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CORANOX

TONY GAO and BRENT PECKHAM

FIFTH EXILE / BROOKLINE, MA

Important Information


This file is an extended preview of the book, Coranox. It contains approximately the first third of the book but does not include any illustrations featured in the final product.

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This file is meant to be distributed for free. Under no circumstances should it be sold. Please email us at contact@fifthexile.com if you were solicited to pay for this file.

Laestran Calendar (LC)

Terminology

The first arc in the ten-arc day is known as new arc. The second arc is one arc in reference to how many complete arcs have passed; therefore, the last arc of the day is nine arc. Reps are referenced after the arc designation, as in three-arc sixty.

Every cycle tracks the two moons Rhynon and Faerila, representing a cumulative orbital period for both moons. Nominally, the first five cycles are known as Exiles (First Exile, Second Exile, Third Exile, Fourth Exile, Fifth Exile) while the sixth cycle is known as the Reunion.

A color scheme known as the lunaprism, rooted in the mythology and astrology attributed to the two moons, establishes informal shorthands for each cycle over any two-year span. Odd years (e.g., 987) are known as years of Rhynon, and even years are known as years of Faerila. Within each of the two years, the cycles are assigned the following colors.

For example, in the fifth cycle of a year of Faerila, the phrase “previous sky cycle” would refer to the First Exile of the previous year, while “next ash cycle” would refer to the First Exile of the year after next.

Notation

Dates are written in the following format: Year.Cycle.Date.

For example, the date 987.3.17 would be officially known as the “Seventeenth Day of the Third Exile in the Year 987,” while 987.6.02 would be “Second Day of the Reunion in the Year 987” or “Second Day of the 987th Reunion.”

Colons are used in written notation to separate arcs, reps, and ticks, all of which are denoted with two digits, as in 08:72:94 or 00:12:63.

Seasons of Moriana

The following depicts the average time frame and interval for each season on the continent of Moriana:

Spring: 1.25–2.50

This season contains mostly cool weather. Toward the end of spring, frequent rain occurs, and the temperatures increase significantly.

Summer: 3.01–4.12

This season holds the warmest weather of the year. Storms occur less frequently than in spring but tend to be more severe.

Fall: 4.13–5.24

This season grants cool weather and the least amount of precipitation. Every once in a while a severe rainstorm will occur. Early snowstorms may occur during the early parts of the Fifth Exile.

Winter: 5.25–1.24

This season results in harsh blizzards. Winters can arrive early or end late, though usually by the start of the First Exile, the snow begins to melt.

Prologue

(975.6.41)

A light snow dusted the fields throughout the morning. Jardis had yet to emerge from the shadow of winter’s tail.

Early in the day, merchant caravans from Calena arrived for just the second time during the Reunion. The people of Jardis always welcomed their presence, not only for the chance to restock supplies during the winter but also for the modest stir of activity they aroused in what was otherwise a dormant village in the northern Atherian Outlands. The traders and vendors of the caravan took positions around the large bell in the center of the village square and conducted their business into the early afternoon, when the tranquility shattered.

At first, the sight of a young woman running hurriedly from the east was only a mild curiosity to most of the people bustling about the square. Several merchants were even amused by the way her flowing faded blue dress clearly hindered her movement. Eventually, the villagers who caught a glimpse of the expression on her face realized that there was nothing frivolous about her sprint. The woman slowed down to speak to her friends and neighbors in an even but grave tone. This confirmed the urgency of the matter to them, and despite her warnings to remain calm, the word began to spread like wildfire throughout the square. Merchants exhibited varying degrees of pause before committing, in a hurry, to pack up their goods and flee south. Some of the women and children hastened for the safety of their homes. Whatever opportunity there had been to preserve the collective composure of the gathered populace dissipated into the suddenly foreboding frosty breeze.

Edith Sylvera weaved through the frantic scattering crowd until she reached the central raised-stone platform where the large brass bell hung. She paused absently to adjust the hem of her dress before yanking on a long chain that served as a pulley to swing a retractable wooden beam into the side of the bell. Jarred by the clanging, as Edith rang the bell several times, everyone in the square fell silent almost immediately. The few traveling merchants who had yet to flee continued to pack up their goods and stands, while all the residents of Jardis stopped in their tracks and turned their attention to her. Within ticks, many other villagers poured into the square from all directions.

From the eastern road came a man well into his fifties, dressed in simple yet neatly tailored, dark green robes. The crowd immediately parted to let him pass. At the south end of the square, a handsome, well-built young man with wavy blond hair and gleaming blue eyes emerged from the largest house in the village. In contrast, he did not appear agitated in the slightest. The two men joined Edith on the platform.

“Elder,” she said to the older man, “we have confirmed raiders approaching from the east.”

“Sebastian, what of our guest?” the elder asked the younger man.

“Secure in your house,” Sebastian replied. “He wanted to help, but I insisted he return to safety.”

“Good.”

Elder Norman Potts stepped forward to address the people of Jardis who anxiously awaited his words. He raised his hands and straightened his back. The traces of stubble covering his face and his short, curly gray hair, sprouting from his tanned, bald head, gave the elder an unkempt appearance, but his smooth, firm voice had a reassuring effect on the crowd.

“Everyone, please! We must remain calm to keep our homes safe. As usual, Sebastian and Edith will oversee preparations for the coming raid. Please follow their lead in gathering your weapons and securing your homes and families.”

A murmur swept through the crowd before the shouts began. The men of the village demanded more information, while the women searched the crowd, frantically accounting for the whereabouts of their families. The elder tried to maintain order but was unable to address everyone at once.

As she surveyed the growing panic from her position on the platform, Edith felt precious time passing. She ran over to the elder’s house from which Sebastian had emerged, where several dull-pointed spears lay against its western side. Edith grabbed one of the crude weapons and raced back to the platform relatively unnoticed, as the villagers were focused on the elder or talking nervously among themselves. She looked around once more before repeatedly slamming the butt of the spear down on the platform, causing everyone in the square to start.

“Listen!” she shouted, curling her lip and waving her spear in the air. “We’re going to tear those bastards to shreds!”

The stunned crowd uttered no reply.

Smiling, Sebastian drew closer to her, resting his hand over hers and lowering her spear.

“Not all of us are as bloodthirsty as you, my dear,” he said.

Several villagers emitted nervous laughter at Sebastian’s attempt to relieve the tension.

“Remember the protocol, everyone,” the elder said.

“Let’s not waste time,” said Sebastian, spurring everyone to action.

The remaining merchants had already departed; each fled as quickly as the burden of his or her luggage would allow. Many mothers collected their children, leading them into their houses before shutting and bolting the doors, while Edith, Sebastian, and Elder Potts led a group of would-be combatants eastward. The Jardis militia stood in full strength with sixty-some able-bodied men and women, though not all had previously seen real combat. As his rapidly approaching old age made him ineligible for combat, Elder Potts now coordinated efforts to prevent a sense of isolation and defeat within the militia.

“Third time this year,” Edith whispered to her husband. “How much more of this must we endure?”

She never hid her jealousy of Sebastian’s ability to suppress his feelings of unrest from public display, an ability she strove to emulate. Sebastian saw a bolt of concern flicker across Edith’s face that only he knew well enough to detect. He reached out and gave her calloused hand a quick squeeze, releasing it almost immediately so as to escape notice of the militia who looked to the pair for strength. Edith did not return his gaze, but nodded in acknowledgment, the muscles in her face relaxing visibly.

The elder marched just behind them, preoccupied with assuaging the fears of the stabler’s eldest son, Dane Landsman. As the group approached the eastern storehouse, the largest of three such structures within the confines of the village, Elder Potts produced from his pocket a large iron key, which he used to unlock the door of the wooden building. Lit fortuitously by sunbeams sieved through scant cracks in the roof of the shack, a large crate, lying on the floor, was discernible amid the interior darkness.

“Help me distribute those,” the elder said to Sebastian, striding forward toward the crate. The young man obliged and followed suit. The two leaders began distributing short swords and spears from the crate; the weapons were as dilapidated as the one Edith carried.

After arming ten more villagers, the elder instructed Sebastian and Edith to lead the advance party to the outpost.

“Certainly, Elder,” Sebastian said. He motioned for Edith and the remaining armed militia to follow him outside and then to continue eastward.

The Sylveras could now see the bandits clearly in the distance. They were at least a kilometer away. Most of Jardis lay on open, flat land, making it easy to keep track of their movements. Furthermore, the bandits’ dirty garbs stood out against the snow. Unfortunately, the terrain also made the area much more difficult to defend once the fighting broke out. Despite this disadvantage, the militia usually had ample time to rebuff wantonly aggressive bandits, and previous raid attempts had been easily repelled.

As the makeshift squad reached the outpost, Harrison Agilda, one of five men stationed atop the outpost tower, saw them and waved. He swiftly climbed down the ladder in front of him. Harrison’s gait was slightly uneven, although he had never suffered any significant leg injury and maintained that it was simply the way he walked. A pair of well-worn spectacles gave his thin, youthful face a bookish quality, while his overall physique was toned by many long days in the fields. His attire was worn-out but efficient, as he was not ashamed of his poverty and made no effort to disguise it. He was well respected by the entire village, and it was of little surprise that he and his wife, Maya, maintained a close relationship with the Sylveras.

As Sebastian approached, Harrison seized him by the arm and clapped him on the shoulder.

“Are the children safe?” he asked urgently.

It was Edith who replied, “Yes. I had Maya take them to the Altons’ house.”

“Thank Creon,” Harrison said with relief. Out of habit, he grabbed the well-polished iron locket around his neck. He had far exceeded his means to commission the small portrait of his daughter contained within; it was the one material possession he valued above all else.

He adjusted the bridge of his spectacles and squinted into the distance at the wave of figures moving through the fields. Noticing that they advanced very slowly, he said, “Looks like this may be a smarter bunch.”

“The elder will be here shortly,” Sebastian said. “We should be able to establish our positions soon.”

“Well, we’ll need all the help we can muster,” Harrison remarked, turning his attention to the larger group of villagers coming up the path. “William and I counted at least fifty of them this time, some on horseback.”

His voice wavered, betraying his stoic expression. Like Edith and many of others in their party, he did his best to contain his terror.

“We should start setting up our positions,” he said. “Let’s head out. Creon help us.”

• • •

By six arc, a soft breeze had set upon the village and its surrounding fields, as the sounds of battle began to subside.

Edith felt a throbbing in her head as she got up slowly and absently dusted herself off. She had been dragged a few meters by a horse during the skirmish. Her dress was torn on the outside of her right leg, but the snow had cushioned her fall, and she suffered nothing worse than a few scratches. The struggle knocked the wind out of her, but the rider had been much less fortunate. Only the lower half of the bandit’s body was visible; Edith had heard the dull crunch as the man’s head collapsed under the weight of the toppled horse.

She bent over, coughing and gasping for air. Her mind racing, she tried to focus on the condensation of her breaths to collect her thoughts. The bandits had broken through their defenses, but how many of them had slipped through to the west? She estimated that only about twenty reps had passed since the fighting broke out. Harrison … Harrison had returned with several others to pursue the bandits that had gotten through while she and Sebastian fought a large group of raiders near the outpost.

Where was Sebastian? She swiveled her head from side to side against the pain that was rattling her skull. He was about fifty meters away, fighting off two men who had cornered William Cadrene, a young goatherd. Sneaking up behind them, Sebastian dispatched both attackers with ease and rushed to check on William.

Edith began making her way toward them. Bodies were strewn all over the ground. Though it was difficult to distinguish villager from bandit, Edith recognized at least ten faces among the dead. Still dazed, she could not yet process the sight of so many torn and mangled bodies, people she knew and loved, writhing or lying lifelessly in the blood-soaked snow.

Before all was quiet, someone let out a final cry of anguish from behind Edith. Tall and thin, sixteen-year-old Thomas Polke clutched a sword tightly with both hands and stared at the crumpled body of a bandit at his feet. He was a meek youth of poor constitution, but this was not his first fight, and Edith saw a glint of bloodlust in his eyes.

“Edith.” Sebastian laid a hand gently on her shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Edith said, some vigor returning to her voice. “What about the others?”

“Harrison has not returned yet.”

“We have to follow him.”

Edith disengaged herself from her husband and began to run westward toward the village.

“Anyone who can still fight, follow me to the square!” she yelled. “We have to make sure they’re gone!”

Sebastian scanned the surroundings as several villagers, who remained on their feet, took off after her. He was anxious to follow though knew that someone needed to stay behind to secure the outpost and tend to the injured. Gradually, he noticed voices he did not recognize and turned his head in their direction.

Two enormous white durions stood nearby, baring their teeth casually. The voices Sebastian heard belonged to the two men who stood beside the horses. The one doing most of the speaking was a bald, middle-aged man, his intonation even and unnervingly detached from the surrounding mayhem. The other was an imposing figure who appeared to be a military officer. He was clad in a resplendent and unblemished suit of gleaming white armor. A dozen well-armed men in unmistakable Coranthian Army uniforms accompanied the two.

Soldiers? When had they arrived?

Having caught Sebastian’s inquisitive gaze, the bald man locked eyes with him.

“You, sir.” The man raised his hand as he approached Sebastian. “Are you injured? Who is in command here?”

It took Sebastian a moment to find his voice.

“I am unharmed. The elder of this village is Norman Potts. I last saw him near the outpost to the east.”

“The elder? Yes, I spoke to him,” the bald man said without breaking stride. “We assisted your militia at the outpost. Your elder is safe, though somewhat dazed. He told us to venture west and seek out two men—Sylvera and Agilda. Are you aware of their whereabouts?”

He extended his hand as he drew to a halt. “Minister Verinda. Of the Interior.”

Sebastian’s eyes widened as they shook. “Lord Verinda, I am Sebastian Sylvera. I apologize for failing to recognize you.”

“No matter, Mr. Sylvera. What of Agilda?”

“My wife left in search of him.”

Minister Verinda nodded solemnly and turned to motion to the armored man, who had already followed him.

“And I apologize for not having arrived sooner,” the armored man said. His blond hair was short and perfectly cropped; his chin, strong and clean-shaven; his fiery blue eyes, piercing. Sebastian found his face familiar though could not recall having ever met him. Unable to hold his gaze, Sebastian cast his eyes downward, whereupon he saw, carved deep into the armored man’s chest plate, a stylized crimson crown, which finally revealed who stood before him.

“Your Majesty,” he acknowledged, dropping to his knees.

To his surprise, he felt the king’s firm grip on his shoulder, pulling him upright.

“Rise, now is not the time. If anything, it is I who ought to hang my head to you and your fellow villagers. We were unable to arrive before the raid began.”

At twenty-five, Sebastian was already a leader among the people of his village and permitted himself occasional pride in that fact, but as he found himself, once more, face to face with Samsen Caden Coranthis, who, though almost a decade older, radiated more youthful vigor and charisma than Sebastian could ever hope for, he realized just how inconsequential he truly was.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” he heard himself say.

“Very good,” the king said. “I shall leave three men and a doctor behind to tend to the wounded. Lead us back to the village, and we will sweep away any remaining bandits. Minister Verinda will return east to retrieve the elder. Do we have an understanding?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

Without another word, Sebastian began to head west, wondering what Edith would think if she saw the dumbfounded look frozen on his face. He could hear the clinking of the king’s armor coming from behind, followed by a shuffling of footsteps as Coranthian soldiers fell in line.

• • •

Maya Agilda sat at her well-worn dining table, nervously sipping a cup of tea. She anxiously watched her daughter, Madeline, and Edith’s son, Reznik, as they sat on the floor. It had been some time since Edith had asked her to find Reznik and escort the children south to the Altons’ house. With Madeline in tow, she searched anxiously for the boy, but was unable to locate him until just after Edith had rung the bell in the square. Finally, Maya found Reznik attempting to pull a wagon of firewood from the northwest. After forcing him to abandon his haul and dragging him back to her home, she decided not to take any chances and told the children they would remain there. Though the interim had been uneventful, it served only to put her even more on edge.

“Are we supposed to just wait here?” Reznik asked for the third time. He was six, same as Madeline, and had his father’s blue eyes and blond hair, but his mother’s thin lips and narrower face. As young as he was, he projected an air of quiet intensity that combined Sebastian’s composure with Edith’s confidence.

“Will you relax, Rez?” Madeline said. She kept herself busy by trying to rub off a cake of snowy mud attached to her tanned-leather shoes. Madeline was almost a mirror image of her mother as a girl. Both had cherry red hair, bright green eyes, pale skin, and slender features, though Maya’s hair was neck length while Madeline’s fell past her shoulders. “You know we have to wait until they ring the bell.”

Before Maya could react, Reznik jumped up and walked to one of the front windows. He unlatched the shutter and pushed it slightly open to get a look outside.

“Reznik, stay away from the windows!” Maya commanded.

The young boy stared steadily to the north.

“I think there’s a bandit outside,” he declared.

At first, Maya did not believe him; bandits had never previously paid attention to any part of Jardis west of the square, because it was, even from a distance, readily apparent that the village’s livestock and three storehouses lay to the east. When it occurred to her that Reznik would not lie or say things he did not mean under the circumstances, she bolted up out of her chair and rushed over to him. A quick glance confirmed that he was indeed telling the truth. She jerked him away from the windowsill, her heartbeat escalating.

“Mama?” Madeline’s voice came meekly from behind her.

Maya’s hands shook as she stepped away from the window and quietly closed the shutters. In a single motion, she grabbed Madeline and Reznik by the arms and dragged them both toward the back door. She fervently hoped that the men outside could not hear them.

“Madeline, Reznik, you have to run.”

“Why? What’s wr—”

“Run through the fields. Stay low and head to the Altons’. Stay together but move quickly. Are you listening to me?”

Maya turned to Reznik and stared penetratingly at him. “Reznik, I am entrusting her to you. I’ll be right behind you. I have to distract them so you can get away, then I’ll follow. Now go!”

Before either of the children knew what was happening, she had shoved them both outside, closing the door behind them and locking it from within. The two bewildered children momentarily remained where they were before Reznik stirred and took Madeline’s hand.

“We should listen to your mother. Let’s go.”

Madeline was uncertain but agreeable. She nodded and allowed Reznik to lead her into the yoa field. The stalks, which grew up to twenty-five pegs in the summer, had been cut down during the harvest, though still allowed the crouching children to make their way through the field unseen.

From inside the house, Maya let out a brief sigh of relief. She knew she could count on Reznik to act quickly and decisively, and it gave her comfort to know that the children were out of harm’s way for the time being.

But Maya had no time to rest; the bandits were getting closer.

She heard one say, “We got played for fools. That bastard said this side was lightly defended, but there ain’t nothing here to defend.”

“Nothing but shitty crops and old ladies rotting inside their huts,” a second voice agreed. “I’m going to gut Harker for trying to put one over on us. If you help me, I’ll split his take with you.”

“Hah. I’ll agree if there actually ends up being anything worth taking.”

A horse snorted faintly somewhere farther down the road. Then came the sound of someone spitting a stream onto the ground, along with that of approaching footsteps. A man with a long scar running down his right cheek walked up to the front door of the Agildas’ house and attempted to look in through several small cracks in the wooden door. With the shutters closed and curtains drawn, the interior of the Agilda home was almost completely dark.

“The hell are you doing, Weldon? Just bust it down.”

The man with the scar, called Weldon, looked askance and said, “Bet nothing’s in there anyway.”

“Move.”

A short man with an unevenly receding hairline pushed Weldon out of the way.

From inside the house, Maya heard a deep breath. Suddenly, the door caved in under the force of a huge club. Splinters flew as the short man gave an enthusiastic roar and continued to smash away until there was a gaping hole, big enough to fit a child. Light poured into the house as the short man gave a satisfied grunt. Dropping the club, he reached in to unlock the door. His hand found the doorknob and turned it. The door swung open, and the short man stepped into the house. He had barely gotten his other foot inside when Maya emerged from the corner of the room and drove a kitchen knife into the left side of his ribcage.

The man screamed and immediately dropped to one knee. His right arm was still wrapped around what remained of the front door, rendering him unable to attempt any sort of coordinated movement.

“What the hell?” Weldon exclaimed, jumping back and hurriedly reaching for a short sword strapped to his waist.

The short man’s thrashing subsided as he lost consciousness. His weight pressed on the door, which came off its hinges. Wood, flesh, and bone toppled onto the floor inside the house. Weldon remained beyond arm’s reach of the door, unsure of how to proceed, when he noticed Maya skittering around the body of his fallen companion. His eyes followed her as she ran to his right.

“Hey!”

Unsheathing his short sword, he ran into the house, wildly jerking his head in search of the peasant woman who had dared to fight back. He was greeted by half a kettle full of scalding water in his face. Involuntarily dropping his short sword, Weldon let out a pained squawk and stumbled out of the house, covering his burned visage. Maya darted forward and picked up the short sword. Raising the sword over her head with both hands, she stepped outside. Before she could strike, she heard a thud and felt a sharp pain at the back of her head. She let out a cry and fell instantly to the ground.

Maya strained her neck as she tried to look up. Her vision was blurry, and her head felt as if it had been ripped open. She was barely able to make out the two figures standing over her. Had there been a third man?

“Stupid bitch!” Weldon rasped. The harshness of his voice caused Maya’s ears to ring.

She felt the hard toe of a boot ram into her side, and she groaned.

“She’s mine!” Weldon said. “I’m bringing her!”

“Forget it,” came a new voice. “I think I cracked open her skull.”

Everything had grown very dark and very quiet for Maya. She ceased to hear them.

Weldon looked down at the limp body. Seeing that the woman would be of no use to him, he reentered the house and glanced around, looking half-heartedly for anything of value, but gave up without much effort.

“Let’s just get out of here,” he mumbled to no one in particular and wandered outside to find his horse.

Meanwhile, the third bandit, a thin man with a crooked beak for a nose, went inside and bent over the short bandit’s bloody mess of a corpse. He gave a low whistle and then gave Weldon a contemptuous look. “You useless shit, I can’t believe y—”

The back door flew open and Edith entered, coiled and prepared to strike. The bandit whirled around in surprise before his lip quickly twisted into a condescending sneer.

“Hey, Weldon. Looks like—”

He was not afforded the time to finish his sentence. Edith was no longer brandishing her spear, which had snapped in half during an earlier encounter. The bandit standing before her, though, still had his sword sheathed on his hip. She saw this and charged straight at him. Before he could flinch or notice the set of agriclaws she wore on her right hand, she ran up to him and swung from below, jolting his nose upward into his brain. He fell dead on the spot, the center of his face thoroughly pulverized.

Weldon, who had been tending the horse, was taken by surprise for the third time in as many reps and was unable to recover. He never stood a chance as Edith barreled toward him with a petrifying scream, her shoulder-length brown hair flying wildly. A crow of terror escaped his scarred lips as he saw his death in her blazing green eyes. She jammed the agriclaws deep into his chest and kicked him hard in the stomach, yanking her arm to free the blades. Weldon fell backwards, clutching his chest and gasping in pain. Edith lunged again, slashing him across the throat. Choking on his blood, Weldon collapsed and died within a rep.

Edith tossed aside her makeshift weapon. She stumbled over to Maya. Her trembling legs gave way, and she dropped to her knees. Warm, sticky blood poured over her hands as she rolled her friend’s body toward her. When she saw that Maya’s eyes were rolled back to their whites, she lost control and began to sob.

“Maya … Maya!” she wailed. “Wake up! Maya!”

Sebastian arrived shortly after the bloodshed had ceased. When Edith violently shook Maya’s lifeless body, he immediately stepped in to pull his wife away.

“Maya? Maya!” Edith cried in despair.

Sebastian wrapped his wife in an embrace, simultaneously restraining and consolatory. Gradually, Edith’s struggle subsided, though she continued to weep. Sebastian stood up and walked slowly back into the house, staring numbly at the two bodies on the floor.

After some time, Madeline appeared in the back doorway. Sebastian had immediately set out with King Samsen and his soldiers for the Altons’ upon reaching the square and was surprised to hear from the children that they had only recently left the Agildas’ house. He had told the Altons to head for the square, now the most secure location in the village. Reznik had gone with them, but Madeline insisted on joining Sebastian to see her mother.

“Uncle Bastian? Where’s Mama? Did you see her?” Madeline asked worriedly.

Sebastian walked quickly to Madeline, took her hand, and began to lead her eastward, taking care to shield the girl from the sight of her mother’s corpse, which was lying in front of the house.

“Your mother isn’t here, Maddy. She left. Let’s head back and find your dad, okay?”

Madeline nodded.

Although many of the houses had suffered damage, the square and its residences remained relatively untouched, with only traces of debris scattered about. Some children and pets were even playing in the square, oblivious to the horrors that had transpired. Sebastian noticed plumes of smoke to the north.

“Sebastian! Madeline!” Elder Potts walked briskly over to them as they approached. “I am glad to see you both!”

Sebastian gave Madeline a gentle nudge toward the other children. “Madeline, go play for a moment. I have to talk to the elder.”

Madeline ran off obediently.

“Where is Edith? Is she safe?” asked the elder.

“Yes, I saw her. She’s with … Maya is dead.”

The flatness of his own voice surprised him. The elder initially seemed taken aback, but softened quickly.

“May her soul rest with Rhynon. I’m sure she fought to the end.”

“I have no doubt that she did,” Sebastian said with a sigh. He had not fought much, nor had the bandits he faced put up much of a fight, but he was completely drained, and his bones suddenly began to ache. “It’s quiet, Elder. I take it they’ve gone?”

“We underestimated them," the elder said, visibly shaken. “They took … They broke into the northern storehouse.”

“How much did they take?” Sebastian asked mechanically, although he already knew the answer.

“They burned it down,” someone in the crowd volunteered.

Sebastian craned his neck to see that Minister Verinda was the speaker. Before he could reply, Sebastian heard someone call his name. A man wearing an embroidered dark blue cloak, similar in style to Minister Verinda’s, stood nearby, and Sebastian recognized him as the man he had locked inside the elder’s house before the bandits arrived.

“What’s wrong, Gustaf?”

“I need to show you something, Sebastian,” the man said gravely. Although Gustaf Renault was typically well kempt, as men of his stature tended to be, his long brown hair and pale face were coated in snow and dirt. Sebastian noticed specks of blood dotting his friend’s cloak.

“Lord Renault,” Verinda said with surprise, “what are you doing here?”

“Minister Verinda, I could ask the same of you. I beg your pardon, but I need a moment with Sebastian.”

Verinda frowned and nodded. “Very well.”

Sebastian followed Gustaf as the latter led him out of the square. He immediately realized they were heading for the northern storehouse. His nostrils filled with acrid smoke as they approached the ravaged building. The fire had subsided, and little more than a smoldering ruin remained. Gustaf led him around the wreckage to the back, where two charred corpses lay over one another, permeating the air with the stench of burned flesh. Sebastian picked up a limb of a fallen tree off the ground and prodded the top body until it rolled over. It was easily recognizable as a bandit; a sheathed sword appeared through some leather that had melted into the corpse. The other was disfigured beyond possible identification. Based on the positions of the bodies, Sebastian guessed that there had been a vicious struggle between the two.

Gustaf drew his hand from beneath his cloak and held it toward Sebastian. “He must have followed some of the others and tried to protect the storehouse. I found this on the ground.”

In spite of the damage it had suffered, Sebastian immediately recognized the item in Gustaf’s outstretched hand. His stomach churned as he took the metal locket.

“I’m sorry, my friend.”

Gustaf’s words barely registered. As he managed to pry open the keepsake, Sebastian heard himself emit a despondent sigh when he saw that the picture inside was just as charred as its container.

In the distance, the bell in the village square began to ring.

“Damn it all,” Sebastian muttered. “This is just …”

A rustling noise came from behind the two men.

“Who’s there?” Gustaf shouted suddenly. He retracted his hand quickly inside his cloak. “Show yourself!”

A small boy walked slowly out from behind the rubble. He was as well-dressed as Gustaf, although his cloak was forest green. When the boy’s face became visible, it was clear that his choice of attire was not the only thing the two shared.

“My apologies, Father. I just wanted to see if you needed my help, that’s all.”

Gustaf straightened up. “I told you to stay in the square, Renard.”

“The children are playing silly games,” Renard Renault said. “Besides, we all wanted to follow you.”

Sebastian froze as Reznik and Madeline appeared behind Gustaf’s son. The three children came to a standstill and immediately covered their noses as they approached the bodies.

“What’s … that smell. What is that?” Renard asked in a muffled voice.

Gustaf walked up to Renard and took his arm. “I told you to stay put, Renard. Come, let’s go back. Come on, children.”

The three were eager to escape the stench and followed Gustaf without any complaint. Once the four of them returned to the square, Gustaf left them in the company of the elder and sought out Verinda, who had not stirred from his original resting place.

“You have chosen an unfortunate day to visit, Lord Verinda,” Gustaf stated gravely as he walked up to the minister.

Verinda’s lips pressed together as he rubbed his bald pate.

“I suppose that is one way to put it. His Majesty decided to investigate the recent report of a bandit collective firsthand. We thought we’d have more success tracking them closer to the Pelaros Woods. Had we only set out a day or two earlier …”

“The king is here?”

Gustaf skimmed the crowd instinctively.

“He’s meeting with his soldiers. He should be along shortly,” Verinda said.

Meanwhile, Sebastian returned to the square alone. He saw Edith sitting in the grass with her back to him, but decided Madeline was his first priority. She had just lost both of her parents, and it didn’t seem right to him for her to find out from someone else. Slowly, he approached the crowd of children surrounding Elder Potts.

“I need to talk to you, Madeline,” he said in a grave tone. She looked up curiously; he could not look her in the eye. Instead, his normally bright blue eyes remained dully fixed on the elder.

Nearby, Reznik and Renard watched as Sebastian led Madeline away from the other children. Renard’s gaze drifted to Edith, who sat alone in the center of the square, staring at the ground. Gustaf walked up to her and spoke to her in a low voice. Edith’s grief-stricken face fell as she learned of the passing of her two closest friends, leaving Madeline an orphan. Although Edith was exhausted and suffered from the bruise on her head, tears streamed down her cheeks. Gustaf removed his cloak and wrapped it around her shoulders and then sat next to her, unsure of what else to do.

