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

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Chapter Forty-Five

Eza sat in the church pew, holding a small rosary in her hand as she stared up at the massive statue in front of her. Though she wasn’t overly religious, she still found herself going to the small Kurzhian cathedral in the international district when she was about to do something that she knew she probably wouldn’t come back from, or if she had a big decision she needed to make. She’d always found a measure of peace in the small building, with its alcoves dedicated to different saints and its air filled with sweet smelling incense. Like many Kurzhian churches built within the last few years, this one had taken Mitrius of Kurzh as its patron, meaning that his large statue stood proudly at the front of the church, with a table covered with various offerings at his feet. Even though Eza had grown up with her father speaking of Mitrius in hushed, reverent tones, she still couldn’t see him as one of the most revered saints of Kurzh; he was just Mitrius to her, the big brother she’d never had

Eza looked down at her rosary. Mitrius was had given it to her for her seventh birthday, a week after the Gisken invasion started. Just like her, it managed to survive in places where it shouldn’t have been able to, though it was certainly worse for wear: the varnish had worn away a long time ago, and the thread holding it together was frayed at the edges. It, along with her name, was the only link she had left with her previous life, a life she spent under Mitrius’ protection. To think, the man who’d saved her life on so many occasions could be dead in a few weeks. She couldn’t let that happen, even if it meant getting herself killed.

Footsteps rang out against the stone floor of the cathedral. When Eza looked over her shoulder, she saw that Silas had managed to track her down. He walked over to her, his hands shoved into his pockets.

“I thought I would find you here,” Silas said as he took a seat next to her. The seat groaned quietly underneath him. “I am a little surprised, though; you don’t strike me as a religious type.”

“I’m not,” Eza said. “This is just a good place to think, is all.” For a few seconds, the two sat in silence as Silas took in the sights around him. He acted like he’d never been in a church before, not that Eza was surprised; Mirinians didn’t really believe in organized religion. Kurzhian churches also tended to be quite different from Caithian ones, as she learned when she brought Olrick there a few years back; he was pretty devout in the Caithian religion, and even he gawked at everything around him.

“Okay, kid, what’s eating at you?” Silas asked. “You’ve been pretty stoic as of late, even more than usual. I know that the Rayal Mountains force is a whole lot bigger than we thought it would be, but-“

Eza looked over at him, confused. “What are you talking about? Did they come out from the pass or something?”

Silas’ cheeks began to burn red with embarrassment. “Nobody told you about that?” He looked forward, again. “Looks like we’ve got two things we need to talk about, then.”

Eza looked up at the ceiling and sighed. Gods, she was getting damned sick of this whole invasion thing. And to think, she thought it was pretty awful to be a civilian in a country that was being invaded; being a commander of a defending force was an absolute nightmare.

“So, if that isn’t what’s bothering you, then what is?” Silas asked. Eza looked back down at her rosary.

“Raul got an intelligence report from Kurzh the other night, when Elise got caught,” Eza said. “Mitrius was arrested a few days ago. They’re going to execute him.” Silas cursed as he looked at Mitrius’ statue in front of them.

“So much for being the only living saint,” he muttered. He looked back at Eza. “You’re going to try and do something about it, aren’t you?”

“Why, are you going to try and stop me?” Eza asked.

Silas shook his head as he looked forward, again. “No; you’re your own woman. I just think it’s interesting that you want to go back after how big of a pain in the ass it was to get you back. You nearly died doing it, for the gods’ sakes!”

“I know,” Eza said. “I just can’t stand by and wait to hear news about his execution, not after everything he’s done for me. It’s about time that I finally returned the favor.”

“You won’t be leaving us until after the battle, will you?” Silas asked.

“I wasn’t planning to,” Eza said. “Things will be chaotic enough after the battle that they’ll probably let me on a boat heading over there.” Silas sighed in relief.

“Thank the gods,” he said, running both hands through his hair. “Do you have any idea how desperate for troops we are? I walked past the diplomatic service building coming here, and I saw a few officers trying to teach them proper sword technique.”

Eza groaned, putting her face in her palm. May the saints help them if they were desperate enough to try and get those prissy dimwits at the diplomatic service to fight. The only way she could see that working was if they began discussing philosophy with the Giskens, or maybe politics; they could probably manage to bore them to death.

“You’re kidding, right?” she asked. “Why couldn’t they just enlist all those people in the messenger core? They know how to use a sword.”

“They already have,” Silas said. “Even after we got them involved, we were still outmatched three to one, and since we already don’t have enough doctors in the medical core, the diplomatic service was the only other option.” For a few seconds, the two of them were quiet.

