“Told you,” the Gnome whispered loudly, “the whole army’s full of girls. You owe me five crowns, Highness.”
Cenedras bit back his laughter. When Lord Massam insisted that the messenger had been a girl in armor, Borromeo and the Lord Seneschal refused to believe, but Lord Eugeno had heard such tales before. “To have the king’s debt is a rare treat, my Lord.”
“I know it, boy,” he spat back amicably. “If you’re short on coin, perhap you’ll grant me some land in its place. I’m weary of having the second-largest canton in Monos.”
“A conqueror with empty coffers is a poor conqueror indeed.”
“Just so, Highness. So, perhap I’ll take some of those mountains now? Unless you’re daring enough to carve me out some of Borromeo’s land. He looks sick enough to bide a leaching.”
The king laughed in spite of himself. A throne was a lonely place, and few lords or knights were as open and bracing in their humors as Eugeno.
“I have had more than one leacher try plying his trade at me,” Lord Borromeo said, steady as ever. “Some were ejected from the castle. Some rot in my dungeons. Some are less fortunate.”
“Ears like a Terminal bat, that one,” Eugeno shrugged. “Still, he takes his salt well. To you, Lord Borromeo.” The Gnome was in a mail byrnie, leathers, greaves, and a nasal half-helm. He wanted to be free to gulp down a skin or two of ale. Cenedras marveled such a small man could imbibe so much.
They had brought of company of twelve mounted knights with them. Lord Massam was riding at their head, along with his two fat retainers, which the king had taken to calling Dolt and Other Dolt in his head. He had intended to bring his two pet spellers with him as well, but the king and lords balked at that. “We should look like boys, bringing women to a parley,” the Gnome had bellowed, and Borromeo agreed. The Lord Seneschal hedged, but the king overruled any objection.
Of course, they were in fact bringing women. At the end of the little procession, their arms and legs chained and bound to each other by rope, where five of the noblewomen they had captured, one from each town. Borromeo himself had questioned them as to their station and value. He had spoken softly, but the threat beneath his gentle words was more obvious than the claws in a cat’s paw. Three of the women were the wives of prefects, which sounded to be the equivalent of lords. One of the women claimed to be a prefect herself, which they had laughed at until this woman messenger arrived. The fifth, from the southern town Ardromor had taken before running home, claimed to be the wife of a woman, some she-warrior in the enemy army called a paladin. The Lord Seneschal had graced himself at that and almost walked out. Cenedras considered asking the woman to prove her unnatural affections with him and a friend in his tent that night, but Borromeo’s questioning persisted without indulgence.
They were trotting behind them now in that awkward shuffle that chained ankles forced upon man and maid alike. All stared at their feet, even the proud lady-lord. Their fine silk and samite raiment had been replaced with white and grey shifts, without belts. They had been given brown woolen mantles, but all five insisted it was too hot for them. Cenedras would be sad to see them go, but the rule of war was a harsher mistress than any of them would have been.
As they approached the ridge, Cenedras saw a boy in armor, shaved as clean as a girl, bearing a great flag in his hand. It was peach colored, but upon it was a black lion’s head, roaring in profile. It made for an intimidating sight. His own sigil, a golden fox beneath the Holy Crown on a bronze field, was somewhat less grand. Perhaps it was time to take a new sigil and distance himself from his mad, murderous family. A lion in profile looked just the thing. Cenedras the Lion Slayer, they would call him. No one would need to know it was only a woman he had slain.
He could scarcely contain his wonder. Beside the girl-faced boy bearing the standard was a woman who looked more mannish than the bearded brutes who sat ahorse next to her. A block of a woman with a worn face and small eyes that glittered like beetles in a hole, she wore peach-and-black armor of lamellar steel and puffed black pants with greaves of black steel, a conical black helm with a peach scarf wrapped around it. Hanging from her saddle was a great round shield painted peach, with the black lion’s head upon it. It was only late he noticed her horse, an enormous black destrier. It could have been twin to his own.
