“Tell me, General. What makes you think that you have earned the right to gamble with my lord’s property?” He fingered the pommel of his beloved sword. This was not his arena.
Tension filled the space, refusing to leak out of the wide window at the far end of the room. If he spoke wrong, he would be out of here, and Gorfinian hospitality was not to be relied upon either. There was genuine danger in the room. He rose from his seat and looked to the far end of the room. Uncountable fools had been thrown out of that window, and in many cases it would have been for declarations of far more substance than his own. He ground his teeth together and fidgeted his hands. The King of Gorfinia ruled with fear, so when he was irked, the retribution could be steep. He didn’t fancy the price of that backlash.
The aide shifted and balled a fist. “Come, General. Stop wasting our time. Why should we trust you?”
It was time to speak. It was time to believe in his feats. It was time to be his reputation.
“Because I am the man they call Mandestroy.”
There was only silence. It was such a deep silence that it filled the room with suffocating pressure. When the King of Gorfinia raised his hand, he feared it would be dropped in anger. He feared for his life. But the fist didn’t drop. Instead the Hooded King gestured to his aide. His wishes were to be relayed.
“We will hear your plans.”
The pressure evaporated, and he felt momentarily giddy. When the room stopped spinning, he noticed that it was pitch dark outside. A clear night too. Cold. He breathed easily and his breath misted before him, but he had to hold the back of his chair to steady himself sitting down. On his way past, his king squeezed his shoulder. It was a welcome gesture.
He took a mighty gulp of water and considered his speech, pulling his lips over his teeth. He had to be confident with the telling, even if that same assurance wasn’t coursing through him. He had been confident once, but this political cauldron had stripped the assurance right back to its bones. They were fragile bones as it turned out. He had been proud of the well-considered plan when he’d conjured it; but now it was flaking. This environment was germinating doubt, and those trivial weaknesses now seemed like gaping holes. Here he was looking to take the chance, but he still needed to earn it. He sucked down the fluttering sensation in his stomach. He would do this for Delfin.
“We will attack all three gates at once. We will attack in unison, stretching the Mandari resistance thin. And when their line is thinnest, we will strike. We will jump at their soft underbelly with a sharp knife in our hands. They will bleed from within.”
When he put it like that, it fit like a gauntlet. Yes, it would work. Wouldn’t it? The rest of the room seemed ready to question it.
It was the Mikaetan Emperor who drew attention, shuffling in his chair and smacking his lips. He didn’t look impressed.
“There is nothing new there, General. That is a plan that has failed a hundred times before.”
Was it? Then why hadn’t he read about it? He had devoured the military journals in the library, so why didn’t he know this? His brow grew warm and his hands went clammy. His king saved him from blustering through a response.
“Forgive us, Imperial Majesty, but you have not heard the full detail.”
The wobbly ruler stood, his chair tipping and crashing to the ground. Before he even got a word out, a servant had whipped out of the shadows and righted the fallen furniture.
“I don’t need the bloody detail! The union at its height could not crack those gates, so what do you expect our current splintered faction to achieve? If anything, the locks are now tighter than ever. What do you think has changed that you can come here and claim elevation above the greatest in history? What?”
His king looked affronted. The Mikaetan Empire may be waning, but it was still the largest of the three neighbours. The Emperor held a weight way beyond that which he carried on his gut. The man would not be won. And it was then that the fifth table-guest twitched – right on cue. It was time. He did not relish introducing his guest, but this was why he was here. He was useful.
“May I introduce to you, the Lord of Chance.”
He swept a hand to the man opposite, and his guest nodded very subtly. He seemed to be acknowledging the room. Of course, the hood hid much of the man’s face, but his actions were at least suggestive. Suggestive of what? Condescension probably. The Lord of Chance held little respect for others. But that was surprising given what of the man’s face was visible. Lorrd Chance’s jaw was not something to be proud of.
Half of the chin was covered by heavy iron, a mask of some sort. Not a full mask, but a semi-concealing piece. That meant that the right hemisphere of his face was open to the elements, and what a shame that was. The skin was brown and mottled, as if scarred, but it was worse than that. It was as if it had always been that way. There was something lizard-like about the man, and if it weren’t for the human looking hands, he might have believed the freak was actually a lizard. As it was, he must just be deformed. Unfortunately, the facial disfigurement had also soured the man’s personality.
