Marion hated suitors.
Take Alek Romera, for example. At least, that’s who she thought the boy in front of her was; she could never tell the differences between Baron Romera’s eight sons, let alone remember who each of them were. Well, whichever son it was, he was skinny like a twig, and though he had a very beautiful sword at his hip, Marion was fairly certain that she could kick his ass with one hand tied behind her back. He drank like a girl, spoke like a girl, and those false courtesies… it took every ounce of self-control she had to keep from smacking him and ask him why he couldn’t act like a real man.
Alek tugged at his collar as a breeze rolled by, rustling the leaves in the garden. Well, it seemed that they had one thing in common: neither of them wanted to be there.
“L-lovely weather we’re having today,” he stuttered. “Do you agree?”
Marion took a small sip of tea before responding. The kitchen staff had decided to make a bitter brew that day, but in all honesty, she preferred it to the sweet Jotiese brew they usually served when she was with a suitor; it kept her on her toes, something she preferred to having a relaxing drink. “It has been quite beautiful as of late, yes.” For a few seconds, he almost seemed to relax. That was, until one of the servants had to interrupt.
“Princess Marion, I’m afraid that your visit with Baron Romera must be cut short,” the servant said as she bowed. Alek became tense again, waiting to hear if he would have to leave because Polain hadn’t thought him worthy for Marion’s hand or if there was some other reason that didn’t involve him.
Though she hardly knew Alek, she hoped that it was the latter, for his sake; if the bruises on Baroness Alstara were any indication of how Baron Romera treated his family, she guessed that having Alek sent home early because he wasn’t pleasing would make Romera lose his temper.
Marion stood up. “What is it?”
“Polain requests your presence in the audience chamber, your grace,” the servant said. “I think it has something to do with the war; he was standing next to a military man when I saw him.”
Oh, thank the gods! She really needed a report on the war, right then; anything to get rid of the monotone that was a noble woman’s life.
“I’m sorry to be leaving you so soon,” Marion said as Alek stood up. He looked relieved, though whether or not it was because he didn’t want to be with her or because he wasn’t being dismissed for something he did, she wasn’t sure. “I’ll be sure to invite you back to finish this. My servant will escort you out.”
With that, they parted ways, the servant and Alek exiting the garden through the lavish ballroom and entry hall, while Marion left in the opposite direction.
The audience chamber, like most every other room in the castle, was beautiful, with paintings of past rulers in royal robes covering the walls and intricately carved pillars that dated back a thousand years holding up a ceiling covered in intricate religious frescoes. The hall was a show of power, meant to impress those who came to the rulers of Caitha to ask for something, but that wasn’t its only purpose: in a time of war, it also served as a war room, with its long table with just enough seats for every military head and a few guests, should the need for them arise.
To Marion’s surprise, that also wasn’t what they were using the room for, today. Only four of seven military commanders were there, plus one man with a shaved head that she didn’t recognize.
All of them – except for the bald one – stood at attention when they saw her. The bald one simply bowed.
“Your grace,” Polain said. “It is an honor to have you in our presence.”
“I see that you’ve all come back safely,” Marion said as she scanned their faces. However, she found herself lingering on Olrick. He looked like hell: his arm was in a sling, his eye was blackened from a fist, he had a cut over his other eye that was beginning to scar; she couldn’t help but wonder what the hell they’d run into in Asfalis. “Now, what the hell is going on? I was under the impression that we were going to have a war meeting.” The bald one seemed surprised by her choice of words, but the rest of them didn’t; they either didn’t care or were used to it.
“There’s some business that I need to settle with you all,” Polain said. He looked over at Marion. “Your grace, allow me to be the first to introduce you to Prince Kael Althaus of Gishk.”
Marion found herself wondering whether or not she should laugh or not, and if the servants had added a special ingredient to his tea recently. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Your grace, would you please show some respect to his grace?” Polain asked. There was an edge to his voice, one that suggested that he really meant what he said.
Well, gods help them if he really did think the boy at his side was some long dead Gisken prince. They were going to need them if their general was that insane.
“How the hell do you know who he actually is?” Marion asked.
“That is a conversation for another time-“
“It’s a conversation for right now, actually,” she said. The bald one gave her a surprised look, while Polain simply sighed, exasperated.
“He knows of things that only a member of the Gisken royal family would know, and a former servant of the family recognized him as Prince Kael,” he said. “I’ll give you more details at a more appropriate setting. For now, there’s a matter of business that we need to attend to.”
Marion folded her arms; this had best be good.
Polain looked around at everyone. “As you all know, Marion’s coronation day will be here in a few weeks; the time has come for me to appoint the royal guard, and I’ve come to my decision.” Marion, Olrick, Eza and Silas looked around at each other, confused. Only two people were appointed to be in the royal guard; why were there three military members there?
“Commander Silas, Commander Olrick,” he said. “You are to be appointed to the royal guard, effective immediately; congratulations, gentlemen.”
