraordinaire for Ren Deqore, too incompetent to even hold a city for a week. You begged us, too.”
“I did no such thing!”
“‘Oh please don’t hurt me! I want to go home to Mommy and Daddy! I’m hungry and scared of the big men with the boom sticks.’”
“If you think I’m going to sit here–”
“I can think whatever I want, I now hold the city.”
“When my troops come back–”
“We will fire upon them without hesitation,” said Rahlun.
“We will take Luustev again,” sneered Arton. “I know what your men look like now and I will personally hang every last one of you.”
Rahlun belligerently shook his head. “Lordlings do not personally hang prisoners, they have executioners who do that for them.”
“I will make an exception.”
“That will go against the … what’s the word … tenants? That goes against the tenants of the empire. Captains give the orders, even if it is for a corporal to drop his undergarments so the captain can suck on his balls.”
Arton’s lips curled. “Is that what you do? Order your corporals about like that?”
Rahlun leaned back in his chair and roared with laughter. “Shit, if all the lords and captains in Carcosa’s armies are as useless as you then the free states have little to worry about! How the hell did you pompous twats get so rich if the best you can come up with is, ‘order your corporals about like that’? Perhaps the military is not where you are supposed to be. Maybe sitting in fancy dining rooms eating …” Rahlun poked at his dinner. “What is this? Swan? Swimming in a mon d’poo, whatever that is. If I handed you a pistol right now, could you even load it properly?”
“I’m a lord captain of the empire, of course I can load a pistol,” snapped Arton.
“Ah! That’s it! ‘Lord captain.’ Appointed to the position because you are a lordling,” Rahlun laid a hand against his chest, “unlike a genuine captain. One who has risen through years of sweat, grime, and service, and who knows how to actually control a city and take it back when invaders outnumber us ten to one.”
“I’ve sweated more than you’ll ever know,” said Arton.
“I have no doubt. Standing in your lord classroom while your servants lean over with their bare asses in front of you, a cup between their legs, then you lot disrobe and beat off furiously to see who can shoot the farthest? Hell, that’s making me sweat and I’m only thinking about it!”
“Belittling an officer of the empire will see you executed!” shouted Arton.
“And yet blood still pumps through my veins. Tsk tsk.” He couldn’t help but allow a grin to stretch across his face. “I hit a nerve though, didn’t I? ‘When will the boys at school stop hitting me? Why do all the girls scream and run when I try to talk to them?’ Life must be so, so hard, waking up in a soft bed with servants at your beck and call no matter where in the world you’ve traveled to.”
“Is this how you treat your count?” asked Arton.
“Not at all. I have nothing but respect for his family which is why you are sitting here alive and not floating dead in the river. It’s much easier for him to return if you are treated with a just Luustev reception and released back to your mommy and daddy. If you were even a halfway decent soldier you and I would be sitting here having a pleasant conversation about … I don’t know … ramrods and whetstones. But instead I find myself eating with someone who is less convincing as a soldier than a con man wearing a stolen uniform.” Rahlun wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Tell you what, I will bet you one decent ball suck that you couldn’t light a fire in the woods with your own hands, that you don’t even know the names of half of your company’s men, or … and let’s make this easy … that you can’t tell me the first names of each of those people in that portrait.” Rahlun pointed to the large picture on the wall, a regal painting showcasing a family of six children with the count and countess of Luustev in the middle.
Arton fell for it. “Count Willem vos Stahten and the Countess Elzbe.”
“Those are the easy two. Now the children.”
Arton resisted the urge to squirm. “Andren.”
“Five more. Be quick, my balls are tingling.”
“I am tired of your games,” said Arton, shooting a glare at his captor.
Rahlun roared with another burst of laughter. Even the two guards in the room smirked and shook their heads. “They are related to you and you don’t even know their names?”
“We are no relation,” said Arton.
“All aristocrats are related, even you know that.”
“No Arton or vos Stahten have ever married.”
“That doesn’t stop the orgies we hear about. Or probably the ones you hear about as well, because like hell they’d want you there.”
“We don’t orgy,” said Arton.
