Noise and smoke rise over the burning city. There are cries and shouts, the stomping of boots, thuds of doors kicked open, clanking of weapons and crackling of fire. Clouds of smoke hover above the red tile roofs, getting denser by the harbor, where the ships go up in flames.
As we enter the castle, the smell of burning wood follows us. Tendrils of smoke curl throughout the corridors littered with abandoned weapons, broken sculptures and household items dropped by the inhabitants as they fled. The first wave of my soldiers has cleared the path for us, so there are no guards to try and stop us. We pass a few of them lying in bloody heaps, watching us with unseeing, glassy eyes.
Good. Soldiers who fail to do their duty are better off dead.
The men around me have their swords out and their crossbows ready, constantly on the lookout for danger. We’ve fought enough together to be able to function like one organism—one deadly creature with multiple eyes, arms and legs, bristling with weapons, ready to defend or attack.
The tall wooden doors to the great hall hang askew on their hinges, broken by the battering ram. The hall is a mess, with tables overturned, wall hangings torn down and left to soak up the spilled blood. A fight has happened here, short and fierce by the look of it, and my people have won—as they always do.
“Your majesty!” cries someone.
A man appears from behind one of the thick stone columns running along the perimeter of the hall. He’s dressed in a black robe, his grey beard reaching down to his chest.
“Your majesty, King Harpax,” he continues, coming closer, showing us his empty hands. “Please, stop this madness. Our king is willing to talk.”
I know him. We’ve met about five years ago, when my father took me on one of his tax-collecting trips. It’s Dordalus, the adviser of King Bawdrick.
Not too good an adviser if he hasn’t prevented his master from disobeying me.
We move on, but a quick nod from me makes one of my companions fall behind and approach Dordalus. The old man keeps saying something, his voice rising briefly before it’s replaced by the sound of choking, which is silent by the time we leave the hall.
In the living quarters, we encounter our people emptying wooden chests and gathering items of value from the walls and the cupboards. Upon seeing me, they pause and bow their heads before proceeding with their activities. We keep walking, leaving them to claim their rewards.
The chamber of King Bawdrick is guarded by our people, and a few more linger inside. Bawdrick himself is sitting stiffly in a chair by his bed, his hands crossed on his knees. He watches us pour into the room. It’s crowded now, and stuffy, the small windows not allowing in enough air.
Bawdrick’s eyes widen as he notices me, and he slowly gets up to his feet.
“Harpax,” he says. “All this destruction…why?”
I walk to the window to get a breath of fresh air, albeit tinged with smoke. My entourage remains behind, shifting and stretching and eyeing the interior of the room.
“If something caused you displeasure,” says Bawdrick, “you could have informed me. I would have --”
“You were building a fleet.” I stop by the window, facing the bay, the sky over it dirty with smoke.
“Just a few ships.” He clears his throat. “For trading purposes.”
I turn and look at him, silent, until he shifts uncomfortably. There’re no visible bruises or blood on him, and his red and black brocade robe is unstained. Nobody has touched him—yet. He knows it can happen, though. His life and the future of his kingdom are in my hands now. The city has fallen. I can finish him and put someone else in his place.
“A few ships,” I repeat slowly, as if to make the foolishness of his own words clear to him. “Without my permission.”
“We were…We thought to inform you later…” He trails off under my heavy gaze.
I walk over to him. He draws himself to his full height—still slightly shorter than mine. To his credit, he doesn’t step back, but there’s panic in his eyes under his bushy grey eyebrows, and fury, and desperation. I stop, watching these emotions pass over his face like shadows from clouds racing over a plain. The room is quiet, with only the distant sounds of destruction from the city and the harbor coming in through the windows.
I can take his kingdom, but that would mean I’d have to rule it, too.
I much prefer reaping the fruits to tending the trees.
“Your taxes will be raised,” I say, and relief floods his face. “Also, I will send inspectors a few times a year to see how you’re doing.”
He nods, his face grave, but the relief still shows through.
“This won’t happen again.” he says. “You have my word. This was a misunderstanding.”
I shake my head. “I relied on your word too much. It’s not enough now. We must take care of the alliance by marriage business as well. I’ve waited, respecting your daughters’ youth, but it’s way past time we take care of that.”
He visibly stiffens.
“Cleareta is sixteen,” he says. “Margaret is fifteen. You know we usually postpone marriages until eighteen, but in this case…” He sighs, but it’s clear that he’s expected this, and has already reconciled himself to the idea. “We can make an exception.”
I watch him silently as he grows more uneasy under my gaze. In my mind’s eye, though, I see not him but the figure on one of the ships that I have spotted from the distance. The slim stature, the royal red and black colors, the cape flowing in the wind. I smile to myself. This will indeed punish the old fool for his insubordination, as well as weaken him some more.
“Your son,” I say. “He’s eighteen, isn’t he?”
He stares at me.
“No,” he says. “This is unheard of!”
“Not in our parts.” I shrug. “Rumors reached me that your son is an attractive young man, and I’m getting bored with all the female wives in my harem.”
His face goes red. Yet we both know that a refusal would be his death penalty.
“He’s my successor,” he says at last. “He’s my only son. He was raised to be the king.”
“I’m sure he’ll do just as well as a king’s consort,” I say, reveling in the apoplectic look on his face. “Perhaps you should make another one before you’re too old. This one’s leaving with me tonight.”
His eyes bulge, and his mouth opens.
“Think before you speak,” I warn him, “because it might be the last thing you ever say.”
He shuts his mouth, and I nod with satisfaction.
“Tonight, we’re sailing out,” I say. “I expect a decent send off. No need in dowry, though.” I nod at the window showing the burning city. “We’ll take it by ourselves.”