Reznik’s eyes focused on his father and Madeline. The little girl was bawling in Sebastian’s arms and screaming for her father.

After a moment, she began to cry out, “Where’s Mama? I have to tell her!”

Although the children were young, they understood death. Madeline simply had not learned of her mother’s fate. Reznik knew. His mother had told him when she returned to the square, adding flatly that Harrison should be the one to tell his daughter, but Reznik had recognized the locket during the exchange between Gustaf and Sebastian at the storehouse. He kept silent, as did Renard, who always knew more than he let on.

Elder Potts took Madeline’s hand, as he gently led her away. Sebastian managed an appreciative nod in his surprise. He was drained, both physically and emotionally, and no longer bothered to hide it. Reznik approached him.

“This … this is horrible,” his son said. Reznik’s gaze was steady, but his voice wavered with emotion.

Sebastian stood up. “Are you all right, son?”

Reznik nodded. “Yes, but Maddy …”

“You should leave her alone for a while, Reznik. Your mother will take care of her. Goodness knows she’s much better at that sort of thing.” He rubbed his chin wearily. “Stay with Renard for now. I’ll come get you in a little while.”

He ruffled his son’s hair.

“Why do people do this to each other?” Reznik said. “Don’t they know it’s wrong?”

Sebastian considered the question briefly.

“Not everyone cares about right and wrong.”

Reznik stared piercingly at his father.

Sebastian was not completely satisfied with his answer, but he decided to leave it at that. He gave Reznik a comforting nod and walked toward Edith.

Madeline sat in front of the bell as her cries slowly gave way to low sobs. The elder held a comforting arm around her tiny shoulders.

“But what else is there?” Reznik muttered to himself.

• • •

Several reps passed as a flurry of flakes fell from the sky. Suddenly, the elder stood and took stepped away from the bell as the magnetic figure of the sovereign strode to the central stone platform and knelt down in front of Madeline. He began to speak to her softly. All those in the square were captivated by the king’s golden aura, their eyes fixed on the scene in front of the bell.

Madeline finally rose and timidly extended her hand at the king’s request. He clasped it in his own and gently pushed a small object into her tiny cold hand. After he released his grip, she stared momentarily at her clenched fist before she bowed. He stood and, after patting Madeline gently on the head, gestured toward several nearby soldiers as he walked away.

Reznik ran up to Madeline. Her eyes, misty emeralds, pulsed inconsolably, searing his core with each quiver. “Maddy—” He was at a loss.

“I’m so sorry, Madeline,” said Renard, following on Reznik’s heels. Without hesitation, the older boy held her in a comforting embrace.

“Thank you, Renard,” she sobbed, pulling away.

Reznik cleared his throat, but it took him several ticks to find his voice.

“Maddy,” he finally managed, “what did the king give you?”

She extended and slowly opened her still-clenched right hand to reveal a large crimson pin enclosed in a shielded frame gleaming against her pale white skin.

“The Coranox.”

Chapter 1

(987.1.31)

—1—

As he traversed Capital Circle, taking note of the vendors and couriers going about their daily preparations in the intermittent rain, Radley Lariban received the unequivocal impression that Corande’s denizens were unaware of what had transpired at Elsin Point.

He strode briskly up to the northeastern gate of Castle Coranthis. Two imposing guards flanking the entrance were awaiting Lariban. They immediately saluted when they recognized the golden colonel’s pin on his navy blue officer coat. Lariban continued toward the castle, the highest point in Corande.

Uninterrupted passage was a rarity for the colonel. Despite his rank and reputation within the Coranthian Army, he was often stopped for inspection, unrecognized by many soldiers. Lariban attributed this to his muted appearance—his hair was short and he maintained a clean-cut look, which complemented his nondescript features.

Entering through the gate, Lariban made his way south along King’s Road, a cobblestone path sloping gently uphill toward the castle. Several nobles saluted or nodded in recognition as they passed him along the road. Horses from the royal mews grazed lazily on the large pasture to Lariban’s right, occasionally trotting over to a nearby canal to drink. Halfway to the castle, he spotted a small squad from the Royal Guard sparring in the woods a short distance off the road. Again, there was no indication that anyone on the castle grounds had any knowledge of recent events. Lariban knew that would soon change.

Gradually, the Coranox on the banner affixed to the protruding castle walls came into view. The path expanded into a wide, sparkling white stone walkway, split in two by a central strip of garden and lined with lamp posts. As he walked, Lariban’s eyes were drawn to the enormous marble statue of the late queen, Evangeline, anchored near the end of the garden strip. Past the statue, the path steepened sharply, leading up to the entrance. A guard positioned in front of two large wooden doors saluted Lariban as the latter approached. The colonel returned the salute. The guard turned and rapped the door’s large brass knocker. An inviting draft of warm air greeted Lariban as the door creaked open.

The colonel had never before been inside the castle without an escort. Having arrived so early in the morning and well before the time of his scheduled appointment, he was free from the presence of the guards who typically hastened him along. This gave him the chance to pause and admire the elegant craftsmanship of the castle. Despite being significantly taller than the average Coranthian, Lariban found himself with plenty of overhead space, allowing him a panoramic view of the ornately patterned ceilings in the cavernous first-floor corridors.

As he reached the north foyer, he encountered four members of the Royal Guard, two on each side of a double concave stairway that flanked the Queen’s Hall, a closed-off room on the ground floor. An enormous three-ringed glass chandelier hung from the ceiling, directly above the statues of Coranthia’s progenitors: King Creon donning his crown and Queen Caliri wielding her scepter. Upon reaching the top of the left stairway, Lariban was surprised to hear voices emanating from within the King’s Hall through the large, slightly ajar doors directly in front of him. After a moment’s hesitation, he gripped the double-barred handles and entered. A herald fell in behind him to announce his arrival.

Toward the back of the room stood a two-tiered dais. The four men of the Royal Cabinet occupied the lower tier. Between them sat the king, who had the upper tier to himself. Presiding over the room behind an expansive raised table, with two advisors on either side, King Samsen Caden Coranthis sat in a high-backed chair that would undoubtedly swallow men of lesser stature. All five men were dressed in immaculate suits. The king wore white with a red cravat, while the Cabinet ministers, donned blue with gold cravats.

As the herald retreated, Lariban saw that he was not alone on the floor. Two older men stood in front of him. The one closer to Lariban was looking up at the dais. Streaks of gray ran perfectly parallel in his dark hair, meticulously smoothed over to project an air of wisdom and authority, despite the fact that the man looked significantly younger than his forty-nine years. He turned around and studied Lariban as if he had never seen the colonel before.

“Your Majesty,” Lariban said with a bow, ignoring the man’s gaze and facing the king. “My apologies for the intrusion.”

“Colonel Lariban.” The gray-streaked man ran his tongue over the name as if it had been pricked.

“Lord Eurich.”

Lariban nodded in deference and received only a look of thinly veiled contempt in return.

“Colonel,” Samsen’s booming voice cut in—taking full advantage of the acoustics offered by the room—“I can now personally attest to your reported penchant for being early. If you wouldn’t mind, we’ll take only a rep or two more. You may stay.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Lariban bowed again and walked across the white marble floor to the side of the room.

King Samsen leaned back in his chair and said slowly, “As you were saying, Lord Eurich?”

“Your Majesty,” Sebastian Eurich began, turning his attention back to the dais, “I must beg you once more not to hasten into this war. The Elsin incident can be concealed from the public. We can prevent the arousal of any uncontrollable panic—”

“I have already approved Lord Verinda’s official report to be released to the public,” Samsen said, gesturing to his far left at the Minister of the Interior. “What is its status?”

Martin Stanton Verinda, the senior Cabinet member, gave a slight nod, adjusted his black-rimmed spectacles, and replied, “I’ve already sent it to the Post, Your Majesty.”

Eurich narrowed his eyes. “I must confess, Your Majesty, that this most certainly will not accrue favor from some of the lords who are more hesitant to pursue such an immediate disclosure.”

Samsen leaned forward, raising his eyebrows.

“Ah, Lord Eurich, you mean to tell me that you’ll have your subscribers follow your lead?”

Eurich scowled. “Of course not, Your Majesty. I am simply—”

“And you, Lord Gregor?” Samsen interrupted.

The king turned toward the other man on the floor and heaved a heavy sigh when the latter looked away.

“I’ll not have you keep your silence,” Samsen said, rubbing his modest beard. “What is your stance on this, Second Chair?”

The king’s tone was more subdued than the one he used to address Eurich. Sixty-one-year-old Mathias San Gregor, former Minister of Agriculture and one of the senior members of the Assembly of Lords, exuded quiet confidence to which his detractors paid begrudging respect. Despite his advanced age and wizened appearance, he maintained a kempt appearance, sporting a short, neatly trimmed goatee, and wearing an elegant off-white robe.

The count permitted himself a slight bow, clutching the curved gold grip of a white cane in his left hand. “Your Majesty, I speak on behalf of no one but myself. I understand wholeheartedly the need to defend our country and honor, and stress that I am merely asking that the unrest in the Outlands not be ignored.”

“Surely, in light of such circumstances, you cannot ask us to deploy troops to the Outlands to wrangle some highwaymen who are killing each other,” scoffed Ferdin Velmann, the heavyset Minister of Defense who sat to Samsen’s right. He spoke easily, almost lethargically, and had a habit of tinkering with the assorted jewelry he wore on his fingers and wrists.

“What of the reserves?” Gregor replied without any hesitation, raising his voice slightly, as he was known to do on rare occasion. “There should be no harm in sparing some of them to quell the fighting in the Outlands until some measure of order is restored.”

Eurich muttered something to himself before darting his eyes in Gregor’s direction, glaring without turning his head.

“Lord Gregor’s proposition merits some consideration, Your Majesty,” said the Minister of the Treasury, Weston Grandville, who sat between the king and Minister Verinda. Although he fought alongside Velmann and the king himself during the Coronation War, Grandville had lately come to be known for little more than his bookkeeping. He always presented himself diffidently, but few within the nobility dared to underestimate him.

The air grew heavy in the silence that followed. A look of thinly veiled smugness spread across Minister of Defense Velmann’s round face.

“Colonel Lariban,” he finally said, leaning back in his chair as his voice echoed across the room.

“My Lord.”

Lariban stepped forward. Eurich and Gregor turned, both having forgotten that Lariban was present.

“You have come with word from Aldova. Give us the news you were charged to bring.”

“Sir, as per your orders on behalf of the Ministry of the Defense, General Leynitz has issued the mobilization of half the reserve companies to Aldova. He and General Mortigan are planning to use them as part of our first offensive.”

Velmann said nothing in reply, allowing the weight of the announcement to sink in. The intended effect came to pass; Eurich became visibly angry and swiveled to face him.

“Neglecting any form of consult with the Assembly? And of which reserves do you speak, Lord Velmann?”

Samsen’s blue eyes flashed at Eurich’s exclamation.

In an attempt to conceal his relish, Velmann made a deliberate examination of his fingernails, and without looking up, began to speak slowly, savoring each word.

“Lord Gregor.”

“Lord Velmann.” There was a sinking tone to Gregor’s acknowledgment, as if he knew he would not like what he was about to hear.

Velmann continued, his full red lips twitching in a restrained grin, “As you can see, even our reserves are being called upon at this time. Our generals are working to strike first and respond with ferocity. To ask us to divert additional military resources to the Outlands at this time is inadvisable. Would you not agree?”

“You have me at a loss, Lord Velmann,” Gregor said simply.

Velmann leaned forward, expecting elaboration, but, when Gregor offered none, he shrugged and slouched leisurely in his chair.

“Mathias.” A soft voice came from Velmann’s right.

The room turned to look as Elliott Havora spoke for the first time since Lariban had entered. The current Minister of Agriculture, Gregor’s successor, was a thin, bespectacled man with straight blond hair. Havora cleared his throat before continuing.

“I appreciate your concern, but Lord Velmann is not entirely incorrect in his assertion that the unrest in the Outlands appears to be little more than in-fighting among outlaws at this point. We have no official reports of innocents being killed or villages being raided. If our upcoming mobilization were to be hindered in any way, this matter would impose a much greater urgency, but last year’s harvest was bountiful and the caravan routes are secure. Perhaps now is not the best time to … Well, I don’t see any immediate danger in ensuring the priority of the Amelarens. If these incidents become more severe, we will, of course, revisit this matter.”

A look of surprise washed over Gregor’s face; he had not expected Havora to say anything, least of all against him.

“I concede to the wisdom of king and Cabinet,” he said with resignation. “The military has my full support. May our victory be swift and decisive.”

This was not enough to placate Eurich.

“Your Majesty,” he started, “I really d—”

“It is not to your advantage to address this matter any further, Lord Eurich,” Samsen cut in coldly. “I have made my decision.”

Eurich’s mouth snapped shut. Once again, silence filled the room.

“Very well, Your Majesty,” he said, visibly strained. “I suppose I have no reason to further delay the war preparations. Nevertheless, it is my duty to summon the surveyors and accompany them to Aldova.”

“As is your prerogative and responsibility as First Chair,” Samsen said with a nod.

“If you’ll excuse me, then.”

Eurich bowed hastily and turned to leave. Velmann permitted himself a wrinkle of his nose once Eurich’s back was turned.

“I shall also take my leave, Your Majesty,” Gregor said. “My wishes for our success.” He took a few steps forward and bowed slowly and purposefully to Samsen, clearly emphasizing where his loyalty lay. After Gregor departed, Samsen and the Cabinet were left alone with Lariban, who had retreated back into the corner.

Grandville looked at Velmann across the dais and spoke in a low voice to ensure that Lariban could not hear him. “Your preemption is remarkable but altogether quite brash.”

Reverting to normal volume, he turned to the king.

“Your Majesty, were you aware that this order had not been cleared with the rest of the Cabinet?”

Samsen arched an eyebrow. “I was not aware that my orders required clearance.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Grandville’s tone was agreeable, but his gaze lingered on Velmann, who smiled back faintly.

Samsen wagged his finger in Lariban’s direction. The colonel stood motionless, paying close attention to all that was transpiring.

“Colonel, you are also dismissed. You may retire to your quarters and await my orders for General Leynitz. Before you leave, however, I wish to ask you why you abstained from arriving and spending the night in Corande yesterday. Was there some sort of delay?”

“No, Your Majesty,” Lariban replied, surprised at this question, though he stepped forward without hesitation. “I deliberately chose not to arrive last night. Had others recognized me, they may have suspected something of significance was brewing. I wanted to minimize any such speculation.”

The king smiled slowly and nodded as he spoke. “Very good, Colonel. I must admit I find you to be very practical.”

Lariban bowed and exited, leaving the king and his advisors.

Samsen drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair.

“What of our fort at Tull Rock?” he asked. “How goes the construction?”

Verinda said, “It looks to be ready just before General Leynitz sets out from Aldova, as scheduled.”

“Everything is progressing smoothly,” Velmann chimed in.

“Very well.”

Several reps went by as Samsen fidgeted in his chair before realizing that the others were waiting for him to conclude the proceedings. In an energetic voice, he said, “Well, let us get on with it, then. Lord Verinda, I wish to speak to you and Lord Velmann privately about the banquet. I will send for you later today.”

“Certainly, Your Majesty,” replied Verinda, dabbing at his bald head with a handkerchief.

“Gentlemen, I’m sure this stirs up memories of the Coronation War. Warlord Orlen tried to breach our borders once before. We drove his troops back into their savage lands. This time, we will take the fight to them.” Samsen paused for effect. “I am not foolish enough to think that we are destined to conquer this continent, but when we are dealt such an unwarranted indignity and horrific act of brutality, we must let the barbarians know that our hold on these lands is inviolable. We will show them our might, and we will ensure that they will never again attempt any assault on our sovereignty. That is all.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the ministers chorused, and with that, the meeting was adjourned. There was much to be done, and the four men made haste to tend to their respective tasks.

—2—

In the southwestern quadrant of the castle, Adrian Lanford Coranthis lay on his bed, staring at the high ceiling of his spacious bedroom. The bed itself was massive; it could comfortably fit four and was the most lavish piece of furniture in his otherwise spare quarters. While extravagant, his quarters were relatively modest compared to other rooms within the castle.

A soft knock on his door interrupted his meandering thoughts. The voice of Garrett, one of the castle’s butlers, eked through the door. “Your Highness, Lord Grandville is here to see you.”

Adrian closed his eyes briefly, pressing his head farther into the soft quilting. His long, wavy blond hair fell freely over his pale face, covering his right eye and the small scar beneath it.

“Let him in,” he said, the bed muffling his voice.

The door swung open and Weston Grandville entered. Seeing Adrian lying on his back, he quickly closed the door behind him.

“I can see that you are not expecting visitors.”

Suddenly feeling rather bleary, Adrian angled his head and blinked slowly. “Weston. How was the meeting?”

Grandville frowned.

“Fine, fine.” The prince sprang to his feet and moved to one of the round chairs across the room, turning it away from a small tea table. He motioned for Grandville to sit in one of the other chairs.

“It went as expected. Unilateral support is secure, at least officially. Lord Gregor initially had some different thoughts altogether, imploring we divert resources elsewhere, but …”

“But?”

Now seated, Grandville ran his hand through his short black hair. He disapproved of Adrian’s overly informal tendencies, though was, himself, generally looser in manner when conversing with the young man. “Ultimately, he shares our views. Don’t worry about it, Prince. Now, to our business.”

“What’s the occasion?” Adrian asked, though he could already guess.

Grandville glanced around, noticing the haphazard arrangement of Adrian’s details: eight pillows randomly strewn across the bed, the door to the bathroom slightly ajar, and the prince’s sheathed sword propped up against a small, dark brown wooden bookshelf on the floor in a corner.

“Is it really so difficult to employ a bit of tidiness?” Grandville chided, shaking his head.

“Surely you did not come to address my sense of decor,” Adrian said dryly.

Grandville emitted a sigh and stared at Adrian. “I must inquire—”

He trailed off. Adrian waited for him to finish, his green eyes trained on Grandville, remembering a time when the minister’s appearance was fresh and youthful, in stark contrast to what he saw before him: the haggard face and sunken eyes belonged to a man who seemed well beyond his forty-four years. The cumulative stress had not been kind to Grandville’s physiognomy, though his demeanor remained as steadfast as ever.

“I must inquire whether you plan to deploy.”

Adrian nodded. “I do.”

“Then you must stay at Aldova,” Grandville said firmly.

“And why is that?” Adrian’s retorted without missing a beat. “You think I’m incapable of leading my own troops?”

“Your father and General Leynitz are planning a large high-risk offensive deep into enemy territory within the next cycle. Projections of casualties are potentially—”

“And what would I be were I unwilling to take that risk, Weston?” Adrian’s lethargy had dissipated. He leaned forward in his chair. “I will defer command to the general when it is appropriate if my inexperience is the issue.”

Now clearly agitated, he rose and waved his hand as Grandville opened his mouth to reply.

“The time has come for me to take charge.”

“Prince,” Grandville said calmly, “you will have many chances to prove yourself in battle. But for now, I’m afraid that this matter has already been settled. What I have come to convey to you is not a suggestion on my part but an order that your father has given—”

He stopped short as Adrian, visibly struck by these words, fell into his seat. Grandville sat patiently, never taking his eyes off the young man.

“That’s it, then?”

“You are bringing no dishonor to your name, Prince. There is no doubt of your conviction.” Grandville rose from his chair. “Now, if you will excuse me.”

Adrian sat motionless in his chair. Only his eyes followed Grandville as the minister left the room.

The prince remained in his room for only ten reps, pacing and absent-mindedly scratching the small fencing scar under his right eye. As he stared across the room at his sheathed sword, he realized that he had been lingering for far too long in his thoughts; he had intended to wait only until he was sure Grandville had left the floor. Quickly donning a jacket over his buttoned shirt to make himself more presentable, he exited his room.

Years ago, a member of the Royal Guard would have been posted outside his door, but as soon as Adrian began attending the military academy at Tellisburg, he argued vehemently with his father against having an escort. To Adrian’s great relief, Samsen finally relented; the prince could now travel freely without fear that he was being watched.

It was a short walk down the hall to his sister’s room. A female attendant whom Adrian did not recognize bowed deeply upon seeing him.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness. The princess is away from her room at the moment.”

“What? Do you know where she is then? Or when she will return?”

The attendant blushed.

“I do not, Your Highness.”

Adrian shrugged irritably and strode away.

—3—

Nestled in a crook within the castle grounds between the banks of the Sarigan River and the looming southern wall of Castle Coranthis was the Royal Nursery, a row of greenhouses bookended by a gardener’s cottage on the eastern end, and an expansive field on the western end. Several marble gazebos littered the field, which allowed people of the castle to enjoy the breathtaking scenery of the palace, water, wildlife, and impeccably maintained greenery.

Adrian stepped into the southernmost gazebo. Taking a thick handkerchief from his coat pocket, he wiped the residual moistness from the rain off the bench and sat down.

“What are you doing out here?” a voice boomed. Ferdin Velmann stood just outside the veranda, peering in at him with a frown. As he spoke, he tied the reins of his black zephyr, Silas, to the hitching post as the warhorse stood aloofly behind him. Zephyrs were generally medium-sized and agile, but Silas suffered the same affliction of corpulence as his owner.

“Just getting some air,” Adrian replied. “Are you out for your morning ride?”

“As always,” said Velmann. “I want to take in as much of this cool weather as I can. When spring arrives in full bloom, you won’t see me out here for half a cycle.”

“Ah, Ferdin. You fear no man, but pollen presents a different challenge altogether.”

The minister chuckled throatily as he entered the gazebo and sat facing Adrian without bothering to wipe off the bench.

“You looked pretty out of it, Prince,” he remarked. “An aetra for your thoughts?”

He paused.

“Never mind, I can venture a guess.”

“Probably,” Adrian agreed. “It should be fairly obvious.”

“You’re not a fighter,” Velmann said, his mouth crinkling wryly. “There’s no reason for you to drop everything and rush to Aldova. There are men better suited to that task.”

“I can fight just fine, and you know it,” Adrian grumbled.

Velmann stretched lazily and spread his arms, wrapping his elbows around two spindles of the balustrade behind him.

“That is not what I meant. You should not be so eager to put yourself in the way of unnecessary harm.” Even as his words became loftier, the minister maintained his disaffected expression. “We have a strong and proud army, with soldiers as eager as we to deliver justice unto the Amelarens. As the prince, you need only channel your sentiments through them. They are your sword.

“You were on the front lines alongside my father the first time we fought the warlord,” said Adrian. “It is only right that I do the same.”

“Surely you jest, Your Highness.” The Minister of Defense shook his head. “Do you think that is how you’d best serve the country? Of course not. You are the prince. Your responsibilities exceed those of a soldier.”

Despite the other man’s lackadaisical demeanor, Adrian could not refute his words.

“I was good for nothing else,” Velmann continued. His lips curled briefly into a frown before reverting to their loose indifference. “I will add, though, that your father should have told you himself instead of dispatching Weston. I don’t blame you for being upset.”

Suddenly, Adrian felt silly and slightly embarrassed that Velmann had so nonchalantly seen through him. He had only just begun to concede that there was a layer of artifice fueling his misdirected frustrations.

“He would say what you’ve said: ‘You’re not a fighter.’ And he’s not giving me the chance to prove otherwise.”

Velmann stared steadily at the young man. If he felt any sympathy or compassion for Adrian, he did not show it.

“I suppose I’m not helping. You came out here to cool off, and I’m just stirring the pot.”

He stood up and continued to speak as he moved to unhitch and climb back atop his horse. His movements were surprisingly light and fluid given his significant girth.

“Will you attend the banquet, Prince?”

“No. Why would I bother with such a tacky affair?”

“My apologies. I also find them to be dreadfully dull. I will not be attending this time either. Lord Verinda sought a replacement speaker for me. I suppose you haven’t heard anything about that.”

Adrian shrugged. Velmann smiled cryptically as he turned the horse around.

“Try not to worry so much, Prince. It’s not your time yet, but it will be someday. Now, with your leave.” With that, he snapped the reins and rode across the fields to the north.

Adrian took a long, deep breath as he watched the trail of vapor escape his mouth and fade into the chilly stillness of the air.

He lost track of time as he recalled the report from Aldova, which detailed the discoveries at Elsin Point. The attackers had left Orlen’s Mark everywhere; blood-red crescents were carved into the sides of what buildings remained standing, as well as the bodies of the male Coranthians. No female bodies had been left behind; the women had disappeared. Adrian did not want to think about their possible fate. Morbid curiosity stirred a desire within him to see these markings for himself. He had seen crude photographs in documents, but they lacked visceral impact.

He tried to imagine the reactions of the scouts who had discovered the scene at Elsin and felt anger swell inside him. Standing up abruptly, he drew his sword, Antilus, and swung its flawless aeron blade, deftly weaving it through the air. Gracefully shifting his feet, he pretended to maneuver around an enemy who was before him. Practicing his swordsmanship and footwork had become second nature and required little thought on his part. Whenever he grew bored of being stuck inside the castle, he took time to refine his strokes, which had gradually amalgamated traditional military stances with more stylistic flourishes.

His mind drifted back to his time at Tellisburg. He knew that he had been granted certain privileges and unearned accolades as he trained with other Coranthians at the academy. He resented the special treatment. In fact, it made him more abrasive to those around him. He neither needed nor wanted the help. He wanted to feel worthy of his achievements. He felt coddled, and the only way to change this was to be afforded the chance to prove himself. This upcoming war yielded the perfect opportunity, yet he was given no choice but to leave the fighting to the low nobles, the common folk, and the Outlanders.

Adrian darted forward and thrust his sword in a jabbing motion before quickly returning to his original stance and sheathing his sword. Breathing deeply, he stared past the green field toward the Sarigan.

“It’s not my time yet,” he echoed bitterly. “Is that so?”

Interlude

It was a cold but pleasant night. A man hobbled through the forest, perturbing the stillness. His vision was limited—as the moonlight only partially pierced the canopy formed by the trees—and occasionally he stumbled, but his pace never slowed. Ilarud Alcat had an urgent matter at hand.

Alcat emerged from the tree line onto the plains before stopping. The road, which weaved its way along the southern edge of the Volqua Forest, advanced straight ahead. Rhynon—crimson and nearly full—gave chase to the azurite crescent of Faerila in the starry night sky, though Alcat took notice of neither moon, nor the sight of the clear lake glistening before him. He held no appreciation for such things. Alcat briefly scanned the outline of the large fortress that lay beyond the lake before his eyes fell on a bonfire beside the lake, about a hundred meters away. Heading toward the light, his limp worsened as the cold bit through layers of leather and into his right leg. Years earlier, a runaway slave had stabbed him in the thigh with a wooden stake, and the injury had left behind heavy, painful scarring.

As he approached, Alcat could make out nine figures huddled around a gigantic slab enjoying a feast, the fire roaring behind them. His mood worsened as he realized that the entire Amelaren War Council was present.

“Orlen!” he shouted crossly. They heard him clearly, though no one acknowledged him, even after he yelled again.

When he was within ten meters, Alcat inhaled deeply and spoke in the most commanding tone he could muster. “Orlen! I demand an audience!”

The only one to stir was the chiseled man seated at the head of the slab, who asked, “Why do you disturb me on this hallowed night, Ilarud?”

“You know very well why I’m here! Who gave you the authority to start a war whenever you damn please?”

Orlen chuckled.

One of the war chiefs, Lebb, looked up from his charred rib of boar meat. Light from the fire wisped across his sun-tanned face, highlighting his pronounced battle scars and condescending sneer. “Have you lost your mind? Watch your tongue and know your place!”

Alcat ignored the remark and continued to stare at Orlen, who finally raised his head to meet his gaze with a faint smirk.

“What good am I to our venerated Conclave if I don’t aim to fulfill my purpose?” the warlord said. “My mission is still the mission of my predecessors, is it not? To destroy Coranthia.”

Alcat frowned. “The timing is wrong. This was not part of our agreement.”

“Another year of Rhynon is upon us. What benefit is there to waiting any longer?” said Tallen, the man seated to Orlen’s left. “We tire of inconsequential skirmishes.”

“Idleness leads to low morale,” added Shira, one of two women present. “Many of our warriors grow restless and are ready to fight again.”

Lebb raised his hand, inducing several laughs around him.

“Perhaps in your sheltered upbringing as an inert landlord, you’re incapable of conceiving how our brothers and sisters have suffered,” Tallen continued.

“Almost two decades have passed since our stalemate with the enemy,” said Izven, one of the older war chiefs, markedly better groomed than the others. His clean-shaven face revealed deep wrinkles and a small cross-shaped scar below his mouth. “I speak for many when I reaffirm my intention to repay our invaders what is owed to them. I am resolved to see Coranthia fall in my time.”

There were nods of approval all around. Alcat gritted his teeth.

“Their people fight among themselves,” Shira said. “They know only how to count their money. But I suppose you’d know all about that, Ilarud.”

Alcat’s pride left him with little tolerance for such mockery. “You argue for war and dare to belittle me? What would you have your horde fight with? Should they sharpen their claws and wear their filthy rags? What is your army if not for my supply lines?”

Shira narrowed her hawkish blue-gray eyes, boring into Alcat’s widened brown ones.

“Always boasting of your own success. And what value do your plantations have if their goods are unused?”

“What exactly is your problem, Ilarud?” Lebb snorted.

“You know damn well what my problem is!” Alcat belted out. “What is the point of attacking Elzamir? The swine will flock to their king, and he will unite his people behind him. And why did you not seek an audience with us beforehand? What good is conducting a preemptive strike with no momentum behind it?”

Shira replied icily, “You need not worry about that. All you need to focus on is keeping up production when the fighting begins.”

Orlen, who had been listening with apparent disinterest, suddenly broke out in a throaty laugh. “Are all of you listening to this? Ilarud, you resemble a Coranthian more each day. You and the old men in Malegar have no business telling me how to conduct matters of war.”