“No, you just marry your cousin who is twenty years younger than you, isn’t that right? She’d be, what, five now?”
“I’m twenty seven and I am not going to marry a child.”
“Ah! So you have yet to find a suitable cousin? Poor, poor you. Or maybe I’ve judged you too early. Are you betrothed?”
“No,” growled Arton.
Rahlun raised his almost-empty glass of wine into the air. “Then play things right and the lady Katrina up there might be yours. She’s the young one on the end holding the puppy.”
The name triggered a distant memory. It felt like a trap, though. Even the wry smile on Rahlun’s face was goading him … but for what purpose? Arton glanced back to the portrait, squinting to find some clue he must have missed.
Rahlun howled again. “You can’t even tell the count’s grandfather from the man himself! You’re looking at a painting that is fifty years old. That is count Willem’s grandfather, Renarr vos Stahten and his wife the countess Josephine. The second child from the left is Willem’s father, and the darling Katrina must be fifty three by now. If you don’t even know their names and how they tie the continent together, how can you be so sure that the Arton’s have never married a vos Stahten?” Rahlun chuckled again as he poured himself another glass of wine. “Twenty seven, even. Perhaps you were asked to leave school instead of graduating.”
Arton’s humiliation was interrupted when a knock came from the door. Rahlun straightened immediately, the drunkenness fading as work returned to the forefront.
“Captain?” called a voice from the hallway. “The ransom has arrived.”
Rahlun settled slightly and shot another grin at the lord to his side. “I have no doubt that the empire will consider Luustev to be a thorn in their side and so we will see you and Lord Owen again. I’ll have the kitchens prepare something more suited to your taste. Goat’s testicles, perhaps. When we’re sitting here again, with the same guards watching over you, I would like you to be able to name each of the people in the paintings surrounding us. And when you next see Marshal Deqore let him know that we found you hiding behind a curtain, with your lead balls scattered across the floor and your gunpowder in a heap. I would like you to assure him that you will take Luustev again. Please. And with Owen by your side. Nothing will cheer my men up more than seeing the return of the Lord Who Cried.”
A strain within Arton’s chest nearly tore him apart from the inside-out. He turned as the door opened, expecting to see a soldier in a uniform matching his own enter the room. Instead, a guard who could only have been thirteen years old strode in with a small bag in one hand and a sealed letter in the other.
Rahlun leaned back in his chair, his eyes paying close attention to the small bag being delivered to him. He cast a quick glare towards Arton. “Your father must not have much faith in you if that’s all he’s offered.”
Arton’s heart sunk even further. The seal on the letter wasn’t from his family but from Marshal Ren Deqore. Rahlun caught it as well. He took the letter and popped it open. With a quick smile he half-handed the letter to Arton, until humor got the better of him and he drew it back.
“Oh, if only I could be there to see it in person. I guess you’ll just have to tell me all about it when we see each other again.” He peered into the bag of gold coins. “Hmm.” He nudged the bag to see if there was any more. An annoyed disappointment came upon him as he stared back at Arton. “The next time we catch you I’m sure you won’t be worth as much, so please ensure that Owen is by your side. For now you are free to go. Henrik will show you to your horse.”
“Carriage,” said Arton.
Rahlun shook his head and tapped the letter with his finger. “At this point you might want to bribe me to allow you to stay, because Marshal Deqore has a few things he would like to say to you.” An ear-to-ear grin took over Rahlun’s face, showing off his reddened teeth from the evening’s wine. “Dearest travels, Lord Twat. By dawn I’m sure your tongue will be so far up Deqore’s ass that you’ll be tickling his tonsils.”
A shot rang through a distant corridor in the chateaux. It was followed by the crunch of a fist slamming through the shooter’s sternum and breaking his ribs. A cry escaped another man, a slice of metal against a hewn brick wall sounded, and a second body dropped in a heap, dead.
Rahlun jolted upright in the count’s bed. Outside the building the bells of attack started to ring. Men ran frantically below the windows, calling for arms. Everyone within a mile heard the alarm loud and clear.
