Rorbel emerged from the wooden carriage and immediately stood tall, revealing no signs of fatigue, frustration, or fear. Even though what lay in front of him had unconsciously widened the eyes and lowered the jaws of many a soldier; this was Rorbel’s fourth visit to the royal palace grounds. Still, no matter how many times his eyes had taken in the awe-inspiring sight of Vandaria’s capitol, hiding his amazement was always difficult. Or it would have been had his mind not been distracted by the reason he was there. This was no award ceremony or parade for a special event. Today, Rorbel knew, would be a day of inquiry. The final words of his Guard Captain still echoed inside of his mind; it is out of my hands. The moment Rorbel had returned to his guard station after losing sight of the thieves amongst the frenzied crowds of the bazaar, Captain Hanzsack had been waiting for him in the company of two guards from the palace. After what seemed like days of questioning and with a reserved expression of pity on his face, Hanzsack had given Rorbel strict instructions: report to Major Greenwalt at the palace headquarters for debriefing.
Neither of Rorbel’s chaperones seemed to be tense or giving him the extra attention guards reserve for detainees so whatever trouble he was in, Rorbel could at least breathe easy with the knowledge that it wasn’t dungeon worthy. That is, unless the men escorting him were too low in the ranks to be informed of the fate of their charge. Rorbel shook the thought away and started forward, following his escort towards the palace guard headquarters.
The palace gates were the largest structures the humble city guardsman had seen made completely of steel, towering over him so high he had to arch his head back just to glimpse the top. The wide opening seemed to swallow him and his escorts as they crossed the threshold which separated the royal grounds from the city. Almost all of the buildings, homes, and other structures lining the palace grounds were made mostly of stone and concrete with steel and other metals laced throughout for structural integrity. Deep burgundies, bright golds, and glimmering emeralds were splashed across the walls and roofs.
Rorbel always felt out of place in his beige uniform when surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of the palace grounds. The dominant colors were that of his nation, Vandaria and the city guardsman always wondered why his country’s national colors were only displayed on the uniforms of its front line soldiers and palace guards. Every time he laid eyes upon the royal guards, Rorbel couldn’t help thinking how the dark red uniforms would be a welcome change from the depressing beige that covered him.
To Rorbel’s surprise, the guard headquarters was not his final destination. Nearly two hundred feet from the main gate, the rectangular building that housed a single battalion charged with the defense and security of the palace bustled with activity. It seemed as if counter-siege training was the focal point for the day’s exercises. Although it only stood about a quarter in relation to the height of the palace, the headquarters was a fortress in its own right with an iron gate serving as its main point of entry. A sturdier, more decorative carriage met Rorbel and his escort twenty feet or so from the guard base. Only one of the royal guards boarded the carriage with Rorbel.
“We’re not meeting the Major at the headquarters?” Rorbel couldn’t help voicing his curiosity after settling in to the new carriage.
“No,” the royal guard answered plainly. “Major Greenwalt has been inside the palace since this morning.”
Rorbel knew very little about the inner workings of palace politics and even less concerning military routines on the royal grounds. But the thought of a military commander below that of a General spending half a day inside of the royal palace didn’t sit well with the city guardsman. Perhaps one became a dignitary or politician once one rose high enough in the ranks? Maybe the job focus would shift from organizing training exercises and battle plans to other matters. What those matters could have possibly been eluded Rorbel’s mind but he hoped that his allowing those thieves to escape hadn’t been what kept the Major held up in front of some royal assembly all day. He read the name stitched into the uniform of the palace guard.
“That must be one long report, Degorin,” Rorbel said, making one more attempt at gathering information.
“Don’t count on it,” Degorin chuckled. “Greenwalt spends more time in the palace than his own home. He’s from one of the wealthiest families in the city and it’s obvious he wants to be appointed to a governmental position but his father wanted him to be a well-rounded aristocrat. So after daddy pulled a few strings, Greenwalt was recruited into the royal guard as a Captain, straight out of school.”
“How did he land the promotion?” Rorbel wondered, a bit relieved that every unusual thing going on that day wasn’t about his failure.
“Beats me,” Degorin shrugged. “I’m not saying the guy’s incompetent or anything but he damn sure hasn’t earned any of the respect his rank demands. Especially since all he does is kiss the ass of every dignitary inside the palace from sunrise to sunset.”
