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Exile's Gambit

By valeca All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 1

From the moment Ajan Keranta Surankaje read his brother-in-law’s pronouncement, he knew that this little outpost in the farthest corner of the kingdom was not to be his new command: it was to be his prison. A spit of land known only to traders and the court cartographers, Kalo Malut had been an observation post in the early days, before the civil war had dragged all of Jewaktana’s scattered armies and fleets back toward the capital. Now, it was the place of the general’s exile. Keranta hated it.

Every passing day for nearly a month now only deepened the dread that he would die here despite his best efforts. That Bariti, his first and most-loved wife, would become but a concubine to the usurper Prince Daruntala, assuming he let her live at all. That everything he and his father-in-law had built would follow them both into the grave.

He wondered sometimes if he would even have to wait long for death. How many days until the traitor sent a boatload of soldiers to kill him in his sleep? And it would be a boatload, because a man who had risen as high as Daruntala had would not have gotten there by underestimating his enemy. His only mistake had been leaving Keranta alive, and he knew it. Keranta knew it just as well.

The mountain that stood at the center of Kalo Malut was old and dead. No doubt its violence had been a thing to behold in days long past, but its slopes were now green and peaceful. In those first days, it had not occurred to the general that he could be compared to this mountain: his famed potency become only an overgrown memory. The thought of Daruntala entertaining this same irony enraged him nearly beyond his ability to contain it. If nothing else, Keranta would live only to kill him.

Atop the dead volcano stood a little watchtower, equally overgrown and now resembling a haphazard tumble of stone. The handful of fishermen and their households down on the shore knew not to disturb Keranta up here, so high that sometimes he could nearly touch the clouds. If beyond those clouds some god or goddess could be moved to favor him, now would be the time. Until they did, he could only remember and plan.

His had been a short road from nobleman’s son to general of Jewaktana’s armies; even shorter for many of his enemies, and there were many more to replace those he had killed in battle. Keranta of A Hundred Battles, they had called him once. From the walls of the capital to the farthest stretches of the empire, the Many-Splendored General had put down more kings and petty lords than most could count. Doing so had earned him the king’s favor, above that of his own son and heir. It had earned him three of the king’s daughters, more beautiful and charming than any maidens in the kingdom. It had also earned him the jealousy of the prince, and his exile here on Kalo Malut: useless island. Keranta believed it.

Though the thought of leaving here no longer kept him from sleep, it occupied nearly his every waking hour. It was not just getting off this island that possessed him, but also what he would do afterward. Killing Daruntala and all who had aided him would be only the beginning. The old king’s death at his son’s hands had likely left the capital in a fragile state, with nobles clamoring for power and attention in the wake of his passing. Another such shift in the delicate balance of families and alliances could just as easily end in Keranta’s death, and that of his own family.

It was always to Bariti that his thoughts went next. The way she smiled, setting the little golden pegs in her teeth glittering in the soft candlelight; the tenderness of her embrace after he returned sore and bandaged from battle; the sharpness of her mind, trained equally well in the arts of song and politics. Two of her sisters were just as much his wives, yet they would never take Bariti’s place in his heart.

The sea breeze picked up suddenly, bringing with it the smell of salt and rain on the horizon. His eyes were drawn away from the fallen stones around him to the gray line that marked the edge of the world. It was a world that had grown much larger several years ago, when men unlike any he had seen before had come from far across the sea to call on the King of Jewaktana. Fools as they were, they had thought to threaten him into paying tribute to their own king. Keranta had been there that day, and he had watched with the rest of the court as the ambassadors’ ears were cut off and their cheeks were branded like those of thieves, but he had not laughed as the others had. The general was too cautious for that; he only remembered and planned.