Alcat was beside himself with anger. “Say what you will, Orlen, but without the support of my brother and the rest of the Conclave, you will not have your war.”

Orlen’s smile transformed instantly into a snarl.

“You little worm!” he roared. “You come here and pester us while we offer tribute to Rhynon. We are preparing to lead our brothers and sisters into battle to take back our lands, and you threaten me with matters of money? Get out of my sight!”

Alcat was ready to protest, but Orlen had lost his composure. He yanked a knife from a chunk of meat in front of him and flicked it toward Alcat. The knife flew straight past his cheek with deadly accuracy; had its trajectory carried it several centimeters to the left, the knife would have pierced Alcat’s left ear. Though unharmed, Alcat staggered backwards in surprise, almost tripping over his own cloak. The expression on his face caused Shira and Lebb to laugh loudly, while the others paid little attention.

He opened his mouth once again to speak but thought better of it and skulked off. Orlen stared after him with narrowed eyes as he limped away.

• • •

The five-story central fortress of Solterra-Volek stood on the eastern shore of Lake Navrek. Once the largest town east of the Great River, it had evolved into a large military complex, sufficient in size and sustenance to house over thirty percent of the Amelaren Army on a full-time basis. At the beginning of 987, it stood at nearly full capacity. Over the better part of two decades, the deployment of most warriors had been unnecessary, but the Amelaren war machine was preparing to awaken from its slumber.

The war room was located on the top floor of the fortress. As with the other rooms in the fortress, it was unremarkable in appearance, favoring utility over aestheticism. The ceiling stretched upward nearly twelve meters, while torches lined the walls, shaped from coarse, pallid ivean stone. Built into the back wall, directly opposite the entrance, was a fireplace, where a strong flame provided respite from the harsh winter weather during the later cycles of the year.

Orlen and his war chiefs sat in nine identical smooth, dark gray stone chairs around the circular table in the center of the room. The seating arrangement was as it had been the previous night. Orlen sat in the chair facing the door, with his back to the fire. Shira, Sol, Lebb, and Yura sat to his right in order. Zefrid sat opposite Orlen beside Xanos, Izven, and Tallen.

Helistos’s sunlight reflected off Orlen’s bald head, as it poured in from the three windows on the eastern wall. The warlord’s expression was relaxed, as he pensively stroked his blond beard. The other war chiefs waited five reps for him to speak before he finally broke the silence.

“I expect the Coranthians to waste little time in launching an offense against our most obvious target. Tallen, you and the feigren will head to Ertel. There, you shall find a suitable opportunity to test her mettle in combat.”

He ceased to stroke his beard before continuing. “Lure the enemy eastward and annihilate them!”

Tallen nodded hesitantly. Although only thirty-six, he no longer possessed a youthful mien. His face, while smooth and handsome, was tan, contrasting the streaks of gray and white swerving through his blond hair. In the early morning light, he appeared at once both wizened and ageless.

Across the table, Lebb was displeased with Orlen’s orders and did a poor job hiding his disappointment. Everyone knew he preferred to fight alongside Tallen and was most effective in that capacity. Lebb himself itched to take point in the opening battles of the coming war and had trouble believing that the warlord would designate a young girl to play such a crucial role in the first battle.

“I trust that Tallen will manage to keep things under control,” Orlen said, his voice even as he addressed the war chiefs once again as a whole. “I want the rest of you to ready your men for combat. We will not make the mistake of underestimating the enemy, as the Coranthians are sure to do to us. Which brings me to what I’m sure has been on everyone’s minds: Aldova.”

The name may well have been the sound of rusted iron scraping glass. Unpleasant looks were exchanged all around.

“I’m sure all of you are aware that without cutting off the head of the beast, our victory march into Corande is unlikely to occur anytime soon. I would like to ease your mind, at least momentarily. Shira, Zefrid, and I are drawing up a plan to deal with the abomination as we speak. I will inform you all of the details once it is complete.”

Reactions around the table ranged from curiosity to skepticism. Orlen had no desire to say more at the moment. He motioned for the warlords to take their leave as he raised his hand. “You are dismissed.”

The war chiefs immediately rose from their seats and began to file out of the room. Zefrid, the oldest of the war chiefs, remained behind to speak privately with Orlen. He was easily distinguishable from the others, favoring a worn tanned-hide robe to the heavy leather garbs donned by the other male war chiefs. He looked well beyond his years, and if he had ever seen battle, it was no longer apparent in his physique; his atrophied frame stood in stark contrast to other members of the War Council.

Orlen lifted a clay jug of poec mead from under the table and took a hearty swig. He offered some to Zefrid, who politely refused as he stared at Orlen through sunken eyes.

“How is she coming along?” Orlen asked the slouching old man.

“Her mental state can be a bit erratic at times,” Zefrid said in a gravelly voice, “but I am confident she will make a worthy addition to your ranks.” He cocked his head awkwardly to the side. “The results from the upcoming battle will speak for themselves.”

Thoroughly enjoying his drink, Orlen wiped his mouth. “Good. I assume there is a reason you stayed behind?”

“There is. I wish to ask whether you have sensed any hesitation among the war chiefs regarding the onset of this war.”

“Why would there be?” Orlen asked, somewhat affronted.

Zefrid cocked his head again. “Sacrificing Argiset will not sit well with some of the others. They will feel it opposes our warrior’s code.”

“They may feel that way,” Orlen rubbed his cheek, “but our strength alone is no longer enough to overcome our enemy. At the very least, they must understand this.”

“I agree, Warlord.”

“And I’ll not be obligated to answer to Ilarud or any of the rotting corpses in Malegar.”

Orlen picked up the jug again and downed the remainder of its contents.

“You may leave now.”

Zefrid nodded, then bowed deeply. He turned, slinked to the door, pulled it open with considerable effort, and exited, leaving Orlen alone in the war room.

Chapter 2

(987.1.33)

—1—

Upon his ascendancy, King Samsen immediately established an annual Coranthian celebratory tradition for all military academy graduates of noble birth. The young men and women were invited to galas throughout Inner Coranthia to celebrate their initiation into the proud ranks of the Coranthian Army. Over the past five years, the Corande Post maintained that a “concerted effort” was made to extend the practice to accommodate Outlander graduates. The most successful instantiation of this was the Cadets’ Banquet, an event held for newly graduated unestated avets every year during the First Exile, at Stannis Manor in Corande. The venue was famed throughout the country as the original home of Creon Coranthis during his tenure as the magistrate of Corande, when the Coranthian capital was merely a remote Lynderan outpost on the banks of the Sarigan River.

Reznik Sylvera and Madeline Agilda strolled down one of the main streets in Audliné, the oldest and most populous district of the capital, where the two were merely a pair of faces among an assorted gallery of those making their way to the manor. The atmosphere along the road was especially vibrant. The more patriotic Audliné denizens popped in and out of their residences and establishments waving and hollering at the passing avets. These included many merchants and tradesmen, some of whom boldly solicited the avets with hand-out advertisement flyers for various shops and eateries within the district. Several military officials also took part in the procession, although they did not return the onlookers’ good cheer. Unlike the fresh-faced graduates, they were forced to endure this event year after year at the behest of their superiors, and their well of enthusiasm had long since run dry.

Eighteen-year-olds Reznik and Madeline bore aged reflections of their childhood selves. Both wore their formal military uniforms: slacks, brown boots, white undershirt, and navy blue jackets with bronze trim. Matching bronze buttons on the jacket and small bronze pins in the shape of the royal crest affixed near the collars completed the ensemble. Reznik’s blond mane was slicked back, while Madeline’s cherry hair flowed just past her shoulders.

“How long do you think we’ll have to stay?” Reznik complained, not for the first time that day. “You know I don’t—”

“Will you stop already?” Madeline interjected. “We won’t have to talk to the stiffs, as far as I know.”

“I didn’t think that such formalities were expected of an Outlander,” Reznik said dourly.

Madeline punched him lightly on the shoulder.

“Oh, come on. We’re all in the same boat. Try to enjoy yourself.”

They approached the white stone wall, which enclosed the old manor, and they passed through the tall iron gate. The manor dwarfed anything that Reznik and Madeline had encountered in Jardis, though they had grown accustomed to more palatial architecture during their tenure at Tellisburg, and this old building failed to impress. It sported many oversized windows and excessive lighting, as if compensating for the otherwise lack of grandeur projected by the actual structure. In terms of housing attributed to a high-ranking noble, it was utterly underwhelming. This was no surprise to anyone with basic knowledge of bureaucratic apportionment. The manor was now administered by the interior ministry, rather than by any specific lord.

Noise poured out the open front door of the manor as Reznik and Madeline walked past the arrays of bright white flower buds in the front gardens, lining the path to the entrance. A herald stood in the doorway, listening to a young woman with sandy hair and wearing thin, silver-rimmed spectacles. She was as tall as Madeline and wore a long velvet dress. As a military official approached, she stopped talking and retreated further into the main foyer.

A tall, gaunt herald raised his eyebrows in deference and smiled broadly as he greeted the official, matching his name to the guest list in his hands. Under normal circumstances, he would turn and announce arriving guests, but tonight he was merely acting as a gatekeeper. He motioned for the official to move past him and enter the main foyer, where the party was getting under way.

Spotting Reznik and Madeline, the herald immediately turned up his nose, staring down at them and clearing his throat haughtily. “Names, please?” he said in an unnecessarily loud voice.

Reznik narrowed his eyes. Madeline wrinkled her slender nose at him and then said to the herald, “Avets Agilda and Sylvera.”

The herald casually ran his eyes over his list and wrinkled his nose. “Yes, avets Agilda and Sylvera. Go ahead.”

He stepped stiffly aside. Without giving him another look, Reznik glided past him and into the foyer. Madeline gave the herald a quick, exasperated nod and followed.

A sea of uniforms swallowed the two as they entered. A look of perplexity fell over Reznik’s face as he realized the party was far livelier than he had expected. Those on the floor were primarily graduates, although a few older men and women in uniform—veteran soldiers who had been invited to mingle with the new soldiers—were also present.

A group of estated bureaucrats from all the major cities of Coranthia sat around a long rectangular table set some distance behind the edge of an ornate wooden balcony overlooking the foyer. They were in the company of a small coterie of other noblemen and noblewomen invited by Minister Verinda to dilute the overwhelming ratio of commoners to nobles, and they had decided that there were worse ways to spend the evening than being treated to food and drink. To the right of the nobles’ table, the military officials sat around their own table. They attended on behalf of the defense ministry. From their expressions, it was apparent that they found it difficult to enjoy the proceedings. A group of musicians sat in the corner of the balcony canvasing the air with a light background melody of nondescript ensemble pieces.

There were two large open doorways, one to the east, and the other at the rear of the foyer, leading to a ballroom, where a much larger crowd of soldiers mingled. A large stairway adjacent to the eastern doorway led to the second floor and the overhanging balcony. Finally, a smaller door on the west led to a more conventionally sized living room. Madeline peered into this room and pointed. “I see some of our classmates. Shall we go say hello?”

Reznik pressed his lips together with a clear lack of enthusiasm.

“I’d rather not. I’ll just stay here.”

She shrugged, having expected as much from him. She made no further attempt to coax him as she waded into the crowd.

“Try to have some fun, won’t you?” she called over her shoulder.

Reznik watched as she disappeared into the living room. He looked around in disinterest. Although the party had just commenced, the veil of decorum had already begun to erode. As Reznik wandered aimlessly through the crowd, he noticed that quite a few avets were already drunk and others were equally intoxicated from the excitement of the atmosphere. He overheard various measures of frivolity and vulgarity in conversation and was loath to involve himself in the bawdy revelry.

His attention drifted to the overhanging balcony upstairs. It was an expanse at the top of the stairway within the foyer, forking into two hallways. A chest-high sheet of metal fencing spread across the top of the stairs, emphatically separating the social elites and officials from the ruckus below. Some of other privileged guests lounging upstairs stood and were shuffling listlessly. The nobles spoke to one another predominantly in Laestran, using their native Coranthian only for emphasis. Over the past century, Laestran had become the pervasive international common language. In recent decades, the nobility readily adopted it as a prestige dialect, perceiving it to be a mark of distinction that more clearly separated them from the lower classes. Although many merchants and craftsmen in major Coranthian cities were also fluent in Laestran, they used it only to conduct business with foreigners.

Three noblemen walked up to the railing and surveyed the crowd below. Two other women joined them, one wearing an opera mask, as if attending a performance, and the other carrying a sparkling glass of champagne. The noblemen promptly sprung forth a calculated stream of ridicule, each trying to outdo his companions in coming up with the most degrading remarks as possible about the party-going commoners, whispering them into the ears of the women and finding haughty fulfillment in their giggles of approval.

This went on for some time. Reznik lost interest and turned his attention to the living room. It was too crowded for him to make his way there without pushing through a cluster of avets. Standing on tiptoes, he conducted a cursory examination of the people in the living room, looking for Madeline, when he heard a voice to his left.

“And how are you doing tonight, madam?”

A sinewy, carnivorous-looking avet whom Reznik did not recognize craned his neck upward, projecting his voice to the women standing on the balcony above him. He was distinctly unshaven and his teeth spread in a crooked grin. His eyes were wild with impudence and the enabling effects of the ale in his hand.

“You certainly look ravishing tonight!”

The masked lady emitted a loud gasp too drawn out to indicate reflexive shock or outrage; the attention had piqued her interest and she baited for more.

“Hold your tongue, you filth!” one of the men upstairs shouted at the avet.

“Sir,” the bushy avet continued, unfazed, “I don’t approve of your slander. It’s only fair to the ladies for us to present ourselves on our own terms. Don’t you agree? Ladies, why don’t you come down, and I’ll show you what I’m all about!”

There was loud hooting all around him. The lady holding a flute of champagne let out a pinched scream as she retreated, while the masked lady’s mouth ambiguously expressed disgust and intrigue simultaneously.

“Scoundrel!” roared the nobleman. The exchange began to attract a lot of attention. People above and below expected a momentous confrontation to break out at any moment. The men upstairs had collected at the railing and were staring down furiously at the avets. One ushered the two ladies away and out to the hallway.

The sandy-haired woman with the silver-rimmed spectacles trotted out onto the balcony and spoke quickly to the estated guests in a low voice. Suddenly, the noblemen turned away from the railing and returned to their seats at the table. Most still openly bore their anger but abandoned the encounter.

A pale bald man, wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, appeared on the balcony and leaned over the railing. Reznik recognized his face, not from the first time the two had met over a decade ago, but from his more recent and intermittent visits to the academy, as was his duty as Minister of the Interior.

“Everyone, be respectful and orderly.” Martin Stanton Verinda leaned over the railing and raised his arms. “Avets, I’ll remind you that we are here to celebrate your deference, loyalty, and discipline as soldiers. Do you not want to leave your peers and fellow countrymen with such an affirmation?”

Reznik was unsurprised to see Verinda’s prompt attempt to defuse the situation. A native of Kantor and approaching his sixtieth birthday, the minister had a well-earned reputation for expertly exercising diplomacy between commoners and nobles from his years of traversal throughout the country. This time, however, he was met with several derisive jeers from the audience below.

“It’s our party,” the bushy avet hollered, walking to the bottom of the stairs and planting one foot on the bottom step. “Let us have our fun!”

The sandy-haired woman marched down the stairs directly toward him.

“And who are you, darling?” he uttered with an unsavory grin.

“I am Minister Verinda’s secretary, Asuna Lierra,” she replied without blinking or slowing her pace. She descended the remaining steps and stood over the avet, glaring at him down the bridge of her nose through her glasses.

The avet’s smile faltered; he seemed unsure of what to do.

“Well?” Lierra challenged. “You asked me to come down. Here I am.”

He laughed uneasily. “Are you joking, missy?”

In response, Lierra put a hand on her hip while turning her left knee inward, exposing her leg tauntingly through the slit on the side of her dress.

“Here I am,” she repeated. “What are you going to do about it, boy?”

The avet’s smile disappeared. He backed away from the stairs, his face twisting uncomfortably. Beads of sweat oozed from his forehead.

“I thought so,” Lierra said, enunciating so all could hear her. “Now conduct yourselves properly as Coranthian soldiers!”

The bushy avet shrugged, downed the rest of his drink and wobbled away in a haze of muted embarrassment. The secretary watched his stumbling retreat before she turned and made her way back up the stairs.

Reznik felt it neither wise nor desirable to remain among such crass company. He snaked through the crowd and entered the living room. Madeline was nowhere to be found. He walked over to the bar, planted himself on a stool, and ordered a cider from the bartender. The disgust he felt showed plainly on his face.

He sat alone at the bar in the living room for some time, nursing his cider. He lost track of the reps as he ignored the group of avets chatting behind him. Most of the furniture had been cleared to accommodate more people, with the exception of a pine-green embroidered couch and matching chairs placed at the western end of the room. This gave Reznik a clear view as he remained on the lookout for Madeline, but he still did not see her. Eventually, he got off his stool, abandoning his unfinished cider on the counter, and headed for the front door.

The foyer remained crowded but was not nearly as packed as when he had first arrived; most of the guests had moved into the ballroom. The mood among the remaining guests had lightened considerably; people carried on as if nothing had happened earlier. Reznik’s eyes drifted around the room. It was then that he saw Madeline chatting with Lierra.

“Of course,” he murmured to himself.

Curious to hear their conversation, he maneuvered through the crowd and tried to position himself as close to the pair as possible without alerting them to his presence.

“You put on quite a show earlier,” he heard Madeline say with a mixture of amusement and admiration in her voice.

Lierra adjusted her glasses. “I’m disappointed in myself. This is the final event I will be planning as Lord Verinda’s secretary. I had hoped to avoid any such inconveniences.”

“Are you taking another job? There aren’t really any better than the one you have now, are there, Miss Lierra?”

Lierra smiled warmly. “Please call me Asuna, and you’re quite right, Madeline. For most people, it’d be unthinkable to move on to my new position from this one. I will be serving as the secretary for Magistrate Euliora of Calena.”

Reznik could stay quiet no longer.

“That makes no sense to me. Why in Creon’s name would you do that?” he blurted out, walking up to the two women from where he had been eavesdropping.

“Where are your manners?” Madeline exclaimed, frowning. Her green eyes bore down on Reznik.

He ignored her and walked up to Lierra.

“Sorry. My name is Reznik Sylvera. I am a classmate of Madeline’s. Where are you from, if you don’t mind my asking?”

Lierra offered him an interested half-smile.

“I don’t mind at all. I’m from Calena. Does that make a little more sense, Avet Sylvera?”

Reznik narrowed his eyes, having noticed the fact that she chose not to address him as informally as she did Madeline and also that her response provided no clue as to the source of her unusual name, although her features were as Coranthian as those of anyone else in the room.

“Marginally, Miss Lierra,” he replied. “I still don’t see why you would demote yourself when you are already situated in the capital and working for the Cabinet.”

Before Lierra could reply, someone called from behind Reznik.

“There you are!”

He recognized the voice instantly. He turned to see Renard Renault, tanned and short-haired, breaking away from a crowd of late newcomers and pushing his way toward them.

Although Renard wore his uniform like his fellow graduates, his trim, buttons, and pin were silver, indicating his rank of vice captain. He had also chosen to embellish his outfit, as was his typical fashion, by wearing a white tunic with a puffed-up collar underneath his jacket and a dark blue cloak with generous silver embroidery over it.

“I like the outfit, Renard,” Madeline said.

Turning to her, Renard gave a deep bow, bending almost to his knees.

“Maddy,” he exhaled as he reverted upright and wagged a finger at Reznik, “has this useless fellow told you how wonderful you look tonight?”

“Renard, you …” Madeline grinned. “Try not to break too many hearts tonight, will you?”

Renard laughed and clapped Reznik on the back, then extended his arm, exaggeratedly motioning toward the proceedings. “I’m sure you find all of this insufferable, Rez.”

“Yes, and after your arrival, I must say I feel exactly as I did before.”

“Bah, you’re no fun! This is a party!” Renard pronounced cheerfully, glancing around. “What are we waiting for? I’ve got some catching up to do! Where are Glen and Douglas?”

“They couldn’t make it,” Reznik said. “They’re already on their way to Aldova.”

“What? What’s the rush?”

Reznik shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not sure they knew before they headed out. But those were the orders.”

“Is that so? I guess they wouldn’t be much up for this anyway, even less than you are.” Renard elbowed Reznik. “Come on, let’s grab a drink.”

Reznik glanced at Madeline and noticed that Asuna Lierra’s attention was still on him and Madeline, despite Renard’s flamboyant entrance.

“You boys have fun. I'll find you later.” Madeline waved her hand and turned back to Lierra.

Reznik shrugged and allowed Renard to pull him back toward the bar.

—2—

The party carried on well into the night. The swarm of avets inside the manor gradually became more segregated, with most of the Tellisburg graduates occupying the ballroom, while those from Kendrall and Barrington remained in the foyer. Shortly after nine arc, some of the defense ministry officials approached Verinda, fervently thanking him with insincerity for inviting them to participate in such merrymaking before excusing themselves, stumbling in each other’s way to leave, despite Verinda’s appeal for them to stay. The noblemen continued to drink and idle upstairs on the balcony. The noblewomen had descended by means of an unseen stairway from the second floor into a parlor beyond the living room. Those in the living room could see the noblewomen through the edges of the door to the parlor, but the avets gathered in the living room were not the type to engage in foolhardiness and knew better than to disturb them.

Renard had spent some time with Reznik at the bar before moving to the couch, across the room, where the two matched each other, glass for glass, with a pilfered bottle of wine. Renard discussed his newly established lounge in Kantor—his own entrepreneurial foray into Kantorian nightlife, as he liked to call it—and incessantly implored Reznik to visit the establishment before finally forcing him to promise to do so in the near future. Several reps later, Renard returned to the bar, where he procured a glass of pontaerno, a cocktail of pontamelon juice and rum. Noticing light under the door to the parlor, he walked over and gently cracked it open. Peeking inside and listening to the noblewomen prattle to each other, he smiled to himself. He turned around and walked back to where Reznik still sat on the couch.

“Well, I’m off to save some beautiful ladies from the emptiness of their own conversation.” He flapped his hand in the direction of the parlor with a mischievous grin.

Reznik shook his head. “Can’t you ever give it a rest?”

“Why pass up a chance to have some fun? I assure you, they’re as bored as we are.”

When Reznik offered a knowing eye-roll, Renard shrugged and laughed good-naturedly.

“See you later, Rez.”

Still holding his glass of pontaerno, Renard strutted up to the parlor door and slipped into the room nonchalantly.

“Ladies!” Reznik heard him say as he closed the door behind him.

Remaining where he was, Reznik began to feel a mixture of boredom and fatigue from the drinks he had with Renard and found himself nodding off. At some point, he closed his eyes. He was unsure how long he remained that way until a voice snapped him to attention.

“Avet Sylvera?”

Asuna Lierra sat across from him in a smaller leather chair, her hands folded neatly across her lap, occasionally moving to smooth the wrinkles of her dress.

“Look at you,” Madeline remarked with amusement. Reznik started; she was sitting right next to him, but he had not seen her, having sunken into the couch, slightly slumped over. He quickly sat up straight.

“Where’s Renard?” he asked.

“You should know better than to ask that,” Madeline replied, “because I have no idea. He’s up to his usual no good, I’m sure. Asuna here would like to pick up where we left off.”

The piercing gaze of Lierra’s brown eyes, her faint smile, her professional but striking profile, and the tone of her voice, which relayed no trace of reproach, despite Reznik’s confrontational words earlier, made him somewhat uncomfortable and embarrassed.

“Miss Lierra, I apologize for my earlier brashness,” he muttered.

Her smile grew slightly wider.

“That’s quite all right. As you may have realized, I am rather interested in hearing your thoughts. I’d like you to offer them after I respond to your previous statement.”

Reznik nodded. “Certainly.”

“I care about my home, Avet Sylvera. I want to serve where I am most motivated. There is no doubt in my mind that I can do more in Calena than here in Corande. The experience I’ve acquired working for the ministry will be put to good use.”

“I disagree,” Reznik replied. “For an unestated to hold such a position in the Cabinet is no insignificant feat. Were you not resented by your estated colleagues?”

“Whether or not I was is irrelevant,” Lierra said, adjusting her silver-rimmed glasses. “If you’re implying that unpleasant treatment from others affects me, you need not worry.”

“Actually, my point is that not taking advantage of every opportunity to be represented at the highest level of government is detrimental to all Coranthian commoners. Serving your hometown is certainly a commendable sentiment, but I find it ultimately short-sighted.”

Madeline sat silently, content to watch the exchange.

Lierra’s smile wavered. Her eyes drifted toward the doorway leading back to the foyer.

“By the way, how rude of me. I’ve already expressed this to Avet Agilda, but allow me to congratulate you on your graduation from Tellisburg.”

Reznik was caught off guard.

“Thank you. Did she tell you that we attended Tellisburg?”

He glanced at Madeline, who shook her head.

“Asuna planned this banquet,” she said. “She was in charge of the guest list. It’s no surprise that she knows a bit about each of the attendees. When I introduced myself to her, she already knew who I was.”

Reznik turned back to Lierra so as not to continue speaking as if she was not present.

“Tellisburg records are fully accessible within the Cabinet,” said Lierra, her smile widening again. “If you don’t mind, I would like to hear your opinion on a related matter.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”

“You were first in your class, yet you were not named the Cadet Officer as would usually be the case because of your pedigree. Does this upset you?”

She seemed to be searching Reznik’s face carefully for a reaction.

“No. Why would it? The second-ranked cadet in my class had a comparable record.”

“Of course, Renard Renault, who was here earlier. Correct? Do you not mind that the second-ranked cadet in your class will be rewarded with an automatic promotion to vice captain? Is it because the two of you are friends?”

Reznik blinked and jerked his head.

“Miss Lierra,” he said with annoyance, “Renard deserves to be named Cadet Officer. The difference in our leadership abilities is not something that can be judged merely from a written evaluation. I find your words to be quite presumptuous.”

“Come on, Reznik,” Madeline urged. “Be a little more diplomatic, will you?”

“See, this is exactly what I mean,” he snapped, taking her comment in stride. “Renard wouldn’t be agitated as I am now.”

“Very well, Avet Sylvera. But what if, hypothetically, you were clearly head and shoulders above your entire class in all respects? What then?”

“There isn’t much of a point in discussing your proposed scenario,” Madeline said, frowning. “By definition, the Cadet Officer is estated. It is a moot point. Even if Renard were not our classmate, the highest-ranked would have been estated, not Reznik.”

Lierra’s eyes flashed.

“That’s it, that’s exactly it,” she said in a slightly raised voice. “That is the system, whether at the academies or in the Cabinet. And as far as I’ve come, as much as I’ve been able to do as the minister’s secretary … I am unestated. I’ve reached my ceiling. In the end, I feel that it’s best to accomplish what I can with the hand I’m dealt. For me, that means going back to Calena.”

Her eyes drifted again toward the door leading into the foyer.

“Do you understand now, Avet Sylvera?”

Reznik did not reply immediately. The effects of the alcohol had not yet worn off; it took him a while to assemble the thoughts into the concise, coherent statement he wished to make. Suddenly, he rose to his feet. “Miss Lierra, it is true that we unestated are at a disadvantage,” he said. “But that’s hardly going to stop me. I suppose this is where we differ, and this may be why I am a soldier and you are not. Good evening to you.”

With that, he trotted out of the room without as much as a glance back at Lierra or even Madeline, leaving the two women staring after him.

“I’m sorry if he offended you,” Madeline said. “He can be rather brusque, even when he hasn’t had anything to drink.”

“Worry not. It was a fascinating conversation. I’m glad you encouraged me to return to it.” Lierra laughed. “It’s unfortunate, though. I had a response for him, but he never gave me the chance for it.”

“Oh? I’d certainly like to hear it.”

Lierra’s amber eyes glowed faintly.

“Though your friend may be attuned to matters of class, Madeline, it seems he has neglected the issue of gender. You may very well be unestated and go a long way in the military. As a man, of course.”

“There are female captains,” Madeline rejoined. “And there’s certainly no policy that prevents women from reaching a higher rank.”

“Very true,” Lierra agreed, pausing to adjust her glasses. “But is there any room in high society for a female colonel? Or even a captain? Are you aware of how female officers are treated by nobles? Especially by noblewomen?”

“I have to admit I never gave it much thought.” Madeline frowned. “I don’t have any plans to integrate myself with the nobility.”

Lierra smirked triumphantly.

“Well, Madeline, I suppose this is where we differ, and this may be why you are a soldier and I am not.”

Several ticks passed before Madeline burst out laughing.

“You are an impressive woman, Asuna.”

“And you as well, Madeline. I’m certainly glad to have made your acquaintance.”

“Likewise. I should probably follow Reznik now. I believe it is almost time for Minister Velmann’s speech.”

Lierra offered a cryptic smile as she and Madeline stood to face each other.

“Ah, the speech. Certainly, you won’t want to miss that. I will be returning upstairs as well.”

“Perhaps we can meet the next time I have business in Calena,” Madeline said, extending her hand.

Lierra grasped it lightly and the two of them shook.

“I would like that very much.”

—3—

“Excuse me! Excuse me, one and all, if you’d please…”

Minister Verinda’s voice rang from the ballroom balcony, which wrapped all the way around, unlike in the foyer. There were no stairs in the ballroom; the two floors were completely separate from one another. In contrast to the beginning of the reception, where an assortment of nobles occupied the second floor of the foyer, Verinda now stood alone overlooking the ballroom.

The foyer was almost completely empty; all the graduates had packed into the ballroom in anticipation of the speech. With the addition of the late arrivals, the ballroom was not large enough to comfortably accommodate all of the guests, and they wound up standing at the edge of the assemblage, unable to move any closer.

“Well, what’s all this about?” said Renard, coming up behind them. “I thought I was conveniently too late for all the speeches. Look at us, packed in like a bunch of hogs.”

Madeline turned around. “Oh, there you are. Were you really planning to miss Minister Velmann’s speech?”