Yet the freak was here at his bidding. He still struggled with this fact.
The Gorfinian aide gazed with piercing blankness, another face cloaked in darkness. All these abstract monsters were really getting to him, and he rolled his shoulders involuntarily. Their host raised a hand in greeting.
“Gorfinia greets you, Lord of Chance. And may we compliment you on your excellent choice of attire.”
Freaks stick with freaks.
“I am honoured to be here, Lord Gorfin.”
The man that he hated and feared in equal measures spoke with a grating tone. He lisped where the facial deformity restricted his ability of speech. The voice was almost serpentine, and disturbingly it complimented the warped skin of his face.
The aide nodded, but there was nothing further from the blank canvas of the Hooded King. There was not a hint of communication between aide and king, and yet the aide shuffled and tilted his head. That was curious.
“And who, Lord of Chance, do you think you are to adorn yourself with that title?”
The aide spat the words. That was shocking. That there was venom in the words was hardly surprising – Gorfinian hospitality was famously cold – but it was the Hooded King’s non-involvement that really surprised. It spoke of either remarkable cohesion, or it sang of a balance that was entirely at odds with the perception. Gorfinia was feared, but from where did that fear originate?
Lord Chance straightened himself like a snake readying to bite. He had the skin of a snake, and the hood of a cobra too. There was not a hint of a nerve in the man. He was calm and measured. And threatening.
“I am to fortune what this man is to the Mandahoi.”
With his open palm, the Lord of Chance gestured in his direction. It chilled him. What did he mean? Was he being mocked? Probably, the bastard. His breathing grew short and his jaw clenched. Anger bubbled. It was the same emotional crest that he touched before a fight – the crazy before the calm. But here and now he was around a table, and he was confronted by the bastard he’d invited along. This was not his territory. He spoke through gritted teeth.
“And what am I to the Mandahoi?”
The hooded snake turned to him, and the visible jaw cracked into a wicked smile.
“Why, you are the scourge.”
“Hear the man! Yes, indeed.” It was his king who interrupted. And thank the Father he did. He had the look of a snarling wolf when his blood was up, and it must be plainly obvious he was about to erupt. He needed to cool down before he ruined the whole thing, but the environment was suffocating. So suffocating. Maybe that’s why half the table favoured hoods. Perhaps he should try it out. No, never. He was better than that.
“So, scourge of fortune. Why are you here?”
It was the aide who pushed on, and Kantal eased back into his chair. He let proceedings move around him as his breath steadied. His emotions were still running hot, but no-one seemed to notice. The room was focussed on the cool act of the cobra.
But the sight of Lord Chance’s easy authority did nothing for his mood. He had wondered many times whether the man’s usefulness warranted putting up with him, and it was always a tight argument. But the use always won out. He idly fingered the pommel of his magnificent blade, and caught himself easing her subtly from her sheath. Don’t be such a fool! Spilling blood in this place was guaranteed to lead to a swift exit. Such an exit was most likely through that window too. He ground his teeth and growled.
And the Lord of Chance ignored all this, calm authority in his reclined seating position. The freak pulled a smile onto his puckered lips. He hated the man, but he was very useful. Always the use.
“I come before you to offer a fourth way. I hold the key to the fourth gate of Ahan.”
A gasp escaped the Emperor, and even the aide shifted on his feet. Only the Hooded King stayed utterly still. It was frustrating that the freak held such power over words, but this had never been his arena. The Emperor twiddled his hands and sweat covered his brow.
“There is no fourth way.”
The Lord of Chance, who also went by the name Enabler, leaned forward, clasping his hands together, two index fingers pointed to the ceiling. Was he enjoying his moment?
“The fourth way is by sea.”
“It is guarded. It always has been. That archipelago makes it near impossible to gain access. It is useless.”
He concentrated on managing his breathing while the freak wove his magic. They were on the same side here. He could not afford to bear anger in this place. He would be punished like the common stock he was.
