The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Twenty-Six

When General Raul came, he arrived without any pomp or fanfare, but that didn’t seem to matter; his entrance, trailed by well-armed, sharp-cut soldiers, was enough to scare every member of the castle staff out of their wits. Even the guards seemed uncertain in the general’s presence. They bowed their heads in submission, not daring to look up at the most hated man in the world; however, Eza, like Olrick, Silas, and Marion, wouldn’t let herself. She wasn’t about to let him think she was scared of him.

“It is a great honor to have you here in castle Matisse, General Raul,” Polain said as her performed a small bow. Eza and Olrick did the same (though the saints knew that she wasn’t willing) but Marion and Silas didn’t; they simply stared at Raul, stubbornness in their eyes. Raul seemed intrigued by the defiant gesture, but he didn’t say anything about it; likely, he didn’t want to bring it up in front of a very obviously pissed Polain, who glared at the princess and the commander with murder in his eyes.

“It is an honor to be here, general,” Raul’s voice was stiff, as if he were only repeating memorized courtesies. He looked over at Marion and performed a slight bow, himself. “It’s especially wonderful to make your acquaintance, Princess Marion. You’re the spitting image of your mother, your grace.”

Eza could see Marion tense up when he mentioned her mother. The previous queen of Caitha was a very touchy subject for her; she’d killed herself on Marion’s birthday, just a week after they’d learned that Raul had killed her father. Though his façade told them that it was a genuine compliment, Eza was almost positive that he’d said it to make Marion uncomfortable.

“Thank you, General Raul,” Marion said as nodded at him, her voice just as stiff as Raul’s. Though it was apparent to Eza that she’d tried to say it without missing a beat, it was obvious to her that Raul’s little plan had worked. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, as well.”

Eza tried to keep her anger from showing on her face. It was a low blow, bringing up Marion’s dead mother.

“I’m afraid that I’m unfamiliar with some of your men, general,” Raul said. “I hope that this doesn’t come across as rude, but why are they here?”

Polain gestured to Eza, Silas and Olrick. “They are my most trusted military commanders; I thought it was only fitting, as your messenger told me that I would have the pleasure of meeting your trusted commanders. Silas is the head of military intelligence, Olrick commands the Watch, while Eza commands the Rooks.”

Raul nodded, intrigued by Polain’s answer. “Interesting choice of commanders, general. I’ve always wondered who the feared head of the Rooks is; I never thought that it was a woman.” He looked over at Olrick, a pleased look on his face, but didn’t say anything; they looked each other in the eye – anger shining in Olrick’s a sneer in Raul’s – then he looked back at Polain. The exchange was short, but long enough that Eza made a mental note to ask Olrick about it later. “My men and I are tired from travelling, general; where will we be staying while we’re here?”

“Elise and Commander Eza will escort you to your room, general,” Polain said. “Commander Silas and Commander Olrick will show your men to their rooms.” With that, everybody parted ways, Eza, Elise and Raul heading for the west wing, while Olrick, Silas and Raul’s men headed for the south wing.

“Is General Raul having me killed?” Raul asked jokingly once they were out of earshot from everyone else. “The reputation you Rooks have as assassins is really quite fearsome. I certainly hope that your escorting me isn’t a precursor to what will happen to me.”

“No, sir, you aren’t being assassinated. General Polain just doesn’t trust your motives all that much, since you don’t exactly have the best record when it comes to peace councils.”

Elise seemed shocked by Eza’s response, but Raul didn’t. In fact, he began to laugh.

“I’ve never known someone of Jotiese descent to have such a sharp tongue,” he said. “You’re all normally quite stiff and formal, from my experience.”

“I’m not Jotiese,” Eza said. But my mother was. “I’m Kurzhian.” That seemed to surprise Raul, and he almost looked a little uncomfortable. Eza had to keep a small, victorious smile from her face. That’s right; I hope you feel uncomfortable, you Gisken bastard.

“I apologize, Commander Eza,” Raul said, his voice flat. “I wouldn’t have mentioned it if I had known.”

“I’m not ashamed of where I come from,” Eza said without bothering to look back at him. “Unless you were apologizing for invading my homeland, in which case, I don’t forgive you and I don’t think I ever will.”

Elise shot her a wide-eyed, fearful look. She didn’t say anything, but the message was clear: she was coming close to crossing a line with her language with Raul.

“I would watch your language, Rook,” Raul growled. He spat out the word Rook like an insult, something that Eza wasn’t used to hearing. Most spoke the word with reverence when speaking about the intelligence core in respect for what they believed it to be. “I could’ve just stormed into this pathetic excuse for a city with my armies and ripped it out of your hands, but I decided to be gracious and give you an opportunity to end this peacefully. Don’t antagonize me after I decided to give you some mercy.”

Elise had begun to shake in fear at his words, but Eza just found herself angry. Mercy? Raul didn’t know the meaning of the word. For once, though, she thought it best to hold her tongue.

Finally, they came to Raul’s room. Eza and Elise stopped in front of the door and looked back at the aging general. “Welcome to your room. I would suggest that you just hang tight here until someone comes to get you.” Raul nodded, his face stony.

“Miss Elise, would you leave the two of us alone for a few moments, please?” Elise looked between Eza and Raul, then bowed.

“Yes, sir.” She began walking down the hallway.

“You aren’t going to make my time here harder than it needs to be, are you?” Raul asked once Elise was gone.

“I’m going to do my job,” Eza said. “If you get in my way, then yes, I’ll make your life hard.” Raul continued to give her an icy stare, but she didn’t give a damn: making the bastard squirm felt like a good thing to do.

“You remind me of someone I met on the Kurzhian campaign,” he said dryly. “A little girl, one that clung to General Mitrius like some sort of parasite.”

Eza could feel an ice-cold fist grab her heart. He recognized her; damn, did he have a subtle way of showing it.

Obviously, Raul noticed that he’d stricken a nerve; if he hadn’t, Eza didn’t think he would’ve continued on with his line of thought. “It’s quite funny, really. You look exactly like her; your scar is even in the same place as hers. You couldn’t possibly be her, though, right? After all, she froze to death during an escape attempt.”

Eza found her grip on her staff tightening. For eight years, she’d managed to escape the things that had happened to her in Kurzh; now, it seemed that it was all resurfacing, again.

Raul smiled slyly. Damn him; she’d been able to keep who she was a secret, only known to General Polain and Silas. “Does General Polain know about your past, my dear?” he asked. “Or have you been leading him on to believe that you’re a Jotiese refugee, like him?”

Eza prayed to St. Nikola for patience. She had stopped giving a damn about what people said to her; one had to develop a thick skin when they looked to be Jotiese, were really Kurzhian, and wore the black of the Rooks. However, it pissed her off to hear someone talk badly about General Polain, the most honorable, respectable person she knew.

“Listen,” she said. “Call me whatever you want; I stopped giving a damn about what people think of me a long time ago. But if I hear you badmouthing General Polain again, I swear on the saints, I’ll make sure you regret it.” His eyebrows went up in surprise.

“You have a sharp tongue, Kurzhian,” Raul said. “It’ll get you killed one day.” He opened the door to his room, then looked back at her.

“Don’t worry too much about your identity,” he said. “That can stay our little secret, for now; however, I promise you that when this country surrenders, I will show no quarter.” He walked into his room and shut the door, leaving the conversation on that threatening note.

Eza began walking away from his room, her anger beginning to boil over. Damn Raul, damn him to the darkest pit of hell.

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