Up, and To Arms!
The next morning, Sir Nilsson’s commanding voice roused the camp from its collective sleep. “Up and to arms! Everyone up and to arms!”
Zane, despite having slept a grand total of three and half hours the previous night, was on his feet in an instant. “What’s happening?” his bunkmates demanded. “Are we under attack?”
“Not exactly,” Nilsson replied, “at least not yet. Early this morning, our watchmen caught an enemy spy attempting to enter the camp.”
The spy, it turned out, was none other than Lagos Liridam.
“Easy, my good Citymen,” she said. “I’m not here to begin another battle. I’m here to call for negotiation.” She had changed even since their last encounter, Zane realized, looking nothing like the squire he’d known. The outfit she wore was very uniform, navy-blue, drab, a carbon copy of every other soldier on the field, but was it ever decorated! The intricate shoulder-plate and shiny belt she wore sent out signals of command and prestige from every gleaming inch of them. I’ll be at the king’s table tonight, she’d said the day she helped to capture Zane. At the time he’d seen it as pride in a meritorious action -- but now it was clear Lagos had only been foreshadowing her treason. This, the silver and brass that now graced her uniform, was the approbation she truly sought.
Raj scoffed. “Negotiation. As if I would even consider such a thing.”
“And why not?” she asked.
He stepped closer to her, eyes darkening in silent, burning hatred. “You murdered my father. You betrayed your country. You helped plunge this land, my land, into war. Unless you have something very, very good to say, you can give up on returning to your camp. You’ve walked yourself to your execution, Liridam.”
“Our commander wishes a word with the king,” Lagos said, “and requests the presence of another.”
“Who?” Raj inquired.
Her eyes moved across the camp, settling on a person just behind Raj. “The queen.”
“Raj. Please.” Indigo stepped from the crowd. “Allow me to speak on my own behalf. Sir Liridam, I accept your offer of negotiation.”
Raj’s face paled. “Indigo!”
“Silence, Raj,” she said firmly, her take-charge attitude shining through. “You have no right to make this decision for me. I am willing to take this step to prevent further bloodshed.”
He relented. “Then I shall go with you.” He looked to the men holding Lagos. “Give us a moment.” He pulled Indigo, along with Koris, aside. “We will not be alone,” he said meaningfully to Koris.
The King’s Hand nodded. “I understand, my liege. I shall stay by your side all the way.” He hesitated. “A party of two royals,” he said, “demands two guards.”
“And where do you propose to find a second guard?”
Koris indicated Zane.
Raj seemed to be equal parts scoffing and widening his eyes. “Lukas?”
“Zane Lukas is a far cry from perfect, but he has proven himself more than capable. Capable enough, even, to best me. I will walk in your shadow, my king, and Lukas may walk in the shadow of the Lady Dash.”
Raj did not appear pleased with that idea. “Fine,” he snapped. When Indigo and Koris left the scene, he turned to Zane. “My words still stand,” he said quietly, menacingly. “Do not lay a hand on her, or I will take it upon myself to punish you.”
“I understand,” he replied, “my king.” Even now, he noticed, Raj still gave a barely perceptible flinch at the sound of the word king.
“You will come alone,” Lagos said, “and you will tell no one, not even your most trusted associates, of the location of this meeting until I and my commanders deem it time.”
They set out only hours later, being told by Lagos that it would take a day to reach the camp. Zane and Koris stayed behind the small party, watching them, silent, stealthy. They could have been a part of the dark, a part of the wind. They never spoke, never let Indigo and Raj out of their sight, and never took their hands off their weapons. After a while, it grew tedious. Zane began to see that being the King’s Hand was perhaps not as glamourous as the tales from the academy portrayed it, a whispered, envied life of adrenaline and blood.
They finally stopped when night fell completely. “One of us must take the night’s watch,” Koris said.
“I’ll do it,” Zane offered. He had no plans to sleep that night. They both stayed awake for what must have been an hour.