Rorbel couldn’t help laughing at Degorin’s candid decorum but at the same time a new worry crept into the back of his mind. It was hard to believe that the escape of two jewel thieves could bring about this level of inquiry. Escaped criminals and unsolved crimes were common, especially in lower class neighborhoods. Usually a quick debriefing to the Guard Captain would be enough but now Rorbel found himself in a royal carriage on his way to the palace to be debriefed by a Major. What if the jewels stolen belonged to one of the Major’s aristocratic friends and to boost his standing, Greenwalt was willing to overtly punish the incompetent guard responsible for the escape of the thieves? Rorbel despised commanders who chose to single out lower ranking soldiers as examples for whatever point they were trying to make.
“We’re here,” Degorin announced after the carriage came to a halt.
Rorbel found his head craned back once again, this time taking in the sight of the grandest building in all of Vandaria. It was difficult to count the number of towers. They were all massive bulks of various metals and concrete. Not only were the towers adorned with the official colors of the nation but various tints of blue were sprinkled throughout the walls and spires of each tower. The entire square shaped structure extended nearly a mile out in each direction with various watchtowers connected by concrete walkways. It was a miniature city in its own right, surrounded by the small city that was the palace grounds, surrounded by Nandule.
“Corporal Stigmantun!” The male voice boomed from one of the guards posted at the palace gate, snapping Rorbel out of his trance.
“Good luck,” Degorin said giving Rorbel a sympathetic smirk and pat on the shoulder.
After twenty minutes of travel through the luxurious inner corridors of the palace and another forty of waiting outside of the war and strategies chamber, Rorbel rose from his seat at the sight of a large and extravagant entourage making its way down the hall. Most of the group consisted of officers; staff members assigned to assist their commander dressed in fancy uniforms decorated with medals and unit insignias. The garbs were designed for parties and coronations rather than a battlefield. A few governmental attendants filled out the remainder of the group.
Major Matheous Greenwalt led the assembly and the moment Rorbel set eyes on the young upstart, he knew his long day was going to be a lot longer. Rorbel didn’t mind meeting officers nearly half his age. It came with the territory of not being interested in rising through the ranks. What Rorbel did mind were people who felt they were better than others. The Corporal noticed that the military rarely created those types of people but the power a high rank gave to those born from an elite family who were taught that the blood coursing through their veins made them superior was dangerous. Watching Greenwalt as he strode down the hall told Rorbel everything he needed to know. His long, black, and slightly curled hair bounced just above the silver shoulder guards connected to his pitch-black jacket. Rorbel couldn’t tell what fabric the uniform was made of, most likely something worth more than a year of his salary. Three gold buttons lined the jacket from the top of the Major’s heart to just below his rib cage. The top button was left undone, causing the fabric to flip down putting its blood red underbelly on display. Black pants tucked into black boots that clicked along the marble tile floors of the hallway covered the lower half of the Major. If anything about the young officer’s clothing confirmed Rorbel’s suspicions about the man’s character it was the flowing black cape stitched into his shoulder guards. Like his jacket, the underside of the long cloth was a bright red that clashed with the ebony uniform.
Rorbel carried a silver iron helmet that he usually never wore in his right hand. The headgear was tucked under his left arm as the Corporal snapped to attention, giving the Major a crisp salute. As he stood there, keeping his eyes fixed on the Major’s eyes, his tense nerves began to loosen. Maybe things wouldn’t go as bad as he previously believed.
“Corporal Stigmantun reporting as ordered, sir,” Rorbel said with a raised yet respectful tone.
“In the briefing room,” Greenwalt waved away the salute. “Let’s skip the pleasantries, shall we?”
Then again, Rorbel thought while suppressing a curse, his gut was usually more sensible than his mind. Everyone spread out into the briefing room and took a seat at the long rectangular table in the center. Greenwalt sat at the head of the table and motioned with his gloved hand for Rorbel, who stood near the entrance waiting to be instructed on what to do.
“Sit down, Corporal,” The Major ordered.
Rorbel sat at the only empty seat at the rear end of the table, placing his helmet on the maple wood in front of him. He straightened himself and kept his hands folded on his lap. His curiosity at what the Major was discussing with the two officers seated to the left and right of him was plastered over his face.