Clang clang, clang clang …
Rahlun blinked at the midnight sky through the window. The empire wouldn’t be so bold as to storm the city at night. This was a rebellion by Luustev’s own people. He scrambled across the bed for his saber and pistol. With a quick flick he had his weapon cocked.
Two shots cracked just outside, closer now, striking the stone wall along Rahlun’s corridor. Two more slams of wrought metal pulverized the skulls of the guards. A whimpering breath escaped one of them before his life drifted away.
Rahlun stumbled to his feet and hobbled with one ankle lassoed by the bed covers. He hopped into recovery and threw himself next to the door to the count’s bedroom. It was only just in time. A thunderous crash buckled the door against its timber barricade.
It was impossible for a door that heavy to move that much without a battering ram. He certainly knew of great beasts that could send a door flying from its hinges; war buffalos and elephants alike, but nothing of the sort could fit through the narrow corridor of the vos Stahten chateaux.
The door crashed again, this time with an ax obliterating one wooden panel. Rahlun’s pulse spiked towards to oblivion. He brought his pistol up, fired, and heard the ball lodge into the gap of the mangled door. Two more slams of the ax struck, buckling the door further until it strained against the oak beam trying to hold it secure.
Rahlun glanced back to the bedside table. On top lay the paper packets of gunpowder and lead balls. Just below was the bag of gold coins from the empire.
Another crunch from the ax. The hinges wheezed and coughed out fragments of brick and mortar.
Against the wall was an upstanding display, home to the count’s ornamental swords, halberds, and shields; the weapons of an age long past. Rahlun threw himself against the far side and heaved, rocking the display until momentum propelled it forward. The heirlooms of the vos Stahten’s crashed to the floor, shattering the remaining peace in the chateaux’s night, but it was enough. The heavy display blocked two thirds of the door.
The ax and a monstrous grunt ripped another chunk of oak free.
Rahlun scurried to the side of the bed, loaded the gunpowder, wadding, and the lead ball, jammed it into place with the ramrod, and turned back towards his attacker. The iron juts holding the oak beam in place as a barricade had been jostled loose. From the corridor came a growl of frustration.
Rahlun’s heart lurched at the sound of his opponent’s despair; one that foretold a new plan of attack, one that made it clear that Rahlun had just made things worse for the both of them.
A whiff of burning gunpowder filled Rahlun’s nose, coming directly from the corridor.
With his heart rattling through his chest, Josef Rahlun threw himself against the side of the bed, scrambling to the find the switch that opened the passageway beyond. Just as his fingers reached it his ear drums ruptured as the door and display exploded into shards of tinder and kindling. Smoke billowed through the room, covering everything in a choking haze.
Rahlun staggered through to the countess’ bed chamber, heaving with every breath. The growl followed him from behind. The door behind him broke open with a single shove.
Rahlun reached the corridor, his eyes clouding over with unbridled panic. At one end lay the exploded remains of the count’s door. Before him lay the top of a man’s decapitated head with the hairs from his head holding his scalp onto the wall. The rest of him lay five feet below. Another guardsman was split almost in two across his chest.
Instinct forced Rahlun to turn and run, his saber jangling clumsily against the wall of the corridor. In front of him were the cries of reinforcements. Behind him the countess’ door flew open.
“To me!” shouted Rahlun, now dumbfounded by the sound of his own voice through his dulled and ringing ears. “He’s behind me in the corridor!”
He sprinted forward, reaching a T-junction and scrambling to a halt. On each side, two men with muskets lowered their arms as the shock of seeing their captain running at such a pace nearly caused them to open fire on anything that moved.
“He’s in the corri–”
The countess’ door was barreling towards them, a shield almost as large as the corridor itself.
One man’s finger trembled against the trigger, firing too soon. The ball hit the side of the corridor and ricocheted into the door coming at them.
“Hold until he’s–!”
The door swung in, separating Rahlun and two of his men from the guards on the other side. They had just enough time to hear a gasp of air before a chunk of metal slammed into one wall then into the other.
A hand, monstrous in size, bloodied and covered in flecks of wooden splinters, gripped onto the top of the door. The lower half lifted with ferocious speed until it was level with the ground.
