“The Empress has decreed if any of our men step up to the city, she will incinerate them on the spot.” Fabius read out the message that had been delivered.
“What did you to piss her off this bad?” Lord Sheamerg intoned. “Hundreds lie dead from that death-light. One spark from those crused crystals and they are dead. We are already dealing with a few deserters.”
Fabius glared at the noble and opened his mouth to retort. A slight tap from Lord Tremane’s staff gave him pause. “The Prince’s negotiations are not up for debate, Lord Sheamerg. And let me assure you, Elena Tarbon’s actions are not a result of his actions as much as they are a result of your laxities.”
The pale lord turned a shade of red, with anger of shame, Fabius couldn’t tell. “What do you mean?”
“It was your men near the eastern gate who got infiltrated. Are you telling me your men are so uncoordinated that they could not recognize outsiders fighting beside them? Shows us how less you train them and how much you sit on your bottom whiling your time away.”
The Lord sputtered and turned a deeper shade of red. After struggling to form an apt retort and sputtering for a good minute, he walked out of the tent.
“Blaming him wasn’t the right thing to do nor his men. You can barely tell comrade from enemy during the heat of a battle, to remember all your allies is beyond most soldiers. Even generals.” The newly promoted Nermo spoke.
“Not the great generals. That is one of things that sets them apart. And besides not every criticism has to be fair. Especially not on the brink of war. He will go and lambast his captains who will ensure order. They need a rude awakening about the foe we are facing. This isn’t a battle any of us have fought or even thought about fighting. We don’t know the enemy, its strengths, abilities and we sure do not know their weaknesses. Not to mention the bandits pose a whole other complication.” The showman sat down in his chair.
Fabius tensed at the mention of the bandits. The only thing that gave him joy from all this was that he had a chance to kill at least a few of them without having to wait.
“Fabius, I know this will be tough for you but we need to talk with the bandits.”
“What? What for?”He turned and glared at the showman.
“To figure out their motives. It is counterintuitive to fight on two fronts.”
“Let me make myself clear, Lord Tremane. We are never fighting alongside those heathens.”
“I am not saying we have to but if we have to win this, we have to know what they are here for. Besides the bandits are fighting smart. They somehow knew we would come to the aid of Ianthine and used the plants in our army perfectly. Fighting a battle without knowing an opponent is bad enough. Without even knowing if there are opponents is sure-shot destruction.”
“I am not colluding with those murderers even if it means we lose Ianthine.” Fabius ground his teeth.
Nermo stood up from his chair. “You asked me to speak my mind.You are being daft, Prince. I agree with Lord Tremane. There is no good reason not to speak with the bandits.You cannot fight both Ianthine and the bandits.” He raised a hand to cut off Fabius’ protest. “You know why there have never been three-way wars? Ever? Because they can never happen. Two parties put aside differences to crush the third and then turn on each other. And sometimes the third party never even reveals itself till two armies have battered each other and then comes in and wipes the battlefield clean. If we don’t take proper precautions, Ianthine may fall into the hand of bandits and there will be far more murders than that of your brother.”
“Lord Fabius, his counsel is both rational and wise.” Tremane chipped in.
Fabius swallowed the spittle in his mouth and calmed himself. “Commander, I do not care about that. I lost my brother to bandits and I haven’t even got a chance to plan my retribution. Now you want me to ally with the same men who are responsible for his death?”
“So you would send other men to their death because you are an obstinate fool?”
Fabius paused. I am being a fool but for once I don’t care. “Fine, I will meet with them. However, know this Lord Tremane. Even if Sucellok commands it, I will not fight alongside them.”
“Then what is the point?” Nermo intervened.
Fabius turned back and looked straight at the grizzled Commander. “The point is we will attack them in any case. Either we push them back so much that they cannot interfere with what happens to the city or they stand and fight. That will take care of them swooping in later.”
“That is a mad plan. Just because we have the numbers doesn’t mean we squander them.”
Fabius did not respond. Mad plan it was. To avenge his brother.
Caranne waited with bated breath inside the tent. He didn’t really hate the Throddens. They seemed to be good strong rulers and some part of him appreciated that. Emulating their model would be to his benefit and the Viallan legacy when they came to power.
