The Devil's Dominion

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Chapter 2: Rivals

Makret Druoth rode at the head of the seven hundred Deshika who crossed the hill just as Dalasin and Atalin faded from sight. Though he saw the silver blurs that he knew belonged to ghosts of Morschen dead, he did not know who the two had been in life. He did not stop the Deshika to examine the ghosts. They faded just as he got close enough to know that he really did see them, and he doubted that any of his soldiers had seen the two spirits. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on the city ahead of him. The Golden Flame that burned constantly in the topmost room of The Beacon, the Great Tower of Armanda, was no less bright in the early morning than in the dead of night, but Makret’s eyes were not drawn to the eleven-hundred-foot tower or the symbol that it housed. Instead, he stared straight ahead at the newly finished palace that Guinira had ordered built for The Kindler and herself. Even from a mile away, the mammoth structure exuded power and evil. Though the city’s Ringlords were allowed to move throughout the city as they wished, unless otherwise ordered, every last one spent each night inside of its newly-built walls. Makret was lucky. He was The Kindler’s right hand. Most orders could not stop him. But it was dangerous, even for him, to be too obvious in flaunting them. The worst part of the whole ride back to An-Aniath would be the next half of a mile and inside of the city. There would be Deshika everywhere, and Ringlords who had either truly turned like Guinira had, or could not escape her rule, like himself. And, even more than that, the evil feeling that the palace gave off would only grow as he got closer to it. He briefly wondered if the Deshika could feel it, but he assumed that worshipping the Seven Devils as they did, they must be used to Black Power and its nauseating presence. With his soldiers behind him, Makret pushed the overbearing reminder of Anaria’s fall to the back of his mind and rode on through the city, going slower the closer he got to the giant palace.

It was a hideous structure in his mind. It was built entirely of red and black rock, but it was little more than a well-ordered pile of rubble. It was not elegant and graceful, like so many of the examples of Armandan architecture that surrounded the fortress. The stone was heavy, quarried flat and square, with neither carving nor statue nor any other embellishment, and did not radiate with the same light and inner fire that other buildings surrounding it did, especially the Morschcodal Palace, which now sat dwarfed in the new building’s shadow. Before the beginning of the New Deshik Wars, Makret had barely tolerated his beautiful homeland sharing its longest border with the deserts of Armanda. Now, all he wanted was for things to go back to the way they had been, though he knew that it was largely because of him that things had changed. He shrugged his shoulders and dismounted and, with a thought and a pat on the head, sent his Mordak to its paddock for food and rest. The soldiers he had with had remained outside of the city. Guinira had ordered him back to the capital, but he doubted that he would be there for long. He laughed to himself as he thought once again of his army. The seven hundred Deshik warriors who ridden with him to An-Aniath barely amounted to an Honour Guard for one of the Seven, but they had fought on more battlefields than any other Deshika. Though he hated all Deshika, the Veterans, as all those who fought at Agrista were called, were the ones he trusted most. There were not many of them left though.

Makret walked through the halls of red and black stone that made up even the interior of the palace of An-Aniath, now the capital of Guinira Estaleth’s holdings under The Kindler. The torches along the walls cast little light, and really only served to make the dark, overbearing feeling of the castle more intense. Though he only wanted to be out of the palace, back into the cleaner air far away from An-Aniath and the surrounding desert, he walked slowly. He had been ordered back to the capital from the Ashnora Desert’s western edge, had ridden through the night, and he had had no chance to refresh himself in the early morning. And, though he hated being back inside of the centre of his enemy’s power, he savoured the chance to be away from the endless battles that he had participated in since his debatable victory over the Morschcoda Council at Emin-Tal. Still, Guinira would have to have a reason for calling him back. She despised him even more than he hated the new palace. He knew that she had a reason for it, too. Though she hated him for all of the traditionally correct reasons, that she was Armandan and he was a Drog, she hated him more because she was afraid of what he could do in her place, and what he might do to take that place from her. But the Morschledu Remnant had made several daring strokes in recent months, and Makret would not have cared or shown interest, but several of the attacks had been severely damaging to Guinira’s slowly expanding power, so she needed to strike back. Makret sighed. The strokes that Xari, Daliana, Edya, and, most of all Erygan, had made were daring and inspiring to the Remnant and to those who hid their true loyalties, like he did, but it would not be enough. Nothing would be enough anymore. With the arrival of Nasheem, the second of the Seven Devils, known as ‘The Dread Commander’ to his Morschen enemies, there were more Deshik warriors in Anaria than there had ever been Morschen soldiers at one time.