Renard shrugged. “Only if everyone else hadn’t cleared out for it. I don’t really care to hear it. We’ve had enough graduation speeches, don’t you think?”

Having finally quieted the crowd, Verinda continued. “Unfortunately, Minister Velmann is unable to attend today to make his traditional commencement address, but I do have the pleasure of introducing a guest of honor.”

A thin-faced man with heavily graying shoulder-length blond hair and a neatly trimmed, triangular beard stepped out from behind him. His pale blue eyes stared into the crowd. It was none other than the king himself, and this evening he wore a white variant of the military officer trench coat, with crimson trim.

Murmurs rippled through the crowd as Minister Verinda moved aside to cede the spotlight. Everyone in the room recognized the uniform as the one Samsen had donned during the Coronation War; those who had never seen it personally knew of it by reputation.

Many of the avets burst into fervent applause. This went on for two full reps before Samsen raised his hands, and some semblance of order returned.

“Good evening, everyone,” Samsen began. “I only have a few reps to spare, so I will keep my remarks brief. I am pleased to see you all. It is always exciting to see our patriotic spirit manifest in the young men and women of this country.”

The king rattled off a string of statistics marking the number of soldiers who had graduated from each academy and made note of how the estated and unestated from all over Coranthia had gathered at the manor. Scattered applause rose from different sections of the crowd as Samsen mentioned each academy.

As this preface came to an end, the king raised his head and stared across the ballroom. Madeline craned her neck to follow his gaze. Many of the nobles, who were lounging upstairs in the foyer only moments before, entered when they realized who was speaking. They spread out along the balcony directly opposite Samsen and Verinda. Surprise and curiosity overtook their previously lackadaisical countenances. For some of the men, who had heard murmurings through the rumor mill earlier that afternoon, these sentiments gradually morphed into anxiety as Samsen continued his address.

After locking eyes with several members of his new audience, the king redirected his attention to those gathered below.

“Now, I want to highlight a very specific number, and that is fifty-seven. Fifty-seven of our countrymen and women stationed at Elsin Point. Before I make this news public through the Post, I would like to inform you, my fellow soldiers, that our outpost at Elsin was ambushed. Though not a single Coranthian remains to tell the tale, the carnage the Amelarens left behind clearly states their intentions.”

A stunned silence fell across the room. Samsen scanned the ranks of his new soldiers, men and women, noble and commoner, all having spent the previous two or three years preparing for a moment such as this, though none having truly expected that it would come.

The king took a deep breath and continued. “I admit that the announcement is somewhat indelicate, but I have no intention of romanticizing such a tragedy. Nevertheless, I will attempt to articulate my feelings more appropriately.

“When I learned of the attack, I was immediately reminded of the events that led to the founding of our capital and the significance of this very building we now occupy—Stannis Manor, built by my grandfather Creon, the symbol of his proud foothold on this continent of Moriana.

“As all of us well know, there was no Coranthia at the time of this manor’s construction. There was barely a Corande. There was only Lynderas. And it is my firm belief, as it was that of my grandfather, that Lynderas would have fallen to the Amelarens had Creon not transformed it into Coranthia. The barbarians would have overrun the Ath’ril people before crossing the Sarigan and besieging our forts. Even Tellisburg would not have withstood a relentless flood of warriors.”

Samsen paused to clear his throat. He closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath, summoning a recitation from within his memory.

“‘I was not a crusader, nor was I a reluctant revolutionary. I was left with no choice but to take up a crown. The people required it of me,’ so the Founder said. And so we secured the future of our people. And so we liberated the Outlands, liberated the region from incessant war and internal conflict among the natives. We welcomed to our civilization the Ath’ril and those Amelarens wise enough to realize the futility of their former way of life. And many years later, we finally secured our eastern borders. Western Moriana is now indisputably under Coranthian control.

“But after we have enjoyed peace for almost twenty years, the Amelarens have once again descended upon us with their brutality. They are incapable of coexisting even with each other; that we are not of their barbaric ilk makes us the target of their collective savagery. They regard our civilized, prosperous existence as only a blooming field waiting to be razed.

“And so I stand before you tonight to say that your country is in great need of your bravery and heroism. Everyone in this room has known that this day would eventually come. We must ensure once and for all that the Amelaren horde poses no threat to our survival. The only way we can accomplish this is to destroy them. We must go to war.”

At his words, a feverish buzz swept through the crowd. Samsen held up his hands, commanding silence.

Renard leaned over and whispered to Reznik, “I guess that’s why Glen and Douglas are already on their way to Aldova.”

Reznik might not have even heard his friend. He stood rooted to the spot, eyes locked onto the king, fighting uprooted emotions and memories hidden behind a frozen mask of a countenance that belied his true internal state.

Samsen forged ahead. “Warlord Orlen has once again risen to threaten our lives and lands. Perhaps it was naive to think that an Amelaren warlord would accept defeat before death. Either way, make no mistake, he faces only those two options.

“Your upcoming mission is a righteous one. No test of strength will be more symbolically appropriate. I look out at you and see the future of our country. I have been through the inferno. I have seen the suffering the Amelarens bring upon our good people firsthand. So have many of your elders and countrymen. It is imperative that all Coranthians now stand in solidarity against this threat.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Madeline saw Reznik unconsciously nod his head.

Samsen reached into his left breast pocket and pulled out a Coranox pin, the only piece missing from his ensemble. It was not the typically ornate crimson royal emblem but the crisp aeron military issue held by generals. Unconsciously and out of habit, Madeline reached to touch her neck, feeling the outline of her own Coranox hanging there. It was the pin that the king had given her on that day twelve years ago. Sebastian and Edith Sylvera attached it to a stainless steel chain, and she had worn it as a necklace ever since, keeping it on her person at all times.

“I have full confidence in our united strength and resolution. We must once again draw upon Creon’s spirit if we are to answer this calling, not only as a means to our security but as a duty to the greater good. It is our destiny to reign as the supreme power of Moriana. I hereby pass the torch to you, my friends, countrymen, and successors. You shall be the first surge of these inexorable waves of history!”

With that, he stepped back. The room was completely quiet for what seemed like an eternity, although less than half a rep passed on the clock.

Standing beside the king, Verinda clapped emphatically.

“For Coranthia!” he hollered.

His words sparked a frenzy below.

“For Coranthia!” echoed many of the avets. A flood of applause and a roar of approval followed.

Although they remained silent, Reznik and Madeline joined in the applause. Renard, standing behind them, merely watched the scene unfold.

The cheering and clapping persisted for several reps as Samsen observed from above. Finally, the king turned to Verinda and warmly shook his head. After raising his aeron Coranox one more time, prompting another surge of applause, he withdrew, exiting through one of the doors on the second floor and disappearing from sight.

The clamor subsided; Verinda remained where he was for a while, waving and nodding encouragingly to the soldiers below, before announcing that he would return to the foyer shortly and that the party would continue.

Slowly, the mass of avets scattered. People were once again more evenly distributed between the two rooms. Reznik and Madeline hovered around the entrance to the living room, while Renard set off once again on his own to mingle. The merrymaking resumed, although the atmosphere was more subdued overall. Eventually, Verinda reappeared on the balcony above.

“I want to thank you all again for coming,” he said, calling for the attention of those in the foyer. “Despite the terrible news of the attack and the anxiety I know most of you must feel regarding the days to come, we were graced by the presence of His Majesty, who has expressed, much more assuredly and eloquently than I can, that your courage will be celebrated long after we have finally brought lasting peace to this continent. This is what you, as soldiers, have trained for. Your deployment schedules will not be affected. You will still report to your station as you were originally informed during your graduation.”

“Is that all, Minister?” someone shouted. “Is that all you have to say as you send us to our deaths?”

The partygoers began to pack into the foyer again with a renewed interest, sparked by yet another unexpected outburst. Reznik and Madeline pushed their way farther into the foyer and caught a glimpse of Verinda, who was currently attempting to stare down the man who had spoiled his parlance.

A short, ruddy-cheeked young avet took several steps up the stairs to be seen by all present. Reznik recognized him as one of his Tellisburg classmates, though did not know his name.

“I urge you to temper your tone, avet,” Verinda said evenly.

“Like hell I will, old man!” he cried, pointing accusingly at Verinda. “You care not at all for us unestated. So we should just go fight the king’s war for you? Or is it the nobles’ war?”

“Hah! You tell ’em, Faber!” a husky female voice egged him on. Several others chimed in raucously. From the sounds of their voices, it was clear that they felt empowered by the refreshments and felt confident enough to speak out against Verinda, though certainly not against the king himself.

Avet Faber stared challengingly Verinda. “Well, Minister? Will His Majesty tend to our families and sustenance while we’re dying for the sake of his personal glory out in the East?”

Verinda slammed his hand on one of the upstairs tables. “For your own good, avet, I think it is necessary to stop you before you do something that cannot be undone. Guards!”

Several members of the Royal Guard emerged from behind him and scrambled down the stairs. The metal sheeting had been removed, giving the soldiers a clear path to reach Avet Faber. The avet turned to run but was tackled and brought to the floor at the base of the stairs. The people closest to the scene drew back as the young man thrashed beneath the suppressive weight of the guards.

“What? Don’t I have the right to speak? I’ve been listening all night. It’s my turn now!” Faber spat, continuing to squirm. The guards, attempting to pin Faber’s arms, finally lost patience and punched the protester in the stomach.

There came angry and confused shouting from those who witnessed the assault. Several avets hovered over the soldiers, while others retreated toward the exit. The guards hauled Avet Faber to his feet and attempted to drag him up the stairs.

“Unbelievable!” Madeline exclaimed.

“Taking me away? Where are you taking me?! Let me go!” Faber hollered, continuing to fight his captors as they ascended the stairs, practically carrying him off his feet.

“The avet is doing himself a great disservice with his outrageous remarks,” Verinda declared. “I trust that his views do not reflect those of anyone else here and that any other rowdiness is merely a symptom of inebriation?”

He glared piercingly at the people below as the guards made their way past him with Faber in tow.

Madeline leaned in to speak to Reznik. “Well, what do you suppose Miss Lierra thought of that?”

Reznik stared at her quizzically.

“She caught your attention, didn’t she, Rez? I saw you eyeing her earlier.”

“Oh, please. You went to her first. You sure didn’t waste any time working on her after that initial incident.”

“Is that why you were being so difficult? She is an accomplished woman and worthy of acquaintance.” She stared probingly into Reznik’s eyes. “Someone like that would certainly share our path were she enlisted in the military.”

“She is fairly sincere, I suppose,” he conceded.

“I would have thought you’d be a little more accommodating, instead of throwing down your gauntlet with such little hesitation,” Madeline returned.

Reznik frowned and turned away.

“Let’s go. I’ve had enough.”

He fell into line behind several other avets heading out the front door. Madeline followed him outside.

“Wait! Leaving me behind, are you?” cried Renard.

He ran up behind them, slightly short of breath.

“Where have you been?” Madeline asked in bewilderment.

Renard laughed. “I was … introducing myself, of course. I had to get rid of a clinger.”

“Renard, your utter lack of scruples is inspiring.”

“From what I’ve heard, I may have had more fun sticking with you guys,” Renard said. “What do you think, Rez?”

“I think,” Reznik said slowly, “that they won’t be serving alcohol here next year.”

Madeline shook her head disapprovingly.

Reznik frowned. “To think someone like Faber graduated from Tellisburg. He certainly made plain his wish to have lazed through his quota.”

The three stood silently for a rep. They had gathered beside the main walkway just outside the manor.

Finally, Renard said, “I guess things are going to get much more interesting.”

“Yes, it seems so,” Reznik agreed.

To Madeline, her companions’ reaction to what had transpired less than an arc ago seemed muted. The news had only barely begun to sink in for her. She was still shaken from the king’s unexpected appearance.

“I guess it’ll be a while before the three of us can get together again,” Renard said. “How is it that I’m the odd man out, while everyone else got paired off into companies? Just my luck.”

“I’m sure you’ll find plenty of new people to drag around, Renard,” Reznik replied.

Renard shrugged, looking uncharacteristically nonplussed.

“Come on, I’m sure we’ll see each other. We’ll all be at Aldova,” Madeline said, reaching out and taking his hand. Renard squeezed it gently.

“You’re right,” he said, rocking back and forth on his feet. “Say hello to Edith for me, Rez. Oh, and you remember what we talked about, right?”

“Yes, Renard. I’ll come visit as soon as time permits,” Reznik said with a smile as he extended his hand.

Renard shook it firmly, grabbing Reznik’s arm with his other hand. “Until next time!”

With a wave, he set out toward the gate, walking off into the chilly night.

Chapter 3

(987.1.38–39)

—1—

Garments lay in two distinct piles atop Reznik’s bed. He stood pensively for several ticks before snatching a white shirt and moving it aside. Satisfied, he shoved the entire pile into a burlap sack on the floor, making no attempt to fold the clothing before doing so. His task complete, he stretched and slowly surveyed his room, committing the image to memory. After tomorrow, it would be cycles before he returned.

A plain pinewood bed lay in the back corner of Reznik’s square room. A thick wool sheet was scrunched up against the wall on the inner half of the bed. Wool was a cheap and popular commodity throughout the Outlands, providing affordable and sufficient warmth during the winter. The bed itself was well-worn and seemed ready to collapse at any moment. A small square window was carved out of the wall opposite the bed. Normally, Reznik was able to see the houses to the south of his and sometimes the village square, on an exceptionally clear day, though today, the shutters were closed to keep out the unseasonable cold. In the corner next to the window stood a dresser on which Reznik kept two stacks of books. Seeing them reminded him of something he had neglected to pack. Reznik shuffled through the books before finding Wildlife in the Dynan Midlands. It was a purchase he had made half a cycle ago in Tellisburg, thinking it might prove to be a handy reference. He stuffed the book hastily into his sack as he scanned the room again.

A small wooden frame stood propped up on the nightstand next to his bed. He traced his finger around its edges. Affixed within the frame was a small photograph, one of Reznik’s most prized possessions. It was also one of the few indulgences he kept from his friendship with Renard; it was almost unthinkable for commoners to afford photographs, but Renard and his father Gustaf insisted upon the gift. Nobody in Jardis, aside from Edith and Madeline, knew of its existence.

It was a portrait of the Sylvera family. Reznik never tired of looking at it; seeing himself sitting between his parents reminded him of a much different life. Until now, he had carried it with him wherever he went, keeping it stashed safely in the most secretive place he could find. Only briefly did he debate whether he should bring it to Aldova before he lifted it off the nightstand and placed it carefully inside his sack, ensconcing it between layers of clothes to ensure that it would not be damaged. Finally, he exited the room. Stopping in front of his mother’s room, he cocked his ear to make sure that he had not woken her and was satisfied when he heard Edith breathing slowly in a deep sleep.

A fresh scent permeated the living room. He smiled faintly as he saw a bin of bread on the dining room table and made his way to the adjacent cupboard. He had planted a small knapsack on the counter to store food for the trip to Aldova. Inside the cupboard were large glass jars of reas jerky. He laid a cloth on the table and emptied one of the jars onto it. Next to the jerky, he placed two loaves of bread from the bin. Finally, he placed exactly three cubes of keepsalt between the loaves. He tied the cloth carefully and grabbed three apples from the bowl on the counter. He placed everything neatly into his knapsack.

Just then, a loud knock came from the front door. Reznik heard a faint rustling as Edith stirred in her room.

Reznik scrambled to answer the door and pulled it open to reveal a tall, impeccably dressed man in a gray cloak. His neatly combed black hair shimmered in the fading evening sun.

The man grinned. “It is rare to see you so off your guard.”

“General Hagen,” Reznik said after a few ticks, before remembering to salute.

Leland Hagen waved his hand. “No need to be so formal, Reznik. I am merely your former instructor.”

“Pardon me for just a moment, please.”

Reznik turned and hurried back into the house. A short time later, he emerged with two wooden chairs under his arms.

“I’m sorry, sir, but my mother is sleeping. I hope you don’t mind talking out here. I’ll get a fire started.”

“That’s quite all right. There’s no rush,” Leland said. He stepped aside, almost tripping over the small stone sundial on the lawn.

The display of uncharacteristic clumsiness by his teacher brought a smile to Reznik’s face. He walked around to the side of the house and set the two chairs beside the firepit. When he noticed Leland glancing curiously at the sundial, he asked, “Is something the matter, sir?”

Leland moved to take a seat.

“Not at all. I just don’t see many dialettes these days.”

“Ah, I see. Yes, they are still common out here. I’ll be back with some fuel.”

Reznik retreated into the house again and returned with a copper can in one hand and two piping hot mugs in the other. He poured selim tree sap from the can onto the firewood lining the pit, then lit a match and dropped it in. The smoke caused Leland’s chronic cough to surface.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Reznik said, immediately setting down the mugs.

Leland recovered quickly. He picked up one of the mugs and wrapped his hands around it.

“Don't worry about it.”

“I hope you don’t mind mint tea, sir,” Reznik said.

“Not at all. Thank you.” He took a sip and cleared his throat heartily. “With whiskey! Excellent.”

Reznik sat down and took the other mug, holding it in his hand without drinking. A rep of silence passed as the chilliness of the evening air settled.

“What brings you to our village, General?” Reznik asked at last, raising his head.

“As I was unable to attend the festivities the other day, I absolutely had to pay a visit before you set out, especially given such a sudden and momentous occasion.” Leland let out a small sigh. “We are at war again, after all these years. The collision between our destiny and that of the Amelarens can no longer be stayed.”

They sat silently for several ticks before Leland, noticing Reznik’s uncomfortable expression, smiled to soften his sober tone.

“I heard I missed quite the occasion at the banquet,” he said slyly.

Reznik cleared his throat and ignored the comment. “Even so, Jardis is a long way from Kantor, sir. Is there something you require of me? How did you get here?”

“Suspicious already? Is it so wrong for a teacher to give his best student a proper farewell before he is shipped off to the front?”

“I am merely your former student, sir …”

Leland chuckled approvingly before breaking into another short fit of coughing.

“I had business in Calena. I rode over on horseback. She’s tied to that post on the other side of your house. I hope you don’t mind.”

Fanning his cloak to remove wrinkles that had formed as he sat, he leaned back in his chair. He finished his drink with a final gulp and set the cup down in the grass beside him.

“You know, watching you and your class during the war games reminded me of my own time at the academy. Though you are not of nobility, I feel that you are quite similar to how I was.” Leland smiled. “It certainly seemed like we were cut from the same block of wood.”

Reznik shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He placed his cup down as well, although it was still full. His gaze drifted northward behind him. In the twilight, he could make out a few scattered farms, and the northern outpost stretched before them. The fields were all empty, though the winter-proof telgas grass was still vibrantly green. The only sounds Reznik could hear were the crackle of the fire, the low hum of wellers, and the occasional barking of dogs in the distance.

“How are your parents?”

Reznik’s facial expression froze.

“My father… He fell ill recently and didn’t pull through. He passed away during the last onyx cycle. My mother is taking it as well as she can, but she doesn’t have as much energy these days. I …”

Leland frowned. “My matters of conversation seem to be quite unpleasant today. I apologize.”

“It's fine. If may be direct, General, I assume there was another reason for your visit?”

The light from the firepit was dying down. Reznik reached to grab the can of sap and then refueled the fire. The sound of the wellers rose from a low hum to a loud buzz and then subsided. Most of the villagers detested the insects, but Reznik found their sounds to be relaxing. When he looked up, Leland was staring at him, his hands folded in his lap over a sheathed knife. The Coranox was painted around the slightly curved handle in a brilliant gold.

“Yes, I have something for you,” he said, holding the knife out toward Reznik. “My graduation gift to you. This isn’t standard issue for swordsmen, as you know, but it should be. It will serve you ably, I’m sure.”

“Sir …” Reznik took the weapon, his eyes widening.

“Well, you know I’ve always believed every soldier should carry a knife,” Leland said.

“Yes, but this knife was on display in your office at Tellisburg.”

Leland nodded. “I figure you’d put it to better use. The knife is given as a gift to generals. I think it deserves to be more than a conversation piece in my office.”

Reznik tilted the knife slightly and held it up toward Rhynon, now visible in the dusky sky. The blade glowed softly.

“Is this aeron?”

The older man laughed. “Yes, it is. No reason not to give something that is both useful and aesthetically pleasing, right?”

“Thank you very much, sir,” Reznik said graciously. He carefully pocketed the knife, not before examining it again in admiration. “How did you know to find me here? I never knew you visited Jardis.”

“This is my first time here. A young man was kind enough to show me the way. Albert I think his name was.”

“Albert Dunning.” Reznik nodded. “He must have been quite excited to meet the great General Hagen.”

“Quite the contrary. He didn’t recognize me.” The incredulous look on Reznik’s face made Leland laugh again. “Actually, it is rather refreshing. There are few things I dread more than celebrity.”

Reznik said, “It is difficult to avoid when you are in the public eye. Anonymity is rare, even in the Outlands. The word always spreads in some way.”

“I don’t disagree with you. It is unfortunate, isn’t it?”

“Worth the nuisance to you, sir.” Reznik’s voice rang with veneration. “Is that not the case? You have continued to serve your country since your retirement from active duty.”

Leland sighed.

“You give me too much credit. Though I suppose you are right. In fact, I came to bid you farewell not only because you are heading off to the front … I will be leaving Coranthia for a while. I plan to travel overseas and can’t say when I will return, so I figured I’d stop by to see you before heading to the harbor over in Lymria.”

“Where will you go?” Reznik asked.

“The Empire. You could say I have some official business there, made more urgent by our recent declaration of war. So yes, I am still active. As active as I can be, in any case. There are ways in which I can contribute off the battlefield. And contribute I must, as now we are preparing to strike Orlen down for good.”

Leland began to cough again. He slowly rose from his chair, brushing the dirt from his cloak. “I’d like to return to Calena as soon as possible. Thank you for the tea.”

“Why not spend the night in the guest house?” Reznik asked, getting to his feet as well. “We can call upon the elder. He’ll be happy to oblige you, I’m sure.”

“No need. It will be a clear night. The road will be brightly lit. Good riding conditions. I should make good time in returning to the city.”

Reznik was about to reply, though was distracted by the dull but distinct clatter of hooves coming from the north.

Dane Landsman, eldest son of the stabler and a member of the village watch, rode into sight at a gallop, slowing upon his approach. Reznik and Leland looked on curiously as the stablekeeper’s son dismounted his horse, neglecting even to hitch it.

“I’m glad you’re here,” he said sternly as he ran up to Reznik. “We have a problem.”

His thick lips, normally curled in a mischievous smirk, were drawn tightly together. His green eyes shifted nervously to the north and then back to Reznik.

“What is it?”

“We’re about to be raided.”

“What are you talking about?” Reznik demanded.

“I was doing my rounds and when I got to the north tower, my father alerted me of around twenty bandits emerging from the Kinnan Woods.”

“Who’s at the northern post?” Reznik asked.

“William and Stan. And my father, of course.”

“How long do we have?”

“Ten or fifteen reps, at most.”

Reznik thought for a moment as Dane shifted impatiently.

“Can you go into town and alert the elder?” Reznik said. “Get Madeline too.”

“I was on my way to alert the elder when I saw you. I’ll go on th—”

“That won’t be necessary.”

Both Reznik and Dane turned to look at Leland.

“Excuse me? And who are you?” Dane said.

Reznik cleared his throat. “Dane, this is one of my former instructors from Tellisburg.”

A look of skepticism washed over Dane’s broad face, but he nodded politely.

“My apologies, sir. I do not recognize you in civilian clothing. I’m Dane Landsman, one of the watch here.”

The general laughed. “Not a problem, Dane. Please call me Leland.”

“Well, Sir Leland, do you have some sort of plan?” Dane asked.

“About twenty of them and the six of us. We should be fine. No need to disturb the townsfolk. Furthermore, you might not be able to return in time with a large group.”

Leland coughed softly into his hand and then nodded and turned his attention to Reznik.

“Grab your sword from the house and meet me by my horse. We will follow young Dane here to the north post.”

Both Reznik and Dane opened their mouths to respond, but Leland instantly stopped them with one word. “Go.”

Reznik bolted into his house, while Dane remounted his horse as soon as he could calm it down. Meanwhile, Leland strolled around to the other side of Reznik’s house, where Milla, his beautiful brown zephyr, stood calmly, sniffing the ground. Milla was large for her breed, and there would be enough room for both Leland and Reznik to ride her.

Leland unhitched Milla from a large wooden stake that jutted out of the ground near the side of Reznik’s house, and he mounted his horse. Just as he was getting settled, Reznik came running around the corner of the house, carrying a short sword around his waist.

“I had to leave a note in case my mother woke,” Reznik said.

Leland nodded and helped Reznik onto the horse. “I see you’re still carrying that letter opener,” he remarked jovially, gesturing toward Reznik’s sword. He steered Milla to join Dane on the road.

“That will change once I reach Aldova,” Reznik responded stiffly. “Are you sure you’re all right with this, sir?”

Leland did not respond, turning instead to Dane. “Onward.”

Dane nodded and the three took off at a gallop, passing several farms and the Landsman’s stables on the way to the northern watchtower. The Sylveras’ house was near the northern edge of the village; they had soon arrived at their destination. They were greeted by two men, one older and one younger, and a boy two years younger than Reznik.

The older man said, “Son, is this your idea of reinforcements? Reznik and … I’m sorry, who are you?”

“My name is Leland. I was visiting Reznik when Dane here stopped by and informed us of the danger. Don’t be upset with him. I told him we should return here as quickly as possible.”

As Leland hopped off his horse and removed his cloak, the same look of skepticism Dane had shown earlier emerged on the face of the older man.

“Well, I’m Carl Landsman, Dane’s father. This boy here is Stanley Alton. You’ll excuse me if we don’t have time for proper introductions.”

He gestured toward the freckled, scarlet-haired teen standing next to him, who nodded and said nothing.

The third watchman, sporting a lanky figure and wild mustache, stepped forward.

“I’m William Cadrene, head watchman. I appreciate the help, Mr. Leland, but we can’t face twenty men on our own.”

“We’ll be fine,” Reznik said impatiently as he turned to Leland. “Right, General?”

Leland laughed. “I should have done my best to assert that, yes. Gentlemen, my full name is Leland Hagen. Perhaps you’ve heard it.”

Carl Landsman’s eyes grew wide. He took an unconscious step back. “The General Hagen, here in Jardis?” He turned to William. “If he is as he says, it will be the bandits who are outmatched.”

“He is and they are. We really don’t have time for this,” Reznik insisted.

“Indeed,” Leland said. “Let us exchange pleasantries later. What is the situation?”

Dane motioned toward the watchtower. “You should go see for yourself, Mr. … General.”

Much like the southern post, the northern post of Jardis consisted of a single tower, having been mostly neglected over the years; only the eastern post bore any sort of reinforcement. Leland moved swiftly toward the ladder that led up the tower, and he scrambled to the top. He went into a short coughing fit before surveying the land with a pair of binoculars that he produced from his inside coat pocket. He stayed atop the tower for only half a rep before sliding back down.

“They seem to have broken into two groups of about eight each, but the groups aren’t far apart, maybe a few meters at most. I think we should go meet them. We only have the one tower here. I presume none of us is carrying a bow?”

The others shook their heads.

“Then there’s not much point in waiting for them to come to us. And they won’t be expecting to see us charge them.”

Leland looked at the five men who stood before him. “Are you each willing to face two of them?”

“Of course,” Reznik said.

William stepped forward. “With all due respect, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced bandits, sir. And we’re well-trained.”

Carl and Dane murmured their agreement and nodded.

Leland glanced at Reznik. “Thanks to your parents?”

Reznik permitted himself a small smile.

Stanley Alton tried to match the confidence he saw in everyone else, but the fear on his face was plain to see.

“I will take the western group with young Stanley here,” Leland said, nodding reassuringly at the boy. “I want the rest of you to handle the eastern group.”

Reznik frowned. “General, are you sure about this? Your condition—”

“Don’t trust me, Reznik?” Leland interrupted, grinning and flashing a set of pearly white teeth. “In any case, the bandits might slow or stop when they see that we are coming for them. If they hesitate at all, charge immediately.”

“Should we not attack them on horseback?” Dane asked.

Leland shook his head. “We could, but let’s not. While it would give us a chance to trample them, the bandits could just as well take down the horses while we’re on them. And you don’t want to put the animals at risk to begin with.”

“I see,” Carl said. “You raise a good point.”

Everyone nodded.

Leland took several ticks to look over the five men before motioning for them to move out. “Let’s go.”

—2—

The six men moved through the rolling fields to the north at an even pace. As they approached within twenty meters of the bandits, they could hear shouts of confusion from the enemy. When they reached within fifteen meters, the bandits began to slow.

“Hah, look at that,” Dane whispered to his father beside him. “The general was right.”

“He always is,” Reznik said from ahead, without turning around.

Soon, the bandits came to a stop. Reznik heard one of them shout, “What is this?”

“Probably didn’t expect to see such a small group,” William muttered to no one in particular.

“That’s our cue,” Reznik said. “Go! Pick two and try to separate them from the group. Keep your swords close, and don’t let them push you to the ground.”

He pointed his sword forward. The four of them charged the group of eight invaders in front of them. Before the bandits could fully comprehend what was going on, Reznik’s squad was upon them. Fueled by adrenaline and anger, Reznik thrust his short sword into the gut of one of the bandits, eliciting a scream of pain from the dirty, wiry man and bringing him to his knees. Using his foot, Reznik forced the bandit to slide off his sword and then brought the hilt down hard onto the man’s head, rendering him unconscious and leaving him to bleed out.

“To your right, Reznik!” he heard William shout from behind him.

Reznik pivoted his feet just in time to raise his sword and deflect a blow from a small hatchet. His block caused his attacker—a plump man with glassy eyes and a stained beard—to lose his balance. Reznik took a step back and charged into the fat man, knocking the bandit to the ground. Without hesitation, Reznik plunged his sword straight through the bandit’s throat. The man grabbed at the sword and tried to remove it, but Reznik held it firmly. The bandit gasped and gurgled as blood poured from both his mouth and the hole in his throat.