So many in court had feared an invasion from far away that their eyes had gone blind to the treason that grew within. That, or they had helped it take root and eventually grow to choke out their true king. Daruntala had acted swiftly. Whether he was truly Keranta’s match or simply once fortunate remained to be seen, but all that mattered now was that the prince had won. Instead of standing at his father-in-law’s side, sailing from victory to victory with thousands of warriors, the general only commanded fishermen and farmers, who between them owned a handful of wooden clubs passed down from fathers and grandfathers who had long ago submitted to Jewaktana’s might.

They were more faithful subjects than the scheming nobles behind Daruntala’s rise, Keranta noted. Every day since his exile here had begun, one or another among them brought him food or water, and each of them bowed deeply at his approach. He did not understand every word they spoke, nor could they address him properly in the noble speech of the capital, but he forgave them for it. If anything, he would have to remember this little island when he eventually took his revenge on the usurper. Perhaps he would repay their gratitude tenfold in gold, or take certain of their sons to train with his armies; perhaps he would do both and more. While it would do him little good to make such promises now, it at least helped him to focus less on his pitiable present and more on the rich potential of the future.

Strange shapes in the distant waves stole his attention. He wondered if they could be waves themselves, but closer inspection dismissed that idea. Sails, Keranta thought. Sails he had seen before, docked at the capital three years prior. But then, there had only been three ships, one great and two small, and perhaps one hundred men between them. What Keranta saw now was an armada; he counted no less than ten great ships, and perhaps twice that many smaller ones. Even then, at this distance there could be more and he would not know until they came closer to the island.

They would certainly come here. Given how far out Kalo Malut was from any other port of value, they would have to stop for supplies. Keranta could only assume what the strangers might know about the island, but he guessed that they would want to sail around to the northeast and land away from any potentially hostile inhabitants, and the same was true if they wished to keep their approach secret from the capital. But it was a secret no longer, and for that Keranta thanked the gods.

And in the back of his mind, the beginnings of a plan took shape. These Adusinate as they called themselves were surely headed for the capital, and Keranta knew that the mutilated faces of their ambassadors were cause enough for any king worth his throne to risk such an expedition. A ruler who suffered such a grave insult without reprisal would be seen as weak just as much in some faraway kingdom across the sea as they would back in Lewangwati.

Keranta knew what he must do.

The northern face of the mountain was bare of the tall trees that dominated the south, and so he took that path to keep the strange fleet in view. It was not a path he had taken many times before, but he managed it well enough. Not knowing how quickly the Adusinate ships could sail against the wind, he could not determine whether he would beat them to the shore or not. He aimed to make his entrance after they had landed.

He wondered when the last time one of the fishermen from down below had come up this way, for every so often the little path was lost to trees and vines as he neared the base. Several times, a new one would intersect his own and branch off in its own way. Keranta supposed it would not matter in the end; after all, he only needed to go downhill.

An outcropping stood out from the foliage to his right. Clambering up on top of it, he grinned to see that his prediction was so far correct: the Adusinate were making for the northeastern coast, where a little bay marked the only other place where ships of that draft could venture without risking their hulls. Though the largest Jewaktana outriggers were only perhaps half the size of one of these triple-masted vessels, Keranta suspected that the principle was the same. It reassured him that these men from such a distant place that not even the royal cartographers could name it had the same worries and fears as any other mortals.

And he knew from the incident at court three years before that they also bled as mortals did. Without their powerful weapons—what the court armorers had taken to calling fire lances—and metal armor, they died just as easily. Many of them would die before his plan was complete; he knew this without knowing every detail quite yet, but as he drew nearer to the boats, his goal became ever clearer in his mind.

Ajan Keranta Surankaje would take back what was rightfully his, and these strangers would help him do it. And if doing so also broke their ability to threaten his kingdom and his people ever again, even better. The salt breeze lifted his flowing hair out behind him like a banner in the wind. His goal was clear, and the means of his deliverance fought the surf before him. The moment was over, as he brought himself back from a silent prayer of thanks for that wind.

It had given him the end of his brief exile and soon enough, it would give him his revenge.

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