Still, Marion, Olrick, Eza and Silas were confused. Normally, when there were more than two candidates for the royal guard, the final decision was made based upon rank, meaning that Eza should have been one of those assigned to guard Marion, while Olrick would have been reassigned as the head of intelligence in Silas’ stead. She would’ve asked what Polain had planned for Eza, but she assumed that that question would be answered shortly.
“Commander Eza, I have a different task in mind for you,” Polain said. “You have been assigned to the royal guard of Prince Kael Althaus of Gishk, effective immediately.”
For a few moments, nobody spoke. This situation would have been unheard of, even before Kael showed up; a woman had never been appointed to the royal guard, nor had a Kurzhian. The fact that a Kurzhian woman had been appointed to serve in the royal guard of a banished prince was madness, and they all knew it.
Nobody knew how crazy it was as much as Eza did. Out of all of them, she was the one who seemed the most concerned about it. Her brows were furrowed and her thin lips were creased in a frown. It seemed that Polain hadn’t spoken a word about this to anyone until that moment.
It wasn’t Eza who protested first, to Marion’s surprise; it was Kael. His cheeks were bright red like a cherry. It looked like even he’d been kept in the dark about this.
“General Polain, th-that at really isn’t necessary.” He stuttered shaking his hands in front of him. Eza nodded in agreement.
“Nobody outside of this room knows whom Kael, sir,” she said. “Having him under constant guard would only serve to raise suspicion about him.”
“However, anyone who sees Kael will believe him to be a noble,” Polain said. “Nobody would find it odd that a nobleman has a guard.” Eza sighed as she folded her arms, defensive. Gods, she was pissed; Marion didn’t think that she’d ever seen her like this, before.
“This is a conversation for another time,” Polain said before Eza could argue further. “For now, we have a war council to prepare for.” With that, everyone parted; Polain, Eza and Kael headed in the direction of the bedchambers, while Marion, Olrick and Silas head for the drill grounds. After all, there was no better way to clear one’s head for a war meeting than sparring.
Olrick sat in between Silas and Eza, rubbing his throbbing shoulder. The men that sat across the table from him, the highest-ranking members of the regular army, were giving him a look, though it certainly wasn’t the usual one. He was fairly certain that they were staring at the bruises and his arm, which was still in a sling, and not the gray cloak that showed what he was. He supposed that having them stare in horror at the scars and the bruises was better than them staring at the cloak in disgust, but he’d still rather not have people stare at him at all.
Commander Conley Monbrandt, the head of the cavalry and the biggest jackass to walk the earth, looked at his silver pocket watch and sighed, like the annoyed nobleman he was.
“Would any of you happen to know if Admiral Kylar plans to show?” he asked in that pompous way of his.
Out of the corner of his eye, Olrick could see Silas tensing up, one step away from leaping over the table and strangling Monbrandt. Silas had a hard time dealing with most of the nobles on the council, but he butted heads with the cavalry leader, especially; he represented everything Silas hated about the nobility.
“Sorry if this inconveniences you, your nobleness,” Silas spat. If looks could kill, Monbrandt would’ve been dead. “I’m afraid that Admiral Kylar is busy actually trying to defend this place, rather than trying to figure out how he can keep all of his wealth if the Giskens take over.” Monbrandt gave him an icy glare.
“Gentlemen, I would appreciate it if you were able to remain civil with each other,” Polain said. “We are at war with the Giskens, not ourselves.” Silas pulled out a flask and began swigging ale, while Monbrandt checked his watch, again. It seemed that he had every intention of becoming drunk off his ass in order to deal with Monbrandt’s sort.
“It seems that we’ll need to start without Admiral Kylar,” Polain said as he looked at the faces of them men and women at the table. Already, Marion looked bored out of her mind. “As all of you already know, the Giskens have invaded; we’re here today to come up with a plan of attack. Commander Olrick, will you please tell us what you’ve seen in the past few weeks?” Olrick nodded and stood up as Polain sat back down.
Monbrandt snorted. “Why is a Watchman presenting in a war council? They never do anything of much merit.”
“And why are you here if your only merit is your daddy’s money?” Silas asked. “I suggest that you shut up before I shove your big, perfectly groomed head even farther up your ass then it already is!”
“Both of you need to shut up,” Commander Mathis, the head of the army medical core, said as he rubbed his temple. “Dear gods, you two act like children when you’re together.” He looked back at Olrick, his face softening. “I apologize for them, Olrick; please, continue with your report.”
He nodded as he as he looked down at the map of Caitha that was stretched out on the table. He pointed at the area where Thaos would be, if the map were a little more detailed. “From what we know right now, General Raul and the main portion of his invasion forces have made a village just outside of Asfalis their home base. Raul, himself, it holed up in a tavern on the outskirts of Thaos, a position that’s really quite vulnerable-“
“Are you suggesting an assassination, commander?” Monbrandt asked. He sounded shocked, as if the very idea was unthinkable.
Olrick nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.”