Though he never felt joy in taking a man’s life, unlike with the first bandit, he had no choice but to stare into this terrible death mask. While Reznik was no stranger to such violence, the sight of the man’s contorted, agonized face caused him to cringe.

“Father!” Dane’s voice came from behind him.

Reznik quickly yanked his sword from the dead bandit and swiveled to see Dane lying on his back, several meters away. A tall, swarthy bandit prepared to swing a full-sized ax upon him. Dane feebly held up his own short sword with his right hand, as if he stood a chance to deflect the blow. Both Carl and William were too occupied with their own battles to come to Dane’s aid.

Letting loose a wild scream, Reznik dove toward his companion and rammed his sword with all his might into the tall bandit’s back. The man arched his body in pain. Reznik yanked the sword free and pierced the bandit again, this time lower and closer to the spine. The man let out a wail before crumpling to the ground. The ax fell from his hand and planted itself blade-down in the ground, only centimeters from Dane’s face.

Dane remained frozen on the ground, wheezing and staring bewilderedly up at Reznik.

“Thank Creon,” he choked out.

“Dane!” Carl Landsman shouted as he and William ran to them.

“I’m fine, Father,” Dane said, as he scrambled to his feet. “What about you?”

“We’re fine,” Carl said, as he wrapped his arm protectively around Dane’s shoulders. “The last two bandits ran off.”

William stared past Reznik and mouthed slowly, “What in the hell?”

Still trying to catch his breath, Reznik grew aware of the total silence, perturbed only by occasional fits of harsh coughing. He turned to a bizarre sight. Four or five meters away, Leland had propped himself up with his sword as he coughed harshly into his free hand. Six corpses surrounded him in what was almost a perfect circle. Nearby, Stanley Alton sat on the ground propped on his hands. The teenager gaped at the general.

“I guess another two ran off,” Carl said. “Look north.”

Reznik briefly diverted his gaze to see four bandits running toward the woods at breakneck speed before returning his attention to Leland. As he approached the general, he could not help but notice that the bandits had been killed with almost inhuman precision. Some of the bodies suffered several deep cuts on their weapon-wielding arms, but each had a single stab to either the neck or heart. When he knelt next to his former instructor, Reznik noticed that not a speck of blood soiled Leland’s clothing. The only blood he could see was on the general’s black glove, which Leland was using to cover his mouth as he coughed.

“General!” Reznik said, putting his hand gingerly on Leland’s shoulder.

“I’m fine. Never better,” Leland managed to say, smiling despite his wheezing and watery eyes.

“Stan?” Reznik asked, looking at the young boy.

“I’m fine too,” Stanley replied meekly.

Reznik gazed upon his former instructor with both concern and reverence.

“Would it be inappropriate for me to wish I had seen you in action?” he said.

Leland smiled wryly.

William approached them slowly, his eyes wide with admiration. “General Hagen. Thank you so much, sir. I’ve heard stories about how good you used to be, but—”

“Used to be?” Leland’s eyes twinkled.

Everyone laughed awkwardly before the six of them began to make their way back to the watchtower.

—3—

It was now well into the night. Light from the Sylveras’ house radiated through the open front door. Inside, Reznik’s mother, Edith, moved about the kitchen as she prepared a late dinner. Reznik had just returned from reporting the incident to the elder with William and the Landsmans. Meanwhile, Leland had met Edith and politely declined to stay for dinner.

“Sir, are you sure we can’t interest you in the guest house?”

Leland smiled warmly and shook his head.

“I really must be on my way to Calena, Reznik, but I appreciate the offer. Your mother is a wonderful woman.”

“Yes, she is,” Reznik agreed.

“You did well out there tonight,” Leland said. “I knew I was right about you.”

Reznik shrugged. “If you ask me, sir, Madeline and I have an advantage over the estated cadets. Most of the others at Tellisburg didn’t grow up in a place where they had to fight and kill to defend themselves.”

“An advantage it may be, though not a desirable one,” Leland said gravely. “Such is the way of things these days.”

Reznik nodded. Silence filled the air for half a rep. “Thank you again for the help tonight, General. I’m sure we could have handled it ourselves, but you ensured that we didn’t have to disturb the villagers.”

“Think nothing of it. Now that I’m no longer an instructor, it’s good to get some practice once in a while. Have to stay sharp, you know. It’s how I’m built.”

Leland began to walk around the house to where Milla remained idle. Reznik followed him. The two men shook hands before Leland unhitched and mounted his horse.

“Will I see you again, sir?” Reznik asked as they walked slowly southeast.

“Oh, I’ll be back,” Leland said with a smile. “Count on it.”

He cleared his throat and turned the horse to face Reznik directly. “Good luck out on the battlefield. I know you’ll do our country proud.”

Without another word, Leland snapped around and took off, galloping down the road.

—4—

Edith Sylvera sat across from her son, watching calmly as he downed a thick bowl of pork stew.

“I was rather surprised to wake up yesterday and see your note.”

Reznik nodded. “I didn’t want to worry you. Besides, General Hagen was with me.”

“I see now why his name is held in such regard,” Edith said. “He has lived up to his reputation. Not only from your account but how he handled himself when he visited us.”

“Yes, I’ve said as much many times.”

Edith watched her son eat with amusement, noting the nonchalance with which he spoke of such a revered man. After a rep had passed, she decided to change the subject and quipped, “Well, who knows when you’ll get to eat like this again.”

“Probably not for a while,” Reznik replied between mouthfuls.

Edith began pacing, her eyes inspecting Reznik’s luggage. His two sacks, bulging amorphously at the seams, lay on the floor, one slung haphazardly on top of the other.

“Why was I never able to get you to be tidy?” she wondered aloud. “You’re a hopeless mess.”

A soft knock came at the front door. Before answering it, Edith quickly tied back her disheveled hair, which she wore long as she progressed through middle age, and it was now a much brighter shade of brown. Madeline had arrived punctually and carried only one large knapsack in which she had encased all of her necessities. She wore a plain black cloak that would have been too big for her had it not been cut down to fit. It took Edith a moment to realize that the cloak was Harrison’s; she had not seen it for many years.

“Morning,” Madeline said brightly, with a polite but hesitant smile.

Beaming, Edith all but dragged her into the house.

“Look at this, Reznik. See? Nothing bloated, nothing to lug around, nothing she needs to keep tabs on during the caravan ride. Now how could you possibly need as much junk as you do?”

Reznik sighed. Having emptied his bowl, he moved to where his bags lay and began tying the drawstrings closed with great deliberation.

“Rez,” Madeline said, “we still have to make our rounds. I told you I’d be here at three arc. Can’t you hurry it up?”

“All right, I’m ready,” Reznik said after several ticks. He gave one final pull on the string and stood.

“Forgive him, Maddy,” Edith said with a smile. “He was up rather late last night. He has quite a story to share.”

She grabbed her son by the shoulders. Tears welled in the corners of her eyes as she fussed with his collar.

“Mother …” Reznik took her hand and gently pulled it away.

“Your father would be so proud of you, as I am,” Edith said, a tremor in her voice. “I … We will both be with you always. Promise me that you’ll stay safe.”

Reznik nodded.

Edith grabbed Madeline’s hands. “Madeline, I only wish I could have done more for you.”

Madeline felt a lump in her throat and began to tear up as well, but she fought the urge to cry. She shook her head and said, “You’ve done more than enough. The elder may have put a roof over my head for all those years, but my debt to your family can also never be repaid.”

“You are family.” Edith embraced Madeline tightly. The two women remained locked together for a moment.

“Do be mindful of your health while we are away,” Reznik said after his mother had released Madeline.

“Of course.”

“Say hello to Renard for me, if you see him.” Edith walked to the door.

“We will,” Madeline said, glancing at Reznik. “We’ll be going now.”

The young woman exited quickly, as Edith held the door for her. Reznik snatched up his bags and followed her, but when he reached the door, he dropped them and stooped to give Edith a kiss on the forehead. “Take care, Mother.”

“I will. See you soon.”

Again hoisting his bags, Reznik left the house. Madeline stared back at him from outside, motioning for him to follow. The two avets walked twenty paces before they turned around simultaneously. Edith watched them from the doorway. Madeline smiled and waved. Edith nodded in acknowledgment, made a shooing motion with her hand, which surprised neither of them, and slammed the door.

Reznik and Madeline made their way to the resting grounds—the small cemetery for the people of Jardis—a large fenced-in expanse of open land, northwest of the village square. With Helistos shining brightly above them, they wove through the headstones before coming to a large one, made of marble, straddling two burial plots and casting a long, forlorn shadow in the morning light. It stood out from the stones around it, and not only in size; Renard’s father, Gustaf, had personally commissioned it, as he had commissioned Sebastian Sylvera’s smaller and less ornate headstone as well, which was several plots away. Sebastian’s gravesite, the dirt still fresh, having been preserved through the previous winter, was still an unfamiliar sight to the two.

Madeline stood for a long time, losing track of the reps, as she stared fixedly at the epitaph.

HARRISON & MAYA AGILDA
945.1.22–975.6.41
947.5.12–975.6.41
Beloved father and mother,
Son and daughter,
Neighbors and friends.
Cast into the sea together;
Graced with peaceful rest before rebirth.

Her eyes drifted slowly to a small tarnished piece of metal affixed to the stone below the epitaph. Gustaf Renault had been able to restore some of the shine to Harrison’s locket and worked it into the stone’s design.

They silently stood shoulder to shoulder. Each seemed to be waiting for the other to leave first. Finally, Madeline stirred and walked away and Reznik followed. They walked in silence toward the square as they passed the ruins of the old storehouse, which had not yet faded completely into the overgrowth. Out of habit, Madeline’s gaze shifted to the mound of grass and debris. For her, it served as a constant reminder of how her life had changed that day over eleven years ago.

As the pair walked down the main road to the square, Reznik told Madeline of the events that transpired the previous night.

“I’m sorry the general didn’t have time to stop and see you,” he finished. “We were obviously occupied, and he seemed to be in a hurry.”

Wide-eyed, Madeline said, “After such a story, you really think what I’d care most about is seeing the general?”

Reznik shrugged.

“Six men by himself? Maybe when he was younger … but now? I can’t believe it.”

“I can’t either. Stan was the only person to witness it, I suppose, and even he was in disbelief.”

Madeline shook her head. “I wish I had been there.”

Reznik put his hand on her shoulder. “Sorry, we didn’t have time to get you.”

As they entered the village square and approached the elder’s house, she pointed at his bags and asked, “What did you pack?”

“You wanted me to take care of the provisions, so I did,” Reznik said matter-of-factly. “We have probably ten days’ worth. More than enough for the caravan ride.”

Elder Potts sat hunched over, in an old wooden rocker outside his house. Almost seventy years old and with deep wrinkles lining his face and spotty skin, he rarely strayed far from the square and appealed to the younger men and women of Jardis to handle whatever was required at the ends of the village. He was slow to move, though still alert and of sound mind.

He noticed the young avets approaching from afar. As they drew closer, he pronounced, “Ah, so it’s time!”

The elder made no attempt to rise from the rocker.

Madeline said, “We already look forward to coming back, Elder.”

“The two of you have done much already,” the elder said, clasping his hands together. “I am sure you will make us all proud.”

Madeline stepped up to him and placed her hands on top of his.

“We won’t let you down, Elder,” said Reznik.

“That much is clear from last night,” Potts said. “Nor will we disappoint you. We’ll manage without you, so there is no need to worry. William might not be as skilled as either of you, but he’ll do a fine job.”

“Yes,” Madeline said. “And we know that Jardis will be safe in your care, as always.”

She paused for a moment.

The elder waited patiently.

“Thank you. For everything.”

“There’s no need for that. I was blessed to be able to look after you all these years.” The elder unwrapped her hands. “You still have to inspect the stockpile, don’t you? Go on, get going.”

Reznik and Madeline bade him farewell and continued onward. Soon, they could see the eastern outpost in the distance. It now consisted of two watchtowers connected by a bridge, instead of just one. Nearby was a wooden gate without any surrounding walls. Technically speaking, it was less a gate and more a waypoint for traveling caravans. Several years ago, the elder had imposed a more organized method of regulating travel to and from Jardis, enforced by the villagers and sentries. On the other side of the outpost stood a small shed, which had been hastily built after the destruction of the storehouse. The large shack that formerly housed the weapons stockpile had been converted to use for general storage, and all of the arms had been moved to this new shed where Reznik and Madeline were headed.

They were intercepted by William Cadrene and his small, white dog, Telly. Telly was one of several thenson in Jardis; the village used them as herding dogs to help with the management of its livestock.

“Good day, avets!” William said cheerfully.

Telly barked in greeting.

“How are you today, William?” Reznik asked.

“Well, I’m doing just fine, just fine. A bit sore from last night. Sometimes I wish I was still an unassuming goatherd.”

“Give yourself more credit,” Madeline said.

“Not too much more,” William said with a laugh. “You missed a lot of excitement last night, Madeline.”

“I heard. Everything worked out, didn’t it?”

“Indeed, indeed.”

William pointed toward the gates, where two wagons were parked. Two Jardisian militiamen chatted fervently with the drivers, offloading several nondescript wooden crates. Steps away, a group of commoners prepared to board the rear wagon. “They’re leaving within the half arc. I suppose you don’t want to be stuck here for another two days?”

“No, we wouldn’t want that,” Madeline agreed.

“Don’t worry. We aren’t letting them leave without you on board.”

“Much appreciated, William,” she said.

Telly whimpered. Madeline reached down to pet the dog.

“Did the shipment come in on time?” Reznik jerked his head in the direction of the shed.

“Arrived an arc after we reported to the elder,” William confirmed, drawing a rusty key from his pocket. “I already checked it, but I know the elder wants your final word.” He chuckled and moved to open the door. Light spilled into the shed, revealing a disarrayed collection of spears, rodtorches, and canisters of selim sap. Lying in the somewhat less cluttered central area were two large crates with blue streaks painted on their sides.

“Let me take your bags,” William offered, eyeing their effects with amusement. “I’ll load the caravan and stall the drivers. Then you can be right on your way, once you finish here.”

“Thank you very much for your help,” Reznik said, plopping his sacks down on the wooden floor. Madeline removed the knapsack from around her shoulder and handed it to William, thanking him as well.

William strapped Madeline’s knapsack to his back and fumbled with Reznik’s bags for a moment before finally snatching them with both hands. He marched out of the shed, arched over backwards, proceeding toward the gate with Telly at his heels, leaving Reznik and Madeline to inspect the weapons shipment.

Working quickly, Reznik and Madeline unlatched and opened each crate. Inside both was a stash of ten Noyle-grade crossbows, undoubtedly scrapped from military storage. The two thoroughly examined the caches and found that they were heavily worn but completely functional.

“Of course. We get whatever they throw out,” Reznik muttered. “These things must be at least twenty years old. Older than we are.”

“This will still help a lot, Rez,” Madeline said firmly. “Longbows wouldn’t be usable anyway. Our people might even find these easier to handle than spears.” She frowned as she rechecked each crossbow in her crate, aiming down the small iron ring sight and recalibrating the springs.

Reznik watched as she worked. “They’re fine. They all work.”

When Madeline did not cease laboring, he sighed. “We don’t have time to obsess over them. William can handle the rest. Carl, too.”

He made sure the crossbows in his crate were securely nestled and dropped the lid, creating a loud bang, which caused her to start and look up as she fastened the latch.

“I know,” she said. “I guess I’m a bit on edge.” Having secured her crate, she clapped her hands together, dusting them off.

“No reason not to be. We’ll be on the front lines and facing our first real battle before we know it.”

Madeline’s eyes widened. “You sure know how to comfort a girl.”

“Sorry,” Reznik said.

“It’s a shame that Glen and Douglas aren’t in our company. A couple of friendly faces would certainly ease my mind.”

“Don’t worry,” Reznik said, hesitating slightly before adding, “you have me, don’t you?”

Madeline smiled. “That’s better. Come on, let’s go.”

She adjusted her father’s cloak and exited the shed. Wordlessly, Reznik took one more look around before following her.

The two picked up their pace as they saw William wave from the gates. As they drew closer, they made out several other familiar faces, ones Reznik and Madeline had known their whole lives.

“Reznik! Madeline!” cried scarlet-haired Karen Alton, Stanley’s older sister and daughter of John and Mary Alton. “You didn’t think you could sneak away without saying goodbye to us, did you?”

“We were hoping to do just that,” Reznik deadpanned.

“How terrible,” Karen pouted, putting her hands on her curvy hips, but her face lit up as Madeline grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her in for a hug.

“I heard my little brother was rather useless last night,” she said to Reznik.

He shook his head. “He’s still really young, and he didn’t lose his head. I’m sure he’ll make a fine addition to the watch.”

Karen smirked at him, then decided to wrap Madeline in another embrace.

“How is the equipment?” William asked Reznik.

“Good,” Reznik replied. “We’ll leave it in your hands.”

The head watchman nodded approvingly. Next to him stood Albert Dunning, a tall, tan, wispy young man of fifteen whose ruffled dark brown hair bobbed in the wind, and Franklin, his father, owner of the largest balis grain field in Jardis.

Franklin Dunning took a step toward them and thrust his hand forward, eyes trained firmly on Reznik. The two shook.

“Best of luck to you both. The girls are sick, so Sharon is at home looking after them.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dunning,” Reznik said. “Please give our best wishes to them.”

Albert emerged from behind Franklin. Despite being as tall as Reznik, his ruddy face and lanky figure made him appear diminutive when the two stood together.

“I can’t believe,” he said, “that you two are off to fight for real, and so soon after your graduation.” He looked back and forth between Reznik and Madeline and seemed to hold back from saying more. He finished with: “Stay safe.”

“We will, Albert,” Madeline said.

“Yes, please, please stay safe,” Karen echoed, squeezing Madeline’s hands tightly in hers.

“Give those Amelaren bastards as good as you’ve got, you hear?” Franklin offered, spurring everyone to laughter.

“It’s time for us to go,” said Reznik. “Thank you for seeing us off, everyone.”

The caravan wagons were unbolted from their stations and tied to the horses. The drivers had already boarded, impatiently holding the reins and glancing scornfully at Reznik and Madeline as they walked briskly toward the rear wagon.

“Goodbye!” Karen called after them.

“Take care!” Franklin hollered as Reznik and Madeline climbed to the floor of the wagon, which had already begun to move.

The two waved. Atop the twin outpost towers in the distance, several militiamen also waved as the wagon picked up speed. The caravan traveled east down the road through the wide-open plains. After several reps, the travelers felt a noticeable increase in elevation as they entered the hill country that would span most of the way to Calena. The outline of Jardis receded into the distance.

Chapter 4

(987.1.46–47)

—1—

Lake Sanmoria spanned thirty-five kilometers along its longest axis from northwest to southeast and acted as the midpoint between the Alcones and Phoenicis, the continent’s two major mountain ranges. It also ran roughly twenty-five kilometers orthogonally and, combined with the nearly impassable maze of ridges that lay to its south, formed a natural corridor between the two halves of the continent.

The name Sanmoria was bestowed by Cyril Coranthis, who eschewed the original Amelaren moniker in favor of one more properly reflective of its proximity to the centroid of Moriana. When the lake and its immediate surroundings finally fell completely under Coranthian control, King Samsen ordered the establishment of a massive fortress on the northeastern corner of Lake Sanmoria, near the mouth of the Invar River, as its first and best defense against the threat of an Amelaren invasion. After careful evaluation of all geographical, military, and financial factors, Samsen chose the site of the fortress and named it Aldova in honor of his predecessor Cyril. The fortress, fully completed in 978, overlooked a small strip of land to the north that was sandwiched between the lake and the Alcones, known as the Sanmorian Corridor. The Corridor stood as the only open route for an army to traverse. As a result, it became the single most important strategic position between the two countries and allowed Coranthia to thrive. The Amelarens were unable to pose any real threat against the fortress’s defenses.

Aldova rose from the lake surface to a height of ten stories. Though it was not as tall as Castle Coranthis, it stretched almost eight hundred meters in both length and width, making it, by far, the largest known structure in all of Moriana. Its four sides had been erected with precision to face the cardinal directions. The overall design was conservative, lending both to simplicity and functionality; its only adornments were large blue Coranthian flags atop the roof, as well as several banners draped over the coarse gray alacore walls, parts of which were in slight disrepair.

Tall rectangular windows lined the eighth and tenth floors, where much of the projectile weaponry and ammunition were stored. By contrast, the windows on the first through seventh floors were small, permitting a minimal level of sunlight and ventilation, while there were no windows at all on the ninth floor. The ridged edges of the roof provided cover and enabled convenient deployment of ballistae and archers.

The southwestern corner of Aldova’s exterior revealed three semicylindrical protrusions that ran from below the surface of the lake up to nearly the entire height of the fortress. The only other significant exterior feature of the main structure was the presence of three covered walkways, extending from the western and southern walls of the first, third, and fifth floors. These walkways were two hundred meters in length and connected the fortress to two identical and otherwise detached twelve-story towers, also built directly on the water to either side of the main structure.

The towers, known as Seras and Chari, were nondescript, aside from the top three floors. A massive metal cannon barrel protruded slightly from the northern side of Seras. Chari wielded a similar cannon, facing eastward. Both of these weapons, products of first-rate Norev technology, were capable of blasting large, high-velocity spherical bullets of water, capable of decimating entire army companies at a range of up to three kilometers, with a blast radius of half a kilometer. Once operational, Seras and Chari prevented the Amelarens from approaching Aldova, thus halting the enemy advance on Coranthia. This led to the end of the Coronation War in 971.

In the original instantiation of the towers, the cannons were restricted from exercising any flexibility in their aim. Once the ceasefire was in place, Samsen pushed for a redraft. He contracted the Norev guild’s engineers to implement a swivel to the tops of the towers, granting them free, albeit slow, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree rotation. Vertical movement was also possible, though extremely limited; nevertheless, Samsen was satisfied with the results. Together, the fortress and two towers comprised a nexus of military might, unparalleled throughout Moriana, and no Amelaren force had again dared to venture into the range of Seras and Chari since they unleashed their fury upon Orlen’s warriors more than fifteen years earlier.

Even Aldova’s peripherals were imposing to those setting eyes on the complex for the first time. A long cobblestone bridge, known as the Crossway, linked the northwestern shore of Lake Sanmoria to the large gated archway of the fortress, level with its second floor. The bridge passed straight through the fortress to the other side, continuing until it met the northeastern shore. Almost thirteen hundred meters from end to end, it was wide enough to fit twenty columns of people, or up to seven medium-sized caravans at once. Its scope was designed out of necessity, for the bridge was the only dry route in or out of the fortress.

Despite having to wait over two arcs to gain entry into the fortress, Reznik and Madeline enjoyed every rep they spent outside on the bridge. Neither had seen a structure of such scale and wonder before, even though both had visited Corande on multiple occasions while attending Tellisburg. They passed the time admiring the architecture and landscape, frequently staring across the bridge to the solistone-covered lake, and before they knew it, they had moved to the front of the line and were pushed through the registration process. Once formalities were complete, they separated to find their respective rooms.

—2—

“Three-fifty-five one …” Reznik muttered to himself, carrying his belongings down one of the many unending hallways of Aldova’s third floor.

He felt drained and was glad there was still time before the meeting with his company that evening. As he walked, he examined the waterways: large half-pipes that lined the halls and were built into the tops of the walls close to the ceiling, raised outer edges to prevent leakage. While there were small windows along the outer walls of the fortress, most of the lighting in the corridor was provided by the solistones floating down the waterways. Reznik was struck by the intricacies of the fortress’s design.

Earlier, he had been in such a hurry to get in and through registration that he had not taken notice of Aldova’s interior. Now, his preoccupation with these details caused him to bump into several avets as he shuffled along, inviting reactions of varying indifference.

After what seemed to be an interminable trek, he finally reached a door with its accompanying overhanging brass plate marked 355. The door was heavier than he expected, requiring him to push hard before he could fully open it. He stepped into what was now his new home and looked around. The entryway was large. Walls divided the area into six smaller sections, labeled one through six with three on either side of him. Each section had four top-and-bottom bunk beds, as well as a series of numbered drawers along the walls in correspondence with the numbering of the bunks. There were also two small desks in a section, each with its own solistone lamp. As Reznik walked to Section 1, located in the rear of the suite, he noticed that the room was mostly empty, though several avets occupied their bunks, most of whom were conversing with each other or reading. Only one avet looked up as Reznik passed by. Like Reznik and all other nonofficers, he wore the standard loose-fitting navy-colored military shirt and pants. The avet acknowledged Reznik with a slight nod, which he returned.

Reznik peeked through the door in Section 3 and saw a communal washroom, presumably intended for use among the sections on that side of the suite. The living quarters stood on the opposite end of the washroom. The washroom was lined with rows of crude shower heads, toilets, and sinks made of rusting metal. The shower heads were large bronze spigots protruding from the east wall with small drains in the floor below the heads. The north wall featured rusty, bucket-shaped toilets with circulating water flowing through their receptacles. An array of sinks ran along the western wall; each one had a spigot smaller than those used for the showers and was positioned to flow directly into a large connected basin mounted below. All of the utilities were connected to pipes that connected to a large, humming metal unit on the southern wall that processed waste before returning the water to the main supply. The washroom looked heavily used, though was not particularly dirty. When seeing the processor unit, Reznik hoped that it worked well.

Returning to Section 1, he saw that only one of the bottom beds was neatly made and unadorned by any personal effects. His new bunkmate had apparently claimed the top bed and likely also just arrived, for he was kneeling behind the bunk in the midst of unpacking. Upon hearing the newcomer enter, he looked up and rose to his feet. He took several steps toward Reznik, extending a fair-skinned hand.

“Good day to you, sir,” he grinned, flashing pearly white teeth. “Liam Remington.”

Reznik put down his bags and shook Liam’s hand. “Reznik Sylvera. Are you a recent graduate?”

“I graduated from Kendrall last year. I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”

“I attended Tellisburg. Graduated just this year.”

“Ah, that’s impressive, impressive indeed. I mean no offense, but I’ve not heard of your estate.”

“Likely because it does not exist. I’m from Jardis. Northwest of Calena.”

Liam arched a thin eyebrow. “Oh, I see. My apologies. I didn’t mean to presume.”

“No need to apologize.” Reznik motioned to his luggage. “If you don't mind …”

Liam waved his hands deferentially. “No, of course not. Go right ahead. I need to finish up as well.” He pointed to a stack of lavish leather bags stacked atop one another at the back of the room, making Reznik’s luggage seem minuscule in comparison.

Nevertheless, as Reznik began to unpack in silence, Liam took it upon himself to provide a more thorough introduction; Reznik’s lack of interest seemed only to encourage him more. Using many more words than were necessary, Liam conveyed his estated pedigree, albeit one of low rank, the location of his family’s estate on the outskirts of Kantor, and his class rank of third at Kendrall Academy. He spoke enthusiastically of the healthy mix of nobles and commoners at Kendrall and, obviously, took great pride in his attendance there.

“If I might ask,” Liam raised his eyebrows, “what was it like at Tellisburg?”

“What do you mean?” Reznik said.

Liam shook his head, shifting his perfectly molded wavy brown hair. “You know … Most of the students at Tellisburg are estated. Actually, you must have been there during Prince Adrian’s stay, correct?”

Reznik shrugged. “It went as you’d expect it would for a commoner, but the tension wasn’t always a bad thing. Studying at a military academy is not supposed to be a leisurely classroom experience.”

“I see,” Liam said. “That makes sense. I graduated three years ago, so I’ve been stationed at Aldova for a while, but I’m still not used to it. I’ve been on border patrols, but not since the Elsin Massacre—that’s what they call it around here, by the way. I’ve some experience, though I must confess to a bout of nerves. I don’t know what to expect now.”

Liam shoved a stack of papers into one of the small drawers outfitting his desk.

“I was reassigned to the Upper 26th and had to move all my junk here, so that’s why I have so much … well, you can excuse the mess, can’t you?”

Reznik half-grunted in response. He was on his knees, pushing one of his sacks under the bed.

Liam watched him for several ticks and then remarked, “I can’t say I ever expected to be deployed for an all-out war. I don’t have much enthusiasm for it.”

“Why is this unexpected?” Reznik asked. “Every Coranthian—especially ones who enlist—has been prepared for this inevitability. The Amelaren threat has always been there, at least for as long as I’ve been alive. And hopefully, we can eliminate it for good this time.”

Liam cracked a small smile. “I understand, but you see, my father served in the Coronation War.”

Reznik said nothing, waiting for Liam to continue.

“Of course, he told me the same thing. He always told me what a great honor it was to serve his country. I grew up hearing his stories. He was incredibly proud of his time in the military, but I could see a sadness and fear in his eyes that never left him.”

Lost in thought, Liam’s eyes glazed over briefly before lucidity returned. “Sorry, I don’t want to bore you with this. Anyway, my father and others who have fought in a real war … What I’ve seen it do to them leaves a sour taste in my mouth. You’re right though; we know what we signed up for.”

The young men fell silent. Reznik was unsure of how to respond to the grim and off-putting observation. His thoughts drifted to the family portrait he had brought with him and placed securely in the drawer of the desk beside the bed. Memories of his own father came flooding back. After several ticks, Reznik returned to sorting his belongings. Liam had already resumed unpacking and said nothing more.

A while later, their attention was drawn to the sound of seven loud rings from the hallway outside their suite. The source was one of several bells drawn up on each floor, all of which were controlled from a single rope located somewhere along the hallway. A maintenance officer pulled the rope every arc to signal the time.

“Time for the meeting, is it?” Liam said, watching Reznik empty the remaining contents of his backpack onto his bed.

“Shall we be going, sir?” Reznik said.

Liam slammed the drawers on his desk shut. “Yes, let us go. And please don’t address me as ‘sir.’ Rank is the only distinction that matters here, and I am not your superior.”

“Very well then.”