“You’ve had a busy day, Corporal,” Greenwalt said suddenly, turning his pompous gaze to the city guardsman only after he finished his sentence.
“Yes sir,” Rorbel said after taking in a breath.
“I’m assuming you do not realize the value of the item that has been lost due to your failure to apprehend those two thieves?” The Major’s question was more of an accusation.
“A report came down that two thieves had stolen jewelry from one of the inner city estates. We were not informed of the value or the owner of the item,” Rorbel responded.
“Nor should you have needed to be,” Greenwalt spat. “However, it would benefit you to know that Governor Venzwurlo would very much like it if his personal property were returned to him.”
Rorbel’s eyes shifted slightly as his mind processed the situation. “The item belonged to the Governor?”
“I am not in the business of repeating myself,” Greenwalt said with a snide grin. “I realize speech and reading comprehension is lacking amongst you outliers that is why I am using such small words.”
If the insult or the accompanying chuckles from the surrounding officers upset him, Rorbel’s expression and demeanor did not show it. “Yes sir.”
“Fifteen years with the city guard,” Greenwalt said while glancing over a file set in front of him by one of his aides. “Rarely a mishap throughout your…luxurious career. I’ve met your type, Stigmantun. You keep your head down, avoid making waves, and may…retire with that twenty year pension.”
“Yes sir,” Rorbel figured being the good soldier and letting the little brat get his muscle flexing out of the way would get him home faster.
“However, sometimes there is one mistake that runs the risk of taking all of that away,” Greenwalt said with a bit of malice seeping into his tone.
An eerie silence engulfed the room for a few moments. Rorbel figured the Major wanted some sort of response or plea but what Greenwalt failed to realize was that the Corporal had met types like him and knew exactly how to handle them. Of course that didn’t mean Rorbel wasn’t fearful for his job security. Challenging the Major would be futile. If he turned out to be the type that relished in the groveling of those he felt were beneath him then Corporal Stigmantun may in fact become citizen Stigmantun by the end of the day. If there was one thing Rorbel would not do, it was grovel at the proverbial feet of anyone. Not even the king.
“Reports indicate that you ordered your men to retreat,” Greenwalt said with a sort of refined disgust.
“Yes sir,” Rorbel replied.
“Why?” The Major’s question hung in the air for a few seconds.
“They were in possession of a firearm. The weapon is far superior to the standard issue swords that—” Rorbel started.
“I’m well aware of what a gun is, Corporal,” Greenwalt interrupted. “You outnumbered the fugitives whom according to the reports had only one firearm. They could have been overtaken.”
“At the risk of one of my men,” Rorbel countered.
“It is my understanding that soldiers swear an oath to uphold the safety and order of this kingdom at the expense of their lives,” The Major stated coldly.
“We do,” Rorbel said calmly. “But I won’t send one of my men to their death over some rocks.” Though almost unnoticeable, Rorbel managed to spot a few glints of respect within the eyes of Greenwalt’s entourage.
“Which is why you may find the decision will no longer be yours to make,” Greenwalt threatened.
So a demotion was as far as this was going to be taken? Rorbel let out a subtle sigh of relief. Rank meant little amongst soldiers who lived in the outer city districts. Promotions were gained on the battlefield and city guards were almost guaranteed a permanent station within their respective cities. Captain was the highest achievable rank within any given district. A Sergeant was put in charge of each platoon of guards and a Corporal assigned to lead each squad within those platoons. There was really only one high ranking position within each district and the pay raise wasn’t worth the headache. The city guard was one of the highest paying jobs for lowborn citizens and Rorbel made more than enough to give his family a comfortable life.
“If the Major feels that I am unfit to lead a squadron of soldiers within the city guard then so be it,” Rorbel stated, breaking the half-minute long silence.
“The Major…” Greenwalt’s expression darkened, “feels that you should be stricken from the ranks entirely.”
Another elongated period of silence swept over the room as Rorbel could no longer maintain his calm and collected demeanor. Greenwalt’s threat had managed to slice through the Corporal’s disciplined posture forcing shock into his expression. The loss of income would surely see Rorbel and his family on the streets within a few months. A disgraced soldier forcibly discharged from the military would have no hope of finding any high wage work within the city. With a word and the stroke of a pen, Greenwalt could have ended Rorbel’s life as he knew it. That such a man could destroy someone so effortlessly disgusted Rorbel to a point of fury which had taken all of his strength to contain.