“I have a confession to make, Lukas.”
“Korzonek is my true name. I...I had a moment of weakness. I revealed what was meant to be buried.”
Zane had a sudden flashback to the night in the garden, when Indigo had revealed her secret to him. Was that a ‘moment of weakness,’ a mistake she would regret once the thrilling impulse of the moment had passed?
Is there anyone in this kingdom without a skeleton in his closet?
“It’s a name, Koris. It’s nothing.”
“A name can be a powerful thing, Lukas. A gear on which everything can change. I gave up my name for a reason...but surely I revealed it for a reason as well. Only time will tell. Goodnight, Lukas.” And that was the end of that conversation.
A short time later, Zane was surprised to see a figure moving away from where the group rested. He readied himself, thinking it was Lagos, but it wasn’t. It was Indigo. He moved close to her. “Hey,” he said, softly enough as to not wake anyone.
“Don’t worry. It’s just me.”
“Oh. Hello, Zane.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“I couldn’t sleep.” She paused. “Walk with me?”
“I can’t,” he replied. “I’m on night’s watch.”
“Oh.” She sat down beside him. “So am I, then.” In the pitch-dark of the cloudy night, she emitted a soft bluish glow, casting light around her like a heavenly lantern.
“Indie,” Zane said quietly, “I have to tell you something. I...I’ve seen you in my dreams. And what I’ve seen frightens me.”
“What have you seen?” When he didn’t answer, she repeated the question. “What have you seen, Zane?”
“Please go back, Indigo,” he said abruptly. “Go home.”
“Indigo....” He swallowed. “I’m never wrong. These premonitions are never untrue. If you go to war, you will die.”
She was silent, taking in what he had said. “Some things are worth dying for, Zane.”
“I know,” he said, slowly reaching out to take her hand. “You showed me.” She slid her fingers into his, moving close enough to see his face in the glow she cast. Zane felt a stab of adrenaline and nervousness in his chest.
Indigo felt the same, more nervousness than adrenaline. She felt light, ethereal, like she was in a waking dream. It was dangerous, it was crazy, but it was everything that she wanted. Zane was here, and he was close, and he was hers.
My Zane. My temptation. My heartbreak.
My Indigo. My light. My hope. “My hope,” he whispered. “You’re my hope, Indie. You’re the only hope left for me. I need you.” For a brief, eternal moment, their lips touched, sweet, electric.
I love you. The words were there, hanging unspoken in the air, in the static the touch created. Desperate to escape. I love you.
And then the light went out, in a single second, a candle being extinguished. “What the hell am I doing?” Indigo wondered aloud. “This is wrong. It’s...it’s forbidden.” She pushed him away.
“Indie,” Zane pleaded, “please don’t do this again. I know what I feel. I know that I want to hold you, to kiss you, to be with you. If you don’t feel the same, then tell me, if only for me to know. To know if you....” Even now he could not bring himself to say the word love. “If you care for me. If you feel for me.”
“My feelings have nothing to do with it. I can’t lie to myself and say that I don’t want you, or care for you, or even have feelings for you. But my feelings are second to my responsibility. They’re irrelevant. My responsibility is to marry Raj, whether I love him or not.”
He sighed sadly. “And if that’s what you want, Indie, then that’s your choice. I have no right to tell you not to. It’s your life, your heart, so it’s your choice.”
“Yes, it is,” she answered firmly. She stood. “I’m sorry, Zane,” she said, confirming his earlier fears. “I should never have told you my secret. You...you seem to think that we have some kind of connection that we don’t. It seemed like the right thing at the time, but now I’m not sure.”
“Weakness,” Zane muttered. I revealed that which was meant to be buried. “I’m sorry too, Indigo. I’ve overstepped my boundaries. This is my fault.”