They left their quarters. As nighttime had just set in, additional solistone lanterns had been activated to illuminate the stairwells. Reznik and Liam entered the one closest to their room and began their climb to the sixth floor. They exited to a hallway that was wider than the one on the fourth floor, though, otherwise, the layout appeared almost identical. Reznik made a comment about this as he followed Liam.

“Well,” Liam said, “the sixth floor is primarily captains’ and vice captains’ quarters, so it’s no surprise, really. Though there are a few meeting rooms and small auditoriums.”

Reznik thought of Renard and wondered which of the rooms he was in. He noticed several soldiers who stood at attention, eyeing him and other avets as they passed by. When one of them caught Reznik staring curiously at him, he glowered back.

“Have you already met our captain?” Reznik asked.

“I have. You won’t believe who it is.” Liam paused for effect. “Minister Havora’s son.”

“Really?” Reznik said with interest.

Having noticed the exchange of glances between Reznik and the other soldier, Liam lowered his voice. “Anyway, normally we wouldn’t be allowed up here without proper clearance. Those guards would stop you immediately at the stairwell. Floors six through nine are typically restricted to officers and special personnel.”

“You seem to know your way around,” Reznik said with a hint of approval. “How long have you been here again?”

“Not long, but I knew a bit about Aldova before I arrived here. My father was stationed here toward the end of the Coronation War, when the fortress was first functional.”

There was unmistakable pride in Liam’s voice.

“To be honest,” he continued, “both my father and I are rather fond of engineering. It could never be more than a hobby for us, but Aldova has much to be excited about.”

“I can imagine,” Reznik said.

Liam’s eyes shone. “Sylvera, when you were on the bridge, did you notice the large pipes running along the south side of the fortress and down into the lake?”

Reznik nodded. “Rather hard to miss.”

“Those pipes pump up water from the lake to Aldova’s heart on the ninth floor.”

Reznik raised his eyebrows. “The heart?”

“That’s what they call the water filtration and distribution system used to pump the water you see lining the halls throughout.”

“Is that you, Liam?” A woman’s voice rang out from ahead of them.

Liam’s concentration broke, and he stared straight ahead. “Bethany?”

Reznik could make out two female figures standing ten or fifteen paces away, though it was difficult to discern their faces in the hallway light. From the outline of the figures, he thought one of them was likely Madeline.

“So you’ve been assigned to the Upper 26th as well?” Liam asked.

“I have,” Bethany said. Reznik could now make out her features and saw that she was noticeably older than many of the avets he had seen up to that point. He would not have been surprised to learn she was over thirty. Bethany was rather tall for a woman, though not quite at the eye level of Reznik or Liam. She also carried the unmistakable air of someone who spoke confidently to those less experienced, though it was apparent that she was on familiar terms with Liam.

“We’ll all be in good hands, then,” Liam said. He gestured to the other woman. “And this is?”

“My new bunkmate, Avet Madeline Agilda.”

“Pleased to meet you … and Avet Sylvera,” she said, breaking out into laughter.

Liam shifted his gaze between Reznik and Madeline. “We all know each other then?” He held his hand out to Madeline. “Liam Remington.”

Madeline shook his hand and introduced herself properly. She turned to Reznik and said, “This is Bethany Lane.”

Reznik nodded at Bethany.

“Not a talkative one, is he?” Bethany remarked, brushing aside strands of long, wavy blond hair.

The hall was mostly empty as the four continued on. Eventually, they reached a door of room 626. Liam led them in, and they made their way to a large open doorway at the back of the room. They ascended a small flight of stairs into a packed auditorium. Built to hold two hundred people, it was filled to about three-quarters capacity with avets. Rows of chairs were arranged on offset rings of platforms, allowing each avet an unobstructed view of a large podium that was affixed at the center of the room, a small table off to its side. A collection of solistone lanterns shone down from the ceiling.

The four took the first open seats they could find and settled in as they waited for the meeting to start. Standing at the podium was a tall, thin man who looked to be in his forties, accompanied by a spectacled young man of around Reznik’s and Madeline’s age who had short blond hair. Both men wore matching navy blue trench coats with silver trim and buttons. This uniform was typical formal attire for captains and vice captains and rarely worn into battle. The two men spoke to each other in low voices, while the room buzzed with chatter among the avets.

“That’s a very young vice captain,” Madeline said, pointing as inconspicuously as she could to the younger man.

“No, no. That’s the captain,” Bethany said. “Nash Havora.”

“He’s younger than I am,” Liam said, a hint of amusement in his voice, “and already a captain.”

“He must have graduated at a very early age,” Reznik said.

“Long before any of us enrolled, I’m sure,” Liam said. “I think he entered Tellisburg when he was twelve.”

Bethany smiled faintly. “Pretty much what you’d expect, given his status.”

Madeline’s eyes drifted across the room. “This is the entire upper platoon, then? Most of these avets can’t have graduated that long ago.”

“You’re a lot of fresh faces, that’s for sure,” Bethany agreed with a chuckle.

Three reps later, Captain Nash Havora took a seat behind a table next to the podium, while the older man stepped up to it. Even from the outer edge of the room, the wrinkles and scars stood out on his face. His midlength hair was jet black on top but mostly grayed at the ends. His hardened look easily distinguished him as a seasoned veteran. He produced a gavel, which he pounded on the podium, immediately silencing the room. A short, pudgy soldier with shortly cropped brown hair and a plain navy blue uniform entered through a side door and made his way to the table next to the podium. He took a seat beside the captain and dropped a stack of papers onto the table.

The man with the gavel began to speak, his voice resounding throughout the auditorium.

“Avets, let us begin. For those of you who don’t know, I am Vice Captain Parsons. With me is Captain Havora. We shall preside over the orientation and partition of the Upper 26th. If you are not a member of the platoon, please leave at once and redirect to your assigned meeting place.”

He paused and looked around. Seeing that none of the avets moved from their seats, he said, “Good. Now, as you know, the captain oversees the upper platoon directly, so you will report to him. Nevertheless, if I issue a direct order in his stead, you are to obey it without question. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!” the avets chorused.

Quincy Parsons stepped from behind the podium and began to pace back and forth in front of it. “The platoon will be split into seventeen squads, and within each squad, a sergeant will be appointed as lead. Most squads in the 26th are based around collective mobilization. Of course, there will be several specialized squads. Aranow, Colonel Gavere’s adjutant here, has the assignments.”

He stopped pacing and turned in place, addressing the avets in each direction.

“He will now organize you by your squads. Each squad is to group together in its designated area. Bunkmates are automatically assigned to the same squad, so if you’re not sure which group you belong to, look for your bunkmate. You may all stand.”

On cue, the soldiers rose from their seats and awaited the squad announcements. The seated soldier, Aaron Aranow, snatched up his papers and made his way to the podium. He spoke quickly but clearly and went through the entire roster within ten reps. After a shuffling of bodies, Reznik and Madeline found themselves assigned to the 9th Squad. This meant that Liam and Bethany were also with them.

Parsons stood behind the podium again. He politely motioned for Aranow to leave, and the adjutant exited through the side door in a hurry.

“That will be all for now. Sergeant appointments will be made squad by squad. We are to set out in two days. General Leynitz will lead the offensive, along with colonels Gavere and Dyers. Colonel Gavere will be our direct superior. He will introduce himself to you before we set out.” He paused to survey the room. “We will be striking preemptively and with great ferocity. Be prepared and well rested. The captain and I will now have a few words with each squad individually. Please remain seated until your squad is called.”

Madeline gave Reznik a nudge and whispered, “The captain didn’t say a single word.”

When the time came for the 9th Squad to step forward, nine of the squad members lined up in front of the table where the captain and Parsons sat.

Reznik, Madeline, Liam, and Bethany fell in line next to a tall young man with long, messy black hair and several scars across his throat. Liam appeared to recognize the man and gave a nod, to which the man nodded vigorously before straightening up and staring forward.

Nash Havora remained seated, examining each of them in turn. When his bright blue eyes fell on Bethany, he finally spoke in a soft voice. “Avet Lane.”

Bethany stepped forward and saluted. “Yes, sir.”

“You are the senior member of this squad and a veteran of the Coronation War. I have no doubt that the other avets will rely on your experience. I chose you specifically to be part of a squad that I have singled out for … for … I expect much from you all. The assessments from your respective academies are among the best that our company has to offer. All of you have extremely high-scoring training records.

“Avet Remington.” Nash paused to clear his throat. He looked uncomfortable, and when he resumed his speech, his words tumbled out of his mouth rapidly and a bead of sweat ran from his short blond hair across his right temple and down his fair-skinned cheek. He leaned forward as he spoke, his hands gripping the podium tightly. “You will lead this squad as sergeant. Avet Lane, I trust that you will ably assist him and your other squad members in times to come.”

“Of course, sir,” Bethany responded without a moment’s hesitation.

Reznik’s eyes darted between Liam, Bethany, Nash, and Parsons. Madeline noticed this and knew exactly what he was thinking. She, too, was puzzled at the choice of sergeant.

Nash reached into his pocket and pulled out a small object. Walking around to Liam, he extended an open palm. Resting in it was a bronze sergeant’s pin, similar to the ones used on the collars of military dress uniforms, though much larger in size. Liam hesitantly reached out and took it in his left hand, withdrawing it quickly. With his right, he saluted formally. Nash returned the salute.

“Thank you, sir,” Liam said graciously.

Nash nodded. “You are all dismissed.”

The entire squad saluted Nash and Parsons before dispersing. Without waiting for anyone else, Reznik turned and marched up the aisle and out the door. Madeline stared curiously after him.

—3—

Madeline arose the following morning to find Bethany shaking her shoulder.

“It’s time to go.”

She yawned and rolled out of bed. It was still a day away from deployment, and she had hoped to get a chance to rest after the long journey, but their new sergeant had other plans. Liam wanted the squad to meet for an equipment check before most of the other squads woke. The equipment rooms on the second floor were divided by company and platoon. Since equipment checks were mandatory, Liam did not want his squad’s executed when it was too crowded.

Once Madeline finished dressing, she and Bethany made their way to the second floor. Their platoon’s equipment room contained armor and weapons that lined the walls, while various bags and accessories were placed on and under benches. Wooden dividers separated the equipment sets, providing each soldier with his or her own personal equipment space, labeled with a brass nameplate.

At the back of the room, Madeline and Bethany saw several soldiers chatting and checking their equipment. Madeline did not recognize them and assumed they must be from another squad.

“There,” Bethany pointed.

Madeline turned her attention to where several members of the squad stood. Reznik was with them; it took a few ticks before he recognized the people walking toward him as Madeline and Bethany; he waved once he did.

The two women greeted him as they approached and proceeded to find their respective spaces and began going through their equipment.

“Where is our sergeant?” Bethany asked.

Reznik frowned.

“No sign of him yet. He was gone when I woke.”

Next to Reznik stood a young man and woman, both blue-eyed and exceptionally tan for Coranthians. They appeared to be twins. Slightly farther away from them, a plain young woman with short, faded black hair was searching through a large dark green bag.

The male twin spoke. “He arrived quite early, as my sister and I did. Then he left to gather the rest of you.”

His accent clearly indicated he was from a small Outlands town in the north.

Bethany nodded. “He should be here shortly then.”

The female twin turned to address Madeline and Bethany in the adjacent spaces.

“By the way, I’m Amy Trenton. This is my brother, Alphonse.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Alphonse said with a wave. The pair oozed enthusiasm. Madeline and Bethany returned with their own introductions.

“So, where are you two from?” Madeline asked, removing a gladius from the wall.

“Warrenhill,” Amy said, brushing her long black hair casually out of her eyes.

“Ah. My friend and I are from Jardis, actually,” Madeline said. She pointed to Reznik, who gave no indication that he had he heard his name being spoken.

“I have to say, you two look rather young to be in the military,” she continued.

The twins laughed.

“We get that a lot, but we’re eighteen,” Alphonse said. “Pa used to run our farm, but he got in an accident and can’t work anymore, so …”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Madeline said, feeling a sorrowful twinge as an image of her own father flashed through her head.

“You meet any of our other squadmates yet?” Amy asked. “Besides your friend, that is. And Avet Lane, I guess.”

“Please, call me Bethany.”

“I met the sergeant briefly,” Madeline responded.

Her gaze drifted toward the woman with the short black hair. Madeline decided to walk over. It was apparent from the contents of the woman’s large bag, as well as the small red heart sewn onto its side, that the fair-skinned young woman was the squad’s medic.

“Hi, I’m Madeline. Nice to meet you.”

The young woman nodded. “Patrice Konith.” She resumed going through her bag and said nothing more.

Madeline smiled, causing Patrice to blush.

“She doesn’t say much,” Reznik said from behind her.

Madeline turned around and grinned. “Well, then apparently you two have a lot in common.”

“Anyway,” Alphonse said, “we ran into the sergeant last night. He doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. We were both wondering why he was made sergeant instead of you, Miss Bethany. Still, it doesn’t seem right to hold it against him.”

Amy began to add, “Sergeant Remington, he—”

“I what?” came Liam’s voice, startling her. The group turned to see their sergeant with a short, ponytailed man and the tall man with the scarred throat. Counting quickly, Reznik noticed that one squad member was not with them.

“So what were we talking about?” Liam asked, appearing somewhat flustered.

“My sister here,” Alphonse said with a smirk, “was telling us what a wonderful person you are, Sergeant.”

The look of fear on Amy’s face elicited chuckles from Madeline and Bethany. Liam took it in stride and smiled warmly.

“I don’t think everyone has been properly introduced. This is Philip Dyson.” Liam gestured at the scarred man beside him, who gave a slight nod but said nothing.

“Please don’t judge his silence. He cannot speak. He is not being rude.”

Amy and Alphonse exchanged curious looks.

“And this,” Liam gestured to the shorter man, “is Josef Reinbach.”

“It is my great pleasure to meet everyone,” Josef said in a thick Doromalian accent.

Josef appeared a little older than the others, and Madeline would have found him quite attractive if not for his below-average height. He sported a thin build and a sharply handsome face with pale skin and dark eyes. His hair fell past his shoulders in a thick, dark brown ponytail. His accent was difficult to understand. It was not uncommon for Doromalian families to move to Coranthia and serve in the army or have their children serve, though Madeline and Reznik had little exposure to foreigners at Tellisburg. Most Doromalian recruits attended either of the country’s other two military academies.

With introductions out of the way, the members of the 9th Squad resumed attending to their equipment, making sure everything was there and in acceptable condition. After going through his own equipment, Liam assisted the other squad members.

When Liam checked on Reznik, the latter spoke tersely. Liam was not oblivious to the tension, but decided not to push the matter. For his part, Reznik was bothered by Liam’s inexperience. The sergeant had originally called the group meeting as a team exercise, and Reznik could tell that Liam was at a loss as to what to do.

“Sergeant Remington?” Alphonse asked when Liam approached.

“Yes?”

“I heard you know a lot about this place. I was wondering why all the main facilities are on the second floor and not the first.”

“Oh, you want to know what’s on the first floor?” Bethany said, grinning mischievously at Alphonse. “It’s a prison.”

Alphonse’s eyes lit up. “Prison?”

“Yes,” Liam said, shaking his head at Bethany. “That’s where they keep prisoners of war. It’s not like you’d be able to get in anyway. It’s only accessible from the stairs on the Crossway. I’d imagine you’d have more luck breaking into Castle Coranthis.”

“Interesting. What happens to the prisoners?” Alphonse asked.

“I don’t know for certain. Only high-ranking officers and prison staff really do. I …” Liam seemed vexed. “Let’s not talk about this anymore. Is your equipment in good order?”

“Yes, sir.”

Liam continued to converse with Alphonse about more casual topics. Given his urban upbringing, he was particularly interested in the lifestyle of a commoner in the Outlands.

“I can’t help but notice we have a squad member missing,” Bethany commented after several reps.

The flustered look returned to Liam’s face. “Yes, well … Avet Marcole will not be joining us this morning.”

Bethany raised her eyebrow. “I see.”

“He’s a real ass,” Alphonse chimed in.

“What?” Liam said as everyone turned to look at Alphonse.

“Cyrus Marcole. He’s my bunkmate. A real ass, and he keeps to himself most of the time. Haven’t talked to him, but I don’t want to either. Maybe he’s permanently depressed about that ugly scar on his face.”

Liam rubbed the back of his neck. “He does seem to have a rather unaccommodating demeanor, but there’s no need for you to reciprocate his negativity, Avet Trenton.”

Alphonse looked down at the ground, shrugging embarrassedly.

After half an arc, the equipment check was completed. Liam announced his plans to eat dinner in the main mess hall on the second floor at seven arc and invited everyone to join him. The squad dispersed, and its members went their separate ways. Reznik waited in the hallway for Madeline to catch up with him. She had stayed behind to get in a few words with Bethany and the twins.

“They seem like a decent group,” Madeline said, as she strolled up alongside Reznik.

Reznik nodded. “I’m a bit concerned about our shy medic. Does she seem like the type who can handle the stress of medical emergencies?”

Madeline laughed. “She’s probably just nervous. After all, we’re still strangers.”

“And there’s also the fact that we have a mute, a loner, and an inexperienced sergeant,” Reznik continued.

Madeline frowned. “You’re being too hard on Sergeant Remington.”

“What?”

“You were giving him the cold shoulder. Did you think you were being subtle?”

“No, not really,” Reznik said sourly. “I haven’t been entirely outgoing with him either.”

“As opposed to how you usually are,” Madeline observed.

Reznik let out a short laugh. “Right.”

“Did you manage to see Glen or Douglas yesterday? I looked as I walked around but never ran into them.”

“No, I didn’t really remember to …” Reznik trailed off.

With that, Madeline understood that Reznik was probably just as anxious as she was about the upcoming battle, as was everyone else in the squad. Seeing the worry seep through the cracks of Reznik’s stony countenance comforted her. She knew that she would not be alone in facing their upcoming ordeal.

Turning to Reznik, she reached out and impulsively pulled his ear, causing him to start.

“Come on, let’s get some breakfast,” she said cheerfully, giving him a warm smile.

Reznik stared at her in surprise, but the muscles in his face relaxed. His lips twitched, not fully forming a smile, though drawn less tightly nonetheless. “Might as well. Let’s go.”

She gave him a playful shove as the two of them continued on to the mess hall.

Chapter 5

(987.1.50)

General Marsell Leynitz scanned the ranks of soldiers lined up beyond the eastern entrance to the Aldova Bridge. At thirty-eight years old, he was the younger of the two active Coranthian generals, while equal in every other way. Impressively perched atop his majestic white durion, Silvermane, he trotted from one end of the formation to the other, inspecting the Coranthian forces with his dark brown eyes. He wore heavy steel armor with ornate gold trimming. Affixed to his chest plate, an aeron general’s Coranox reflected the sunlight, which was pouring down overhead. His majestic gold-trimmed blue cape flowed in the breeze. He carried his open-faced helmet, no less adorned than his armor, under his arm.

Leynitz was the portrait of a consummate Coranthian elite, a count and the recent inheritor of a prominent Lynderan estate of stellar repute. Though short, he was handsome, well-built, and projected effortlessly when he spoke. Uncommon among Coranthian men, his black pompadour shone, matching in color an impressive handlebar mustache that added to his distinguished appearance. One of the youngest to ever ascend to generalship, he was doted on by Samsen and the Assembly, in equal measure. Many of the estated saw him as the current military standard-bearer. He had, with great rigor and efficiency, scouted the Amelaren side of the Corridor immediately after the Elsin Massacre and, with the approval of Samsen and Minister Velmann, developed a robust mobilization protocol in far less time than anyone thought possible. Along with the senior general, Leopold San Mortigan, who presided over the defenses at Aldova, Leynitz had been tasked with mounting a preemptive offensive designed, primarily, to make a statement about Coranthian might. Using the intelligence he gathered, he chose to expand the initial plan and shape it into a full offensive campaign.

Ten companies in all, just over one-quarter of the entire army, fanned out before him: fully armed, statuesque, and ready to march at first call. They would be led by colonels Gavere and Dyers, directly commanding the 5th and 7th companies, respectively. The colonels, captains, and vice captains led their respective companies and platoons atop their steeds at the edges of the formation. All awaited the general’s address.

Twenty surveyors sent by the Assembly to observe the proceedings and battles stood to the side. Unlike the soldiers, who wore the necessary armor over their standard military uniforms, the surveyors wore relatively light armor underneath dark gray robes. The group’s leader, Nelhart, reported directly to Sebastian Eurich, First Chair of the Assembly of Lords. Leynitz was less than pleased that the Assembly felt it necessary to send them. Having to accommodate the surveyors while running an efficient campaign was a loathsome inconvenience. He had no love for Eurich either, though ultimately he was resigned to the situation. He sought to make the most of an opportunity to make a positive impression on the First Chair and, by extension, the Assembly as a whole. Above all else, Leynitz served the king as a soldier, though he was also implicitly involved in Coranthia’s political vortex as a general. Keenly aware that his ability was judged as a reflection of the king, he accepted the incommodious fact that such bureaucratic lackeys and lesser men, including this Nelhart, were pivotal to the balance of power between sovereign and aristocracy. It served only to more strongly fuel his eagerness to make the upcoming operation a success. Before that, however, he had to impart a few words to his troops.

Leynitz motioned toward the soldiers who stood before him. “Behold our strength.” He retracted his hand and clenched it into a fist. “They will fall easily under our might.”

As he spoke, he turned Silvermane around and directed him to the central columns of the formation, where his direct command, the 3rd Company, stood at attention. Leynitz reined in his horse and slowly turned his head, making eye contact with as many of his soldiers as he could. He glanced at his second, Colonel Radley Lariban, watching him intently from atop his zephyr, Vermilion, named, quite apparently, for its color.

“Despite the ill-bred nature of our enemies, they had the presence of mind to erect a base and several small outposts on Argiset Plateau during their occupation. Argiset is critical to our current and future offensives against them. We shall take it with extreme prejudice. But,” he enunciated, wagging a finger, “we will not raze their structures. Instead, we shall occupy and fortify them ourselves. It will be a forceful message that even brutes like them will understand.”

Colonel Dyers let out a guffaw that he quickly muffled.

“Unfortunately, this means we cannot afford to escort the Engineering Company. We must rely on our initiative if we are to minimize losses. In two days, we will overrun the plateau and sweep it clean of any Amelaren presence. I will direct you to make use of your utility training and lay structural foundations for the engineers. They will depart precisely three arcs from now and reach Argiset on the night of the second after we have secured the plateau.”

Leynitz dug the heels of his boots softly into Silvermane’s side, directing the horse toward the road that led into the highlands, from whence he could view the entire deployment. He turned Silvermane to face the soldiers.

“There shall be only one night’s rest at Argiset. Ertel Ridge must fall shortly thereafter. I acknowledge the unease with which some of you may regard this second phase of operation, but make no mistake, we shall succeed. We will blitz their feeble garrison and show them the might of the Coranthian Army!”

“Yes, sir!” chanted the soldiers in unison.

“After we demolish their forces at Ertel, we will fortify the base there and defend it until construction at Argiset is completed, which will serve to supply us in our fight against the Amelarens. The rest of the army’s companies will join us at Ertel, bringing fresh supplies. Then, we shall march deep into the heart of Amelares, avenging our fallen brothers and sisters at Elsin. Never again will they be allowed to threaten our homelands with such cowardly atrocities!”

The soldiers roared in agreement. Several even raised their weapons high into the air.

Leynitz briefly basked in the cheers before motioning for silence. “We will depart within the arc,” he said once it was mostly quiet. “Your captains will brief you further. That will be all.”

Snapping his reins, he veered his horse northward. The 3rd Company moved forward and fell neatly into step behind him. Riding alongside the 3rd, Lariban caught up to the general and joined him at the front of the formation.

Standing near the southern end of the array, the 26th Company turned its attention to their young captain, Nash Havora, who was steadying his horse while talking in a low voice to Vice Captain Parsons. Several rows deep within the formation, Madeline was unable to hear anything they said over the discordant pockets of conversation that had broken out among the soldiers around her.

“A fine speech,” Josef said. He spoke to no one in particular, bobbing his head up and down, his ponytailed hair oscillating in rhythm. He leaned against his lance, firmly planted into the ground.

Patrice glanced around impatiently. She caught Josef’s eye and asked quietly, “I wonder what the captain will say?”

Josef shrugged, but Patrice did not have to wait long to find out. Nash broke from his huddle with Parsons, petting the dark mane on his large tan durion, Alma. Then, he gave her a firm pat and trotted forward to address his command.

“Attention!” Nash pronounced. He snapped his left arm straight into the air to command attention and then quickly lowered it to adjust his glasses. “The 26th will assault the fortification at Argiset from the northwest along with the 5th, 28th, 17th, and 35th. Stay in formation and follow my orders and those of the vice captain. Any contingent orders from Colonel Gavere will go through me, unless he speaks directly to us, so you are to obey only our instructions.”

He paused to clear his throat. When he resumed, his voice was noticeably less intense. “I know … I know that most of you will be tested in battle for the first time … But our victory is assured! Let’s all make it through this. Sergeants, prepare your squads to move out!”

Nash paused to wipe the drops of sweat rolling down his forehead. He remained still for several ticks as he looked out at his company before turning Alma around and heading back to the head of the formation where he had remained for Leynitz’s speech.

Standing one row ahead of Madeline, Reznik turned around, an incredulous expression plastered across his face. She shrugged in return.

Avet Cyrus Marcole snickered from two rows behind her. His slicked-back black hair shone in the morning sun. A tan man with hazel eyes, he had a long, prominent scar across the bridge of his nose that started on the left side of his forehead and ran halfway down his right cheek. This morning was the first time he had made himself present to the rest of his squad, much to Liam’s chagrin. Everyone but Cyrus—including an unenthusiastic Reznik—had attended dinner with Liam the previous evening.

“Another fine speech,” Josef said, nodding once again, though speaking in a wholly different tone.

Not moving to face his squad, Liam said sternly, “I daresay have some respect, avets.”

Bethany glanced at Liam and then turned around and said smoothly, though firmly, “This will be the captain’s first real battle as well. He may have had his position for some time, but patrol duty does little to prepare you for real combat. He is likely suffering from the same nerves as many of you, so give it a rest and stand ready.”

Josef straightened and said no more. Cyrus mumbled something to himself and then fell silent as well.

Reznik snuck a glance back at Madeline and gestured toward Bethany with an expectant look on his face. She shook her head and made a twirling motion with her finger, indicating that he should revert to proper stance. Reznik gave a shoulder shrug and obliged.

Ten reps later, Leynitz returned on his steed, though not accompanied by the 3rd Company. After brief exchanges with both colonels at the head of the formation, he jerked upward and yanked on his reins. Silvermane whinnied harshly and kicked up a cloud of dust. Leynitz brandished his sword and pointed it eastward.

“My fellow countrymen,” he shouted, “it is time to set forth on our righteous campaign. I look forward to seeing all of you stand tall atop Argiset in two days. Move out!”

“Yes, My Lord!” the collective before him intoned. Leynitz raised his sword high in the air as a horn sounded to the north.

“Forward!” Gavere and Dyers shouted.

The collective of Coranthian men and women commenced its march into Amelaren lands. The forceful rhythm of boots on soil resounded through the cold morning air, tolling the onset of war anew.

Chapter 6

(987.2.02)

—1—

Traveling fifty kilometers eastward over six arcs, the army, which numbered almost thirty-eight hundred in all, took respite atop a lightly wooded and easily defensible hill southeast of Pyrean Valley. The more direct route to Argiset was through the valley, but the narrow paths through the winding cliffs were not conducive to the movement of a large force. Even then, the detour required the navigation of several ridges, during which the need for caution slowed progression for more than an arc. Nevertheless, the troops remained on schedule. Forward scouts from Delmond Cleft, one of two forward bases flanking Aldova, had already been dispatched to the designated campsite to set up for the night. The Coranthian forces arrived just before midnight. Leynitz brought up the rear and declared that they would resume the march not long after dawn, which allowed for slightly over three arcs worth of rest. Night-watch shifts were established; most of the soldiers fell asleep quickly after having endured a long day’s journey.

The sun had just begun to peek over the horizon when Gavere and Dyers were summoned by Leynitz. They found him outside the tent, dressed in his officer’s coat, his aeron Coranox glistening from his left breast pocket. He held an apple in one hand and was feeding Silvermane. Occasionally, he paused to take a swig of brandy from the small flask in his other hand; it was a sight that was familiar to his closest subordinates.

“We should make good time,” Leynitz said, tossing the apple core aside and, absentmindedly, patting his steed. “Gavere, I want your troops to lead the charge.”

Armand Gavere, heavyset and powerfully built, spoke in a deep voice that projected gravitas. “I would be honored, My Lord.”

“I want this to be a tad unconventional,” Leynitz continued. “If old man Mortigan were here, his plan would involve some sort of systematic rout, but I wish to capitalize on our initiative. We have to take the fight to them and do it quickly, without overemphasis on procedure. Gavere, you need to flood their ranks and scatter them as quickly as possible. Get a foothold inside their outpost and then defend from within. Dyers will provide external reinforcement. We’ll save time this way.”

Gavere nodded, stroking his short, neatly trimmed beard.

Theodore Dyers stepped forward. He was an impish man with the face of a bulldog; people found him hard to approach; his levelheaded nature and rationality, and not his charisma, were what ultimately qualified him as a colonel.

“I don’t mean to question your judgment, sir, but wouldn’t that incur heavier losses than if we marched in formation?”

“Perhaps,” Leynitz responded at once, as if he had already anticipated that Dyers would say something to that effect, “but the likeliness of similar losses would be quite high if we gave the Amelarens the time to mobilize. These next few arcs will be critical. If we are to facilitate the construction of our forward base while maintaining the momentum of this offensive all the way to Ertel, there is no better option.”

“Very well, My Lord,” said Dyers.

They all stood silently for several ticks until Gavere spoke. “Do you really think this will work, sir?”

