Cenedras roared in triumph as he finished inside the bedmaid, then rolled over and collapsed in a heap. “Whoof,” he expectorated, “that was a good one.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“I said ‘yes,’ my Lord.”
“Pardon, my Lord?”
“It’s Highness, not Lord.”
There was an awkward pause, but she did not say it.
“May I go now, my – your Highness?”
“Mm?” He was already half asleep. “Yes, yes, go.”
She was making an unhostly racket getting out of the bed, and he thought of mentioning it, but then the tent flap slapped open. He did his best to snore loudly.
“Get up, brother.”
He groaned theatrically as he lifted his head and eyed his younger brother. Ardromor had wavery brown locks and a cream face, dull brown eyes, and a tapered beard hiding a humorless mouth, more likely to presage constipation than a smile. He was in full plate mail, enameled the color of bronze and lined in false gold. For all his grim determination, his eyes were cast downward, as though he had never seen a naked woman before.
She was still gathering up her clothes, hiding nothing. That was the best thing about these fiery Zaljan women: none of that false modesty found in the Monosi courts, always freezing and whimpering “maybe we shouldn’t,” until he started to agree with them. He might keep this one for a few more nights. Once she tasted the capon and extra rations, she would return willingly enough. Cenedras was not wise, but he was wise enough to know that his charm could not win over everyone. Luckily, he was also rich. An entire kingdom was at his command.
When the naked woman finally departed, and Ardromor could breathe again, Cenedras crawled out of bed and treated him to his own nakedness. “What is it, dear brother?” he asked.
He stared at the top of the tent. “Scouts have reported an army approaching from the west.”
“Finally!” he whooped. “We’ve been sitting here half a year!”
“All the same, good news, yes?”
A steward or a speller might have goggled at that, but Ardromor knew the king’s humors. “They will destroy us if we do not form up to meet them.”
Cenedras dismissed that at once. “I won’t abandon the siege. We need more men. Oh!” he pointed at his brother. “You’re back!”
“I am. Thank you for the welcome.”
“How did it go? In the south?”
“We took the town with no problem. It was called Ubror… something like that. We took the ships from that other port town and sacked them. It’s secure. We can only be attacked from the west.”
“Outstanding. And the bay is closed?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Forgive me, Ardy. Ships are new to me.” Monos was a landlocked nation. Had been a landlocked nation. Now, at last, they had access to the sea.
“Ships are new, but I understand how a blockade works. I am not new to siegecraft.”
True enough. Ardromor was in his middle twenties, yet Monos was a warlike land, and only rarely lived even a decade of peace. It was surrounded by powerful nations, and perforce must poke those nations betimes, lest the kingdom appear weak. And when they were not sparring against foreigners, they were trying to destroy each other. His Uncle, King Dalabar, had proven that well enough.
“How do you intend to deal with these attackers, your Highness?” Ardromor asked, still staring at the pinnacle of the tent.
Cenedras rubbed his beard of dark gold. “We need more men.”
“It took you a month to raise what we have. These attackers will be here in a day, two at most.”
“Early reports say over three thousand horse.”
“That’s a lot.”
“Yes. Your Highness. That is a lot of horse. There were no foot to be found. The scouts suggested they had been encamped for a few days. It may be they are waiting for the brunt of their troops to catch up to them before they meet us. If they have three thousand horse alone…”
“They’ll have even more foot.”
“Yes. Your Highness. They will have even more foot.”
“Still. Maybe they’re still waiting. Who knows where their foot are?”
“Unless they’re on the other side of the country, they are too close.”
“How do you know? How big even is Zalja?”
Ardromor rolled his eyes. “They will be upon us long before reinforcements arrive.”
Cenedras nodded and nodded, and rubbed his beard. “We have to get inside those damn walls.”
“Yes. We have to get inside the walls. That’s what a siege is.”
“If you’re so clever, then tell me how.”
They had conquered five towns as easily as knocking a drunken cavalier off his horse, but none of them had walls. This city, Dalsaman, had walls. They had spent a week cutting down the northern forest and building siege engines, but it was still a gamble. It was hard to gauge the inside forces, and once they closed the bay it made sense to starve them out. Now, though.
“It may be time to risk the attack,” Ardromor offered. “It’s that or be crushed.”
“How inventive. Then we’ll be the besieged party.”
“Better than crushed.”
Cenedras crossed over to his wine casket and poured himself a flagon of ale, sitting on a camp stool as he drank. His brother stood, now staring at the bed instead of the top of the tent.
“Your Highness. We have gained good plunder from this foray into Zalja. It may be time to count our treasure back home.”