He looked around the room as his pulse settled, and a disturbing fact caught him. He disliked every one of his allies. How curious that was. But they had a common purpose, and that was what bound them. At least, he hoped it would bind them. He hoped it was sufficient. The Enabler waved his hand dismissively.
“But what if you could coerce a Mandari cell to your cause? A suitably positioned ally in the Mandari ranks could open that gate.”
“Pah. The Mandari are no more likely to sell-out than I am to offer my assistance in this madness. Tell me, who do you think you can worry over to our side?” It was clear that the Mikaetan Emperor was the pessimist in the room. He licked his sweaty lips. The Gorfinian symbiosis of king and aide appeared to listen intently, not conceding anything in those blank hoods. But this was the moment, the differentiator. He held his breath and looked for the all-important reaction. He was looking for anything that suggested the room was being won over.
“The Nadari have been desperate to defect for generations. They believe in one currency and one currency alone.”
“And what currency is that?” The Emperor sneered, though it was less effective alongside the wobbling jowls. He was going to be harder to crack than expected.
“Why gold of course. Is there another currency?”
That actually got a snort from the aide, and he slid a hand over the gaping space of his hood. The Emperor nestled back into his chair. The mocking suggestion had flushed the ruler’s cheeks, and he stayed silent. The jowls wobbled gently. But silence was not affirmation and he needed this done, if only for his sanity. He sucked up his discomfort and stood. This was his idea after all.
“And that is the plan. We harry the three gates, drawing resources to the borders and exposing the soft belly of Ahan. I, meanwhile, will lead a Delfinian force through the back door, and we will strike right at the heart of the enemy. Altunia will fall.”
The Emperor attacked without pause. “And why is it that Delfinia places the stake through the heart? Why is it not a unified force?”
The flabby face wobbled aggressively once more, though it was less troubling this time. In fact, in that moment, it was simply disheartening. There was so much tension in the room, and yet the fight had not even begun. How had these three nations ever worked together?
“Forgive my terse observation, but we hardly feel like a unified force.” The Emperor offered that sneer, but he was not to be deterred, “And besides, it is Delfinia’s plan. It is only right that Delfinia takes the lead.” That only added to the friction. So much friction. This was the pivot of the discussion, and the room seemed to be turning. But there were other angles that were, as yet, entirely unexplored. As yet.
“And who is it that is paying for this passage through the fourth gate?”
The Gorfinian aide stared right at him, but his king stood and drew the attention.
“The price demanded by the Nadari for their treachery is high. I accept the price of this as reflecting the plans that have been drawn up, but seek support from my allies in meeting this cost. We would be putting Delfinia under great financial duress were we to meet this cost in isolation, and so I ask you, friends, what share of the notoriety would you be willing to invest?”
If ever there was a time to leave a room, then this was it. The Emperor’s fist impacted the table and he wobbled violently.
“How dare you! You mock me, sir, to come here and ask me, the Emperor of the Eternal Mikaetan Empire, for money. Pah. Soldiers I may spare, but not money. How dare you. Your coffers are heaving with stolen Mikaetan stallions. You will have nothing from me.”
A disappointing start. He was sweating. His plans to take the chance remained feasible, but he still needed to earn the chance. Without forthcoming financial assistance, he would have a very awkward discussion with his king in the near future.
The King of Delfinia exhaled and reclined. Gorfinia had not made a move, which he couldn’t decipher, but it didn’t appear to be promising. This was where his king needed to throw in his weight. He was at a loss, but his king soldiered on.
“Then share of notoriety, and indeed the spoils, resides with us. You will be compensated for any military contribution in some small way, but the prize of Ahan sits exclusively with Delfinia. These will be the terms of our engagement, unless anyone wants to reconsider.”
He had never seen such greed in a man. The Emperor was moist with effort. It looked like he was trying to solve a puzzle, which he probably was. Ahan was the jewel of the near world – of the entire world, perhaps – and to forgo that prize was expensive indeed. But he could see doubt in the eyes of the Emperor. He was no risk-taker. In fact, he was barely a taker at all. That brought a laugh, and Jowls turned upon him.