The younger prince posed a different story. By all accounts, he was an irresponsible brat who spent more time in taverns gambling than negotiating. Yet, somehow he had gathered a big army along with the support of four of the ruling nobles of the northern states.
Dah-Kun looked relaxed. The man had changed his appearance once again, a stout northern man from Averness. But he was meeting the Throdden prince himself which surprised Caranne. He didn’t even meet my brother in person. The staff had changed the man’s confidence.
He had to admit the bandit lord’s plan had worked to perfection. He had effectively alienated Ianthine from the Northern Alliance. Maybe the power he wields gives him that confidence. But the humongous black city had grown many fold since he’d seen it last and the scouts’ reports did not do justice to its impressive magnitude. The Empress was definitely a powerful threat.
Two soldiers dressed in the blue of the Throdden Imperial Guard entered the tent. Though they had agreed to hold the meeting in one of the bandit tents, it had been swept for hidden weapons by the guards and the entire tent was surrounded by the Imperial Guard. In spite his insistence, Dah-Kun had not posted a single bandit on guard.
The guards took up spots across from two plush diwans which had been set up for the prince and his entourage.
Caranne shuffled uneasily. This was the first time he would be showing his allegiance to the bandits publicly. Although, he didn’t expect to be recognized, some part of him felt naked. I am entering an all or nothing war. I can’t stay hidden forever. But the self-conviction wasn’t working.
Caranne had expected an announcement of the prince’s arrival as warranted by all the nobles in the land but the Prince entered the tent glowering and angry - a young man who kept himself in shape. Two other men entered with him. One was a tall, well built man with a sword by his side and carried himself like a military man. The double wheel on his breast signified that he was a High Commander. The second man dressed in royal red robes caught him by surprise. He was old and carried a staff, yet held himself straight and his eyes roved around the tent with surprising rapidity.
“Welcome, Prince Fabius. It is an honour to meet one of the Throdden princes finally.”
The fury in the prince’s eyes doubled. Caranne could swear the man was muttering curses. But why is he so angry? He definitely looked nothing like a cavalier slacker.
The tension in the tent intensified as the prince remained standing.
“You think I would ally with the likes of you?”
“Prince Fabius, granted we have not had the most ceremonious of relations but you know as well as I do that it is because of the King’s largesse that the bandits have thrived. And we haven’t even crossed over the borders. This new threat is a threat to both of us and I am here to quell it as are you.”
“It stops.” The prince growled.
Dah-Kun shook his head. “What stops?”
“Your thriving reign. Actually, your very existence.”
The bandit lord looked as surprised as Caranne felt.
“You think you can murder my brother and come seek our aid? If it were not for the pressing urgency of this city, you and your forces would be wiped from the face of Quindor and I would take personal pleasure in lining the walls of Sen-Tian with your heads on spikes.”
“Your brother… I don’t understand. Are you saying we killed Prince Darius?”
“You think we wouldn’t come to know that it was your boats which sunk the Morning Tide?”
Caranne’s eyes grew wide. It was the same ship Courash had sunk and he hadn’t even mentioned a prince being on board. I will personally skin the fool.
“I am sure it is a misunderstanding. We would never attack a Throdden ship. Our boats were meant for fishing and well…the occasional rightful plunder from local merchants. But never from a Throdden ship.”
Caranne thought of interjecting but quelled it. The look on the prince’s face told him if they did own up to it, he would probably attack them as they stood.
“If I were to believe that you didn’t know about the attack, then you’re the worst leader ever. In either scenario, I do not see aiding you for anything.” The Prince turned and walked out, leaving his advisors looking as befuddled as him.
The rest of his entourage cleared out of the tent.
Dah-Kun sat in his chair with a blank face. Caranne directed the rest of the servants to leave the tent.
What just happened? Caranne punched the table in anger. “That fool prince has ruined everything.”
“Calm down, Master Viallan. His support was never essential for our conquest of the city.”
Caranne stared at the bandit lord. “What? Why?”
“Because half his army will now be fighting my puppets, while half will be engaging the magic whelps, while I will be taking over their city.”
“But it doesn’t make our job any easy.”
“Doesn’t it? Think of it this way. One prince is already dead. If the second dies on this battlefield, the Throdden reign is in doldrums. We win this war, the entire kingdom is for the taking. Primed for the Viallans.”
Caranne felt his adrenaline rising. A golden chance for the Viallans.