The juggernaut now had a battering ram.
With a quick thrust upwards he collected the two guardsmen’s muskets and shoved the door into their jaws. Rahlun, armed with a spent pistol and a three foot saber, turned and–
His whole body was yanked back and thrown against the wall of the corridor. His head connected, sending a splintering migraine through his entire body. Then came the urge to puke.
He tried to get back to his feet. Beside him was the muted sound of Chelton’s chest being cleaved open, then the gurgling noise of Vilmer losing his head, it rolling away with a THUNK thunk thunk along the tiled floor while the rest of him bled out like a cask of wine, glugging beyond control.
Rahlun pushed himself up onto one knee. Something stomped on his sabered hand, breaking every bone. With a howl of agony, Josef Rahlun, Captain of the People’s Guard of Luustev, sworn protector of the Count Willem vos Stahten, caught sight of a hurricane wreathed in fury.
“Wait!” cried Rahlun. “You can–” A hand took him by the throat, lifted him off the ground, and shoved him against the wall.
The behemoth leaned in and growled. “Where’s the money?”
With a gasping wheeze and feeble point, Josef Rahlun was able to utter: “Bedroom! You can have it all back!” The grip around his throat squeezed and tightened, breaking his neck, snagging his wind pipe, and crushing all the arteries inside.
The giant dragged the death-knell of a man along the corridor until he came to a window. He slammed his ax against its frame, breaking it open.
The bells of attack still sounded. Peasants, merchants, and guards alike hurried about, trying to find the rest of the invaders. They wouldn’t find any. Moments later the body of their dear captain flew from the chateaux window and crashed to the ground three stories below.
The sun was just rising over Marshal Ren Deqore’s camp, home to the 1st Corps of the empire, totaling twenty five thousand troops. White canvas tents stretched for more than a mile. The chateaux of Edsbruk and surrounding buildings worked around the clock to feed the men and women of the army, repair their firearms and uniforms, and give them rest before making a push towards Ahruz. The wood fire smell drifted over the fields like a morning fog, the clatter of metal mugs clanged against the troughs of water, and a mountain of oats, butter, and warm milk was slopped into the bowls of the sleepy soldiers.
Lord Captain Arton and his rider were stopped at the foot of Edsbruk by two privates sporting a thin red line across each upper arm. Arton’s rider, a lieutenant, rode them forward. They soon came upon another check point, this one manned by a sergeant wearing a single triangular stripe, before they made their way to the inner sanctum of officers. Arton rode past the second lieutenant camps with their eight-pointed stars, then through the first lieutenants’ with their twin star insignia. Beyond the following barricade the banners beside each tent changed from stars to diamonds, then to two for the majors. Arton was sure he recognized a couple of the captains along the way but he could not recall their names. The wooden barriers ended and shifted to iron. Arton got to hear his lieutenant read aloud the letter for the sixth time that morning to grant them both access to the next circle of occupation beyond. The graveled road seemed to increase in breadth as the quantity of soldiers narrowed and the distance between each tent increased. Arton was studied by the crack-shot sergeants who recognized the look of desperation on a man’s face. Soon the check points were manned by no less than four marksmen and a lieutenant. The lieutenant colonels, colonels, and staff colonels occupied a house each on the ten acre grounds. The final iron barrier blocked the last stretch of road, leading to the chateaux. It was protected by the storm-like stares of the marshal’s personal guard. Inside the six story, one hundred and eighty seven roomed chateaux, resided a brigadier general, a major general, and – leader of the army and ten ranks above Lord Captain Arton – Marshal Ren Deqore himself.
The floor boards creaked under each of Arton’s steps. A staff major was at his desk in the grand entrance. “Yes?”
Arton cleared his voice against the dryness which had formed in his mouth. “Lord Captain Arton for the Marshal, sir.”
Before the major even had a chance to rise, a door from the side of the hallway swung open. A broad-shouldered dark skinned man thundered across the entry. He locked eyes onto Arton and glared as if the lord captain had just attempted to assassinate the marshal … and missed. He eyed the young man up and down, taking in his full rank, appearance, and description, and found the taste of maggot shit had formed in his mouth from the mere sight of him.