“You mock me?”
“No, Imperial Majesty, of course not.” He spluttered a bit, and his king shot him a warning look. Jowls was obviously trying to leverage a beneficial compromise in his head, but he couldn’t think fast enough. The moment got ahead of him, and he spoke with a panicked edge.
“Mikaeta will commit her men, but I am unsure what more we can offer. The terms of settlement would need to be prearranged before we confirm, and the terms will need to be generous to balance the risk.” His king nodded. He too was sweating, but that was a consequence of financial insecurity. The ruler of Delfinia would be committing a lot here. He was glad his king trusted him. His king would have to commit a whole lot more before the fighting began.
“Does Gorfinia commit troops?” The Hooded King nodded solemnly. A good outcome. “And what about funds?” The shake of the head was not surprising. Gorfinia barely dealt in currency anyway. His king’s burden of coin was going to be heavy indeed.
Especially when they still needed to earn the chance. That too would be expensive.
But this was a moment of victory. Of sorts. He had his plan, and he had his somewhat reluctant players. His dream was marching to reality, and he finally took some alcohol. He even smiled openly when his king offered a friendly hand to the Emperor.
And then the freak spoke.
“General. I have some residual concerns with your theory.”
Surely not now? He suspected that the freak was doing this to wind him up, and the bastard was doing it well. His grip tightened and the goblet in his hand shook subtly.
“Your manoeuvre will certainly draw the heavy forces, but you forget the finer barbs.”
They still needed to earn the chance, but he didn’t want to talk about that now. Because you couldn’t beat a...
“And what barbs are those?”
The Enabler’s words slivered, like the snake that spoke them. “Why the Mandahoi, of course. The Academy is bloated with competency, and forgive my interjection, but you are no more capable of felling a troop of mandahoi than I am of absolute foresight. A single mandahoi, yes, but a troop? I fear you could be foiled.”
He hated the bastard even more in that moment, but this time it was different. This time he hated him because he was right.
He had thought about it, of course he had. What sort of military tactician would he be if he hadn’t? It had niggled at the back of his plans, intoxicating his confidence and draining him. He ran his hand over his unruly stubble, appreciating the coarseness, and narrowed his eyes. Was this to be his undoing?
“Did you know this?”
His king looked most displeased.
“It had crossed my mind.” Only he could get away with being so flippant. Even he may struggle to get away with it here.
They were riding back to Triosec, signed agreements in their hands subject to some bartering on the proceeds of victory. If victory was coming at all. Nerves fluttered. Damn it, nerves never fluttered in him.
“So this plan we have may not even work.”
He exhaled, which hardly spread confidence.
The day was bright, another scorching afternoon on the baked plains of Mikaeta. The journey back to the heart of Delfinia would be several days, mainly because the pace needed to be so sedate. No-one could ride full pace in this heat. He was sweating profusely already, his back drenched and itchy. But the peacocks didn’t seem to care. He turned to the manicured tail, and he found himself envying the preposterous sun shades they had at their disposal. He would not be seen dead with such luxury, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t appealing.
He ignored his discomfort and sought to appease his king. He had to. “It will work.” His lack of confidence radiated, and his voice wavered. He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, revealing a pocket of sticky sweat that had been lodged between his testicles and his leg. Annoyingly, that made things worse.
Of course, he had an answer to the problem. Remove the Mandahoi and you have a chance. A chance. What he had designed was a way to exploit the chance, but he had not yet created that chance. That was the flaw in his plan. It was quite a big one.
“You do realise that we are not proceeding unless I am entirely convinced, and you’re not exactly selling at the moment. This is going to clean Delfinia out.”
And this was the problem. This was the absolute crux of the problem. He gulped.
So much of his plan relied on money. Bloody money. His political insights were short, and where he’d set out for Maegwyn with hopes of securing substantial funds, his plans now appeared to be in danger.
Because he did know how to foil the damned Mandahoi. The only problem: he needed more money.
Damn the cheap Mikaetans, and damn the strange hand of Gorfinia. He did not know how to tell his master.
“Bellowing Brother, Kantal! Convince me.”