They looked away from each other, not wanting the conversation to continue. “I’m going to sleep now.” She stood and walked back through the trees the way she’d come, hugging her arms to her chest. She blinked, feeling her eyes sting as they welled up with tears. It’s the wind, she told herself, it’s the wind. I’m not crying. It’s the wind. “It’s the wind,” over and over, trying to convince herself she was fine, she had done the right thing, it didn’t hurt.
It didn’t hurt. The same thing Zane was telling himself. He had been hurt too many times for it to matter. It was just the same thing again, and it was meaningless. He was beyond the point of being hurt again.
It was a lie. He did hurt, from the bottom of his heart, overwhelming, swallowing him whole. He had never believed that the pain of unrequited affection was worse than the pain of rejection; he believed it now. He couldn’t make her return his feelings. Love that’s demanded is no love at all, his father had been fond of saying. But.... He sighed, turning to the sleeping assassin. “Koris,” he whispered, shaking his arm. “Get up.”
Koris groaned lightly and sat up. “Is your watch up?” He looked closely at Zane’s face. “Are you well, Lukas?”
“I’m fine, Koris,” he said brusquely. “Every bit as fine and well as I was when we left camp.”
“Does your heart trouble you, then?”
“Get your you-know-what up and get on watch,” he snapped. “Let me sleep.”
He got to his feet, pulling his hood back on. “Sleep, then.” Zane lay on his back, resting his head in the crackling dry grass. He did not dream that night; his mind was too troubled. He tossed and turned all the rest of the night.
When the sun began to show, Koris shook him awake. “Lukas,” he said under his breath, “wake up.”
“I’m awake,” he muttered in return. He’d been awake for several minutes by that time.
“Get up. The king’s party is preparing to depart. We must be ready to follow them momentarily.”
“I’m up,” Zane insisted like a tired schoolboy, sitting up and pulling a leaf out of his hair. “This King’s Hand business,” he remarked, “it’s not as exciting as it sounds, is it?” When Koris didn’t answer, he continued. “Just a lot of creeping around and sleeping in the dirt and watching a load of nothing go down.”
“Sometimes,” Koris agreed. “Often. As I told you, the legends you hear in darkened streets and Academy hallways are not all true. Many of them, most of them, are claptrap.” He paused. “But not all of it is, what did you say, a load of nothing. I’ve faced and beat some of the most dangerous enemies that the kingdom ever faced. Rival assassins, enemy generals, crime rings, the most treacherous of fugitives. Think -- if, hypothetically, you had never been caught for the abduction of the Princess Norieja, who do you think would have been sent to her rescue?” The idea of being pursued in the unfamiliar forest by a man who moved like the air and could easily kill him without even revealing his existence was most unnerving to Zane.
The day continued just as the last day had, tedious, same. Walking, watching, waiting. Nothing happened, no one even spoke for the majority of the journey. The first words came when they were at the edge of the camp. “We have arrived,” said Lagos as if it weren’t blatantly obvious. She carelessly played with the handle of her knife. “Now, I want to make one think clear,” she said, her voice taking on a subtle but intense tone of threat. “You will not speak of this. If I find that our agreement has been betrayed, then your life is worth nothing to me.”
“I would think that through,” Raj said coolly. “You kill me, and our reinforcements” -- as he said this his eyes almost undetectably strayed to Koris’ position -- “will come for you.”
“Let them come!” Lagos exclaimed grandly. “Let them have their revenge once you are dead. What are they without their commanders, their rulers? Powerless, that is what! Powerless! Be warned.”
“And what are you going to do?” Raj exploded. “Stab me in the back, like you did my father?”
“I was thinking more of slicing your neck,” Lagos replied, displaying a scary lack of feeling for someone discussing methods of murder. “Same-to-same. As to your father, I don’t see that I should feel remorse for what I did. I am helping to usher in a new age. A better age. To do that, sacrifices must be made.”
“Sacrifices?” he seethed. “Why you....” He looked like he was about to attack her. Koris and Zane readied themselves on the chance they would have to intervene.