“Get the fuck in here.” With a further storm forward, the marshal pushed open another door beside the staff major.
Arton couldn’t quite say when he had stopped breathing but, as the major in front of him leaned forward to rest both arms on his desk, it seemed reasonable that Arton might never be allowed to breathe again. Inside, Arton closed the door over.
“You lost Luustev.”
“No, sir …”
“You lost Luustev.”
“Sir, the city was under Lord Captain Owen’s garrison …”
“And when he called you for help against the peasant revolt you did what, exactly?”
The strain to not look away made Arton appear as though he was about to have a fit. “I held my station, sir.”
“What?” Deqore slammed forward and stopped an inch from Arton’s frail body. “Your company lieutenant had something else to say. Any idea what that might be?”
The fit escalated towards a full implosion. “Sir … I followed the orders of major–”
“Your orders were to hold Luustev! When Captain Owen asked you for reinforcements you said what, exactly?”
“… That our orders …”
“No. You – said – what, exactly?”
Arton had never seen an eyebrow snarl before. He hoped to never see another again.
“‘Fuck him,’ is what you said. Or shall I flog your lieutenant for lying?”
“It … it was …”
“It was the easiest fucking decision you could have made! You had a hundred and twenty men guarding a bridge. Captain Owen had a hundred and twenty men protecting the chateaux, guard house, prison house, and parliament. This bridge of yours better be really fucking spectacular. I truly hope it surpasses the vision I have in my mind, not just in grandeur or architectural brilliance but one of such strategic importance that when I see it from my deathbed I will recant everything I have said about you since first hearing your name and ask for your forgiveness because that bridge is the greatest fucking thing I have ever seen!” Deqore drew back and yanked open the door. “Send Owen in.”
With the door still open, Deqore went to his desk, picked up a letter with a broken seal, and dropped it down again. “I’ve had word from your father. He has asked for some time in making amends to the empire. Perhaps the ransom we paid on your family’s behalf is enough to bankrupt your whole estate. Or perhaps your father is awash with money and just doesn’t really like you. Are you an only child?”
Arton’s chest heaved as a dozen conflicting emotions hit him at once. “No, sir.”
Deqore thumped his finger onto the letter from Lord Arton senior. “Make no mistake, you just cost yourself and your family a lot of money.”
A well-timed knock came from the door. The staff major appeared. “Lord Captain Owen, sir.”
Deqore grunted to allow him in. Qehl Owen was twenty four, shorter, younger, and tubbier than Matias Arton. He had wisps of ginger throughout his light brown hair and was able to hold a higher level of nervous dignity while standing at attention.
Deqore glared at the pair. “Which one of you comes from a family with a title?”
“I do, sir,” they both said.
“And which of you joined the army as a private?”
“I did not, sir,” they both said.
“Which of you joined as an officer?”
“I did, sir,” they both said.
“Wrong,” said Deqore. That stirred a puzzled look on the two young faces. “You joined as lord officers, carried in on cushions by servants because you happened to be a non-bastard child of a parent with an estate. I have generals who are supposed to salute you and call you ‘sir’ because you two shot out of the vagina of a high born woman. But mommy and daddy can only help you so much while you are here. You are in the army now. You know what comes first here? Following your fucking orders.” He fired a finger at Owen. “Your orders were to hold Luustev.” He fired the same finger at Arton. “Your orders were to hold Luustev. Those men and women out there laid siege to Luustev for three months and you two lost it in a matter of days. Can either of you even tell me if the Count and his family are still there or did they escape?”
The two lords shied away.
“You should both be flogged for gross incompetence but even I am expected to follow the orders of my superior. Luckily for you, he has assured the thousands of families born to privilege that they will continue to hold onto their titles when they serve the empire. But believe me, my superior is an army man through and through. He has come from being a private and has dug trenches, something that your precious hands know nothing about. He has slept in the fields with his troops while you lot fight over who has the best pastry chef in this very camp, all the while having your clothes cleaned by a handmaid and mended by your own private stewards. Do either of you even know what a thimble or boot polish looks like?”