“Yes.” Leynitz took a large swig and looked solemnly at Dyers. “I’m sure you have your doubts as well, Theodore, but this is our one chance to surprise them with the swiftness of our attack. If we miss this opportunity, we may find it significantly more difficult to take the mountain base later. It must work. Any other questions?”

When neither colonel spoke, Leynitz said, “Then let’s move out. May Creon be with us today, gentlemen. I will see you both after our victory.”

The two colonels saluted Leynitz before mounting their horses and rode back to their respective battalions.

Most of the captains had already rounded up their troops and were ready to head out. After a cursory examination of the formation, Gavere led the 5th Company forward. The other companies under his command followed closely behind. Shortly afterward, Dyers set out with the second wave. Leynitz’s 3rd brought up the rear.

By four arc, Gavere’s five companies—the 5th, 26th, 28th, 17th, and 35th—had reached the outskirts of the Amelaren perimeter at Argiset Plateau. The colonel climbed to the top of a small, thicketed hill and surveyed the defenses with a team of scouts from the 5th. A kilometer away, a small fort stood as the nexus of the Amelaren base, with many small, flimsy watchtowers radiating outward from its position. Haphazardly erected sandbags littered the bases of the towers. Gavere took all of this in and ordered the scouts to estimate how many defenders could be seen from their perch. After reaching a consensus, he descended to the bottom of the hill, where his captains awaited his orders on horseback.

“Given the number and size of their towers, it is reasonable to assume that two-thirds of their numbers are inside the fort,” Gavere told them. “Going by the scouts’ count, there are about three-fifty outside the fort … probably about eight hundred in all.”

Captain Gregory Valteau of the 35th Company asked whether that fell within the expected range.

“There are likely more than were anticipated,” Gavere replied. “The estimate is conservative, as we cannot see inside the fort. It is of little import. We overwhelm them in numbers. Let us not waste any more time.”

Gavere raised his hand and motioned for the captains to return to their respective companies. Nash, who stood slightly apart from the other captains, trotted slowly back to where the 26th stood. He felt his stomach knot as he relayed Gavere’s orders to Parsons.

“Anytime now,” Nash muttered. “Are the soldiers prepared?”

“They are simply awaiting the command, Captain,” Parsons said, donning his helmet and readying his lance. “Perhaps you should line up as well, sir.”

Nash nodded and gave Alma a slight nudge with his boot. He waded through the ranks of his command to join the 1st Squad at the rear of the formation. He was one of the few captains who did not lead from the front, as he was also a medic. Once he reached his position, he steadied Alma to a halt, removed his glasses and placed them in the pouch he wore on his belt.

As Nash passed Madeline on his way back, she caught the anxious look on his face, which did little to relieve her rising pulse. She was struck by the changes in most of her squadmates. Tension oozed out of most everyone around her, as all were acutely aware that the battle would begin at any moment. Straining to suppress her nerves while maintaining stance, Amy repeatedly clenched and unclenched her fist to relieve the rigidity in her arm, but her other hand virtually strangled the gladius it held. Cyrus bobbed his head up and down faintly, his sword and shield up, ready to fight. Reznik was still, his eyes locked straight ahead, frozen in concentration. His weapons were lowered but held firmly. Only Liam, standing fully upright at the front of the 9th Squad’s two-column formation, Bethany, whose dark green eyes were closed as she took measured, tranquil breaths, and Josef, who was scraping dirt from his lance with his fingernails, seemed relatively at ease.

The sounding of a trumpet by Aranow, Gavere’s adjutant, came as a surprise to Madeline, as she expected a more conventional vocal cue from the colonel. She realized the faultiness of her reasoning; there was no need for subtlety. The Coranthians would rush headlong into the Amelaren position. She was only partly conscious of moving with the rest of the troops as they circled the hills behind. Weapons were drawn and shields were raised—they marched up the hill and out onto the plateau. The Amelarens came into view.

From their perspective, the Amelarens saw plainly that the enemy made no attempt to disguise their numbers or intentions. Lookouts atop the watchtowers shouted urgently. With only half a kilometer between the Coranthians and the fort, there was not much time before the two forces would clash. The Amelaren warriors immediately stirred and assumed defensive positions. Others emerged from within the central fort.

Amelaren military structure vastly differed from that of the Coranthians. Unlike the Coranthian Army, which was divided into squads, platoons, and companies, Amelaren warriors fell under the direct command of one of the war chiefs or the warlord himself, Orlen. The forces of each war chief typically numbered up to four thousand warriors, sometimes even more. Each war chief’s command was wholly independent, barring any direct commands from the warlord. Some war chiefs preferred to divide their forces into smaller platoons led by chiefs and lesser chiefs, known as elbars and ilbars, respectively. Such was the case with the Amelaren fortification on Argiset. War Chief Tallen had given the commander at Argiset a young elbar named Rengvir, two ilbars, and the equivalent of two companies in the Coranthian Army for defense. Rengvir grew thoroughly agitated, having been reassured several days earlier that reinforcements from Ertel Ridge were on their way and that Argiset would be properly fortified before the Coranthians attacked. Reflecting on the message he had sent to War Chief Tallen, in which he swore an oath to defend Argiset to the death, he realized that he was soon likely to fulfill that oath. Upon being asked by his ilbar for orders, he offered nothing of value, simply telling him to prepare for battle and that the warriors must cut down the Coranthian maggots at all costs. Before long, his blood had completely boiled over. Facing impending catastrophe as the Coranthians advanced on the fort, he knew, nevertheless, that as an elbar, he would be irreparably shamed were he to renege on his word and flee. Thus, his frenzy grew without bound as the Coranthian ranks steadily advanced toward him.

All of the warriors wore garbs or armor painted in the color of their war chief; Tallen’s warriors donned onyx, which made it easy for Gavere—who rode alone at the head of the Coranthian formation—to track their movements. Noting their imprecision, he bellowed in a rumbling bass, “They are in disarray. Hold the line!”

The captains and most of the soldiers on the front ranks shouted their acknowledgment.

Perched atop a horse he had named after his former wife, Gavere leaned over the animal’s ear and whispered, “Monica, you whore. You better not fail me today when I need you most!”

Monica whinnied in acknowledgment and Gavere let loose a throaty laugh.

The gradual but inexorable advance on the fort instilled a pronounced dread in the Amelarens, just as Gavere had intended. Seeing that they had no plans to retreat, and in light of Leynitz’s earlier words regarding the emphasis of overrunning the fort, he wanted to strike as severe a psychological blow as possible before any actual fighting began. His expectations crumbled when one of the Amelarens, ostensibly the commander, yelled incoherently and then broke from his position just in front of the entrance to the fort. Rengvir charged toward them at breakneck speed. Gavere quickly considered that perhaps the man, who appeared to blatantly disregard his own life, had snapped within. Within ticks, a number of the Amelarens let out raucous war cries and had followed their commander’s lead. Here was a group of warriors given to desperation and heading straight for the Coranthians. Gavere, who had tried to minimize potential chaos, knew now that it would be inevitable.

Maintaining his forward pace as the Amelarens came on quickly, Gavere was about to repeat his instructions to steady the line when he noticed Amelaren bowmen atop the watchtowers and roof of the fort, their bows notched with arrows and ready to fire. Though they were few in number, Gavere changed his mind, seeing no further need to preserve any pretense.

As he saw more Amelarens stream out of the fort, he hollered, “Full assault!”

The sounds of pounding metal and war cries filled the air as the Coranthians hurtled down the gentle slope of the plateau toward the oncoming Amelarens.

“Fan out!” Parsons cried from atop his horse, Castor. The lower 26th followed his lead. “Break formation and surround them! Make for the fort as soon as they’re neutralized!”

Taking the cue, Nash issued a similar order to his own platoon.

From the watchtowers and behind the makeshift sandbag walls, the archers fired rapidly and methodically. Several Coranthians in the front ranks were struck by arrows. Others fell, as some of the Amelarens produced hand axes and hurled them with all their might at the soldiers before them. This did little to stop the Coranthian advance, and the most forward Amelarens were soon met with and mowed down by dozens of soldiers. The leather armor worn by most of the Amelarens did not hold up well against Coranthian weaponry. Some of the more alert warriors—including the elbar, who came to his senses momentarily—quickly reversed their direction, attempting to lead the Coranthians closer to the fort to allow their bowmen on the towers clear shots.

Madeline could see the fort more distinctly as the Coranthians spread out. She felt the adrenaline surge within her. Screams and clashes of weapons rang in her ears. The Coranthians broke through the outermost ring of sandbags, cutting through any Amelaren defenders who stood in their way. She had still not raised her gladius against anyone but knew that it was only a matter of time. Arrows rained down on them as they pressed forward, and the majority of the Amelaren defenders stood ready near the fort. Just ahead of her, Bethany, who had been firing her crossbow as efficiently as possible while keeping pace with the rush, finally pulled out her combat knife. Reznik, who was level with Madeline, caught her eye and gave her a firm nod. Madeline took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“Squad, listen up!” Liam shouted. “Stick together, even if they separate us from the rest of the platoon!”

From behind, Madeline heard Nash yelling for the troops to hold formation.

The Coranthians breached ring after ring of sandbags and swarmed the outer watchtowers. As Parsons approached one tower closest to him, an archer, who had been firing ceaselessly at them, abruptly laid down his weapon and waved his arms in the air, shouting his surrender. Parsons saw him and, in one swift motion, took out a throwing knife and hit him in the leg. The archer cried out, mostly in surprise, dropping his bow and grabbing at the steel that was lodged in his leg. Before he could recover, another Amelaren shoved him over the side of the tower to the ground. The new Amelaren picked up the bow and began firing into the ocean of Coranthian soldiers.

The scene fell into further disarray. The Coranthian blitz slowed as they met fiercer resistance. They attempted to surround and overwhelm the enemy, but the Amelarens maneuvered to use the Coranthians’ own movements against them. As a result, the Coranthians ran into one another, sometimes tripping each other, allowing the Amelarens to take advantage of the confusion and indiscriminately attacking anyone they came across, driven by various degrees of instinct, bloodlust, and desperation.

Suddenly, the line split wide open in front of Madeline. A group of around forty Amelaren warriors engaged the 26th Company in direct combat. Coranthian soldiers scattered as Madeline lost sight of her squadmates in a haze of wood and steel. For a tick, she thought she heard Reznik calling her. An ear-splitting wail rattled her to the bone. When she regained focus, she saw the body of a young Coranthian, whom she did not recognize, sprawled awkwardly on the ground, his broken face masked in blood. The Amelaren warrior who had bested him stood before her, staring into her eyes. Madeline was jarred to find that the warrior was a young woman of similar age. She had little time to process this before the woman let out a high-pitched cry and ran at her, gripping a battle-ax with both hands.

Fragments of memories from her training and conditioning at Tellisburg, seemingly eons ago, flashed instantly through Madeline’s mind. She felt not fully in control of her body. Everything around her slowed as the Amelaren, who held her ax high in the air, suddenly swung her arms to the side and prepared to slash at Madeline horizontally, trying to catch her off guard. Her heart pounding, Madeline squeezed the gladius in her right hand and ducked precisely as the ax sliced just above her head. In one swift motion, she thrust upward with the sword, stabbing the Amelaren through the chest. The woman’s eyes bulged as she tumbled backwards, letting out a harsh and terrible gasp. Frantically, Madeline yanked out her combat knife and lunged again, even though the Amelaren no longer resisted. Putting all of her weight behind the knife, Madeline pushed the Amelaren. She found herself sprawled on top of her enemy, whose glazed eyes bore into hers. The woman’s face, seized with terror and despair, relaxed as her head rolled off to the side, the life having left her body. Yanking the knife out from what was now a corpse, Madeline felt lightheaded. It seemed to her that she was staring into a mirror, although the woman looked nothing like her.

Another Amelaren, a stocky man with long, wild hair, bore down on her. Her thoughts still scrambled, instinct alone propelled her as she pulled the gladius from the chest of the fallen woman and swung her legs around, tripping her new attacker, who appeared to have tried to stomp on her head. She sprung on top of the other Amelaren and brought her sword downward into his stomach and then immediately jumped back and watched as the man convulsed on the ground, fully incapacitated and doomed to expire.

Her thoughts finally regained focus. Stay with the troops. Take the fort.

She tripped over a rock and crawled back to reclaim her sword. Standing up, she quickly turned around and glanced at the body of the Amelaren woman. Her second victim bore little impact, but she could not resist one last look at the first, wondering who she might have been were she a Coranthian.

Think about this later, her mind said sternly.

Madeline turned and ran northward.

She had lost all sense of time, but eventually managed to find the 9th Squad. They had dispersed into smaller groups and followed the front-rank Coranthians, who continued to push toward the fort. Amy, Alphonse, and Cyrus had fallen behind, caught in the midst of an encounter with two much larger Amelarens. One charged Amy, who nimbly evaded several attacks but either did not want to retaliate or lacked the presence of mind to do so. As she struggled to anticipate the Amelaren’s next move, Alphonse crept behind and drove one of his javelins into the Amelaren’s back. The warrior bellowed, more out of surprise than pain, and toppled over. A few ticks later, the Amelaren scurried to his feet and took off, javelin still in his back. There was a wild look in Alphonse’s eyes, and his lips twitched involuntarily. He pulled out another javelin, but the Amelaren was already too far away to hit. Alphonse calmed himself and sighed. A mechanical grin spread across his face as he dropped his weapon and helped his sister to her feet.

Meanwhile, Cyrus was left to contend with the other Amelaren, who flailed at him with a pair of hand axes. Cyrus parried the blows, but one of the axes glanced off his sword and rang against his helmet, jarring it loose. Cyrus held his sword out in front of him, uninjured though dazed. Seeing the opening, the Amelaren roared and swung again. Cyrus reeled, his momentum carrying him backwards as the Amelaren lunged. Somehow, he swung his body around and rocked forward, sticking out the point of his blade and connecting with the side of the Amelaren’s neck. As the burly man collapsed into an untidy heap, Cyrus’s knees buckled, and he dropped to the ground, clutching and shaking his head, still ringing from the earlier blow.

“You all right?” came the sound of a voice from someone standing over him.

Cyrus said something unintelligible.

Madeline bent down, grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard. “Hey! Snap out of it!”

She shook him again and again.

Finally, he grabbed her hand and pushed it away. He squinted up at her and then swiveled his head around, observing the incessant clamor and bloodshed.

“I … Thanks.” Shakily, he got to his feet as Amy and Alphonse came behind Madeline.

“Let’s stay close until we can rejoin the others,” she said.

No sooner had she finished her sentence than a trumpet blared to the north. All of them turned toward the fort, where the Coranthian flag-bearer wildly waved his standard from the rooftop. Bodies littered the outside of the fort, most of them Amelaren. All of the inner towers had been claimed by Coranthian soldiers. While some of the Amelarens paid no heed and continued to fight, a few began to lay down their arms. The imposing figure of Colonel Gavere materialized next to the flag-bearer. His voice reverberated across the plateau.

“Enemies of Coranthia!” he boomed. “Throw down your weapons if you wish to live! Do not throw away your lives.”

Another soldier appeared on the roof, dragging a body behind him. Gavere reached down and yanked a heavy wooden necklace from the corpse’s neck. This was the symbol of an elbar, a token carved with the Mark of Orlen on a thick, metal chain and decorated with a coat of garish crimson war paint. Grasping Rengvir’s necklace tightly, he raised his hand and waved it vigorously, so all in the vicinity could see.

One by one, the surviving Amelaren defenders responded. While some threw down their arms, most resumed fighting even more feverishly, catching some of the Coranthians by surprise. Naturally, Coranthian soldiers fully expected a complete surrender from the Amelarens upon verifying the death of their commander, reflecting their own predispositions. As a result, the indignant Amelarens managed to register several more casualties. In the end, however, they were ruthlessly cut down, mainly by the members of the detachments led by Colonel Dyers, who had joined the fray by cleaning up pockets of resistance on the outskirts, as was according to plan.

Gavere surveyed the scene as the sounds of battle subsided. When he was satisfied, he proclaimed, “This battle is over! Argiset is ours!”

A roaring cheer rose from the Coranthian men and women left standing. The opening battle of the war had lasted slightly over half an arc.

—2—

Leynitz arrived with the 3rd Company one arc after Gavere had called for the Amelarens’ surrender. The general rode with fervor across the plateau and through the remnants of the base that was now under his control, holding his head high. Trailed by Lariban and a cadre of scouts, he inspected the perimeter of the fort and called for Gavere and Dyers to join him after he had circled the structure five times.

“I should have expected this … this shack,” he uttered disdainfully. “This won’t do at all. Its foundation appears weak. We’d do better to start from scratch and use this as an auxiliary station.”

“I presume we will build westward, then?” Dyers asked.

“Toward the Pyrean entrance, yes,” Leynitz said. “The engineers will start tomorrow morning. The 39th is to remain here and await reinforcements. We will lead the rest to Ertel in the morning.”

Around them, Coranthian soldiers cleared bodies from the vicinity of the fort. Those of their fellow countrymen were collected and set delicately aside, while the Amelaren corpses were hastily piled onto carts that the 3rd Company had brought along, and they were carried off to the east. Leynitz rested his eyes on the few surviving Amelarens who were bound and tied together, lined up against the outer sandbags.

“What do you suggest we do with the prisoners, sir? We can’t let them stay and gain any knowledge of our layout.”

“I agree,” Gavere said, “but we cannot afford to dedicate an escort back to Aldova. We should just slaughter them all.”

Leynitz cast a disapproving look in his direction.

“That joke is in rather poor taste, Armand.”

The colonel’s grin promptly vanished. “Apologies, sir.”

“There aren’t many,” Leynitz said. “I was right to assume that most would not surrender. Call Captain Shelton over.”

Jane Shelton, the veteran leader of the 39th Company and one of the few female captains, appeared shortly after Dyers summoned her.

“Captain, you will keep watch over the prisoners once we are gone. They are not to be let out for any reason. I will leave the size of the guard to you, but you must not allow a single Amelaren to bear witness to our construction efforts.”

“Yes, My Lord. Shall I herd them into the fort now?”

“No. I will oversee the prisoners personally tonight.”

“Very well, sir.” Captain Shelton saluted and took her leave.

While the army awaited the arrival of the engineers from Aldova, Gavere led an impromptu memorial for the fallen Coranthians, who numbered close to one hundred. Excluding Leynitz and several of his aides, who corralled the Amelaren prisoners into the fort, everyone was in attendance. Upon its conclusion, the troops began to set up campfires and tents in preparation to spend the night.

The sun descended slowly toward the horizon, and soldiers from different details began to mingle. The buzz of conversation filled the air as men and women helped each other with their tents. Occasionally there came sounds of compacted flutes and harmonicas as soldiers, who took on the additional burden of carrying their instruments to the front, eagerly indulged in playing music to inaugurate their respite. A large convention of scouts mixed with a smaller cadre of other soldiers broke into parties and set off to the northwest and southwest in search of forage or small game, eager to indulge in a feast before the onset of their next battle. Concurrently, a lone scout approached from the west and informed Leynitz that the engineers had arrived. Ten reps later, a group of men appeared on the same path that the army had taken and streamed into the camp.

—3—

Reznik and Liam established a campsite slightly west of the fort. After he finished pounding down the last stake of their tent, Liam immediately began to construct a crude dialette with stones and whatever other suitable debris he could find around him.

Reznik watched impassively as Liam worked and sensed that the sergeant wanted to say something to him. As predicted, Liam stood and turned to face Reznik upon completing the dialette.

“I may not have known you for long, but I can already tell you are one who usually speaks his mind.” Liam shifted his weight from foot to foot; he was clearly uncomfortable with the confrontation. “If you have a problem with me, just say it. It was the captain’s choice to make me sergeant, not mine.”

“I understand that,” Reznik said reluctantly. He seemed not to want to continue. He scanned Liam’s face.

“Do you?” Liam wondered aloud, staring straight into Reznik’s eyes. After several awkward ticks, he smiled faintly and shrugged. “Well, that’s good to hear. There’s no reason we shouldn’t get along then, right?”

Reznik merely nodded.

Wiping the dirt from his hands on his uniform, Liam told Reznik that he was going to help some of the other squads set up, given that they had already finished their own. He asked Reznik to join him, but Reznik declined, citing sore feet and fatigue. After finding and recruiting Philip to help, Liam absconded while Reznik started a fire.

When Reznik saw that Liam was no longer around, he sat down on a log brought to him by a designated supplier from Leynitz’s vanguard. He proceeded to clean his blade, wiping it and running it through the flames. Next, he went through his armor and boots, checking for cracks, tears, and other infirmities. When he finished, he looked around. He could see Amy napping inside her tent. Cyrus, huddled over his own campfire, nursed a bruised shoulder. His other squadmates were nowhere in sight. Reznik considered this for a moment before abruptly getting up and walking away.

He weaved through the mass of campsites and stopped occasionally to observe his surroundings. Reaching a cluster of tents about two hundred meters to the east of the fort, his face lit up in recognition. He quickened his pace, and before long, he stood before two familiar figures. One, a tall and thin but fit male with short, wavy brown hair and tanned skin, gave a cheerful shout upon sighting him.

“Not a speck of dirt on you,” Reznik observed, gesturing to the other man’s spotless outfit.

“Good to see you too,” Glen Emerett said sarcastically, tugging absently at his scout’s uniform and smoothing its creases. Seeing that Reznik was alone, he craned his neck. “Where’s Madeline?”

Hearing this, the short young man seated next to Glen stood up. Douglas Drake was rather heavyset but got to his feet in a flash. Waiting anxiously for a reply from Reznik, he adjusted his spectacles and scratched his matted brown hair.

Reznik raised his hand. “She’s fine, though I don’t know where she is. My entire squad is nowhere to be found. I think most of them may have gone hunting.”

Glen raised his eyebrows.

“And why aren’t you off with the hunters?” Reznik asked him.

“It’s dark. Wild animals. I’m tired. I think it’s an unnecessary risk for a bit of gluttony.”

“Your culinary standards are quite a bit lower than those of many here,” Reznik remarked with amusement. “It’s about the celebration, Glen. It’s a good way to mark such a decisive victory. Not that I disagree with you, though. I don’t care either.”

Noticing that Douglas—looking uncharacteristically gloomier and paler than usual—sat back down several paces away from the two of them, Reznik made eye contact with Glen and gestured inquisitively toward Douglas. Glen motioned for him to step out of earshot.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Reznik said in a low voice, as they walked randomly around the camps of other squads.

“One of our squadmates, Wheeler, had his arm partly severed,” Glen said. “He ran around looking for a medic when the Amelaren returned. The bastard actually grabbed his arm and ripped the rest of it clean off. Then he picked up it and pried Wheeler’s own sword loose from its grip to run him through with it.”

Glen shook his head in disgust. “It happened right in front of us. He came straight at Douglas after that.”

“What happened?”

“He froze.”

Reznik hung on to that for a moment and then prodded. “So …?”

“Well, we’re fine, aren’t we? Disaster averted.” Glen kicked up a patch of dirt from the ground.

“Some of us were like that our first time, Glen. He isn’t the only one here afflicted. How many of these Lynderans have never seen so much as a fistfight on the street?”

“You know, I have noticed that. Is it a good thing that we’re apparently so well-adjusted compared to non-Outlanders?”

“It’s not good or bad,” Reznik said. “Just the way it is. Still, I hope he snaps out of it soon.”

Glen looked back up. “He’ll get used to it eventually.”

“I’m worried about a lack of focus during the upcoming battle. We’ll all need our wits about us,” Reznik said.

A faint clamor caught their attention. Several hunting parties had returned from the shadows to the north and west and converged on Colonel Dyers, who stood north of the fort by the largest campfire and waved them toward him.

“There they are,” Reznik said. “They’re going to divide it up for only our most distinguished comrades, I’d imagine.”

“I’d imagine so,” echoed a new voice. “Come on, I’ll go grab some for us.”

Reznik turned to see Renard standing where Glen had been ticks ago. His best friend’s unblemished uniform hung loosely. Renard did not carry his lance, undoubtedly having dropped it off at the first opportunity. As usual, he stood in marked contrast to his surroundings by appearing completely at ease. “Never heard me coming, eh? I knew I should have been a scout.”

Glen had returned to his campsite, where he attempted, with minimal success, to engage Douglas in conversation. Reznik and Renard looked on.

“Sorry for eavesdropping,” Renard said, “but I think Douglas needs some company, so let’s all have dinner together. Where’s Madeline?” As Reznik pointed toward the hunting parties with a shrug, Renard continued smoothly, “No matter, we’ll find her after we get our hands on some … whatever they have.”

Reznik’s gaze lingered on Glen and Douglas. In turn, Renard studied Reznik and found something unfamiliar in the piercing eyes, stiff pose, and distinct but inscrutable expression, though he could not place it. Leaving his former classmates as they were, he hustled to where Dyers judiciously directed the apportionment of spoils from the hunting expedition, resolving to employ his charm on the colonel and procure an ample feast for his friends.

—4—

Renard returned to the campsite carrying a wooden board, atop which lay a small piglet. Looped around each forearm was a thick string tied to small knapsacks containing berries and melons.

“Well, boys! I’ve got quite a meal for us tonight,” Renard said, dropping the spoils. “What? You haven’t even started a fire yet? You’re all useless!”

Reznik had rejoined Glen and Douglas; they sat together, with Reznik slightly apart from the other two.

“Thanks for the food, Renard.” Douglas said sheepishly.

“Don’t mention it. Why don’t you come with me to get a spit so we can keep our dinner warm?”

“Sure,” Douglas said, standing and brushing some soot from his pants.

As the two headed back toward the crowd, dividing the spoils from the hunting expedition, Renard leaned over to Douglas once they were out of earshot and asked, “Doing okay?”

Douglas nodded. “It’ll just take some getting used to. I’m still green.”

“Aren’t we all?” Renard laughed. “This is also my first real campaign, you know?”

Douglas smiled. “You wouldn’t think it.”

They entered the crowd surrounding the spoils, where, near the food itself, several spits were set up to be distributed to the different company. Renard caught Dyers’ eye and nodded as he and Douglas lifted one of the spits.

“Up it goes,” Renard said, grunting as he held one end, while Douglas took the other.

They made their way back to where Reznik and Glen had managed to light a fire.

“Great!” Renard exclaimed. The four of them worked to skewer the piglet and mount it onto the spit, which they moved into place, roasting the piglet over the fire. They ate fruit while they waited for the meat to cook.

“How’s the family, Douglas?” Renard asked, breaking the silence.

Douglas shrugged sullenly.

“You know how it is. Nothing I do will ever be enough for them.”

Renard shook his head. “Sorry, that was stupid of me. Just making small talk. You don’t have to say more.”

Douglas sighed and picked at his hair.

“And yours, Glen?” Renard said looking toward his friend. “It feels like it’s been forever since we last saw each other.”

“It has,” Glen said. “Sorry, I wanted to catch you in Corande, but they shipped me over early. Shame, I heard I missed quite a party.”

Renard laughed heartily. “That you did.”

“My folks are fine, though,” Glen said as he bit into an apple. “They are a bit upset I had to leave when I did. Well, at the same time, I think they’re glad to be rid of me.” He stared into the distance.

“For Creon’s sake!” Renard shouted. “You’re all quite depressing! No wonder you’re such good friends.”

“Don’t be an ass,” Glen said.

“Now, now. Watch your tone when addressing a superior officer.”

The four of them broke into laughter.

“And how’s that working out for you?” Reznik asked, poking the fire.

Renard cocked his head slightly. “Oh, it’s not bad. I get the respect I’ve always deserved.”

“The respect you’ve always thought you deserved,” Reznik corrected.

“There is a serious amount of work, though.” Renard’s grin faded. “I don’t think I’ve ever had to try so hard in my life. And I’m privy to certain things that I’d rather not be privy to. It’s all useless politics.”

“Never had to try so hard in your life?” Reznik repeated. “That’s not really saying much, is it? The only thing you’ve ever tried hard to do is to set the bar as low as possible.”

Renard shrugged, feigning innocence, but his grin returned.

“So, nice little reunion we are having, huh? If only Madeline were here, then it’d be perfect!”

“And the prince,” Glen added.

At the mention of Prince Adrian, Reznik’s fist tightened slightly. “No.”

“Aw, but you two got along so well,” Renard teased.

“You needn’t remind me,” Reznik said.

Renard leaned forward. “What was it he put in your clothes? Itching powder?”

A voice from the darkness startled the group. “Lord Renault? Or should I say Vice Captain Renault? Is that you?”

Liam stepped into the light of the campfire.

Recognition dawned on Renard’s face. “Liam Remington! It’s quite a small world. Come join us!”

Renard moved aside so Liam could get through and sit across from him. Liam seated himself next to Reznik, who shifted uneasily.

“You’ll call me Renard, just like they do,” Renard grinned, gesturing to Reznik and the other two young men, whom Liam did not recognize.

“Oh? You know them?”

“My friends from Tellisburg. Well, I’ve known this one here much longer.”

Renard pointed casually to Reznik, who shrugged and said, “Hello, Sergeant.”

“Ah …” Now it was Liam’s turn to fidget.

“Sergeant, is it? Are you two on the same squad?” Renard asked.

Liam nodded and straightened.

“Yes, I’m the squad leader.”

Renard threw Reznik a glance and said, “I see. That’s good, that’s very good.” He burst out laughing. “Your squad isn’t giving you too much trouble, I hope?”

Liam smiled. “No, my squadmates are very reliable. They performed quite admirably in today’s battle.”

Renard nodded, though he appeared distracted by something. Switching topics, he began to discuss the upcoming yugo season with Liam. They fervently lamented the fact it had been ten years since Kantor’s team last won the championship. After the conversation gave way to dismayed silence, Renard told Liam that he had coaxed access to some spoils of the hunt, and he admitted, bashfully, while he could have taken less than he was offered by Dyers, he was unable to resist.

“Just as well that you showed up. It gives me an idea. Let’s split this extra food with your squad when they get back. We’ll supplement the good stuff with some of our rations. This way, people won’t hate us too much.”

Liam smiled.