He snorted at that. “Treasure. Good grains, some quality bullocks and pigs. Some gemstones from that one old man, that was nice. No. We can’t turn back now. We have ports, Ardy. We have the sea! At last!”
“We could pull back to that port town. Supror… whatever it was.”
“It has no walls, lackwit! We’d never hold it.”
“We cannot hold here either!”
“Dammit!” he shouted, for no particular reason. “Get me inside those walls, or… or…” He finished his ale and threw the flagon onto the bed. He stood and strode outside to make water.
If the encampment had any objection to their king standing naked in their midst, none voice such concerns. It was midday, and the camp was active. Nearby, some squires and grooms were watching a pair of curs rip at each other’s faces. Farther off, some camp follower was trying to sing a spell to the hoots and applause of the men around her. About a mile north, he knew the fighting pit they had dug would be full of frustrated warriors, venting their pent up energy against each other. Cenedras wondered how many men were venting their frustrations inside willing women just now. It seemed a wiser use of their time.
He sighed with enormous relief as he pissed upon a small clutch of pinkish flowers. They sprung up against his onslaught, but in time the yellow shower matted them down into the dirt. “Look!” he chimed with childlike delight. “I want something, I will it, and it happens. This must be what it’s like to be a king!”
“Your Highness,” Ardromor drawled, hi brow in his hand. “Why are we here?”
“For. The. Port,” the king explained, slowly so his brother might grasp it.
“You set out from the Holy Isle to seize a port?”
“I set out from the Holy Isle so the Prince of Hosts would bless my mission, so the peasants wouldn’t think I was a murderous heretic like our Uncle Dalabar.” The Holy Isle of Acciano sat in the middle of a great salt lake called the Sea of Trials. The Monosi had mastered rafts and boats centuries ago when the Holy Isle was first discovered, but salty though the Sea was, it offered no access to the true sea. Even as he contemplated it, it made more sense. “We need these ports, Ardy. Every one of our neighbors commands the sea, even the savage forest men to the south, and they eat mud and fuck their own sisters.”
As the king was shaking himself off, his brother’s voice grew softer. “Cenedras, no one will ever mistake you for Dalabar. I don’t doubt the peasants fear you already, and the lords see you are a conqueror. You surely have some support from the Hosts, or the Prince of Hosts would not have blessed you.”
“You!” the king pointed to a snot-nosed boy with yellow hair, with his free hand. “Lay out my clothes at once.” The boy stared in horror, then rushed into his tent.
“Is that even your squire, Highness?”
“I’m the king, dammit. All men are my squires.”
“Cen, please,” and for the briefest moment, Ardromor’s sharp face softened. “You have proven your worth. You are not Dalabar. Let’s go home.”
He looked off to the southeast, at the great wall of Dalsaman. Even from this far away, he could make out the men walking its expanse, armed no doubt with great bows and well-hewn horns. “Dalabar was a murderer, and a madman, and a fiend,” he said, “but he was not weak. That’s why he died of burst bowels in his privy, and not at the hands of his victims.”
“Do you intend to have many victims, your Highness?”
“How many rebellions has Monos had? Thirty? Forty?”
“What, in all of history? At least forty, I’m sure.”
“Our dynasty is scarcely twenty years old. Our grandfather was a murderous lunatic, our father was a murderous lunatic, our uncle was a murderous lunatic, and the entire nation has every reason to assume that I will be a murderous lunatic.” He snapped his fingers. “The instant I appear vulnerable, they will rise up and destroy me.”
Ardromor looked him over and raised a brow. “Then perhaps you should not look vulnerable, your Highness.”
Cenedras rolled his eyes and ducked back into his tent. The boy had dumped half his wardrobe onto the bed and was picking through it like a robin trying to find a worm amidst strings. He cuffed the boy on the back of the head and spurned him back out, then pulled a white linen shirt and blue quilted doublet from the pile. Dalsaman was not exactly freezing, but it was much colder here than in Monos.
“Where is my damn crown?” he wondered.
“Where are your damn pants?”
He turned to his brother and smiled brightly. “Prince Ardromor, was that wit I just heard escaping your nonexistent lips? Wait until I tell the peasantry. They’ll insist you replace me on the throne at once. Long live Ardromor the Clever!”
“You’re not on the throne, your Highness,” he answered, back to his sour self. “The throne is over five-hundred miles north of here. If you fear for it, perhaps we should return so you can sit on it.”
