“I’ll boil him alive in oil!” Cenedras screamed, tearing his throat. “He failed me on purpose, I know he did! I know it!”
The Lord Seneschal stepped so close he could smell the stink of his breath. “He can hear you,” he whispered forcefully.
“Let him!” he called out. “Let him! I’m still the king. My uncle drowned his wife in front of half the court, and no one so much as coughed at it! Bring him to me. He’s half dead already, let me finish the job.”
Lord Massam was fidgeting his fingers. “Highness, over half the men we still have are under Lord Borromeo’s command.”
“They are under my command,” he rasped. “I am the king. I am the King of Kings. They obey me!”
The Lord Seneschal took a step back. “Your Highness.”
“What? What!? What is it, oh wise one?”
“Your Uncle Dalabar was not yet king when he murdered your father and grandfather. Your Grandfather Harmude was not yet king when he rebelled against Jon the Cursed. Men need not be kings to get away with cruelty. They need only be powerful. And Lord Borromeo is a powerful man.”
Cenedras glared, breathing heavily. They were in the throne room of Dalsaman’s palace, a vast room of green-veined marble, lined with pillars, and a huge white dais with two thrones, each carved of full-green marble, draped in pale blue silk. A balcony ran all along the chamber, presumably for women to stand and observe court. About a dozen men stood guard throughout the room. There was one entrance for the main floor and one for the balcony. Even here, at the seat of Dalsaman’s power, they were too exposed.
They had less than two thousand men. In a single day, they had lost nearly thirty-thousand. All that remained were knights and a smattering of cavaliers. In the first hours of their plunge into the city, they had raided and pillaged at will, gleeful cries echoing against the screams of watchmen, women, and merchants as their weapons were broken, their shops were burned, and their lives were ripped away. But as the day faded and Cenedras surrounded himself with the few loyal men he still had, the precariousness of his position hit home. These were skilled combatants he had, but none of them was accustomed to standing guard. Standing guard was all there was to do now, and they hated it.
Dozens of them, probably hundreds, were still out sacking the city. It was an immensely wealthy port town, and there were treasures to be stolen everywhere. It was time for the king to reintroduce some order in his remaining ranks.
“Bring him in,” he said, and strode to the thrones. They were both the same size, so he arbitrarily chose the righthand one and sat. “I said bring him in.” No one moved, so he pointed at Lord Massam. “Bring him. Now.”
The fuzz-faced boy looked about to object, but his true nature won out, and he scurried into the antechamber. Cenedras put a head in his hand and gave himself a moment to reflect on how foolish he had been.
He should never have trusted his brother. Ardromor had grown up under the shadow of Dalabar, just as he had. He had watched their uncle terrorize the country, watched him imprison their sister Angellia, watched him stalk into the ritual chamber with his sword drawn, a half-dozen grim-faced soldiers following, and watched him stalk out with the blood of their grandfather the king, their father the heir, and all their acolytes on his sword. At least Cenedras had hanged on their uncle’s shoulder. At least he had stood in the man’s way, even if he was easily shoved aside. He had been twelve, not quite a man, but at least he tried something.
No, Ardromor was always one to stand and gape when he was too frightened to obey. No doubt he was standing and gaping on the throne in Geumsil, or else praying for guidance on the Holy Isle of Acciano, or whatever else the cold, humorless pustule did with his time.
Cenedras was not opposed to trust, as a concept. He had been fool enough to trust Lord Borromeo with the north gate while he himself stayed near the river. Kings should always go where the fighting is most dangerous, he had said, and Lord Eugeno bellowed his agreement. He had trusted the Gnome, and that trust had proved true, and now his one friend in this sea of fiends and fools had fallen into enemy hands. All because the Borromeo had let his forces be pushed away from the gate.
He entered the chamber as even-faced as ever. Lord Borromeo, oft called the Death’s Head for his pallid and wrinkly face, looked every inch his name in a black quilted doublet patterned with gilt diamonds, and demure black pants and stocks. Over his shoulders, though, he wore a heavy woolen cape; not quite gilt, but a rich yellow lined with black silk. He still had his golden chain across his chest, and his sword was at his hip. That was good. Cenedras wanted him armed.
Accompanying Borromeo were four of his own men. All knights, they were dressed in blue, green, burnt orange, and dark blue respectively. They two wore swords, but were still outnumbered by the king’s men.
“Your Highness has summoned me?” the lord asked, stopping a few steps before the dais, standing.
“A wiser lord might kneel before his liege.”
“Other men have accused me of wisdom,” he said evenly, “but I have never been so vain as to claim the title myself.”
