Fabius sat in the tent with the glass plate in hand. The dark gray grains laid out the battlefield like a portrait. He scratched his neck around the collar. The use of so much flash powder had turned the whole place hotter.
But he was still impressed by the discovery. With it he had been able to spot and counter many of the traps of the bandit forces. He had pulled back one of the northern regiments and crushed the bandits from the sides when they tried to charge in after them. And though he preferred swinging his own sword, Fabius had to admit that strategizing and plotting battle moves gave him a high he’d never felt before. He would never tell Tremane but his leadership qualities were beginning to show. Fabius shook his head. I’m not a bloody prince. I’m doing this for Darius.
They had managed to push back the bandits a fair bit towards the gorge but the war wasn’t so rosy on the other fronts. The southern wall of Ianthine was proving nigh impossible to approach. Balls of fire rained down, every single time he’d sent out scouts. None of them had died but one had a singed arm and it was pointless to attack without knowing how to counter it.
Pressing the bandit army had helped him slow their charge on Ianthine but it was clear he was up against a trained war veteran. Who this man was still a secret and Lord Tremane had not been able to shed any light on the subject either.
He had lost more men than he wanted to count. This was the part he hated about leading. Every death loomed over his head because of the wrong decisions he took.
“The cannons cannot breach that darned wall and we can’t get close to them in any case. They will leave our men laying dead. This is worse than a stalemate.” Captain Thyzod paced around the tent.
Fabius felt a slight pain in his temples. The constant reports and the yammering around him made him tired and nauseous. Another reason not to be a bloody noble.
“And we barely held the bandits at bay today. They have trained soldiers not just bandit ruffians. I don’t know where that army came from but it isn’t an easy one to keep at bay, Fabius. Are you sure we can’t offer a truce just till we take down the city?” Nermo looked at him, dropping his glove on the table.
Fabius snarled at the High Commander. “They killed my brother, Captain. Do you want me to forget that? And even if I do forget that for the purposes of this war, you say they are strong. That’s because they too have magic-wielders in their ranks. As I told you, the incredibly nimble soliders. I encountered them in Lushrow not too long ago. Product of a magic weed.” Magic was beginning to fray his nerves. “And what happens when we win the city? What happens when they start murdering people in that city, start turning on us. We have to fight them at some stage and I do not want them to have access to more magic than they already have. We stop them here. Now do any of you have any meaningful suggestions?”
He looked affronted but did not speak. Fabius did not care. There was no way he would collaborate with Darius’ murderers.
“I might have a trick which can help us get past the walls.” Lord Tremane scratched the wooden arm of his chair.
Everyone in the tent turned towards the old Lord.
“Have you heard of King’s snakes?”
Fabius shrugged. “What kind of snake is that?”
Lord Sheamerg scoffed. “That’s not a snake. It’s fireworks that children in the north play with. The non-explosive kind. What do you do with them Lord Tremane? Give those magic-wielders a show?”
The showman ignored the noble’s remarks. “If I change a couple of ingredients and we use them in large enough quantities, they may help us scale the wall.”
“What? How is that supposed to work?” Fabius exclaimed.
“Here let me show you.” The showman stood up and with a show of hands pulled out a small pebble sized black pill.
Fabius shook his head. The man had already prepared for the show. He placed the pill on the ground and then picked up one of the candles and brought the flame close to the pill. The flame flickered over the pill for a few seconds before it started emitting black smoke.
To Fabius’ surprise, it didn’t sparkle, flash or explode but instead started growing outwards. Within moments, it uncoiled out like a snake, curving this way and other, and even looping over itself. He bent down in fascination and gingerly reached out towards it. It felt cool to touch but he’d barely prodded it when it broke and fell off.
Nermo chuckled. “I never thought they could be used like that. But as you see, the snakes are brittle. However big you make them, I doubt they can hold a man.”
“Which is why I’ll use chalk. It shores up their strength.”
“Hold up. These things seem to grow in any direction. How do we even know they will let us scale a wall?” Fabius interjected.
“Because if propped against the wall, they grow along it, and give us a way to climb the walls. Any man from the north will attest to that.”
Fabius scratched his skin. Using a firework to scale walls? But they were dealing with magic. He needed crazy solutions. “But how does that help us? The magicians will cut us down instantly even if we scale the walls.”
“They won’t know what they are till we light them. And while the King’s snakes do not make a bang or light up the sky, they release a cloud of smoke. As you saw, dark, black smoke.”
Fabius broke into a smile. “For how long?”
“The size needed for snakes to climb the wall, I’d say about an hour.”
“And you can still breathe?”
Nermo nodded. “Yes, the smoke is black as a starless night but it isn’t thick.”
Fabius shook his head. “This is still a big gamble. How do we know they work?”
Lord Tremane shrugged. “They will grow and expand into vines. But how they grow cannot be controlled. All of them won’t give us pathways to scale the wall. But we will get a good chance to make it over the wall.”
Fabius closed his eyes and visualized the attack. “And how do you proposed to get these snakes near the wall in the first place?”
