Even Alvar dreams. There is no surprise in this. Perhaps the surprise is that ordinary fairies dream-hoping for a better life that never comes. Only nightmares tell the truth.
Alvar’s dreams are usually rehearsals. The general, the politician, must always plan, even when consciousness sneaks away like a harlot in the dark. Alone with his visions, he sees the land, the sea and the peoples as the gods must see them. Early in life he learned that free will exists, but only for leaders. Once a choice is made, free will becomes a phantom as inexorable grinds out its verdict. What is true in the blood-drenched mud of the battlefield is true for the white marble halls of the Western Kingdom’s throne room.
He awakes in the hot night and turns in bed to see his wife still asleep. Celie is not as beautiful as his first two wives but he loves her more. Her breasts are perfect, smooth hills rising and falling like an army marching over countless landscapes of countless campaigns. He touches them, touches her, and feels a force less terrifying than love. Her sigh reassures that in her arms, he is accepted; he is at peace.
Love demands more-as does the love for kingdom. A love that demands the spilling of blood, the conquest of peoples, the agony of war. Love requires constant proof of devotion.
He has a sour taste in his mouth that can only be washed away by wine. He can’t sleep anyway so he carefully leaves the bed. No need to wake his wife if the stroking of her breasts failed to rouse her. He needs to walk, to think. This night there is much to think about.
When he gets in this sort of mood he envies his soldiers. Their souls are pure because their worries are, if not small, are at least manageable-getting laid, getting drunk, not being a coward. Whether the battle is won or lost, they are judged how they behaved as soldiers. Only soldiers. They are not judged by the standards of a god.
He pours himself good, red wine and drinks deep. He never drinks to escape himself but only to relax the tension that is his constant companion, nagging him on to greatness. The moon observes him through his doorway and he thinks how cool it looks, as if made of ice. The night is so still and humid that he wishes he could cool off.
He remembers a night like this long ago when he was held captive by neko bandits on the frontier. They were simple folk, simpler than his soldiers. When they ransomed him for twenty gold coins he laughed at their conservatism and recommended that they raise it to fifty. They enjoyed his company and believed that he was joking when promised that one day he would see them hanged.
His pleasant manner confused them. His lack of fear disarmed them. In his heart he didn’t wish them dead and this they could sense. But they did not reckon with his devotion to his kingdom. She must be served. Her enemies must be punished. This is the force drove him to war with the Sagolian Empire. Nothing else makes him stand up to the queen and the aristocratic families. Fighting their corruption is the whip driving him on to greater glories, taking what he learned as a general and applying it to politics.
A soft voice whispers his name in the dark. He returns to his wife. She wants to know what keeps him awake this night, but they both know the answer. He has called a meeting with the queen and the noble council tomorrow. The word is that he will ask that a truce be asked in the war against the Sagolians. There is another rumor as well: that he will take the opportunity start a coup against Queen Melany and have the army declare him king. But there are those that accept him as the High General of the Western Kingdom but would balk at him being king.
He wants to speak, to set her mind to ease… but no words are worthy of the moment. Instead he makes love to her with a passion he hasn’t felt in years. She is pleasantly surprised. She adores him still. It is good to be conquered again by the general that has almost brought the great Sagolian Empire to its knees. Part warrior, part diplomat, he distracts her with fingers and tongue and breath, before accepting her surrender.
Then she watches him rise from the moist sheets and neatly arrange his hair as if an audience awaited him in their dark bedchamber. She is almost happy. For some reason, she remembers the controversy surrounding the funeral oration he gave for the death of his first wife- a young and lovely girl. Only older wives had been so honored before. Alvar was accused of self-love. Celie had spent her married life wishing her husband to be guilty of more of this self-adoration, expecting that such a surfeit will leave some for her.
“I had a dream.” she hears herself say.
“What?” he asks, distracted by an insect buzzing in the warm darkness.
“Must you go to the palace tomorrow?”
He sits on the edge of the bed and brushes her hair with the same attention he lavishes on his own. “I must not disappoint them.”
An ocean of meaning is contained in those few words. They are his motto. Early on he realized his aptitude for the military and learned that being a general requires more than skill in warfare. Statecraft is the extension of warfare by other means.
Make many promises but know which ones to keep. Always strive to be what the populace expects of you, and, failing that, settle for the appearance. Forgive enemies when you think you can get away with it.
“You never disappoint… them.” Celie said, as if reading his mind. “But beware of daggers from those that lack your gifts.”
“Your dream?” he demands, his voice suddenly loud.
“Dear one, we know better than to believe in omens. The gods reward intelligence and punish stupidity.”
This is a night of truth between them. She lets it out: “Sometime I think the gods allow there to be one great general to torment all other generals with visions of the impossible.”
Alvar laughs- a rare sound. “Put aside your fears.” He tells her. “I have decided to do what is best for the kingdom, the only question is who will resist the more, my friends or foes.”
He heads for the door, her voice following: “Where are you going?”
“I must take some of the night air. Probably won’t be much cooler than in here, but I remain the optimist.”