He had his shirt and doublet on, but left the rest of his clothing on the bed as he wandered about in search of his crown. “How far away are the walls of Dalsaman, brother? How do I sit within those? Ah, here it is.” He remembered now: the woman had tried the crown on briefly before tossing it aside. They all want to wear the crown, he thought with a snort. “What was that girl’s name?”
“That was Lady Khiad, or something like that. She is the widow of the Lord of Makh.”
“Which one was Makh?”
“The second town we took.”
“The one with all the salt and gemstones? No wonder she was such a good tumble. Well-fed and rich. Make sure she finds her way back to my tent tonight, I’ll return another one of her jewels.”
“They’re not jewels, whatever they are. Crystals, pretty to look upon, but unrefined and gaudy, none of them set in any band or crest.”
“Who cares what they are?” he countered, lying on the bed with his crown and his shirt and his doublet and nothing else. “They’re dead rocks. It’s the woman who’s alive and warm. What was her name?”
“Lady… something. For Hosts’ sake, Cenedras, will you focus?”
“On what? I’m still waiting for you to tell me how we’re getting in those walls?”
“We have the siege engines.”
“Which you yourself insist will be insufficient.” He sat up at once. “How many other women of rank do we have here?”
“You just finished, Cen.”
Ardromor’s eyes narrowed further. “A dozen, maybe more.”
The king snapped his fingers. “It’s so obvious, isn’t it!”
“I hope not.”
“We ransom warriors all the time.”
“Warriors. Not innocent maidens.”
“Maidens? Brother, I fear you have a thing or two to learn about bedplay.”
“There, I must yield to your superior experience, your Highness.”
“Without doubt. It will give them pause, if nothing else. Whoever these attackers are, they won’t just barrel over us if they see a dozen of their ladies are in our power. We’ll negotiate ransoms, and while you’re drawing that out for weeks, I’ll return with more men!”
He blanched at that. “You mean to abandon your people?”
Cenedras punched the pile of clothes. “Somebody has to gather more troops!”
“They will come to your banners, or they will not. Who hoists the banners does not matter.” Ardromor seemed to be thinking over his words carefully. It looked like it hurt. “Your Highness—”
“We’re alone in the tent, Ardy, for Hosts’ sake.”
“Cen,” he almost shouted, “if your plan is to draw out negotiations for ages, that will require a lot of tall talking and clever speeches. I think one of us excels at that, far more than the other.”
The king lied back again. “Ahhhh, when you’re right, you are right. Sounds like fun, too. A shame, though, I am getting bored to death here. I was hoping for a grand ride along the coast, through the woods of Westheart. But when you are right…”
Ardromor nodded, tapping his nose with his finger as his mind finally got moving. “Still. This could work. Yes, this could work, Cenedras. Who should we send back? Sir Harrold is a swift rider.”
“Not some knight, they’ll never flock to him. It has to be a lord. Summon the high lords to my tent.”
“At… at once, your Highness?”
Cenedras sighed heavily. “Fine, fine, I’ll put on some pants. Just do it.”
It was half an hour before the high lords of Monos had all appeared. Monos was divided into eight cantons counting the Holy Isle, but only four of the high lords had joined him in this holy quest. There was not enough time to call their banners, the others had insisted; the king had marched too soon. He would learn the truth of that soon enough.
Young Lord Massam of the Hilldren, as ever, was the first to arrive. Just shy of twenty, the boy lord was eager as a puppy in all things: especially in bed, to hear his ten-years-older wife tell of it. He wore a quilted doublet of red wool with sleeves and pantaloons of pink cambric, the colors of Vival House, all of which hung loosely on his slight frame. The Hilldren was one of the northern provinces, chillier than Monos proper, so in this the boy seemed well suited for their current venture. His black hair formed a curly cloud around his head, like a dark echo of Cenedras himself, but the boy’s face was still a smooth field, faint smatters of downy hair tufting his cheeks and chin. The king did his best to ignore the excitable young lord as he interrogated Ardromor about the enemy. Predictably, the boy had brought a pair of fat, runny-eyed knights and two spellers with him, all wearing the red and pink of his house.
Lord Eugeno Faberion was soon to follow. A short but broad-shouldered man, Lord Eugeno was jolly when sober and wild when drunken, though he had a temper on him no doubt forged to compensate for his stature. His large nose, bushy brows, and brown beard had many calling him the Geno the Gnome, after a race of mythical creatures that had supposedly dwelt under the hills of Westheart in ancient times. It did not help that his own banner featured a little green gnome wielding an ax, on a black field. As often as not he laughed off the moniker, but one could never predict when it might elicit a fury from him. Westheart was a large canton, stretching from the southern extremes of the west coast of the Sea of Trials well up into the western hills it shared with the Hilldren. Lord Eugeno was a southerner to the bone, however, and was clearly not prepared for the weather around Dalsaman. He wore two black tunics, a leather jack, and two silken robes of white and brown. He had a makeshift mantle and hat of fur from a pig-bear he had felled during their brief stay in their third conquest. Pig bears were quite small, and many had taken to calling them gnome-bears, but either way Lord Eugeno was warmed against the autumn chill.