“The King’s Snakes are large spheres. They will roll down to the wall with the natural incline from our position. And we can light them with flaming torches fired from the ballistae.”
Fabius looked around the tent. “Anybody has a better idea than this?” Using the showman’s tricks as distractions was good strategy but he wasn’t sure about this. “No? Well, Lord Tremane, go ahead and prepare your Snakes. But I will need a demonstration. And how many days will we need for this?”
The showman nodded. “I will need sand, chalk, small pieces of iron, sugar and grain alcohol. Lots of all of the things. But these are easy to make. We will be ready tomorrow morning.”
Nermo stood up. “I will get that arranged.”
Fabius couldn’t help but smile. If he managed to win the war with these King’s Snakes, he would at least never have to suffer a lecture on military tactics from fathers.
Winds fluttered open the flaps of Fabius’ tent.
“Darn, why can’t these stay shut?” grumbled the young prince. He had barely fallen asleep.
A sudden rustling outside had him reaching for the dagger on his belt. A female silhouette appeared in the moonlight.
“Mariam? What are you doing here?”
The seamstress came forward, her pale face illuminated by the yellow light of the lantern from the tent.
“Your scars look much better. I mean they look much more healed.” Fabius stuttered.
Mariam nodded. “A bath and sleeping peacefully does that. My mind is still so clouded from all the…I don’t know what it was.”
“Strange things have been happening all over. The world is changing, Mariam.” Fabius pulled back the flaps, and stepped aside. “This is all temporary, so you’ll have to sit on the bed, I’m afraid.”
Mariam smiled. “Since when has Fabius been worried about propriety?”
Fabius smiled back. “I am sorry, I haven’t been able to attend to you. I know I should, but…” he shrugged. Darn Elena, why would she turn me down.
Mariam shivered and then pulled her shawl closer. Fabius had never heard the farmlands being cold but the nights brought a nip in the air.
“Like I said before, you are completely safe now. No mad lunatic is going to hurt you again.”
Mariam’s eyes flitted nervously. “I don’t really remember. Actually, I do remember stitching and repairing hundreds of clothes and travelling around in a van. But it’s as if I was watching my own body living a separate life. And that sweet scent, always handing around.”
Fabius’ ears perked up. “What smell? Did it come from star leaved weeds?”
Mariam nodded. “But how do you know that?”
Fabius clenched his fist. So that monster was back and he’d almost claimed Darius’ fiance. “Because that got one of my company killed. It addicts people and makes them into monsters. I let that weed get away once but I promise you, I will find and destroy it for what it does to people and what it did to you.” He drew a deep breath.
Mariam looked perplexed at his tirade. He pulled her into an embrace. “By Sucellok’s breath, I am glad you got out. But how did you break the hold of that Arbokkian leaf.”
“I didn’t. Some men did. They were the ones who tried to rape me. Two of them actually. But I think they were also trying to bring down Lord Luc.”
Fabius lightly pressed her shoulders. “If you ever see them, let me know. I may hate being a prince but for this I will personally have them hanged. But who’s Lord Luc?”
“The man who grows these vines, the leader of the camp.”
“He grows them? Does he have like a garden or farms? Maybe we can simply burn down his fields.”
Mariam shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. The weeds pretty much grew wherever we went. It was always around us. And we travelled quite a bit. I think he grew it wherever he went. I don’t really know how but everywhere we went there was always trees and plants growing, especially the star shaped weeds.”
Fabius slapped his forehead. “Arbok’s claws! He has magic. That’s how he makes them grow anywhere and so quickly. Mariam, tell me, did you see carts of salt during your ...” He fumbled. The memories were clearly painful to her.
Mariam squinted her eyes for a good minute but then shrugged. “I’m sorry, Fabius. I don’t really remember much. It is all a haze. There were too many carts and too many people and all I did was sew clothes and patch them.”
“Don’t worry. When we are done here and I have put the bandits away, we will hunt down this Lord Luc as well. He is answerable to a lot of people.”
Mariam placed a hand on his. “Calm down. I have never seen you so angry, Fabius. You’re the calm and fun one. Since when have you become the grouch?”
Elena’s face flashed before his eyes again. “I am sorry, Mariam. I just have too many things on my mind. We are almost on the brink of a war with the bandits and I don’t think Ianthine views us favourably either. I have promised the Northern Lords to take care of the situation but I have no idea what to do much less how.”
“But I heard you know this Empress of Ianthine.” Mariam’s face wore a mischievous smile.
“What…who told you…Ainsley.” Fabius rolled his eyes.
“Have you even told her how you feel?”
“Yes, I have. And she pushed me away.” Fabius closed his eyes. “I love her, Mariam. She’s my Elena.”
“You told her this in front of other nobles?”
“No, of course not.” Fabius sighed. He needed to talk to someone. And Mariam was the most sensible girl he’d known. “Please don’t tell anyone this. Not even Ainsley. And especially not that accursed showman. I’ll never hear the end of it. I went to her tower a week back. In her chambers.”