Indigo put her hand on Raj’s arm. “Leave it, Raj,” she said. “It’s not worth it.”
“One day,” he said, his voice low and dripping with anger. “One day, when we win the war, I will avenge my father. With my first order as the true king, I will command your execution, and I will watch it, and I will enjoy it.” His expression, his demeanor, was more intense than Indigo had ever seen it. It was disconcerting.
“Raj,” she said. “Calm down. We still have a job to do.”
He relaxed slightly, even if his face still bore a quietly enraged expression. Biting his lip, he followed Lagos into the camp. Zane looked to Koris. “Do we follow?”
Koris looked back. “We do, indeed.”
They hung back in the inky, lightless places at the edge of the camp, where they blended in with the black. Zane rested his head on his clenched hand, keeping his other hand on the hilt of his sword. His sleep the previous night had been restless, to such a point that he might as well have not slept at all. His body was overworked and completely unrested, and his wakefulness the past few nights was taking a hard toll on him. His hazel eyes were closing...no, no, stay awake...head falling...no, Zane, no...background noise growing dimmer...Zane!...muscles growing limp, shutting down...ah, forget it. He fell into darkness, into the sound of his own breathing, loosening his grip on the hilt, and....
Thwack! A firm, wall-like force hit him in the back of the head. “Ow!” he yelped, biting so hard his tongue bled. The force in question was Koris’ hand.
“Wut wush thut fur?” Zane muttered around his sore, swelling mouth.
Koris hissed at him again. “I said shush!”
Zane lowered his voice to barely audible. “I am bloody shushed. Why d’you do that?”
“You were falling asleep, moron. I had to do something to keep you on target.” He made a noise halfway between a disappointed sigh and an exasperated groan. Those two noises tended to go hand-in-hand, it seemed. “Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps you are not ready to walk at my side.” Zane couldn’t really deny that he was right. Perhaps he wasn’t ready.
I. Haven’t. Slept. In. A week,” he said, emphasizing every word separately.
“And why would that be?”
Zane was stonily silent. “Never mind,” he muttered, going back to watching. Secretly he hoped Koris would become sympathetic and cut him slack, but that wasn’t his way of doing things. He was very firm in his belief that discomfort was motivation. The word slack was not in his vocabulary.
Indigo’s face was unreadable. Everything she had ever learned about war negotiation, she was using now. She was becoming afraid -- it was clear Lagos and her fellows were serious. If they slipped up during these discussions, they would die. Do it right or die. Speaking and swordplay were two arts not far from each other.
Raj was the one to open the conversation. “I suppose it would be unwise to stand on formalities.”
“It would be, indeed. Shall we discuss terms of surrender?”
Raj raised his eyebrows. “I am impressed you are ready to surrender so soon,” he said.
Lagos opened her mouth, ready to exclaim in anger, but Thunderbolt held her back. “Don’t test me, you impertinent child,” he snapped. Apparently not all anger was discouraged. “Will we discuss the terms, or will we not?”
Indigo cut Raj off before he could say whatever he was about to say. “Name your terms,” she said carefully.
Thunderbolt smiled intimidatingly. “I have nothing against you, young King Raj. All you must do is call off your armies, and you may live your life as you want. The world will be safe. A new era will come to the land.”
Raj scoffed. “I cannot take your talk of peace and safety seriously when you have spent the last month burning and destroying my land. Killing people, my people....” He shook his head. “I cannot bring myself to believe that you want peace.”
“Unfortunately,” said Indigo, “I am inclined to agree with him. I’ve heard the stories. Everyone who grew up in the land has heard the stories.”
There was that smile again, this time softer, warmer. “History is written by the winners, darling. Legends and lore lean heavily to the side of the culture they were written from. I understand the way you were brought to see me: as unequivocally evil, a monster, a villainous freak of nature. And I know how you were brought to see your king, your Medec: as a hero, an example, a shining beacon.”