There were only ten of them, and only three of them looked proper warriors: two with wind-blasted faces and shaggy beards, one missing an eye and the other missing both ears; and a third who looked about forty but still fit and healthy. There were three old men, one not even wearing armor but instead garbed in yellow and peach robes, and two more women who at least looked like women. Then the boy and his flag, and the woman herself.
Cenedras tried to play the king as they settled their mounts. It would be beneath him to laugh in scorn at this assembled party of lamed men, old men, girls, men who might as well be girls, and a woman who might as well be a man. He briefly regretted not bringing a speller along; someone ought to record this folly, and his own beneficent forbearance of it.
The rabble were all looking at the mannish woman, confirming her authority, so he spoke to her. “You are in charge of this… company, Madam?”
Before she could answer, the boy shouted out, “You stand before Ges Ra Ividar, who renounced the Prefecture of Dejitsa to be honored as Divine Commandrix in Satar’s Holy Army; who befriend the Euskati of the Al Skati Plains and won them to the Khan’s cause; who subdued the rebels at Bariat Uur; who interposed herself between the Khan and the assassin Warin; who rescued the wizards of West Mine from the Heretic in the Northern Mountains, may he burn eternal; who led the defense of the Ikhan Prefecture from the advances of Heqatia; who slew the Bandit King of Alwakha in single combat; who lifted the siege of the Holy Town of Bariat and slew the Heretic out of Khabar in single combat, may he burn eternal; who took her title from the hand of the Holy Archon of the Solulan and by the Light of Satar.”
Cenedras blinked at that. “My. That was… something. Forgive me, Madam, I’ve forgotten your name. Was it included in that laundry list?”
Her face may well have been carved of wood. “To whom do I have the honor of addressing myself?” Her voice was as heavy and indelicate as he expected.
He paused for only a moment before glancing at Borromeo, then fixing his eye on the Gnome.
“Hm? Oh! Well sirs, or ladies… whatever you are. You stand before Cenedras, the Fourth of that Name, the hundred-and-twenty-third King of Kings of the Unbroken Line Divine.” He continued looking. “Who, ah… who conquered the town of… Yabrad, retitling it Cittuvio in the Monosi fashion. Who conquered… uh… Mahk, and took its gems and salt. Who… conquered…”
The old man in robes leaned forward and whispered loudly, “Mansaikhan.”
“Who conquered Mansaikhan. Who conquered…”
“Supra Janga. Who conquered…”
“Oh, come now!” Eugeno bellowed. “There he is. This is the King of Kings, Cenedras.”
“Pray forgive the clumsiness of this introduction,” he said, inviting an amused glare from the Gnome. “We Monosi are unaccustomed to such vulgar displays of vainglorious boasting. What brings you here, Madam?”
“I am charged to break this siege,” she answered at once. “Why have you invaded our land with no defiance nor writ of conquest? What brings you here, your Grace?”
“Highness,” the Lord Seneschal quibbled from near the back of their company. “A king must be called ‘your Highness.’”
“What brings you here, your Highness?” she answered, again at once.
He briefly considered a jape, but decided to try matching her severity. “You’ve heard it in my title, Madam. I am the King of Kings. All kings must do obeisance to me, and I have come to welcome this Zalja into my bounty.”
The earless man growled at that. “You’ve got a funny way of welcoming people, boy.”
“This man is a king,” the woman interrupted. “You will address him as ‘your Highness.’”
“Yes, Commandrix,” the grizzly man assented. “Your Highness, I look forward to welcoming you on the field tomorrow.” His one-eyed friend grunted amusement at that.
The woman dipped her chin, and the little old man in robes spurred his mare forward a few steps, producing a rolled-up spell, sealed with a silken ribbon. “Here is our writ,” the woman said, “delivered from the hand of Khan Alswavidid Ro Harashmalim.”
He blinked at that. “Als… what now?”
The Gnome spurred forth and took the spell, tossing the ribbon on the ground and unrolling it. “It’s a spell, Highness.”
“Truly?” he quipped. He glanced at it before murmuring, “fetch a speller.”
“Yes,” the Gnome agreed. “Massam, fetch a speller.”
“I wanted to bring my spellers, but you insisted—”
“Nobody cares what you wanted, boy,” Eugeno countered. “Go get your damn spellers.”