Mariam’s eyes brightened. “And…”
He blushed. “And we kissed. It was the most wonderful feeling ever. The taste of her lips still lingers on mine. I felt…content and …complete. You know I’ve never wanted to be a noble, much less a bloody prince. All I wanted was to roam Quindor and have a family with her. But she won’t respond after that night. The guards have specific instructions not to let anybody enter the city. I tried sending messages but not one reply. And now this whole mess has happened. I’ll never get her.”
“So, what happened? Why did she push you away?”
“I don’t know. She won’t tell me. I know she loves me still. I saw it in her eyes. She cares. She does. I…I don’t know why she won’t….I even offered her to run away. Leave all this aside. Let the nobles figure this out. I’d hate to leave my company but they would understand.” Fabius stood up and let out an exasperated sigh. “It’s just infuriating. She won’t tell me why, just that we cannot be together.”
Mariam sat quietly for a while, looking at her hands.
“Well, what should I do?”
“Fabius, you have to let her go. It has been ten years. She may not be the same girl.”
“You didn’t feel that kiss, Mariam. I know she loves me, I know she does.” Fabius clenched and unclenched his fist. Anger and sadness warred within him.
Mariam squeezed his shoulder. “Maybe but she has many things before her now. She is an Empress and she has people relying on her…”
He opened his mouth to interject but she cut him off. “Shush…Fabius, maybe you can’t see it and I’m not saying if she is right or wrong but she is leading a bunch of people. Maybe she feels that she will betray their trust if she accepts your allegiance.”
“What? That is preposterous. I am a prince of the Throdden Kingdom. These people are subjects of the kingdom in any case. She isn’t betraying anyone by siding with me. And besides I don’t even want to rule.” Fabius turned to face her. “You know how I am Mariam. I don’t care about all this power struggle. I just want to hold Elena and spend my days with her.”
Mariam sighed. “I know how you feel. But you can’t expect her to feel the same. And I know you don’t care about being a king. But the people do and you can’t change that. You are a prince. You are a symbol of the Throdden rule.”
Fabius stood up in a huff. “And how is it my fault? Do I have to disown my family to gain love? How is that even fair? Why even tavern maids find companionship worthy of keepsake. And I whose heart has ever beat for one girl alone can’t attain love because he is born a prince?”
“Life isn’t fair, Fabius. I know it better than most.” Mariam’s eyes cast downward.
A pang of guilt jabbed Fabius. “I know you do, Mariam. And my heartache is but trivial compared to yours. But Darius died loving you and your love will always be eternal. Mine…” Fabius turned away. Every single time he thought about his brother, his mind filled up with anger and sadness. A look at Mariam made him wince. I’m not the only one who lost him. “I’m sorry to bring it up. I know it’s more raw for you than it is for me.”
Mariam looked away, sniffling. “He was a prince. His life was always under threat. I just didn’t imagine it would end this quickly. And I still don’t believe it.”
Fabius clasped her shoulder. “It shouldn’t have. He wasn’t even supposed to be on that ship.”
“What do you mean?” Mariam looked into his eyes.
Fabius felt tears cloud his eyes. “Fathers wanted to send him here to collect the votes for the states and send me to Halaa as punishment for not collecting my share of the votes. He convinced fathers to send him instead. I should have been the one on the ship, not him. I know I should have resisted more.”
“You can’t blame yourself, Fabius. How could you have known about the bandits and their attack?”
“I’d come from those mountains a few days before. I should’ve seen something amiss. We might have weeded out those bandits.”
Mariam grabbed Fabius and turned him around. “You seriously can’t blame yourself, Fabius. He chose to go, right? And the Darius I loved would do anything for you.”
Fabius nodded. “He thought Halaa was too dangerous for me.”
“He wanted to protect you. And he did. Don’t take that away from him.” Mariam squeezed his hands.
“But I will make those bandits pay. Each and every single one of them.” Fabius felt anger surge through his body and his temples. “Once this bloody situation is resolved, I will take revenge. For us.”
“Fabius, you’re shaking. Calm down.” Mariam came around to face him.
Fabius let out a roar. “I’m fine. It just makes me so angry. I will get those bandits.”
“I’m sure you will. Just don’t get yourself killed. I can’t lose you too.” She nuzzled against his neck and hot tear drops ran down his shoulder blades. He patted her hair and caressed her back. She raised her head and his lips brushed against her cheeks. He felt a jolt of warmth surge through his body.
He looked straight into Mariam’s eyes which glistened with half-formed tears. She looked as beautiful as Elena did. He leaned in and pecked her lips with his own.
She responded with a soft kiss of her own and drew him into a tight embrace. A tingle ran down his back as her fingers slid down below the hem of his shirt. He grabbed her and pushed her down on the bed, pushing his tongue into her mouth, as his hands ran up the sides of her skirt and her flimsy shirt and cupped her full breasts.
She broke the kiss for a moment to look into his eyes. His mind told him to stop throwing up panic signals as to what he’d done but all of it shut down as she pulled him back into a long kiss.