“I do not believe that now would be the best time to reduce the number of combat soldiers within the ranks, Major,” a new voice to the room cut through the tension building between each end of the table.
Rorbel did not recognize the voice, which was no surprise to the Corporal since he wasn’t familiar with anyone residing within the palace. All eyes turned to the origin of the new arrival. The man was covered in dark brown leather with chainmail armor peeking out from beneath the seams. Leather greaves and armguards covered with steel plating protected his legs and arms.
Rorbel found himself rising to his feet at the booming shout of attention from one of Greenwalt’s staff. Who could this man be that his presence demanded a Major be called to attention? While studying the young stranger’s facial features a distant memory began to resurface in his mind. In the end it was the long stringy blonde hair which resembled his own that brought the name crashing back into the front of his mind.
“General Thorneson,” Greenwalt greeted the new arrival with a hint of annoyance.
“Major,” Thorneson returned the favor. “At ease gentlemen.”
The soldiers and secretaries began retaking their seats until the General held his hand up, halting one soldier who was halfway seated. “Corporal…” Thorneson could not make out Rorbel’s name on his uniform.
“Stigmantun, sir,” Rorbel said, rising back to attention.
“A word if you would,” Thorneson motioned for Rorbel to follow and turned to exit the room.
“General…sir,” Greenwalt fumed. “I have not finished debriefing the Corporal.”
“Yes,” Thorneson shot back coolly without turning to face the Major. “You indeed have.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Rorbel obediently followed the General out of the strategy room. Being pulled from yet another debriefing only to endure a third was not something the Corporal wanted. However, being pulled from the near kangaroo court Major Greenwalt intended to use as a stepping stone to further his favor with the Governor was a welcomed turn of events even if it meant having to explain the day’s exploits for a third time. The journey to where the General intended to speak with the Corporal was a bit shorter than his trek through the lower levels of the palace interior. Now Rorbel found himself climbing the upper levels of the structure. Over the ledge of an open walkway, Rorbel could see the half mile-wide circular courtyard constructed into the center of the Palace that boasted a lush garden. He was led into a capsule like device constructed into the wall that he had never laid eyes upon before. At the push of a button from the General, the capsule seemed to dislodge itself from the current level of the palace and began rising towards the higher floors of the building.
“What sort of contraption is this?” Rorbel wondered aloud.
A slight chuckle escaped the General. “It has been a while since I have seen someone’s reaction to their first elevator ride.”
“I take great pride in being nothing more than a simple man,” Rorbel said, too distracted by the view through the elevator’s glass doors to stand at attention. The guard had heard of such electrical powered devices but had never experienced a ride within one.
“Why is that?” Thorneson asked.
“Because complicated men hold the lives and wellbeing of entire cities within their hands,” Rorbel replied. “My concern only lies with my family and at the unlikely chance of some outside attack, the safety of my district.”
The General grunted in understanding as the elevator came to a halt. Another five minutes of travel brought the pair into what many referred to as the most wondrous display the palace had to offer.
“Welcome to the Nandule palace air dock,” General Thorneson said with smirk a while holding up the view of the dock and the airship docked within it with his right hand.
Rorbel was nearly floored from his amazement of the sheer size of the new world around him. The Corporal knew that the airship in front of him was the same one he witnessed soaring over the panicked crowds of the city bazaar but his mind had trouble processing the fact that the entire massive structure of wood and metal could fit inside of one section of the palace. Outside amongst the clouds the ship seemed to be ten times larger than the building he inhabited but now as Rorbel’s head turned, letting his gaze take in the entire dock, he figured at least four more of the massive ships could be fit into the domelike portion of the palace. His theory was supported by the indented sections of the floor and enormous clamp stations spread throughout the dock.
“The roof is made of a rare metal called titanium,” Thorneson explained while directing Rorbel’s gaze upward. “The thick metal framing you see lacing the ceiling like a spider web is actually where the titanium sheets that make up the dome retract in to let our airships dock.”
“Incredible,” Rorbel managed.
“Over here,” Thorneson smirked.