Throughout his entire monologue, Indigo quietly observed him. Gemini had referred to his ‘wildly mixed heritage,’ and it was certainly obvious. He had the grey eyes common in Citymen, the dark skin of Elves, the tiny triangular ears of a flame-sprite, and a myriad of other bizarre sprite-like qualities, a patchwork quilt of ancestry. His large arms were covered in various tattoos that resembled Elvish magick runes...that looked suspiciously similar. Had he cut the runes into his skin? He seemingly had not only lived, but lived without aging, for centuries -- there was no way magick wasn’t involved in that -- but somehow he did not look young. His face was young, his body was young and strong, but only one look would tell you he himself, in the core of him, was not young.
“What if the legends are not all they say?” he continued. “I was an outcast. I was Chosen, set apart by the residents of the heavens themselves. They showed me the future, the way things were -- and are -- meant to be. Sometimes wonderful things, sometimes lurid things, but always great things. They told me to wait, to let events run their course, but I couldn’t wait. I could see the new era, and I knew it wasn’t meant to wait. I marched in to claim my destiny, and I was driven out, but not before I had seen the truth of this kingdom. Your land was built on cruelty and lies, and I intend to change it.”
“You’re insane,” said Raj.
Thunderbolt scoffed. “Really, boy? Why must you use these hackneyed expressions? I am not insane. I am merely...specially gifted.”
“Which is a polite way of saying you’re insane.”
“Quiet,” Lagos snapped, making another threatening move toward him. Again her commander held her back.
“Lagos, Lagos, Lagos,” he chided. “Let the boy hold to his opinions. Wrong as they may be.”
She settled back into her chair. “I’m sorry, milord,” she said sweetly.
“Now,” said Indigo, interrupting their conversation, “the terms. Are you willing to reach a peaceful agreement, or not? This kingdom grows weary of bloodshed. If there is a way, we wish to find it.”
“No,” Raj said abruptly. “Indigo, enough of this. I wish to hear no more of these terms. If you did not call us to surrender yourself, then these negotiations are pointless.”
“Dear king,” Thunderbolt said smoothly, “please, hold your anger in check.”
Raj slammed his hands to the table. “I am sick of this!” Indigo tried to pacify him, but he ignored her gentle words and touches.
“Do not speak to me, you....” He went on to spit a number of names at his enemy, some of them horribly vulgar.
This time, Thunderbolt did not hold Lagos back, and the king quickly received a smack across the face from the back of her hand. “If you are not willing to discuss surrender,” she said, “then these negotiations are over.”
“Fine,” Indigo said curtly, standing to leave. “It seems it is necessary to prepare for war.”
A cold smile came over Lagos’ face. “So it seems...but you will not be part of it.”
Raj continued to erupt, spewing violence from his tongue. “You brought us here to kill us,” he spat. “You liars! Traitors! Villainous sons of snakes!”
Koris was already on his feet, hand on his sword. “Go!” he shouted to Zane under his breath. “Get to the camp. Warn the generals. As of now, we are at war!”
“Koris, there are hundreds of them, and one of you. What are you thinking?”
“I do not ask,” he said coolly. “This is my mission. I do not question it, I simply act. And you should do the same!”
Zane didn’t hesitate a second time. What had taken him almost eighteen hours at the plodding pace of yesterday now took him only four. He came to the camp walls gasping and aching.
Orion was sitting against the wall. His eyes opened wide when he saw Zane running. “What is happening, my friend?” he called.
Zane pulled to a stop at the edge of the wall. He went from rapid motion to no motion so quickly it almost caused him to black out. He leaned against the wall, trying to hold himself up, sweat pouring down his face. With the last ounce of his energy, he pulled himself over the wall and shouted, “Up and to arms!”
Krista ran to meet him. “What is the meaning of this?”
Zane quickly ran through everything that had transpired. “All we can do is to trust Koris’ ability, and follow the king’s order to prepare for war.”
Krista nodded. “Then prepare we shall.”