After what felt like an eternity suffocating in clouds of Black Power, Makret finally walked up to the great doors of Her Majesty’s audience chamber and throne room. This room was lighter, but the heat was torturous to a non-Armandan. Three large fireplaces, and elegant, Caladean-carved lanterns hanging on every pillar, made the room less foreboding than the long walk to reach it, but the air was heavy and thick with heat, and painfully dry. Makret wished he could be anywhere else, but his face betrayed nothing, his mind remained armoured, and his walk was proud and arrogant as he pushed open the doors and strode up the long red carpet that stretched from the steps to the door.

“Reishtakeuna, Queen Guinira.” Makret bowed his head ever so slightly to Guinira Estaleth, who shifted uncomfortably on her new throne. Makret knew that the traditional greeting of the Morschcoda Council could severe his head far more easily than anything else, but he used it for several reasons. It was safe enough, as long as some of the older Ringlords did not hear him use it. Since it had become a greeting reserved for people one disliked but had no way to avoid, it had been unused by the Council for almost two millennia before Taren Garrenin’s ascent to the Flowing Throne of Drogoda, long before Guinira’s birth. But more importantly, he knew that he was irreplaceable. He was the commanding and victorious General of Emin-Tal, which had recently come to be known in Armanda as the Grave of Drogoda, and he had led other campaigns after that during Guinira’s rise to power.

Guinira sat upright, almost painfully straight, on the flat black throne that now symbolized her reign. “I will not have that word voiced in my hearing, General, nor any other word in the old tongue.” Guinira’s voice was as proud and commanding as ever, but it had an unused sound about it, as though she had not spoken for several weeks. Makret thought that she looked tired.

Makret pressed the small advantage he had. He rarely got the chance to speak his true mind with her, and she seemed slightly disoriented. He might not have another chance for some time. “I won’t speak to you as these other Rishtckal do.” He met her stare and poured his own will through his eyes to try to subdue her. He did not succeed.

“I will be obeyed, General Druoth.”

Makret seethed, but forced himself to remain calm. His was a peculiar position. He could make threats. “And I, unlike you Your Majesty, can’t be replaced by any who serve you, Deshik or Morschen.” They both knew that it was both entirely true and an empty threat. Makret would never be able to convince The Kindler to remove Guinira, and Guinira knew that to attack Makret without evidence that he posed a real threat to The Kindler’s war would destroy her own position. “So, my lady, I suggest you grow accustomed to whatever tendencies I have that displease you.” “Is it treason, then, Makret?” That she said ‘Makret’ was enough for him to know that she was in a dangerous and unpredictable mood. She never used his first name. But it was how she said it that bothered Makret. As hot as the room was, it sent a cold shiver down his spine. Even though he had the greater power, she had somehow become The Kindler’s favourite. ‘It must be because the demon-spawn doesn’t have to fight her the same way that he fights me.’ Makret hated both The Kindler and the Deshika, but he also could not help but be annoyed that The Kindler had chosen Guinira. She could be a formidable woman, deadly and powerful, and capable of a viciousness towards her own people that The Kindler needed, but he was Makret Druoth. He was one of the most dangerous and powerful Ringlords to walk the Ten Nations. He knew almost everything there was to know about Anaria and its rulers. ‘By the gods, I killed Taren Garrenin! I deserve that throne.’ But whatever The Kindler’s reason was for choosing Guinira, he had had one, so Makret knew that he had to be careful.