The General led Rorbel to the south wall of the dock then motioned towards one of the hundreds of engineers bustling about the area. Within seconds the titanium wall pulled back, leaving the two with a ballistic glass view of southwest Nandule. Rorbel resisted the urge of stating that he could indeed see his home from atop the palace.
“What do you know of the item taken by the two thieves that escaped earlier today?” Thorneson’s question was abrupt and broke the atmosphere of wonder clouding Rorbel’s senses.
“N-nothing, sir,” Rorbel regained his military composure and snapped to attention.
“It’s all right, Corporal,” Thorneson waved away the renewed tension. “Consider yourself permanently at ease with me.”
“Y-yes, sir,” Rorbel let himself relax as much as his fifteen years of service would allow. “A report came down the pipeline that two thieves; one male and one female whom had just stolen jewelry from a wealthy resident within the inner Northern District had been last spotted northeast of my sector. I spread my squad out in threes, in coordination with third squad. My patrol happened to be the one they crossed paths with first.”
“I see,” Thorneson nodded. “What can you tell me of their character?”
“Um,” Rorbel struggled for an answer. “Well they were young and either carefree or highly skilled. Perhaps both.”
“What gave you that impression?” Thorneson wondered.
“Well…they were arguing,” Rorbel said showing only a fragment of his embarrassment. “As I have said I consider myself a simple man but I take my job very seriously and I ensure that those under my command do the same. We are all highly trained and yet these two thugs seemed to be more concerned with their banter than us. But, as I am sure you already know it was the weapon they were in possession of that was the key to their escape more than anything else.”
“Yes,” Thorneson nodded. “A nine-millimeter handgun.”
“They did not have it before we cornered them inside one of the abandoned homes near the bazaar,” Rorbel explained. “I still cannot piece together where that weapon came from. Perhaps it was stashed there by an accomplice or the thieves themselves,” Rorbel shook his head. “But I doubt they planned on being chased into the southern district bazaar so they must have just known that it was there…but how? And how did it end up there in the first place?”
“These are all questions I expect you to be able to answer after you apprehend these thieves,” Thorneson said, interrupting Rorbel’s train of thought.
“What?” Rorbel’s wide eyes wordlessly shouted his level of shock.
“I can understand and respect your desire to remain out of the more grandiose levels of the military,” Thorneson replied. “Unfortunately for you, one of my modest talents is the ability to recognize a born leader when I see one.”
“But…” Rorbel pleaded.
“That being said,” Thorneson continued. “I am promoting you to the rank of Colonel and placing the entire city guard under your command.
“But,” it took a moment for Rorbel to find his voice. “I hardly see how a failure constitutes a reward such as this.”
“Ah but it is not a reward,” the General countered. “You said yourself that you wish to remain out of the limelight.”
“I fail to understand why you want me in charge of the city guard, sir,” Rorbel said flatly.
“It is rather simple,” Thorneson said. His hands clasped behind his back as he turned to stare out at the city. “The best way to capture these two thieves is for those who know this city to hunt them down. And they will need a commander who is one of them. One they can trust. Not some pompous aristocrat like Greenwalt. I am sure you only know the current commander of the city guard by name because your Captain requires it of you so your unit is not embarrassed should ever they meet him. But I have a fleeting suspicion that most if not all of the city guard would know more than your name. They would know your personality, your quirks, and your pet peeves because you would strive to ensure your men can rely on you.” He turned to the Corporal. “Am I wrong?”
“No,” was Rorbel’s only reply.
“Then it is settled,” Thorneson said with a light slap on Rorbel’s shoulder.
“Sir,” Rorbel began slowly. “The main reason I chose to keep my career path a simple one is because I have a family to look after. No…not just look after but enjoy. I love coming home to my wife and children every day and I know that as commander of the city guard I would not be effective without neglecting them.”
General Thorneson considered the man in front of him for nearly a minute before speaking. “I made myself promise two things when I began my rise through the ranks: I would respect those under my command and I would never issue an order that I myself would be incapable of following. I will not force this upon you, Corporal but consider the reasoning behind my proposal before making your decision. I would also ask that you realize the importance of keeping what I am about to tell you confidential.”
The request was as unexpected to Rorbel as it was welcome. “You have my word.”