Deqore eyed them careful. “You’re in the army, you have no family rivalry anymore. None.” He pointed at Owen and addressed Arton. “He is now your best friend, the man you are going to go through hell for to keep alive.” He did the same to Owen. “And he is your best friend, so all past grievances are now forgiven.” Deqore pulled a drawer out from his desk while shaking his head. “A hundred and twenty men in your command and you didn’t even send one to help.”
He opened an envelope and pulled out several faded sheets of paper. “One of you fled your post, the other has cost us a lot in ransom money. Neither of you are competent to lead despite your rank giving you the authority to do so. But you swore a fifteen year oath to the army and the army will hold you to that until your time is up. Should either of you return home without our consent you will be executed for desertion and your family will likely be stripped of their titles for harboring you, do you two understand?”
“Yes sir,” said Arton and Owen.
“We’ll see,” said Deqore. He held a sheet of paper out to each man. They both took hold of it and noticed what appeared to be a map of an hourglass shaped landmass. “There are two things you will do. I won’t dare ask if either of you’ve heard of the Deseran States because I don’t think I could handle any answer you give me. It’s the tiny speck of three principalities between the Barah Ocean and the Dengah Sea. You are both going there to find a diplomat from Tryste by the name of Theros Reed. He’ll be in one of the cities they have there. You are to get a feel for the mood. Meet with the beggars on the street, meet with the rich families who can remain discreet. The Emperor wants that land and he wants it without having to fire off a single cannon or musket. You two will find out how to make that possible. Theros Reed knows the region, he knows the families of influence. He loves his own pomposity so speaking to two lords might actually get things moving quickly. It should also be interesting to see you two suck up to someone you can’t stand. Should you fail, you will be the first aristocrats in history to become lord privates and the only ones with a permanent assignment to Xagat.”
Arton slumped an inch each. Owen struggled to swallow.
“Good, we’re now speaking the same language,” said Deqore. “You will complete a second task. The central principality is home to Prince Akson Nel Renard.” Deqore raised an eyebrow to check if both of the young men had heard of him. “Thank fuck for that. The moment he killed the God Who Fell he became a stark raving lunatic, devoid of all sense of control and unable to speak an intelligible word. One of our inquisitors has convinced the Emperor that the Prince might be able to speak the god language. If true, the Emperor would like the Prince’s help in translating the ancient texts we’ve uncovered from the Dyugaa compounds, writings which might reveal the birth of mankind and the truth about the gods; greater or otherwise. Tread carefully. If the Moqaran leaders learn of our plans they might have a knee-jerk reaction and destroy all notes written by the Prince, his doctors, and the people who see him. I’ll say it again: tread carefully.” Deqore shifted his glare from one man to the next. “Have you understood every word I’ve said?”
Both Arton and Owen nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Then fuck off.”
At the foot of Lord Captain Owen’s tent, one marked by a crown and diamond, and the family banner of a wren in flight, was the aide-de-camp, Jon Salaz. “Lord Captains Owen and Arton, welcome back.”
“Lord Captains Arton and Owen,” corrected Arton. He was met with a quick sneer from Owen.
“My apologies,” offered Salaz. “I have the details of your assignment from Marshal Deqore.”
“I know the assignment,” said Arton, as he searched for a tent bearing a boar. “Go to the middle of the desert, find a diplomat, convince a madman to translate ancient writings.”
Owen glared at the back of Arton’s head. “If you’re going to be this much of a shit then how about you talk to the Prince about his crippled mind and I speak to the diplomat and the people who will serve our cause?”
“How about you suck my dick?” suggested Arton.
“I’d need a telescope to find it!”
“Is this the same telescope shoved up your mother’s ass to see where you came from?”
“I lost sixty men because of you!”
“I don’t give a shit,” snarled Arton.
“No? How many did you lose?”
“I don’t know and you shouldn’t care.” He ripped the plans from Jon Salaz’s hands then, with a shaking head, he glared back at Owen. “How the hell did you fuck up so badly that you were overthrown by peasants with pitchforks?”
“They overwhelmed the guard house and took the muskets.”