Massam looked like to choke on his outrage. “I am the Lord of the Hilldren, my Lord. I am not your servant, nor your boy.”
“Lord Massam,” Cenedras broke in. “Bring your spellers. Now.”
The boy turned red as his doublet before turning to his Dolt, or possibly Other Dolt. “Fetch Miria. And Ruby too, while you’re at it. Quickly.” The fat dolt, whichever it was, rode off in silence.
Cenedras looked back to spy ten foreigners staring at him in wonder. “Your Highness,” the little old man said, “am I to understand that none of these worthy lords before me has the gift of reading?”
“Spelling is an unmanly art,” he answered. “We are more concerned with the sciences of conquest and rule.”
“Would you like to show us some of your science now, your Highness?” asked no-ears. The woman cleared her throat at that, though, and the grizzly man demurred.
An awkward pause of a few minutes followed. Idly, Cenedras made a show of examining the woman’s horse, so identical to his own. “Nice horse,” he offered. “What’s his name?”
“I have long since stopped naming my horses, your Highness.”
“Lost a lot of them, have you?”
“I have been in many battles, Highness.”
“Hm. I confess, I am quite new to conquest. I have only fought five battles thus far, though I still have my horse.”
One of the little girls spoke up at that. “And what a terror you must have been, to farmers and fishers and miners.”
“And little girls, yes.” He smiled at her, but none of the humorless Zaljans seemed to get the joke.
The girl shook her head. “Commandrix, do we need to treat with this… creature?”
“Dame Tiir, go inspect the cavalry lines.”
“Did you not hear my command?”
“Yes, Commandrix.” The little girl turned and rode off at once.
Cenedras snickered at that. “Your girls are obedient.”
“It is the chiefest virtue of a soldier.”
“But not of a warrior.”
The woman still stared at him, unmoved and unmoving. “As you say, your Highness.”
Cenedras sniffed. “Where is your king, Madam? Is this port city so meager to him?”
“The Khan does not waste his precious person on every mean matter that troubles his vast Khaganate.”
“Is the conquest and submission of his vast Kha-ga-nate so insignificant to him?”
Still, she stared. “We have not submitted. Your Highness.”
“You will.” He tapped his sword idly.
“I think not. Your Highness.”
“You think,” he scoffed. “And a bear would spell.”
“That would be quite a bear.”
For the briefest second, he gripped his sword handle. The woman’s eyebrows raised, only half an inch, but they raised.
“Is ought amiss, your Highness?”
“Where is the damned speller?” he called back to no one in particular.
“I’m afraid I cannot help you there, your Highness. We would be honored to read the writ to you, if you like. Every prefect and paladin is taught to read from an early age.”
“Yes,” he snorted, “we have heard tell of your unnatural acts, your witches and sorcerers.”
The little old man smiled warmly at that. “Would you care for a demonstration, Highness? It is nothing to fear, I assure you.” He was small and a little bent, a white fringe of hair around his bald head and a clownish long beard depending from his chin, and his fatherly grin was well salted with smug condescension.
“Magic is a woman’s weapon,” he countered, “and I do not fear women.”
“Then you need not fear me and my womanly ways. Yes, Highness?”
Cenedras narrowed his eyes. He knew there was a trick here, but Eugeno held the spell in his hand. None of these foreign warriors held any spell nor any magical instrument. The little old man looked to his commander, and the woman nodded slightly to him.
The beaten old mare took a few steps forward, and from his robes the old man produced a small rock. It was crystalline, a dark purple, like the many raw gems they had pillaged from Makh, along with the salt. He drew a pinch of dark powder from within his robes and sprinkled it over the dark gem. Cenedras’ eyes grew wide as the gem began to glow orange, and a few seconds later, with the sound of a torch flaring, it went up in a burst of flame, no larger than a man’s head, that quickly flew up and vanished.
Cenedras managed to maintain his composure, but his horse did not. Several of the Monosi horses whinnied and stumbled, and Nightmare reared up on his hind legs, kicking and screaming, rolling his eyes. Cenedaras clenched his knees tightly, but Nightmare reared and kicked so sharply he nearly fell over, and despite his efforts the king tumbled from his saddle, one boot stuck in a stirrup, to collapse onto the ground. His checked his fall with a gauntleted left hand, a blunt pain firing all the way up his shoulder, but at least he did not break his neck. Nightmare was a huge beast.