Cenedras and Eugeno were regaling each other with their latest evening’s debauchery when Lord Borromeo Ruger of Gemosia entered with the Lord Senescahl of the Holy Isle. Lord Borromeo wore a puffed doublet of forest green accented with indigo pants and sleeves, with a gilt chain around his neck and fur-lined boots. The man himself looked like a great corpse: paled with age, wrinkly, and growing gaunter by the day. Called the Death’s Head behind his back, frightening though Lord Borromeo was, none would call him weak. Young Lord Massam had been spending their time at the siege practicing swordplay every morning to predictably comic results, and any time a sparring partner went easy on him, Lord Borromeo would step in to give the lad a lesson in humility. Borromeo was at least fifty and had been a loyal supporter of both Uncle Dalabar and Cenedras’ grandfather, King Harmude the Witch King. The two men had vastly different views on the Old Faith, yet the Death’s Head had supported them both without reservation. Cenedras felt confident he could rely on him as well.
The Lord Seneschal of the Holy Isle was known to be a speller, though he was not foolish enough to boast of it. Scarce past thirty and already balding, the fleshy man brought barely more than a thousand troops with him, most of them hostermen whose training would not have been properly regimented. Still, his support was a sign of the Holy Isle’s approval, and that was more valuable than even five-thousand men. He wore all blacks and whites, though he himself was not a hosterman, with a mantle of bear fur around his shoulders that Cenedras felt certain he had bought, not hunted himself. Being from the Holy Isle, the Lord Seneschal had brought twenty spellers with him. Rumors said some of those spellers were magicians as well, but as yet he had heard no magic playing in the camps. That was wise. Dalabar’s death was yet green, and it was still unclear what was pious and what was heresy, even amongst hostesses and hostermen.
“Greetings, honored lords,” he said warmly, his doublet and shirt finally joined by black hose and blue pantaloons, a brown cloak, and his crown: a gilded band studded with amethysts, rubies, and emeralds. It had been his grandfather Harmude’s crown, which he had taken from King Jon when he rose up and slew him in the Third Cousin’s Rebellion, ending the Denarando dynasty. He wore a sword at his side, because he could.
“What is the matter, your Highness?” young Massam asked for the eighth time. “Is it true that the enemy has been spotted to the west?”
“My little brother’s scouts spotted them as he returned from the successful campaign in Ordu to the south.”
“Ordu?” asked the Lord Seneschal. “My people tell me it is called Ubroruff.”
“Whatever it is, it’s ours now.”
“Will we be taking up positions to meet this new threat?” asked Lord Borromeo, ever to the point.
The Gnome erupted at that, dashing his flagon of ale to the ground. “We cannot abandon the siege,” he bellowed. “The second we ride away from those walls, they’ll all come flooding out and bugger our asses. Or worse, fly up north and reclaim the towns we’ve won.”
“No, I think the first option would be the worser,” Cenedras countered. Everyone laughed at that, none louder than Lord Eugeno. “Even if we broke the siege, which we shan’t, we may not have the men to meet this new foe.”
“And rest assured,” Borromeo added, “once they engage us, Dalsaman’s gates will open at last. We shall be eaten from within even as we are taken from without.”
“There’s worse imagery still,” the king answered, winning more chortles. “Someone must return to Monos, either to the Holy Isle or the royal seat at Geumsil, and strike my banners for reinforcements.”
The Gnome lit up at that. “Yes! Let those cowards and sleepy old men ride at last. ‘Not enough time,’ they said. Bah! You waited a month before marching, boy. Even those girls and spellers up in Embelmadro could’ve reached you in time. Bah!” Somehow, another ale had made its way into his grip.
“Perhaps,” Lord Borromeo assented. His armies had been the last to arrive before they marched. “But who, your Highness, do you intend to send back?”
Instantly, young Lord Massam as on his knee. “Let it be me, your Highness,” he begged. “I have long dreamt of seeing the Holy Isle. I pray you, let me serve you in this.”
“Would your wife were as willing as this lad, eh?” Lord Eugeno boomed, sloshing some of his ale onto one of Massam’s spellers. The young lord blanched at that, but remained kneeling.