Cenedras let a light smile graze across his face. Wisely, Massam and the Lord Seneschal had moved up to the dais to look down on the Death’s Head. The Lord Seneschal was at the king’s right hand, Massam was standing next to the empty throne.
“Good,” he said at last. “It is good you do not claim to aspire to wisdom, my Lord. I should have to tear that chain of office from her neck.”
“Your speech seems strange, Highness. Is ought amiss?” He stood there, brow raised, innocent as the morning, brazen as a carrion vulture.
“Lord Eugeno has been taken by the enemy.”
Borromeo had the gall to look dour. “Yes, a tragedy. I understand you had ordered him to fire the siege engines as we were flying into the city. It was an honorable end for him, covering our retreat.”
“We did not retreat!” Cenedras snapped.
“Of course, Highness, I misspoke. Regardless, Lord Eugeno was noble, and no doubt received honorably by his ancestors.”
“We do not know him to be dead,” the Lord Seneschal insisted. “The Zaljans seemed untroubled by our hostages, surely they must take high lords captive for ransom.”
“We’ll pay it,” the king said at once.
“Naturally,” Lord Borromeo agreed. “I believe your Highness has spoken more than once of the largesse he has acquired during this campaign.”
“I have. But Lord Eugeno’s ransom shall come from your own resources, Borromeo.”
The Death’s Head raised his brow again. “I should of course be proud to deliver Lord Eugeno from durance. To what cause do I owe this honor, Highness?”
“You delivered him into durance in the first place!” he spat. “You were supposed to hold the north gate, but at the first fall of arrows, you and your worthless curs ran like women in a rainstorm!”
“The southern approach was being massacred, Highness,” he answered, unfazed. “Should I have left your own troops to be utterly wiped out?”
Cenedras balked at that, chastened. It was true, but he did not want to admit it.
“Are we to believe,” Massam broke in swaggeringly, “that you somehow knew the southern approach’s condition? From the north gate?”
Cenedras stabbed at him with his finger. “Yes! Explain that, my Lord.”
Borromeo shrugged. “My men are knights. They ride horses. Some of them move about to ascertain the condition of battle. This is a vital part of warcraft, Highness.”
“Do not presume to lesson me in warcraft, my Lord!”
He bowed his head. Slightly. “Of course, Highness. You are young, not yet thirty, yet you have won every battle until now.”
“We have not lost!”
“Of course, Highness. I beg you to forgive my clumsy tongue.”
“I ought to have it out. This city’s starving. I hear Zaljans consider tongue a delicacy.”
“Highness?” the Lord Seneschal whined, “where have you heard this? I did not know.”
“Shut up!” he roared. “Lord Eugeno is taken, maybe dead, because of your cowardice, Borromeo. Tell me why I should not strike off your head and hang all your men for cravens.”
Lord Borromeo stood silently, patiently, letting the king’s wrath blow past him like so much hot air. It only made him angrier, but he knew if he kept shouting he would only look foolish. Just when the tension felt like to boil over, he spoke.
“Your Highness is of course free to do as he judges best. If you desire my counsel, however, I would point out that nearly one-thousand of our men inside Dalsaman are Gemosian. If you were to hang them, you would have well under a thousand men to control this city, which is now under siege by its own countrymen.” He let that rest for a moment before finishing, “Perhaps your Highness will do just as well with less than half his current manpower. Were it up to me, however, I would not wish to avenge the loss of nearly twenty-thousand men with the loss of another thousand. Were it up to me, I would perhaps choose to direct my efforts toward the enemy, of whom there are many thousands both within and without the city walls.”
“And what would Lord Eugeno say to that?”
Again, he shrugged. “Lord Eugeno was a bold, brash man, unafraid to speak his mind, without concern for whom he might offend.”
“Do you name that a fault?”
“I name things as they are, Highness. My outlooks tell me the northern woods are burning, and they say Lord Eugeno and his men are responsible.”
“Good. Good!” the king cried. “Now there’s no lumber anywhere. They can’t besiege us at all.”
“Good,” he agreed. “Lord Eugeno did all you ordered, and far more. And now he is captured. And if he speaks to his captors as he speaks to his allies, he is dead now.”
Against his will, Cenedras leapt to his feet and ripped his sword form his scabbard. “His is not dead!” he screamed, feeling his throat tear as he did so.
Lord Borromeo stood, and stared, and paused. The fingers of his left hand danced along the handle of his sword, but no more. “As you say, Highness.”
Cenedras blushed, and fumbled to replace his sword. “He is not dead,” he repeated lamely.