There was a snicker or two from his own lines, but most remained still. Cenedras blushed, not failing to notice that the Zaljan horses all remained still as sleeping babes.
As he tried to kick his boot out of the stirrup, Lord Borromeo spoke up. “How did you do that, wizard?”
“Oh, it is a long and intricate process,” the old man said dismissively. “It is impressive on first viewing, but too much bother most of the time. Why use Lesser Fire at a camp when flint works just as well?”
“Indeed,” Borromeo answered, unconvinced.
“You’ll not fright us with cheap tricks,” Eugeno said.
“I hope not. I am not myself a violent man, but I am sure my worthy colleagues look forward to meeting you on the field of combat.”
“That we do,” growled no-ears.
“Get me out of this damn stirrup!” Cenedras screamed at last. More laughter came from his own company as the Gnome dismounted and disentangled him. He leapt to his feet, his face throbbing and his hand on his sword handle. He was glaring at his own men, seconds away from demanding who had dared to laugh, but he managed to catch himself. He was not Dalabar. Still, he looked over the faces of the assembled knights, marking each of them, before turning back to the enemy.
“My uncle made an effort to wipe magic and its evil practicers from the face of Monos.”
“Did he?” asked the woman.
“Yes. They called it the Great Terror. For ten years his inquisition spread across the land, hanging, burning, and quartering all heretics.”
“Must not have been very good, if it took ten years,” said no-ears. At this, the Zaljans snickered, all except the woman.
Cenedras could feel the bile in his throat, but he swallowed it down. “He was very good. He murdered his father, his sisters, and his own brother the heir to the crown, so great was his devotion to the cause. I look forward to continuing his legacy in your lands.” He was breathing heavily, and he knew how foolish he looked threatening them from his feet, but he needed to say it. He would fright his own men if he had to; he could not look weak.
“Your Highness,” the woman answered, and for once there was the barest suggestion of emotion, “I look forward to your attempts.”
He could feel it, a bubbling in his belly roiling up to his heart, and flowing like white fire down his arm. He ripped his sword from his scabbard, feeling almost as though he were watching someone else do it. “Why wait?” he heard himself say. “Face me now, without your witches and black lions. Dismount form your horse, if you dare!”
As one, every Zaljan present drew their sword. Yet at a gesture from the woman, they all returned them to their sheathes. It made him feel half a god, to see so many react so to his naked weapon.
“Your Highness,” somebody said.
“Shut up! I am king! I am the King of Kings, and my word is law. Is writ!” he spat back at the Zaljans. He faced the woman again, and was stricken to look upon her face. She was still wooden, still even, but the corner of her mouth had quirked up into an unmistakable smirk, amused, scornful, and hungry.
He tried to stop himself. There was something in that smirk, he told himself. He still had time to stop this now. But he would not. “Do it!” he barked at her. “I’d defy you to be a man,” he almost giggled, “but I see the futility in that.”
She said nothing, but slowly dismounted, almost floating down to the ground in a single motion. She did not draw, but stepped forward, leaving her shield hanging from the saddle. She stepped forward, so close he could have impaled her at once, and said, quietly, “You are certain, your Highness?”
The bile was burning his throat, and he almost heard alarms sounding in his head, but he could not turn back.
“Highness!” shouted the Lord Seneschal, “there is still the matter of the hostages.”
He almost ignored him. He could feel the flush in his face, redder than Lord Massam, but he saw her, the look in her beady little eyes, and something there broke through where his own wisdom had failed.
“Highness?” he repeated.
“I heard you.” Ruefully, he shoved his sword back into his scabbard. The woman’s face did not change, the smirk grew no sharper nor softer, nor her eyes fiercer nor kinder, yet something passed between them. He knew, and she knew as well. Not one of her soldiers laughed, nor scoffed, nor even smiled, but they knew as well. Everyone knew.