“The theft of a precious jewel from the Governor is known only to a handful of high ranking officials. What even fewer know is that is only a cover story for what was actually taken. While it was indeed a jewel its value ranges far beyond that of monetary worth. The diamond is in actuality a focusing gem used in tandem with a one of a kind map. When the two are combined the location of an ancient weapon cache will be revealed. Whichever kingdom controls that cache will have the balance of power tipped in its favor.”
Again Rorbel was stunned and almost unable to speak. “Weapons so powerful that one kingdom would be able to stand against seven?”
“Yes,” Thorneson’s tone lost its youthful vitality. “Until one month ago I was confident that no other nation even knew of the cache’s existence. Now my opinion has changed. I had just returned aboard the airship currently docked here from a secret mission deep into the wild lands where I retrieved the map only to discover the map key had been stolen. There is little doubt in my mind that those thieves knew exactly what it was they were taking and now my greatest concern is that they are of a different nation sent here to gather intelligence and if possible disrupt our plans to locate the cache.”
“And if I were to capture these thieves and retrieve the key?” Rorbel was blunt. “What would be the goal of the king if Vandaria were to possess such weapons?”
“I knew you were the right man for this assignment the moment I heard you speaking with Greenwalt,” Thorneson said as the Corporal’s words brought another smirk to his face. “The king and his military commanders are in unanimous agreement. The plan would be to simply monitor the cache site and ensure the weapons are never unearthed. The eight kingdoms have held a steady and prosperous truce for over a millennium but as time passes and populations grow, territorial disputes will become inevitable. We must ensure that no one kingdom can annihilate the other. That is my sole motivation for seeing the map key returned to our hands.”
“And a trump card should war break out would be better in the hands of our people than foreigners,” Rorbel added.
“Honorable and practical,” Thorneson chuckled. “A true soldier fit for command. You must believe me when I tell you that it is not my intention to disrupt your life in such a matter. However, you must also realize that if those weapons were to fall into the hands of a kingdom that holds weaker reservations with using them—”
“Then time with my loved ones would be the least of my worries,” Rorbel said grimly.
“Take this position,” Thorneson said after placing his hand on Rorbel’s shoulder. “I swear to you that after the key is returned and the cache location is a highly guarded secret you will need only ask and I will demote you as far down the chain of command as you wish.”
“For the safety of Vandaria and more importantly, my family,” Rorbel said with a new sense of determination. “I will not fail in this endeavor.”
“We will work together on this,” Thorneson said with a smile. “I will leave decisions within the city guard to you. Now let us see about obtaining some better gear for you. Equipment fit for a Colonel.”
About fifteen minutes later, after Rorbel and Thorneson exited the air dock elevator, the two spotted Major Greenwalt strutting towards them with a scowl covering his face.
“I was informed that the General had taken my subordinate to the air dock for a bit of sight-seeing,” Greenwalt sneered. “While I am not one to question the motives of a superior officer I must admit that even us lowly Majors have important matters to attend and do not appreciate having their meetings interrupted. Now, if you would kindly return the Corporal to me I would like to finish—”
“The Colonel is actually quite busy at the moment,” General Thorneson interrupted. “I am sure you can obtain whatever further information you require from future reports.”
The shock almost knocked the Major off of his feet “C-Colonel?” His voice nearly cracked with anger and disbelief.
“Yes, Major,” Rorbel could not help allowing his lips to form the childish smile of someone that had just outwitted a bully. “I am sure the reports will be more than enough. Lots of big words to help inner district folk like you feel all smart and superior.”
Greenwalt could barely control the rage boiling inside of his chest. How could this outer district scum possibly be promoted over him? It was unjust; a travesty. The king would hear of this.
“Oh, and Major,” Rorbel started, unable to resist one last taunt. “Don’t forget to salute the next time you see me. Military tradition and all of that.” With a wink and a sly smirk, Rorbel continued down the hall with a chuckling General Thorneson beside him.
Major Greenwalt remained standing in the middle of the hall as crowds of officers, diplomats, and dignitaries passed by him as if he were invisible. His hand tightened so hard in fury that the leather glove covering it cringed beneath the pressure.
Nearly two hours later, Colonel Rorbel Stigmantun finally found himself home and in the arms of his loving wife, Tesena. His children ran up and wrapped their arms around his waist.
“Where have you been?” Tesena asked. “I was beginning to get worried.”
“Tesena,” Rorbel began with a sigh. “Let’s sit down. I have something important to discuss with you.”