There was no option. Not anymore. His entire life had been leading to this point, and so he needed to craft the path. Everything he had done, even the exploits that named his notoriety, all of it was leading to this. To maim a handful of the Grey was ultimately meaningless. His true calling was to dislodge the limpet-like Mandari from Ahan. He would free the Motherland and restore the legacy of his dead queen.
But he needed money, and he needed lots of it.
“You are right to be nervous,” the monarch threw his hands up in disgust, but he was not to be stalled. “But there is a way. We spoke before Maegwyn about the need to disrupt the Mandahoi. To occupy them some way. Well, the alliance we have crafted will not do the trick. The Mandahoi are too numerous. But there is something that will.”
His king’s displeasure diluted for a moment, and those piercing eyes took on a rather sceptical impression. “What will work?”
This was going to sound ridiculous. This was going to sound utterly ridiculous.
Scepticism morphed into outright mockery.
“What are you talking of? Dragons are just stories.”
“Well yes, err, not quite dragons.” A fine showing. Confidence, damn it! “I have it on very fine intelligence that there are dragon-like creatures for sale.” His king did not seem to bite. “They may not offer all the gilt of the myth, but they are, by all accounts, very large and very vicious lizards. And they can fly.”
He wasn’t sure he believed it now that he’d said it out loud, but then he recalled the man. It was not a scam. How he came to meet the shady character was anyone’s guess. They just seemed to end up speaking in a tavern. But at the end of a night of intense discourse, they determined that he needed something and that the other had access to it.
It was chance, utter chance, but every victory needed its touch from the Father, didn’t it? The Lord of Chance melted into his thoughts and he shuddered.
“Who on l’Unna has sold you this fanciful tale? And what’s more, why do you believe them?” His king was evidently not convinced. At least not yet.
“Your Majesty, I do believe him. He was very clear that he would evidence the tools before any deal is made. He was also very generous in his terms of credit, and if I were to be pushed, I would go further and suggest that he is of very old lineage.” Did old suggest honourable? Maybe the opposite, but it would add weight nonetheless.
That did indeed get his king’s attention.
“You mean unhuman old?”
“I would say so, yes.” It was difficult to tell with the deep cloak, but there had been something distinctly alien about the man. He seemed to be from another time and place. It was known that the Old Ones continued to haunt the shadows of the world – Maegwyn employed a small host for example – yet few were known to openly interact. But who else could harness control over the dragons? No! Not dragons. They were sendeté, apparently.
He could see the shrewd ruler cooling, warming to this opportunity. He could take the chance if he could earn it, and two sendeté could knot the Mandahoi for many days and moons. The confidence started to bubble once more. There was just one last stumbling block, but there was no way his king would miss it.
“How much for these services?”
He licked his lips. “The overall cost of the exercise will, ah, double.”
“Argh!” That was a fair response. “I am already scraping the chest for those damned Nadari! Where do you expect me to find that sort of coin?”
He was hoping that Gorfinia would bend, but failing that he had no idea. Absolutely no idea. It didn’t sit well with him. But he was not a treasurer. He was a soldier and a tactician. He had the tactics to do the impossible, but he needed others to play their part. It was up to his king.
“I am not endowed with that information, your Majesty.”
“You will bankrupt the Crown at this rate!” He sensed the shock in the peacocks, and smiled. “You think this funny?”
“On the contrary, your Majesty. I was hoping for more support from our, ah, allies.”
The look he was given wiped any smugness right up his gullet. He simply had no solutions to these problems, and yet this was not his part in the game.
“We will have to call it off.”
“Your Majesty, I beg―”
“I cannot commit that sort of money! You have been a fool, Kantal. A fool. I cannot bankrupt the Crown on a whim. And before you speak, despite its merits, this is a damned whim. A whim!” The King had the agreements in his hand, the fruits of many years of scheming, and he was about to be cast them aside. And yet the monarch paused.
His king was waiting and he took his chance.
“Do you remember that battlefield, your Majesty? The one where you were trapped beneath the dying horse.” The King’s sour mood instantly stalled, and he drove home. “That was a whim, and you know what happened that day.”
He had played his last card. Now it was up to the Father of Paths.