He looked about. Lord Massam had returned at some point, bringing his two spellers. They were garbed in pink blouses and dark brown skirts, each bearing a sheaf of paper and a charcoal pen. One was doughy and mouse-haired, but the other was slim and blond, though her eyes were baggy, haunted.
Cenedras remounted his horse with practiced care. “Alas, a king’s heart is never his own. We have brought hostages, one highborn lady from each of the towns we have taken. We have more of course, who may be ransomed back to their families in the fullness of time. These five, however, we return to you as a token of the justness of our cause.”
Cenedras looked back at the Seneschal, and the little balding man’s reaction told him how he must look. “Release them. Now.”
Sir Harrold and Sir Remo, two of Lord Borromeo’s knights, led the five ladies over to the Zaljans. The grizzly men and the other little girl set about untying them at once.
“We are grateful for this courtesy, your Highness,” the woman said, back atop her horse.
Eugeno handed the spell to the blond speller with the haunted eyes, who unrolled it and read it aloud.
“’By order of Khan… Alswav… Alswavid Ro Harashmum… this offer is made. Retreat from the great city of Dalsaman and the pillaged towns, returning to your own borders of Monos upon the instant. As ransom for your ferocity in battle, the Khan offers twenty-five-thousand golden suns for your immediate withdrawal, offering another fifteen-thousand for your solemn oath never again to return into our borders. This offer is made on this, the seventh day of the tenth moon of the Year of Good Harvest, by order of Khan Alswavidid…’ of the Khan,” she finished.
Cenedras glanced at the enemy as she read. The two grizzly men grew shocked at the wealth enumerated. “Does your Khan think I am a harlot, to be ordered about in exchange for gold?”
“It is not our intention to offend you, your Highness, merely to secure your departure.”
“Worry not,” he said. “The insults of girls and cowards do me no harm.”
For the first time, the shadow of real emotion played across the woman’s face. “Do you name our Khan a coward?”
“Where is he?”
“Ruling his khaganate,” she answered sharply.
“As I rule my kingdom,” he shrugged. “Do all Zaljans kneel before magistrates instead of warriors?”
“The Khan is a leader. We paladins are honored to defend his rights and his people.”
“And how honored he must be, to hide behind your skirts.”
At last, at long last, he saw her wooden face darken. “Look for me on the field tomorrow, your Highness.”
“And you me. I’ll be the one with the crown.” He turned his mount and spurred off, soon followed by his men.
Long before they were out of earshot, the Gnome was roaring his praise. “Well done, boy! Well done. I despaired a moment, I confess it, but you topped them in the end.” Cenedras felt an absurd flush of gratitude creep up his spine despite himself.
Lord Borromeo rode up on his other side. “Your Highness, you have returned the hostages.”
“What of it?” he shrugged. “I won’t have that flat-faced harridan calling me a bandit.”
The old corpse sighed dramatically. “Your Highness, we were going to negotiate ransom for them.”
“We have pillaged plenty of wealth already.”
“It is not the ransom that concerns me, Highness, it is the time you meant to win through those negotiations. Time for your brother the prince to return with reinforcements.”
His face reddened at that. In the moment, he had completely forgotten.
“Bah! We have both sides of the river. My scouts and yours both say we outnumber them. Let them come tomorrow. Our victory will be all the more glorious.”
“I’m sure that will comfort the dead.”
“What do you know of honor,” Eugeno scoffed merrily, turning to the king. “He’s won all his honors already, old man doesn’t want anybody else taking any acclaim.”
Cenedras feared it was more than that, but let the matter rest. He had begun to think the entire parley was a defeat, but hearing the Gnome’s praise now, he felt it was a remarkable recovery. “It went well, all in all.”
“You fell from your horse, Highness.”
He marshaled his anger for saying lightly, “I shan’t again. You saw how calm their horses were. Ours are accustomed to their tricks as well now.”
“Ours, perhaps. What about the rest of our cavalry? And our foot? How will they maintain formation with their backs to the wall, when explosions of flame begin to cover the field?”
He nearly roared at that, but managed to simply spit, “Loud noises do not win battles.”
Borromeo shot him a souring glance. “Would that they did.” He rode off.