“No, this isn’t treason. But I did much for this cause before you were even an afterthought. I just think that I should be permitted to do and say what I wish.”

Guinira, her mind finally fully awake, looked at him intently. ‘This is a tricky one. He’s as skilled with his tongue as he is with his sword. And he’s not wrong, either.’ She knew that Makret’s prowess as a sword master and a battlefield commander was something from beyond legend. She had seen him turn ordinary maps into works of art, masterpieces of death. He truly was irreplaceable. He had led the assault that had liberated An-Aniath from the rebel Morschledu when she had proclaimed herself Queen of Anaria. Guinira’s own mother, Xari Gundara, Armanda’s former Morschcoda, had instigated the rebellion, but she had also escaped after its ultimate defeat. The last stroke of that long, bloody battle had been dealt on the steps of the castle dwarfed in the shadow of the one that Guinira now called her home. Now, finding Xari was one of Guinira’s highest priorities.

“Very well General Druoth. You may speak as you wish here, when we talk privately. But in formal audience is another matter. When occasion calls, I demand that you conduct yourself as someone of your rank and station should.”

Slowly and carefully, Makret nodded his agreement. “Now, if we may talk of why I am here?” Though she had summoned him, he had other reasons for returning to the capital. If he had not, he would have remained with his army.

“The Kindler wants the rest of Anaria conquered, but he also wants any symbols of the old order that are in our lands to be swept away.”

“Does he state specific targets, or do I just burn everything?” As a Drog, it was expected that he and the Armandan Guinira would not get along, but Makret was playing the game more dangerously than he needed to, protected by his rank and reputation.

“No, you will not burn everything. You are to target specific landmarks; the Great Library in Dorok-Baan, the city of Dishmo Kornara, Castle Morieden, and others like them. And—”

“I will not, as I have repeated many times, march in open war to Dishmo Kornara. It would be suicidal, especially with the Eschcotan army holding it. Nor is it within the lands we hold. Erygan has his armies, the Morieden Tribes are not yet subdued, and the Remnant is still widely dispersed. Many forces could converge to destroy us if we marched there. As for Castle Morieden, it would be a waste of my time. It’s a derelict old hump of rubble twenty leagues south of Drogoda’s northern border, surrounded by a city that members of the Morieden Tribes go to maybe once in their lifetime. Since the Garrenin line is broken, there is no Prince of Morieden to rule the city, so nothing lives there now except rats and the ghosts of long dead members of House Garrenin. And, as I said, the Tribes are still untamed. They would slaughter the Deshika if an army tried to march in force.” Guinira was beginning to get angry. The Morieden Tribes produced many of the finest warriors to be found in Anaria, and possibly even the world. The Garrenins themselves were of the Morieden Tribes, and almost half of Drogoda’s Mordak Riders came from the men and women of the plains. If she held a secure place in the middle of their lands, she could destroy them. If many tribal warriors died defending Morieden City, so much the better. But, she felt that Makret knew something more about Castle Morieden that he was not telling her. His mind was armoured, hard and impenetrable. It could have been nothing more than desiring to preserve some private retreat for himself that he already had a connection to. The Morieden Tribes would welcome him. He was one of their own. She shook her head to relieve her anger. It did not work, but it provided a distraction. “Very well, but you will take your army into Storinea and destroy the Great Library.” “Am I to understand why?”

Guinira leaned back into her throne, believing that Makret was acquiescing. “No.”

“Because The Kindler did not tell you? Or because you yourself do not understand The Kindler’s reasons?”

Guinira slammed her fist on the armrest of her throne. “I want that library destroyed!”

Makret reacted with equal annoyance, shouting at his Queen. “What’s the point?”

Guinira stood and yelled back. “To deny the Remnant any useful information!”