“We’re screwed, aren’t we?” Eza asked. Silas snorted and folded his arms over his chest.

“Don’t be such a pessimist,” Silas said. “By the gods, between you and Elise, you’ll bring the whole army down with depression.”

“The fact that she’s not feeling great about our chances just shows how depressing they are,” Eza said. “Really, Silas, three to one odds aren’t exactly that great, especially when the larger army also happens to be the better trained one. It’ll be a massacre.”

“That’s not what the odds are anymore,” he said. “They’re two to one, now that we’ve got the guys from the diplomatic service with us.”

“Those are still three to one odds, Silas.” He nodded.

“Good point,” Silas said. “I guess things are pretty dismal, aren’t they?” He pulled out a flask of ale from under his shirt, but put it back when he saw a few churchgoers giving him angry glares. “Look on the bright side: maybe the Giskens will save us for executions.”

Marion sat on the bench in the garden, staring at the two graves in front of her. She came there to visit them more often than she liked to admit; everyone thought that she’d moved on from her parents’ deaths after nearly ten years, but she just couldn’t, not with the monster that killed them still alive and well. The words on the stones were familiar enough that she might as well had them memorized, now, but she still red them over and over, again: In memory of King Thias Matisse V, killed in Lügenburg in conference with General Raul Fleischer. In memory of Queen Delia Sinacco, dead from the grief of losing her husband.

Dead from grief. Even after all these years, those words still managed to piss her off. Her mother didn’t die from grief; Polain just couldn’t bear to put that she killed herself on her tombstone.

“Olrick told me you’d be here.” Marion looked over her shoulder to see Polain standing there, holding something wrapped in thick cloth in his hand. “I’m not used to seeing you here when it’s not the anniversary.”

Marion looked back at her parents’ graves. “That’s because that’s the only time you ever come.” Polain sat next to Marion and rested the object in his hand on his lap.

“You still haven’t been able to move on from this, have you?” he asked. She shook her head.

“I still have dreams about her,” Marion said quietly. Just thinking about it, she started to remember the last time she saw her mother: hanging from the rope that took her life, her head tilted at a grotesque angle.

Marion found herself trying to banish the image from her head. The sight of seeing her mother dead had haunted her in her dreams for ten years, now; she couldn’t let it take her sanity while she was awake, too.

“She haunts me, too,” Polain said. “I still wonder if there was something I could have done to stop it.” For a few seconds, neither of them spoke as they stared at the tombstones, remembering the people who lay below them: the kind, always smiling King Thias; the quiet, loving Queen Delia. Marion wished she could remember them a lot better than she did. All she could remember from her father was the last time she saw him as he got on the boat to head for Gishk, how he’d promised to bring her something from the faraway country, and when she tried to remember her mother… well, she tried to keep herself from thinking about her too much

Polain handed her the object in his hand. “Your father wanted me to give this to you if he didn’t live to do it, himself. He told me that it’s been handed down through the Matisse family for the past few hundred years.”

Marion began to unwrap the gift.

Her heart just about froze when she saw what it was. It was a sword, the same one her father would wear on his hip during balls. The grip was wrapped in a supple, brown leather that was warped from the fingers of the hundreds of kings and queens who’d wielded it, with a cross guard and a pommel plated with gold. The blade was made from steel, with what looked to be vines etched into it and made to look as if they were crawling up the blade, just as they did on the castle’s outer wall. The scabbard was made out of fine leather, with the same vine pattern on it as the sword blade had, and was ringed in gold where the straps that held it to belts attached to it. The sword was a very familiar object to her, but to be holding it in her hands, knowing that it was now hers… well, that was something else.

Marion stood up and drew the sword from its scabbard. The blade was polished to such a brilliant sheen, she could see her reflection in it.

She looked over her shoulder at Polain. “Why are you giving this to me, now?”

“Because I’ve decided to let you fight against the Giskens,” Polain said. “You’ll want to thank Olrick for this; he’s the one that convinced me to do it.”

Marion put the sword back in her scabbard, shocked. Polain had seemed so sure about keeping her from fighting; she’d never thought he would budge on the issue. Now, to hear that he’d stepped away from the issue entirely, she wasn’t sure what to think, let alone, what to say.

“Thank you,” she finally said. Though she said it calmly, on the inside, she was ecstatic. She was going to have the opportunity to kill Raul, the man responsible for the deaths of her parents. Finally, that Gisken bastard was going to get what was coming to him.

She looked back at her parents’ graves. After the Gisken general was finally dead, Marion’s parents would be able to truly rest in peace.

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