Monbrandt folded his arms across his chest stubbornly, like a child whose parents weren’t giving him what he wanted. “Assassination is such a cowardly act; I won’t allow it.”
“Then, it’s a damned good thing that you aren’t in charge,” Silas said. Monbrandt glared at him, but he hardly noticed. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I agree with Olrick; we need Raul out of the picture as soon as possible.”
“He’s not the only one we’d have to kill to decapitate the Gisken army.” Judging by the embarrassed look on Kael’s face when everyone looked over at him, he didn’t mean to say the thought out loud.
“What do you mean?” Olrick asked. Not only had he not been among the Giskens long enough to know how their command structure worked, but he never head a thing beyond the colored armbands about it.
Kael began rubbing the back of his neck as he looked to the side. “Well, in the Gisken army, commanding ranks are passed on from father to son, or to a trusted friend if the officer in question died before producing a legitimate male heir.”
“Does Raul have a son?” Olrick asked. Kael shook his head.
“If he does, he isn’t a legitimate one,” he said. “He’s been grooming an Abunaki by the name of Blair Al-Heida to take over when he’s gone.”
Olrick found himself clenching his fists when he heard that name. It seemed that by killing one monster, they’d simply be replacing him with another.
“Who’s Blair?” Eza’s voice brought him out of his thoughts.
He swallowed, hard. “He’s a monster, even more than Raul is.” Monbrandt raised an eyebrow.
“Please, tell me how you could possibly know that,” he said. “Did you meet General Raul?”
Olrick nodded. “I did.”
For a few seconds, nobody spoke; there weren’t even the usual, quiet sounds of side talk. Everyone they knew of who’d seen General Raul in person was either a Gisken soldier or dead; it only managed to remind him of how lucky he was to still be alive and well.
“Raul’s ruthless, but he’s methodical,” Olrick said as he began to rub his injured shoulder. “Everything he does, he does to further his goals, but not Blair; he rapes and kills for the sake of raping and killing. In some ways, I’d almost prefer Raul.” Monbrandt leaned back in his seat.
“If this Blair person is so much worse, why are you so hell-bent to kill General Raul?” he asked.
“And why are you so hell-bent on allowing him to blaze his way through the country?” For once, it wasn’t Silas who insulted Commander Monbrandt. Admiral Kylar Alteara had arrived, and he hated him as much as Silas did.
Monbrandt’s eyes narrowed as Kylar took his seat between Polain and Mathis. “I see that you’re late as usual, Admiral Kylar. Is that becoming fashionable among viscounts?” Kylar chuckled as he pulled a flask from his long coat. He took a few swigs.
“I don’t know, commander,” he said when he was finished. He screwed the lid back on the flask and put it back in his coat. “You see, I haven’t been to many social gatherings in the past little while; I’ve had a military duty to perform, but I’m certainly glad that a lord such as you doesn’t have to worry about silly things like that.” Monbrandt’s face got red with indignation, a look that almost made Olrick burst out into laughter.
However, Polain spoke up before he could defend himself.
“Thank you, Admiral Kylar, for interrupting this meeting,” Polain said, exasperated. “Now, if we can get back to business-“
“Speaking of which, there’s two messengers waiting for you outside,” Kylar said, putting his feet up on the table. “I would have taken the message for you, but it seems that I’m not good enough for them.” Polain sighed as he shook his head; Kylar had always tried his patience.
“Let them in,” Polain told the soldier at the door. He nodded and opened the great wooden doors to the hall.
Two boys walked into the hall. One was thirteen, maybe fourteen, and looked like he’d been through hell and back. His gray-blue tunic was torn, his dirty face scratched and bleeding, tear marks streaming down his face from wide brown eyes. The other wasn’t nearly as beat up as the boy. He was tall and gangly, with pale blonde hair tied behind his head, pale skin, a long, black coat with a blue band on the right forearm, and muddy, knee high boots. He seemed very uncomfortable, like he couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Olrick bit his lip; what the hell was he doing here?
Eza’s grip tightened on her staff as her eyes narrowed. It seemed that she, too, had spotted the Gisken.
“T-the Giskens have taken Lake Town, and Asfalis is under siege!” The boy cried out.
Silas nearly leaped out of his chair when he heard the news about Asfalis. “How long have the Giskens been in Asfalis?”
“F-five days, sir.” Olrick wasn’t sure whether or not Silas heard the messenger; Silas was already storming out the door.
“If any of you need me, I’ll be at headquarters.” Before anyone could stop him, he was out the door, likely plotting exactly how he would kill every single leader of the Gisken army.
Polain ran a hand through his hair as he stood. “Please, take this boy to a doctor; make sure he’s looked after and treated properly.” The soldier nodded and escorted the boy from the room. “Now, what message do you bring, Gisken?”
Finn quickly bowed as Kylar and Kael put their hands on their swords. “Sir, I bring news from General Raul.”
“And what is it?” The Gisken began to scratch his head.“He’s coming for peace talks, sir.”