“Oh.” Makret’s voice was calm and level. Guinira didn’t trust him when he spoke that way. “Why didn’t you say so? That makes my orders much easier to interpret. I don’t have to destroy the Great Library. I just have to find and kill every living Demosira.”

“Burn the stacks. I don’t care about the Demosira.”

“The Demosira,” Makret rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, “have a second copy of every book in the Great Library hidden in the Demosira’s Tower. And the location of the Great Tower of Storinea, ironically, was destroyed in a fire. No outsider can find it anymore. So, the knowledge contained in the Great Library is hardly irreplaceable. The Demosira’s Tower is a much greater treasure. It houses the Insanity Papers. They would actually have value, but since the Demosira themselves are supposed to find them difficult to understand, they wouldn’t have value to us.” Guinira’s eyes flicked to Makret’s hand. With anyone as dangerous as Makret, to rest his hand on the hilt of his sword was almost as direct a threat as drawing the blade itself. “Why would incomprehensible ramblings have any value?”

“The Demosira have a saying: ‘A scholar doesn’t go mad. A scholar finds new realities to ask questions about.’ The Insanity Papers are supposed to have been written by Demosira who studied things even most Demosira don’t understand, things that broke the minds of the Demosira who studied them.”

“Like what?”

“The Forgers, the Morschledu Rings, the gods, the Seven, elemental and ethereal magic, the differences between elemental and ethereal magic. Things like that.”

“How do you know any of this?”

Makret rested his other hand on his sword hilt now. Guinira felt more distinctly threatened, and began to direct energy towards her Ring, spells ready on her lips. But Makret answered with his tongue, not his sword. “When I first met Garneth Revdark, he was writing a book. I made the mistake of asking him what it was about. From his long-winded answer, I found out that it was actually a book about the Insanity Papers.” “I don’t care about the Insanity Papers or what a long dead Morschcoda wrote about them. I want them destroyed.”

“While that’s never going to happen, you should still care about them.”

Guinira sighed, exasperated, and ran a hand through her hair. “And why should I do that? I don’t even care about this conversation anymore.”

“I was a mediocre General by Drog standards before I met Garneth Revdark for the first time. That might have had me as competent, maybe talented by any other standard. While he was writing, I picked up a scroll from his desk and started reading it to pass the time. It was one of the Insanity Papers. I haven’t lost a battle since.”

“Maybe you’re just lucky.”

“Then I’ve been lucky for over six hundred years.”

“Fine, you’re talented. Is that what you want to hear?”

“No. I want to hear that, unlike you, I have respect for knowledge and experience, no matter where it comes from.”

“You are heaping coals on your own head, Drog.”

“I know that, Guinira, but if they fall from my head, you burn as well. Neither you nor The Kindler could hold this empire together without me. And I will not make an attack on anything, anywhere, or anyone, without a real reason.” Guinira looked like she was about to start yelling again, but he headed her off. “The Kindler knows this well.” She looked like she had swallowed a nest of bees. “So, if The Kindler” he put emphasis on those words, making sure Guinira knew that he believed that she had issued the instructions, “wants me to destroy the Great Library, he can tell me himself.” She refused to accept that he was not hers to command, but for the moment, she had no choice.

“Then why have you returned to An-Aniath? You clearly aren’t here to receive orders from me.” The change in topic was the safest thing she could do for the time being.

“You claimed that you needed proof of a Morschledu conspiracy before you would move against Dothoro. Why you need proof to march on the forest, I don’t know, but—”

“Enough. You’ve found a link?”

“Did you think it was beyond me?” She did not answer. “Yes. We found this in an abandoned camp, just beyond the eastern border of Armanda.” He handed her a peculiar instrument, a flat piece of metal, about two feet long and four inches wide, bent at one end, with a thin handle that was wrapped with leather.

She took it carefully, cautious about whatever enchantments might have been placed upon the item. She thought it looked familiar, but she looked at Makret, indicating for him to explain.