She remembers how to laugh.
The moon and stars are his companions- along with one thin, black cat, part of its side a red ruin from a recent battle. Alvar doesn’t intend to walk very far. But he must be alone with his decision.
Ever since his great victories over the Empire, he has realized the power that has come into his hands. He has realized how the world perceives him- his potential to be as great a king as he is a general.
Again and again he has told himself that there is no turning back. That is what he told himself when he crossed over the border and began the invasion of the Sagolian Empire four years earlier. And yet there is nothing inevitable about the decision not yet taken. His staunchest allies are ready to support him for king, complete hereditary succession. He has been prepared to take that final step. A century of corruption under Melany and her sycophants cannot be undone by half measures.
So he has told himself.
But of late he has troubled by dreams that sounds like his hated critics with one important difference: instead of the whining voices of Melany and her followers he hears voices so deep and true that they must emanate from the gods. Their style is even more direct and clean than his proud soldier’s memoirs. There is no disassembling, no circumlocutions, no bad analogies. They ask him why he loves his kingdom and Ayralef.
Why? His life has no time for why. Only where and when. Why does he love his kingdom and Ayralef? As this troublesome question has taken root in his soul, as if a spear has been driven there, he doesn’t like the answer. The rule of law, even if only for some, is better than the superstitions of the peoples they have conquer. He hates Melany for how she has damaged good order, without which there is no prosperity.
He has been telling himself that a rotten kingdom is only good for growing a corrupt empire.
But the dreams, the voices, won’t give him peace. They are different from the dreams of his past, maps guiding him to this summit. They ask if a fairy empire might not cause the same problems as the human dominated Sagolian Empire, only on a greater scale that could never be corrected. What if his triumph in the war starts a series of events leading to the destruction of the greatest civilization in the history of Ayralef, handing over Ayralef over to emotion-guided humans and their primitive taboos? A world of low prejudice and no room for freedom, honor and nobility? The West become carrion for the East?
It is a terrifying thought.
Tomorrow they will listen to him. He will enjoy an opportunity few fairies in history have ever enjoyed. He will turn down the crown, any crown. He will…
A voice speaks to him from the dark. It is not his wife’s, but almost as soft. It is a fairy’s voice that he recognizes instantly. Temi. One of the kingdom’s great generals who has served under him for years.
“I have come to warn you,” says Temi from the shadows.
“Step out into the moonlight.” Alvar bids her.
She is nervous and sweating. But on this hot night, every fairy sweats, even the great Alvar. The general’s eyes see that Temi’s right hand hovers near a place where it would be expedient to conceal a weapon.
“What have you to tell me?” he asks her.
“Of a plot against your life.”
Despite what he told his wife about omens the sudden appearance of this fairy gives Alvar pause.
“Tonight I broke with Melany,” says Temi. “I fear the death of my kingdom more than I fear one fairy.”
Alvar laughs, the second time in one night; the first time ever in a public place. Temi is astonished.
“We think along similar lines, Temi, although starting from very different camps. Tomorrow I will announce a truce between our kingdom and the Sagolian Empire and will not entertain becoming king. I will reject the crown if offered by the army. There is more.”
“More?” asks the astonished Temi.
“I will announce that if my peace is seen through I will step down as High General. Then I will ask Melany and the others to stop their squabbling and abandon their dreams of grandeur and put the kingdom and Ayralef first in their hearts and spread peace through the land.”
“By all the gods…” Temi begins to speak, but her words die as her imagination collapses, vanquished by a fairy she cannot begin to fathom.
“Melany must be told,” Temi says, half to herself. “She’d envisioned a broader scheme than your death. She would have included your family, closest friends, allies, appendages of yourself. Only I stood away from spilling your blood.”
“I thought you hated me for sacrificing your division at the Battle at Swift Water.”
“I do. I did.”
Alvar place his hand on the shorter fairy’s shoulder. “You were always a good soldier and friend.”
Now it is Temi’s turn to smile.
The two fairies part and Alvar turns his head to the moon. He wonders how the superstitious Valka Fae would imagine this evening events. How many portents would fill the sky? Would the moon turn to blood? Would its face darken? Would the stars wink out, leaving the sky as black as the soul of Melany?
These are the musings of a battlefield general, already weary of statecraft as his life becomes a thing of politics where nothing is really ever decided. But the speech is written in his head, waiting to spring forth. That much is decided.
As he walks home he wonders if Celie will be awake. Perhaps they can make love again. He’d like this to be a night for her to remember.
Before he reaches his door, another fairy steps out from the shadows. Alvar wonders how many fairies are near his house tonight. For a moment he thinks that it might have been a mistake not to keep soldiers on guard until dawn. At first, he thinks it is Temi returned but is a larger fairy.
And then he recognizes the arrogant, smirking face.
“What brings you here at this hour?” asks Alvar, even though he already knows the answer.
Imkza does not conceal her weapon, which glints pale silver in the moonlight save for the part that is coated in fresh blood. She speaks only once. “I have come to bury you.”
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