“It may be so. He is lord of the second-largest canton in all of Monos. He is valuable. But his men are certainly dead. If I had held the north gate, in defiance of all sense, my thousand horsemen would be dead.”
“And so would you,” he said, venomously.
He shrugged once more. “Perhaps. Perhaps I too would be taken for ransom, and have the caution to speak my captors more kindly. But my men would be dead, and you would be a thousand horse the poorer.”
Lord Massam, all but invisible for the last minute, took a step forward. “A lord who does not obey his liege is of no value.”
The Lord Seneschal fidgeted, but nodded along. “True, true, you should have obeyed your king, Lord Borromeo.”
“Certainly,” he answered, still looking only at Cenedras. “The next time my liege orders me to stand against a wall and die against obviously inferior numbers, I shall be sure to do so, lest I be executed for refusing.”
The king was still standing. “You disobeyed my order, Borromeo. Some would call that treason.”
The lord’s eyes widened, only slightly, and he drummed his fingers on his sword again. “Do you name me a traitor. Highness?”
“What else?” said Massam, emboldened now. “A disobedient lord is worth less than an untempered sword.” Only after speaking did he seem to notice the rhyme.
“Your Highness, please,” the Lord Seneschal objected. “We are surrounded by the enemy, in their own home. In these extreme situations, some leniency must be considered.”
Silence hung in the hair like a fog. Cenedras sat back down, drumming his own fingers along the arm of his throne. “Considered,” he said, idly. He glanced at the four knights Borromeo had brought with him. Each looked to be a seasoned warrior. He thought he had seen the one in dark blue beat Lord Massam to within an inch of his life on the practice field a time or two.
“Highness,” he asked. “What is your command?”
Cenedras flicked his fingers away. “Go. Assemble as much wealth as you here hold, and prepare to send an envoy out the north gate to treat with the Zaljans for Lord Eugeno’s release. Leave one of your men with me.”
There was the faintest pause before he answered, “Yes, Highness,” and Cenedras knew he had caught him off guard. He turned, gestured to the knight in dark blue, then strode out the hall as the others followed him.
The dark blue knight approached the dais and knelt. He had a close-cut head of brown hair that showed signs of balding, and a beard that showed more discipline than ferocity. He reminded the king of Ardrormor, if only a little.
Cenedras beckoned at the Lord Seneschal, who leaned in close. “Bring me one of your spellers,” the king said, “the one you trust most. I want your best.” The Lord Seneschal scurried from the room.
Cenedras looked down at the knight. “What is your name, Sir?”
“Sir Ullion Tietta, of Cheon.”
Cheon. That was the northernmost settlement in Gemosia. Despite his beard, this Sir Ullion likely had some savagery in him. “Stand, Sir Ullion.” He did so. “I’m glad to find you humbler than your liegelord.”
“All knights should be humbler than their lords, Highness,” he said with a self-effacing smirk. “Unwise to be otherwise.”
“And are you bold, Sir?”
“I’d be a poor warrior otherwise, Highness.”
“Good. I charge you, Sir Ullion, to sneak outside the walls of Dalsaman and steal a horse.”
He blanched at that. “From the enemy encampment, Highness?”
“Unless you find one handy elsewhere.”
Cenedras thought he could hear Sir Ullion gulp. “And what am I to do with this horse, Highness?”
“You will ride it back to Monos, in search of my brother Prince Ardromor, and deliver to him a spell, telling him of our plight.”
“When shall this be done, Highness?”
“Tonight. Do what you must to prepare, and be here at nightfall. You may go.”
As Sir Ullian departed, Cenedras looked around. Lord Massam was staring at him wide-eyed. The king desperately needed someone he could rely upon, but who was that person? Not the simpering boy before him, nor his fat guards. The greatest warriors were all Borromeo’s, he knew it, but how might be bend some to his will? Lord Eugeno was a priceless ally, he knew that now, but could he be recovered?
The Lord Seneschal scampered back into the room followed by a woman of middling years, starting to grow stout, her yellow hair tied in a braid down her back. She wore fine clothes for a speller, a brown silk skirt lined in blue, with a blue vest over her blouse, embroidered with images of flowers done in yellow lines. She passed the Seneschal and dipped before the king. “You sent for a speller, Highness?”
It was bold to walk past the Lord Seneschal of Acciano, yet she was wise enough to dip before her king. “I have need of a spell.”
“Of course, Highness. What shall this spell relate?”
“It’s for my brother, the Prince of the Blood.
“Tell him the King of Kings is dead.”