“It’s an Anshawl.” He stopped, believing Guinira needed no more information. When she coughed, he finally understood the ignorance of the woman who sat before him. “The Anshawl is both a weapon and a useful tool in a forest. It has three edges, as you can see. The inner edge is serrated and is used for sawing through thick vines and living branches that bar one’s path. The flat end is used as an ax, and the outer cutting edge is used as one would a machete, for hacking through dense brush.” “How does this” she hefted the weapon and pointed it at Makret, “prove that the conspiracy between the Armandan Rebels and the fallen Morschcoda Council is real?”

Makret sighed, clearly frustrated and making no attempts to hide his contempt for Guinira. “You mean aside from the fact that every rebel group in Anaria is part of the Morschledu Remnant?” He almost gave her enough time to respond with equal aggression, but he spoke again just as the first word was leaving her mouth. “Each of the Ten Nations has their own unique weapon. The Anshawl, while it is primarily used in forests by Ringless Morschen, is also often carried in combat by Dothrin soldiers. Dothoro is where the remnants of the Morschcoda Council are rumoured to be.” Makret forced his lips to remain in a frown even as he wanted to smile. He knew well where the various members of the Council were. Norrin was still in Dishmo Kornara, in case Guinira gave its location to The Kindler. Gelida was building her army in the Garuthen Mountains. Erygan was rampaging unchecked across northern Anaria, leaving a trail of ruin and death that was both easy and dangerous to follow. Though the Torridestans were doing little enough real damage, no longer daring to come close to the border of Armanda and Guinira’s real power, they were still a threat. Their daring in attacking Guinira’s armies so openly was inspiring to the Armandan Rebels, as well as the rest of Remnant Anaria. Marrdin had returned to Agrista in an attempt to rebuild some last retreat. The rest of the Council was hidden in Dothoro, biding their time, waiting for a sign that might not come.

Guinira studied the weapon, so she did not see the fight raging on Makret’s face. The Anshawl on her lap was in some ways a symbol of the people she was fighting. Her own people, though she no longer viewed them as such; sometimes a peaceful people, sometimes warlike, and all times dangerous. She thought carefully, being sure to hide her thoughts from Makret. ‘The Dothrin are dangerous. It may be that if I send Makret there, he will fall in battle. If he does die, it’s no loss, and if he refuses …’ She allowed herself a small smile at the thought. If Makret refused, then she would have a perfect reason to relieve him of command and imprison him. If the Morschcoda Council was in Dothoro, then there her army would go.

The smile was not lost on Makret. She was horrible at hiding her emotions. He had seen better masks on children, and he had seen that particular smile numerous times in the two years that he had served Guinira. He had seen many others like it in his long tenure as High General of Drogoda, and whenever he accompanied Taren Garrenin to The Councils as Captain of his Morschcodal Guard. They represented some privately delicious thought that no one would dare reveal but could not quite hold back. He decided to break Guinira’s illusion. “You want me to march on the Remnant in Dothoro.” Guinira looked neither surprised nor pleased. She merely nodded. “Take whatever strength that you deem necessary, Morschen or Deshik. But know that seven of my own Ringlords will march with you.” Makret, not daring to speak, lowered his chin and left the room quickly. He did not even notice Guinira signal one of her guards to follow him.

Once he had made it back to his own rooms, he sagged against the wall, not caring that the door was open. ‘How could she have fallen so low so quickly?’ It was Makret’s only thought. He knew well that her sending seven Ringlords was not random. Despite his service to The Kindler, he refused to use the Deshik numbers, counting time still in Morschen months, using five and ten, instead of three and seven. No, the seven had been directed towards him, a slap in the face: a challenge. “Guinira suspects me.” He said it out loud, not knowing that Guinira’s servant watched through the door he had left ajar. He was fortunate though, for the woman did not stay to hear more, but ran off. Makret heard her go, got up, and closed the door tightly. What had been heard would do him no harm. It might actually buy him a measure of peace in An-Aniath. But that was no longer what mattered. Any Ringlords he chose to take with him would also be suspected of treason, unless they did not come back. If they did not come back, then he would practically be displaying his allegiance to the Morschledu Remnant. He swore loudly.