“Oh, they just ‘took’ the muskets.”
“Yeah, and the gunpowder.”
“Peasants who spend all day shoveling manure managed to learn how to use a musket?”
“I didn’t say they were peasants, you did,” snapped Owen.
“If you must know, they were the former city guards dressed like peasants,” said Owen.
“Oh, that makes it so much better! Your men couldn’t recognize city guards dressed as peasants!”
Salaz stepped in front of the two aristocrats and raised both hands towards their mouths in a bid to silence them. “My time is more valuable than yours and I will not be repeating myself to either of you two. I’ve arranged an escort for you and for people to work with you, so if you follow this plan to the letter it might keep you two alive.” He yanked his plans out of Arton’s hands and unfolded the pages. “You’ll be traveling with merchants, as merchants.”
Arton shook his head. “What?”
Salaz glared in return. “I’ve arranged for a group of you to travel from Edsbruk to Dilar. From there you will–”
“No no no, I am an officer and I am not going dressed like some haggling charlatan,” said Arton.
“From Dilar you will take a boat, all of you, as merchants, where you will land in Eresdel.”
“Do you have any idea who I am?”
“Or that the Emperor has personally called upon my family’s help?”
“I have heard.”
“Good. Then you will know that I am not pretending to be some beggar of a salesman who can only afford to stay in flea infested barns with the likes of him!” said Arton, with a quick nod to Owen.
“You will be going in disguise and you will not breathe a word that you are there on behalf of the empire.”
“Why not? They wouldn’t dare touch a lord, an officer, or a citizen of the empire. If they did, we would rain enough lead on their heads to kill every last one of them. We just go in, let them shit themselves that the empire is looking for a diplomat loaded with connections, and tell them to hand over the Prince senior and his god language notes if they know what’s best for them. How many people live there?”
“Nine thousand,” said Salaz.
“Shit, is that all? You can do that with a single brigade. Send in four thousand men and two thousand cavalry and we’d have Moqara in a day.”
“Oh yeah,” murmured Owen. “Nothing easier than sending a brigade into the desert at a moment’s notice.”
Salaz glared at both lords and shook his head. “You’re going as merchants. End of story. Only when you get to Moqara can you freely improvise.”
“Wait, that’s it?” asked Owen.
“That’s not a plan.”
“The plan is to get you into Moqara. From there finding Theros Reed and figuring out how to get close to the Prince is up to you two.”
Arton stepped forward. “And why would a group of merchants be looking for a diplomat from … where’s he from?”
“Where the hell is that?”
“East of Moqara, across the Dengah Sea.” There came a call from the barricade. Salaz glanced over, confirmed his suspicions, and carried on talking while walking away. Arton and Owen begrudgingly followed him. “There is only so much I can do from this end. Thankfully, the merchants you will be traveling with have experience in Dilar, Eresdel, and Moqara. This is a regular trip for them. They know people. One of them is from Moqara and should be able to get you a meeting with the palace.”
“Fan-fucking-tastic for him.”
“Him, yes,” said Salaz. He stopped to watch the arrival of the most ferocious man he had ever seen. The stallion he rode in on, a mix of gray and black, trod forward with each hoof shaking upon the immense weight of the journey. Its lungs heaved for air while its head jostled faintly to one side as though delirium had finally set in.
Dakahvin dismounted, ripped the satchel of gold coins – Arton’s ransom – from the side of the empire’s horse, and powered forward. His face was bruised, his jaw scorched from gunpowder. His hands were cut and wrapped in makeshift bandages. He turned his eyes briefly to Arton, burning him from afar, and without breaking his stride he dropped the satchel to Salaz’s feet with a heavy thump. As he walked off, Arton and Owen took note of the bloodied ax strapped across the giant’s back, chipped and gashed without the slightest of remorse.
The stallion – having galloped through the night without rest – took one step forward and collapsed to the ground, dead.
Arton and Owen glanced back at Salaz. The aide-de-camp had the smile of an inquisitor, grinning from ear to ear. “If you have any final words that you want your families to hear, write them down and Marshal Deqore will be more than happy to pass them on when he sends his own personal condolences.”