Cenedras blanched as well. The boy was willing, yet if he struck his banners, who would come to him? Three of the missing lords were northerners like him, yet he was young and untested, largely regarded to be of small account. The lords of Albanesca, the Viper’s Nest, and especially Embelmadro were all hardened warriors, tried for generations against the Mornal hordes to the northwest. Their soldiers were desperately needed, but would they come at this boy’s call?
Fortunately, the Gnome came to his rescue. “No one will answer a call from this milk-pisser,” he bellowed. “Send me, y’Highness. I’ll shout so loud the Hosts themselves will come down from the heavens, if only to shut me up!”
The king nodded at that, but old Lord Borromeo raised a steady hand. “Respectfully, your Highness, Lord Eugeno is a southerner. If we are looking to secure the northern lords, a northerner ought call them.”
“Gemosia’s no more northerly than I am,” the Gnome roared, sloshing more ale on the speller.
“Gemosia is a little more northerly,” Borromeo hedged, “and I have spent my life in its northern reaches. It must be me, or Lord Massam.”
That was well said. Cenedras could not send the beardless boy in his name, and Borromeo knew it.
Ardromor sniffed at this. “You believe you can reach Geumsil and bring the northern lords? And Terminallia as well?” Teriminallia was the easternmost canton, and a breeding ground for keepers of the Old Faith, victims of King Dalabar. Cenedras was unsurprised when they failed to answer his summons.
“Gemosia shares a border with Terminallia,” Borromeo answered evenly. “I am confident I can convince them.”
“Yes, convince them,” the Gnome growled, warming to the notion. “And if that doesn’t work, convince them with your lances.”
“But can you do it quickly?” Ardromor pressed.
Borromeo sighed. “I have many troops, your Grace and his Highness knows. It will take time to move them.”
Cenedras tried to cover his surprise. “You would remove all of your troops, simply to call the banners?”
“As Lord Eugeno has indicated, they may refuse,” Borromeo explained, innocent as a child. “I would need those soldiers to stir the northern lords from their seats.”
Cenedras stared, a faint smile masking his thoughts. Borromeo was old and cunning, and powerful. The capital of Geumsil was within his borders. He might march home and summon the remaining armies, or he might march home and declare himself the King of Kings whilst Cenedras was trapped in Zalja.
“The issue is Terminallia,” Ardromor broke in. “We all know why they did not answer the summons. We need someone who can appeal to their faith, assure them that King Cenedras is not Dalabar the Kinkiller.” He turned to the Lord Seneschal. “Lord Lietro, do you believe you could draw troops to the Holy Isle?” The Seneschal’s eyes bulged at this. Clearly, he had not expected to be even considered.
Ardrormor had skillfully evaded Borromeo’s gambit, but the issue was not yet solved. “I have to go myself,” Cenedras muttered. “It has be the royal blood, or an army.”
“And we cannot spare any men,” Ardromor added. “But it cannot be you, your Highness.”
“Then who’s going?” Lord Eugeno boomed. “Royal blood? His son’s only two, no one’s charging to his banners.”
“Forgive me,” Lord Borromeo said, soft and respectful, “I do not understand what is wrong my offer.”
“Your Highness,” Massam whined, still kneeling, “I beg you again to heed my request. It is northern lords you need, send a northern lord to retain them.”
“They’d answer his baby before they’d answer you!” Eugeno bellowed, spilling yet more ale. The discourse soon dissolved into shouting, groaning, and threats both veiled and otherwise.
Ardromor took the king’s arm and led him out of the tent, seemingly unnoticed. “Cenedras,” he said as calmly as he could. “We must withdraw. None of these lords can be trusted to summon the rest of your men, and to bring them back to you. If you go yourself, Borromeo will seize your army. Face it! There is no one equal to this task.”
Cenedras stared at his brother. Boring, predictable, and loyal as a dog, yet determined, fierce in battle, and as royal as himself. “On the contrary, dear brother,” he grinned. “I know just the man.”
As expected, Ardromor took a moment to pick up his intent. What little color was in his face left it. “Your Highness…” he stammered.
“Go,” said Cenedras. “Now.”
Ardrormor walked as if to his execution, eventually picking up his pace as the urgency entered him.
The king reflected on his good fortune as he reentered the tent. Truly there was no task, no challenge, no desire, nor no disappointment that could not be overcome by a man with the wit to see opportunity, and the boldness to act upon it.
“My lords!” he cried out merrily, silencing their bickers at once. “I have excellent news!”