Guinira chose her Ringlords carefully. There were three men and four women in the group. The three men were all Flame Weavers who had chosen to remain loyal to her, the rightful ruler of Anaria. The first two women were of higher blood status, and had been close friends of Guinira’s after she had left the Flame Weavers herself. The other women, stronger magically, but of lower and more mixed bloodlines, had certain orders: the women who had been her friends were not to come back alive. Since Taren Garrenin had captured her and revealed that he had placed many spies around her, everyone was suspect, especially her friends. They could be spies for Makret, or for the Morschcoda. The only thing that all seven had in common was that they were all Armandan.

Makret finally made an appearance in the throne room, delaying the moment for as long as possible. He had also been careful in choosing his own Ringlords. Most of them were not the kind of people who were generally noticed, and those that were had been chosen as an obvious statement. Not one was of Armandan blood. Makret was the only Drog, itself a statement against Guinira, and the other five came from her other, more disputed holdings. The Meclaryan man had the look of a Dragon Rider: short and scarred, missing two fingers and part of an ear, but he seemed otherwise healthy. There was a High-Blood Ristan woman, tall and proud, who looked like she was missing part of her right arm, standing beside the shorter Meclaryan. Aleishi Mandrath of Caladea was the third. The woman had come to An-Aniath to offer her power and influence in Caladea to Guinira, so that the country might be taken more easily, without bloodshed. Battles had been fought anyway throughout the country’s southern and coastal regions, where loyalties were mixed between Ranny Marsharin’s rule as Morschcoda, where Aleishi could offer Guinira power, and Taren Garrenin’s Imperial Throne, where Makret’s betrayal of his King and friend still cut deep. That Makret had chosen Aleishi unsettled Guinira, which had been his purpose. The Torridestan was a tall man who carried his sword easily, and, like the Ristan woman, clearly High-Blooded. A pale, thin Storinean man rounded out the group, a scholar like almost everyone that she had met from the small country to the west. Guinira looked the Torridestan over one more time. Though Torridesta was still disputed territory, in Guinira’s mind, wiser Ringlords in that country had come over to her and The Kindler, seeing that the Morschledu that did not stand with the side that would eventually be victorious were doomed. They were mostly merchants, understanding profits of war, if not war itself or the politics involved.

“Well, General. You have your orders.”

“I am to take Dothoro by any means necessary, even if I must burn down the forest.” The Armandans looked gleeful at the thought of such a massive fire, raging unchecked in the midst of Anaria. The other Ringlords looked less than pleased. Makret’s own mouth twisted in a look of some distaste as he said the words.

“Exactly. That should teach these other traitors to tread cautiously when plotting around the Queen of Anaria.”

The short Meclaryan muttered something under his breath that could not be heard well. Makret thought it might have been “Queen of Candles, maybe,” but as the hardly audible statement led into a fit of coughing, he could not be sure. He smiled anyways. A gambling man, he knew that being dealt the Queen of Candles in most card games was almost the same as tossing three ones with four dice. It was not worth the risk that someone else would have the one card that it could beat. Both Makret, who did not care, and Guinira, who did not notice, let the man’s comment pass.

Guinira motioned towards one of the side doors of the room, near to the dais where she sat. “There are just two more things to deal with before you leave the city, General Druoth.” Two more Armandans were escorted into the room. The man was dressed in comfortable, though well worn, travelling cloths, sturdy leather and wool. He had a longsword and a bow, and wore armour on his forearms and lower legs. A Ring was on the second finger of his left hand; one small, but brilliantly red, ruby set in gold. The woman was more elegant. She wore cloths similar to what Makret remembered Xari typically wearing, but more opulent: silk instead of wool, soft suede instead of hardened leather. She also had a Ring: five rubies formed a small “x” on the gold band around the second finger of her left hand. Makret was certain he recognized her, and the short Meclaryan whispered something similar in his ear.

“This, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is the Lord Egrin. General Druoth, he will be travelling with you as far as Antesh, in Western Drogoda. From there, Lord Egrin, you will travel to Southern Dothoro, where you will assume command of all of Her Majesty’s Morschledu Hunters in Dothoro.” A servant handed Egrin a sealed scroll. He bowed to Guinira as he received it. “And now, for the most important event in far too long, please come forward, Aisha.” The woman in silk walked over to kneel in front of Guinira. “For too long has the Morschcodal Throne been maintained by the specter of a woman unworthy of it: a traitor and a rebel. Such a disgrace to this nation will finally end today.” Guinira stood and placed a hand on top of Aisha. “I formally strip Xari Gundara of all the lands and titles she enjoys as the Matron of House Gundara and vest them in you, Aisha, daughter of Einna, of House Gundara. As Matron of House Gundara, you are also the rightful heir to the Morschcodal Throne, the Guardian of the Golden Flame. If you will, swear the Morschcoda’s Oath.” Aisha took a deep breath, conscious of how many people were in the room around her. “I, Aisha Gundara, do solemnly swear to uphold the laws of this country, the laws of our mothers, and the laws of the Queen. I pledge to be the first defence and the final retreat, to guard the lives of my people with my own, and to justly deal with all those who come before me, whether they are free or captive, Armandan or outsider. I pledge to guard the spirits and hearts of my people and all people who take shelter in my name. So I swear.” “And I Guinira Estaleth, Queen of Armanda, Anaria, and all lands of the Morschen, hear and accept your oath. Rise now as Morschcoda Aisha Gundara, Guardian of the Golden Flame, Protector of Armanda.”

Makret cursed silently. Guinira had just crippled any attempt to win back Armanda with Xari’s help. And he knew why she had waited too. Makret was leaving. He would never have the chance to undermine Aisha’s authority while she was still uncomfortable with her throne.

The fifteen Ringlords bowed to Guinira, a very small bow in Makret’s case, and the fourteen leaving for the north left.

Guinira, watching from the palace roof, was relieved to see Makret and his chosen few finally out of the capital. The orders she had given could in no way damage her, but they meant much in her grand scheme. Either Makret would succeed or be destroyed. There was no middle ground. And when he returned in defeat, his forces destroyed, missing seven Ringlords or more, she would remove him from his position. So she needed to get busy. She had maybe two months to find a new General. “I need someone competent,” she spoke to herself. “Not as clever as Makret, not as independent, but capable on the battlefield, and acceptable in formal court.” The last part was going to be harder to meet than any other requirements, even considering Makret’s formidable history as a General. But, with the war basically over, she did not need someone to dare great things on the battlefield. She needed someone who would do what she told them.

Makret was glad to be leaving the desert once again. Though he was nowhere near the coast that he loved and only moving farther away from it, he felt clean again, being closer to water that was not riddled with sand and guarded by poisonous snakes. And more importantly, he was away from Guinira and the cesspool of Black Power where she now lived. He had no worries about anything he said getting back to her. If he could not sway the seven Armandans she had chosen, it would be all too easy to have them killed in the confusion of battle. The only problem would be whether or not the Remnant would be anxious to accommodate him with one. A show of Deshik force, marching under the trees, should be enough, but he did not know. Since The Grave of Drogoda, two years before, he had had no contact with most of the Morschcoda, except for Daken and very briefly Erygan, who he had met in battle, so he did not know how deep into the forest the Dothrin had retreated. He did know that many Drog Morschledu had run to the forest. It had been the best thing they could have done. Drogoda was the embodiment of what Guinira was not, so it had been tortured. Rebels had destroyed the bridges of Alquendiro, so Guinira’s wrath had not touched the city, but other places, Morieden Province especially, as it was the ancestral home of the Garrenins, had taken the brunt of the assault.

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