“That’s very kind of you, Renard,” he said. “The rest of my squad has returned already, and we were about to set up to eat, but Avet Agilda insisted we find Avet Sylvera before we started. I told her I’d look for him. Seems I found a small feast as well!”

Renard chuckled. “We’ll join you. We can carry this stuff over to your squad’s camp.”

Liam nodded.

The five young men carried the spit and food supplies back to the camp. By the time they arrived, the rest of the squad had settled around the campfire, preparing to break out their rations. Some of them exclaimed when they saw Reznik and the others carrying the piglet. Madeline, who had been talking to Patrice Konith, jumped up and hurried to greet Renard and the other young men. As Madeline continued to chat with her friends, Liam sat next to Philip and stretched his tired legs.

Reznik moved to set the piglet on the spit. Josef and Bethany moved to help him, as Glen and Douglas settled themselves on the grass, slightly away from the rest of the group.

Renard looked around, the familiar smirk plastered over his face. “So, let’s get introductions out of the way, shall we? I’m starved.”

As the members of the 9th Squad began the meal by breaking out small portions of their rations, Renard settled in and made their acquaintances. Almost everyone already knew who Renard was and reacted accordingly. For his part, Renard sized up the members of the squad as he was introduced to each in turn. He had always found that he could conveniently discern much about a person simply by observing his or her eating habits.

A notable exception was Cyrus Marcole, who denied having heard of Renard and made no attempt to ingratiate himself to the visitor. This did not surprise Madeline in the slightest; nevertheless, she found it curious that he chose to sit with the rest of them. Amy and Alphonse did not know of Renard either, though they regarded him with interest. Amy, in particular, had a look of wonderment in her eyes, one that Madeline knew all too well and had seen all too often in the eyes of innumerable young girls meeting Renard for the first time. What struck a chord with Madeline was the fact that Liam and Renard knew each other; she had not known that Liam was from Kantor. Furthermore, Renard knew Philip as well.

“And Dyson is also here,” he acknowledged with a nod as the two of them shook hands.

Madeline took it upon herself to introduce Glen Emerett and Douglas Drake as friends of hers from Tellisburg, noting that they, along with her, Reznik, and Renard, had attended academy together. Knowing that Douglas would prefer not to stand out among a group in which the majority was unestated, she used his occasional alias of only his first and middle names, “Douglas Stover.”

Reznik continued to roast the piglet, assisted in turn by Josef. When it was ready, Renard called upon Liam to arrange the distribution of fruit and meat. Liam complied, making sure to give Glen and Douglas portions equal to those of his squadmates and offering Renard the largest portion, which the vice captain immediately refused. Liam insisted but to no avail, and ended up spreading the rest evenly across several other servings. He and his squadmates thanked Renard for the food, but Renard insisted they not venerate him in the slightest and claimed that he did not want to “draw unnecessary attention,” which elicited a rude guffaw from Madeline. To the surprise of most, Renard ceased talking once he began to eat, giving the food his full attention. Slowly, the members of the 9th Squad resumed chatting as they enjoyed their meals.

“I’m glad for this,” Josef said to Bethany, “but also thoroughly exhausted. I’ll be going to sleep shortly after dinner.”

“We’ll all need the rest,” Bethany agreed.

“There may not be much fighting while trekking through the canyons,” Liam said, “but we need to be on high alert the whole time.”

Reznik noticed how far away Glen and Douglas sat. The two ate in silence, though listened attentively to the conversation. Behind them, a pair of young women paced around a nearby campfire. They were hard to make out in the dark; Reznik thought they looked distinctly alike and guessed they were siblings. The only discernable difference between them was that they carried different weapons.

“There they are. Those are the two I told you about earlier,” Patrice said from across the campfire, nudging Madeline and pointing in the same direction.

“I’ve never heard of co-captains,” Madeline said. “Are they actually of the same rank?”

Bethany leaned in toward them. “Jasmine, the one with the ax, is officially captain of the 28th based on her performance record, but she refuses to be treated as superior to Rosalina, so within their command, they are of equal status.”

“They are really quite pretty,” Josef remarked.

Everyone turned to stare at him. There was a moment of silence before Renard burst out laughing.

“Were they both born in the second cycle?” Amy said, pulling her gaze away from Josef.

“You mean because of their names?” Liam said. “They’re twins, aren’t they?”

“The real question is which second cycle?” Alphonse wondered.

Bethany smiled. “I grew up with them, but even I forget, and they’ll never tell you. It’s their own inside joke.”

“How do you know them?” Patrice asked. “Did they fight in the Coronation War as well?”

“No, they were too young … but we’re all from Densley.”

“You’re also Lynderan, then?” Josef asked.

“That’s right.” Bethany looked around slowly. “I think I’m the only unestated Lynderan here.”

Everyone exchanged glances. Reznik, Madeline, Renard, and Glen stared knowingly at Douglas, who shrugged.

“What about you, Marcole?” Alphonse said.

Cyrus frowned, clearly displeased at having drawn attention.

“Calena,” he said curtly.

“I guess it does, then,” Bethany said.

“Bethany knows many people,” Liam remarked approvingly. “She fought alongside my father seventeen years ago.”

He stood up.

“Anyway, Renard, I must thank you again for the wonderful meal. Now I’ll check our inventory before we turn in for the night.” He walked away from the fire and began to inspect the piles of gear stacked beside each of the squad tents. Philip gave Renard a slight bow and followed Liam.

“Avet Lane,” Reznik blurted out once Liam was out of earshot, “you should have been named sergeant.”

This drew the attention of all present.

Bethany smiled and shook her head without missing a beat. “No, I’m not much for leading. The captain made the right choice. Besides, Liam is doing well. I know him, and I know that he’ll continue to do well.”

Reznik frowned. “Perhaps. Regardless, I wanted to hear your opinion on the matter.”

Madeline looked at Reznik in surprise.

“I’ve served a long time,” Bethany said with a smile. “If I had wanted to be sergeant, don’t you think I’d be one by now?”

Renard stared at Bethany for a moment with a glint in his eyes. He put down his bowl and clapped Reznik on the back. “On that note, I have to return to my own camp. I’m sure my company would be jealous if they found out I was here, although I saw that our captain had secured quite a feast for them. Maybe they haven’t even noticed I’ve gone.” He laughed. “I hope I haven’t imposed on you for too long.”

“Not at all!” Amy blurted out, breaking her silence. Cyrus, who sat nearby, stared at her incredulously before bursting into harsh, mocking laughter.

“It was a pleasure meeting you all.” Renard smiled, though instead of turning to leave, he walked slowly to Bethany.

Madeline’s eyes widened. “Here we go,” she groaned.

“Miss Lane,” Renard crooned, “I am terribly sorry that we do not have more time to become acquainted. All I have learned is that your charms and reason are irresistible, even to this stubborn friend of mine.” He pointed theatrically at Reznik before continuing. “I expect all of you to treat my lady here with the utmost deference and respect.”

He bowed deeply to her and extended his hand.

“Well, well! But this is hardly fitting of a vice captain!” Bethany exclaimed, blushing deeply, clearly delighted. She gave him her hand, which he clasped with both of his.

Amy Trenton’s eyes widened as her expression morphed into naïve envy and disappointment.

“You really have no self-control, you know that?” Reznik said disapprovingly.

“Go on, get out of here,” Madeline shouted, waving her hands to drive him away.

With a flawless smile, Renard released Bethany’s hand and sauntered away, giving Reznik one last clap on the back as he passed. He paused briefly to bid farewell to Glen and Douglas. Reznik broke into a heartfelt grin when he saw that Douglas seemed to have come out of his languor and had thoroughly enjoyed Renard’s display. It was a sight familiar to Reznik; Renard was always willing to act inappropriately to lighten the mood and bring out the best in others.

Glen nodded with satisfaction as he shook Renard’s hand and rose to his feet. He addressed the members of the 9th Squad in a subdued voice, while echoing Renard’s words in professing his thanks for the meal and offered his best wishes to all of them for the upcoming battle. Meanwhile, Reznik walked over to Douglas and the two conversed briefly.

Madeline was glad to see that Douglas had reverted at least partially to his more animated self and wished to see them off, but for some reason, she felt it better not to circle the campfire to join her friends on the other side while the rest of her squadmates watched. She was worried this might reflect negatively on her and Reznik, especially given their acquaintance with Renard. She did not want to feel alienated, nor did she want to impart such feelings to her squadmates, so she remained seated beside Bethany and Patrice, content to wave goodbye to Glen and Douglas as they left.

—5—

From his tent, Liam looked on as the members of his squad sat and conversed around the campfire. The festivities receded soon after Renard left. After chatting for a while longer, Amy and Alphonse retired to their respective tents for the night. As Madeline cleaned up around the campfire, she caught Cyrus staring at her. He broke eye contact immediately and left for his tent. Though Reznik noticed this, he exhibited no visible reaction. He joined Madeline in cleaning. The two remained mostly silent.

Liam kept his eyes firmly locked on Reznik as the avet helped Madeline. The evening’s earlier attempt to clear the tension with Reznik had not gone entirely according to plan, but Liam hoped he had made some progress with his hostile squadmate. It was imperative for him to clear the air as best as he could. He hated to see people ill-disposed toward him.

Throughout it all, Josef sat in front of the fire, reading his field manual, occasionally jotting notes in the margins. Eventually, he was alone in front of the fire. Other campfires slowly extinguished across the plateau. Rodtorches were lit and erected atop the fort and up in the watchtowers, as the 39th Company, designated to stay and wait for reinforcement from Aldova after the rest of the force left the next day, took up their positions for the night watch.

Liam decided to take advantage of the opportunity to have a one-on-one with someone from his squad. He quietly exited his tent and sat next to Josef by the fire.

“How are you, Avet Reinbach?” he asked.

“Me?” Josef was visibly surprised by the sudden appearance of his sergeant.

“I haven’t seen you move from this spot all night. I thought you were going to sleep right after dinner?”

“Ah, yes. I am tired, definitely, but I got caught up in my reading. And please, just call me Josef.”

“That’s good, that’s good,” Liam said, rubbing his hands together and reaching for the fire.

“That vice captain. Renault, was it? He acts quite comfortably around commoners. I would not have expected that from a fellow estated. Although I must confess that I am still adjusting to Coranthian social norms.”

Liam laughed. “Are you saying I’m uncomfortable around commoners, Josef?”

“No, of course not, sir,” Josef said, apparently oblivious to Liam’s jest. “Rather, he doesn’t really behave like a noble.”

“I know what you meant,” Liam said. “He’s always been like that, though he’s an exception. He may be estated, but he is at the lower end of the hierarchy, and his father never really cared to obtain a higher standing. I think he and his family are simply comfortable where they are.”

“And that’s not common here?” Josef asked.

“No, most estated make it their life goal to climb higher. In a way, I envy him.”

Josef raised an eyebrow and reached back to adjust his dark brown ponytail. “How so?”

“Less pressure. He has the perks of being an estated, while at the same time he can be himself.”

Renard was only a casual acquaintance, but Liam was familiar enough with him to know that the two of them grew up with similar means. Despite that, their family fortunes had diverged drastically. Liam became pensive as he reflected on how he was following in the footsteps of his father, who ultimately had little to show for his military service, and wondered how well he would be able to bear the burden of his family name.

Josef chuckled. “He does seem to rather enjoy life.”

“Well, don’t let his demeanor fool you. He’s an extremely capable individual when he’s motivated. I’m sure he’ll be a fine officer …”

Liam stared at Josef who shifted uncomfortably.

“Yes, sir?”

“Tell me, do you think I should be sergeant? I’m not sure I’m doing such a great job as a leader. Everyone seems to be pulling in a different direction.”

“Ah, speaking for myself, I think you are doing just fine. We are all inexperienced, but I think we will come together, though it may be through force.”

“You’re referring to a trial by fire?” Liam asked, somewhat skeptically.

“Perhaps,” Josef rubbed his nose. “At the very least, it seems you have reached an understanding with our Tellisburg friend.”

“Reznik Sylvera, you mean?” Liam was pleased to hear that Josef perceived at least a partial deflation of the tension between him and Reznik.

“From what I saw during the battle today, he is very serious, perhaps overly so, but he is also very good.”

“Indeed,” Liam agreed.

“Ah, and as are you, sir. You have my vote of confidence. I have not yet had reason to doubt your capabilities.”

Liam nodded. “Thanks.”

Josef resumed scribbling in his manual. Liam watched the avet in silent contemplation. The Doromalian was certainly eccentric, though not a bad conversationalist.

“Do you have anyone waiting back home?”

“Hmm?” Josef looked up.

“A family.”

“I do. I’m married.”

Liam raised an eyebrow and said, “She must miss you.”

“Yes, and I miss her very much. Maybe next time I’m on leave long enough to go to Lymria, I’ll get to see her. I can, at least, write letters.” Josef cocked his head.

“I see.”

“How about yourself, sir?”

Liam stared off into the darkness and closed his eyes as he spoke. An image of a woman came flooding into his mind. He thought of her raven hair and deep brown eyes. “I have a girl back in Kantor, Anne. I was on border patrol for a while before coming to Aldova, so I haven’t seen her in quite some time.”

“It’s difficult to think about sometimes,” Josef said. “Many soldiers must deal with similar situations.”

Liam opened his eyes with some effort. Giving in to his fatigue, he rose to his feet.

“Well, good night, Josef. I’ll be retiring now.”

“Good night, Sergeant.” Josef said.

With a nod, Liam departed for his tent.

After several reps, Josef closed his manual and laid it beside him. He rose from his seat and picked up the bucket beside the pit, upending it to unleash a stream of dirt that extinguished the fire. He felt around where he sat to retrieve his manual and then used the dim light pulsing from the few remaining fires to make his way to the tent he shared with Alphonse.

As the remaining campsites went dark, the long day finally came to an end.

Chapter 7

(987.2.05)

The army marched deep into the eastern Ghend Highlands, forty kilometers away from the Coranthian encampment at Argiset. The sun was out in full force but could not be seen over the sheer granite walls that were lining either side of Ertel Gorge, through which the troops were moving. The contrast between the sparkling clarity above them and the long shadows cast by the walls made for poor visibility. The gorge itself was barren; only the occasional shrub or small tree protruding from surrounding ridges decorated the scenery. The passage also acted as a wind tunnel; a light breeze blew against the troops, at first capricious but gradually strengthening as the army moved farther east.

Eventually, the path narrowed to the point where two companies could not move alongside each other; the lower platoons lined up to the north of their respective upper platoons and the ensemble of companies advanced in this fashion, spaced approximately two hundred meters apart from one another. The group of surveyors, save for two who remained at Argiset, followed Nelhart and marched along with Leynitz’s company at the formation’s rear.

Marching among the 26th Company in the middle of the procession, Liam stared at the armored backs of his fellow soldiers as he plodded on. Occasionally, he cast a glance behind to check on his squadmates. The 9th Squad was positioned toward the middle of the platoon’s configuration. Nash had organized the squads so that those with more experience were near the front of the formation. Liam was unnerved by how close to the front of the company his squad was.

Nash led the formation during this part of the trek, trotting along on his steed. He wore a standard military uniform with armoring underneath and a lightweight open-faced helmet. The outfit was identical to that worn by nonofficers, and his glasses were once again tucked safely in his bag. A heavily armored Parsons rode parallel to him. Officers’ coats and capes were not worn when there was risk of battle; the steeds and the officers’ pins affixed to the left breast of uniforms and armor identified officers in the field.

Occasionally, messengers galloped to or from Leynitz’s position, tersely relaying information from either the general or one of the colonels, and moving on to the next company without a tick wasted. Other than that, the clanking of metal, the sparring rhythms of boots and hooves on rock and dirt were all that could be heard.

As she carried forward, Madeline tried not to let her mind wander, but the monotony strained her efforts, and before she knew it, she was watching a large bird circle far overhead. Though its features were difficult to discern from such a distance, she surmised it was a condor. Despite the fact that she had never actually seen one, she knew from peeking at Reznik’s copy of Wildlife in the Dynan Midlands that the highlands were home to various condors. Inevitably, it dawned on her how far away she was from home and how much had changed in so little time. Her thoughts shifted to her parents; every time she thought of them, she made a conscious effort to conjure as many details involving them as she could. She traced through her uniform the outline of the Coranox she wore around her neck.

She thought of her mother, and abruptly, the horrific image of her sprawled, unmoving body loomed over her. Just as suddenly, she flashed back to several days before. Her mind laid out before her the dead Amelaren soldier—no, not only a soldier, but a young woman whose life had been extinguished at Madeline’s own hand—next to her mother. She shuddered violently.

A hand fell on her shoulder, its firm grip steadying her and snapping her back. The steady tune of soldiers and horses drumming through the gorge faded back in. She turned her head and saw Reznik staring at her. She felt his penetrating gaze, the one that always made her feel that he knew exactly what she was thinking, even when it was unlikely. She had not spoken to him about Argiset and realized she knew just as little about his first real battle experience as he knew about hers.

She looked around. Nobody else paid them any attention. She felt Reznik’s grip loosen and his hand slide away. She turned back toward him; he still looked at her, but the expression on his face had reverted to its usual neutral blankness.

After several ticks of silence, his eyes drifted away, and he pointed forward. “Look,” he said, “the canyon walls widen up ahead. That’s most likely where the junction is.”

Madeline turned and squinted. “I can’t see a thing,” she declared.

Hearing them, Liam turned around. “I’m positive that the 17th should be nearing the junction by now. It shouldn’t be much farther. I think it’s just hard to make out from here.”

“Yes,” Josef grumbled in agreement from behind them, “rock everywhere.”

Liam and Reznik were proven correct when, fifteen reps later, the walls began to widen. Madeline recalled that someone, possibly Reznik, had told her that the mapping of the area was tenuous at best, and it had been more than five years since any Coranthian documented the area firsthand. Nevertheless, according to their intelligence, the troops would soon arrive at a three-way junction with a north-south split. Down the northern path was Ertel Ridge, formerly a collection of small Amelaren lookouts built on a slope not as steep as its name implied, now purportedly a larger fortification installed within the rocks themselves. The southern path was allegedly blocked by a large landslide partway down the corridor. The conquest of Ertel Ridge was of great strategic importance and would cede complete control of the main corridor into enemy lands to the Coranthians. The northern corridor was the most direct route to the Amelarens’ main military fortress and capital, while the southern route led to the vast Amelaren plantations.

Suddenly, Patrice tilted her head and said nervously, “What is that? I think I hear something ahead.”

Madeline listened intently. At first, she heard nothing except a low rumble, but as they pressed on, the rumble morphed into the distinct sound of clashing metal.

“Sounds like fighting,” Bethany remarked dryly, staring straight ahead as she spoke. The rest of the squad remained silent. Murmurs soon swept through the entirety of the 26th, as it became clear to everyone that a battle was raging ahead.

A horse’s gallop grew louder and a messenger soon appeared, racing toward them. He stopped for only a few ticks to impart some words to Nash before proceeding to the next company behind them. Madeline turned her head to follow him as he raced past. Her focus shifted to Patrice and the Trenton siblings. All three were tensed, though she noticed that Alphonse appeared to be excited rather than nervous. Josef caught her eye and gave her a brief, calm smile. He appeared rather relaxed, all things considered. As she spun back around, she almost ran into Liam. The soldiers had come to a halt.

“Troops!” Nash said loudly but in a strained voice. He spun his horse to address his company and cleared his throat before continuing. “The Amelarens have laid an ambush ahead. The southern path is not blocked as we had previously thought. The enemy is attacking from both directions. The 5th, 17th, and 35th are currently engaging them. Unfortunately, poor visibility is preventing an accurate estimate of enemy numbers.”

He paused to clear his throat again, trying unsuccessfully to hide his unease as the sounds of battle grew louder. “Colonel Gavere is handling the enemy attack quite capably, I’m certain, but we shall prepare to join in should it be necessary.”

With his entire command hanging on his words, he struggled to come up with an eloquent finish and managed only to hastily add, “Just follow your sergeants, and we should be fine,” before turning around and waving meekly to restart the march as he spurred Alma to resume trotting.

Liam shook his head faintly. Behind them, Reznik gave Madeline a knowing look, to which she tried to respond with a shrug, but even she was rendered incredulous by their captain’s lack of eloquence. On Reznik’s other side, Cyrus stood with his hands balled into fists. His face was pale, and his entire body trembled.

“Stay alert, everyone,” Liam said as firmly as he could without turning around.

Alphonse whispered excitedly to his sister, “Finally, some action! We didn’t get much of it last time.” He gripped his javelin tightly and waved it in an exaggerated manner.

Amy frowned at him.

Next to them, Josef said, “Alphonse. You sound like many young men of the Empire. They love their wars. Maybe not so much as the Amelarens, but they do get caught up in the bloodlust and spirit of battle. They are quite mistaken, I think. There is little glory in taking lives, no matter how justified.”

Amy nodded in agreement as Alphonse fell silent.

As the 26th crept farther eastward, distant screams and other sounds of battle could be heard. Because Nash had temporarily halted the advance of the company and slowed its pace, the distance between the 26th and the 28th, which was lined up ahead, began to lengthen, while the 32nd was catching up from behind. A disheveled and frantic messenger arrived and beckoned to Nash, who rode to the southern side of the formation. The messenger spoke quickly and urgently, though with appropriate precision. Nash glanced uneasily from side to side as the messenger spoke. He reached into his bag and slipped something into the messenger’s hand. Nash did this adroitly and unnoticeably. The messenger gave him an uncertain glance before nodding and spurring his horse. As he sped past the 26th, most of the troops took notice of his torn uniform, which was coated in dirt, as blood seeped through his right sleeve. Most strikingly, a broken arrow protruded from his shoulder.

Nash rode to Parsons, and the two conversed in low tones. The captain produced a handkerchief from his left breast pocket and mopped his forehead as he spoke. After they were finished, Nash and Parsons separated. They stopped their horses and turned around.

“Listen up, soldiers,” Parsons said in a firm but matter-of-fact voice. “The 17th and 35th have been routed, and the 5th took heavy losses. The survivors are currently regrouping with the 28th. They are attempting to hold back the enemy ahead. Should they fail, that task will fall to us, and I expect nothing less than the best from all of you. If the Amelarens do not break our formation, they shall not overcome our formidable defense.” As he spoke, another messenger whizzed past, this time from behind, carrying an order from Leynitz.

Nash expected a strong verbal reaction from his troops, but to his surprise, hardly a word was uttered. Instead, he watched as the 26th collectively steeled itself in preparation for battle. He saw Parsons regarding him expectantly and nodded. Together, they turned and began slowly advancing. As the two platoons fell in line behind them, the wind began to kick up a large amount of dirt into the air, further decreasing visibility. Nash kept a careful rein on Alma, not wishing to move too quickly. He had no desire to rush into battle.

Liam looked back at his squad and offered a nervous grin, eliciting nervous chuckles from Alphonse and Patrice. He was pleased to have deflated the tension, however infinitesimally, though deep down he was terrified. He was deeply concerned with the clear miscalculation by the general and knew that an ambush by the Amelarens in such a vulnerable location was not good. He wondered how much of the Coranthian initiative had been blunted. Of course, there was nothing to be done about the situation. All that mattered was making it through the battle alive. He took a deep breath and calmly drew his sword, holding it ready. Several others followed his lead.

The 26th continued to crawl forward. After several reps, a single man came charging toward them along the southern wall. Nash’s heart pounded fiercely, but subsided somewhat when he recognized the man as Colonel Gavere. He blazed past them, and around ten reps later, returned heading up a small unit of ten men. The colonel rode to Nash and placed his hand on the young captain’s shoulder, whispering something to him before turning to the whole company. He raised his ax above his head proudly and authoritatively and then abruptly and wordlessly whirled around and rode into the east.

Having regained some of his composure, Nash addressed his command. “Attention! General Leynitz has ordered a full retreat. The company behind us has already begun to withdraw. We will regroup and consider another plan of attack. Colonel Gavere has ridden ahead to pass the orders to the 28th and assist with the retreat.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Nash began to ride westward. A look of relief washed over his face, and several soldiers stared at him with uncertainty. The soldiers of the 26th underwent a collective about-face and marched west, with Nash and Parsons now leading from the rear of the 26th’s formation.

“We’re just going to leave them there?” Amy asked worriedly.

“We can and we will,” Liam said resolutely. “We will listen to the captain and retreat while we still have time.”

Madeline and Reznik stared at each other. He knew she was thinking about Glen and Douglas.

“They’ll be fine,” Reznik said.

She nodded.

Liam overheard them and immediately felt a pang of guilt. He had forgotten that their friends were part of the 28th.

“The Curtlands lead the 28th,” Bethany said confidently. “I know of no better captains with us today. They will pull themselves out without question.”

Despite the concerted effort made by the 26th to withdraw expediently, the battle soon caught up to them; the ranks of the 28th had significantly thinned, and some of its soldiers were pulling back to catch up with the 26th. The members of the 9th Squad, among the closest to what was the rear of the now-reversed formation, stopped in their tracks to consider this new development. Parsons, who had lingered behind everyone else, rode farther east to meet the soldiers from the 28th.

Suddenly, Madeline saw one of the Curtland sisters emerge from the shadows and ride up to Parsons. With her thoughts scrambled, she could not make out which twin she was. Parsons pointed toward the east, and the Curtland sister nodded. He called out to Nash, though his words were meant for all to hear.

“Captain! The 28th requires assistance. The lower platoon will fan out and make a stand here to reinforce incoming retreating soldiers.”

Nash gaped back at him and then turned his head to look at the lower 26th. He barely managed to say, “Do as the vice captain instructs.”

Slowly, the lower 26th took up positions across the gorge. Many of the soldiers were uncertain and afraid, and it showed plainly on their faces, though ultimately, they were all committed to their duty. Once Parsons was satisfied with the formation, he began to lead his troops east. A cloud crept ominously toward them, and as Parsons rode forward, he realized that it was not just a cloud of dirt but one of smoke as well.

“Be ready for smoke bombs,” he shouted, raising his lance and shield. “Onward!”

Madeline watched as Parsons and his platoon vanished into the cloud. She turned back and saw that Nash had moved to the front of the retreat. She also realized that the Coranthian troops scarcely moved. The passage, once again narrowing as they retraced their steps, definitely hampered their progression. Madeline heard voices rising from the east. They grew louder; the fight would be upon them before long. If this was the Amelaren plan, she thought, it was a good one. The Coranthian command had gravely underestimated its supposedly savage and brazen opponent.

After several reps had passed, a harsh whinny blared as a horse broke through the ranks of the 26th, knocking aside several soldiers as it galloped west. It moved unsteadily, bleeding from a cut on its left ear. Nash watched as it raced past. He recognized the black durion, Castor. Nash’s second-in-command was not on the horse.

“Parsons …”

His face was white with dread as he halted and sat frozen atop Alma. Many of the soldiers were unnerved by the sight of their captain’s loss of composure.

Meanwhile, the fighting came into plain view. Members of the lower 26th and 28th tried to hold a pack of Amelarens at bay but were being continually driven back toward the Upper 26th. Screams of agony mixed with the clangs of weapons as soldiers continued to fall. Despite the collapse of the Coranthian front lines, the Amelarens did not seem to significantly outnumber them. With Parsons missing and Nash effectively incapacitated, Liam felt that as a sergeant, he had to intervene. He tried to estimate the size of the Amelaren force that was visible from where he stood and thought five hundred to be a conservative estimate. That was hardly an overwhelming force in numbers, though the Amelarens had positioning and momentum in their favor. Scanning the ranks of those fighting, Liam’s heart sank as he realized that Parsons was indeed nowhere to be seen. He could make out the Curtland twins, who appeared to have taken over the combined forces of the lower 26th and 28th. He decided that he would muster his squad and as many others as he could to rally.

Raising his sword, Liam cried, “We will stay and fight! We have to support our countrymen as best as we can! I know we—”

Before he could finish his sentence, a volley of arrows emerged from the cloud of dirt and smoke and rained down on them. Several soldiers were hit. One arrow struck Liam in the back of the neck. It pierced almost completely through, severing his jugular. Blood spurted from the wound and from Liam’s mouth as he grabbed frantically at the arrow, choking on his words. Amy let out a scream as Liam fell onto his knees. With the exception of Philip, who ran toward Liam, the entire squad froze, standing aghast as their sergeant crumpled to the ground.

Philip caught Liam before he could completely topple over and laid him gently on the ground, his eyes wide with terror. Liam reached out blankly with his hand. Philip grabbed it and clutched firmly as Liam began to lose consciousness.

Liam’s final thoughts were filled with sadness. This was not what he had envisioned his life to be, not how he had wanted it to end. He felt that he had disgraced his father and his family’s name. An image of the girl with whom he had only recently begun a relationship, and would not have the chance to know more intimately, flashed before his eyes. Within a rep, he had gasped his last breath.

Philip realized that his friend was no more and released his hand. He sat heavily on the ground and stared blankly at Liam’s body. Cyrus looked away, while Amy and Alphonse stood rooted to the spot in horror. Patrice’s training kicked in. She knelt next to Philip to examine Liam, but as she fumbled with her bag, she released the sobs she had tried to suppress, knowing there was nothing she could do. She reached out with her hand and closed Liam’s eyes, which were locked in a lifeless stare, and began to bandage his neck wound anyway in an attempt to stop the bleeding, appearing not wholly cognizant of her actions.

“The arrows stopped?” Josef asked nervously, addressing Bethany, but she did not and perhaps could not answer and simply shook her head. She brought a hand to her face and covered her eyes.

Madeline felt everything spin around her. The Amelarens were practically on top of them, and the number of Coranthians standing dwindled, yet the Upper 26th was completely incapacitated despite the imminent danger. Nash sat atop Alma as if he were a statue. Gavere was nowhere to be seen. The sight of Liam’s corpse seemed entirely too surreal to her. He had been speaking to her, to the whole squad, reassuring them and directing them just a few reps ago. She searched for Reznik and saw him staring grimly at Nash. She wanted to say something to him but was at a loss.

When she looked to him again, he was no longer there. Gazing around, she spotted him standing beside Nash’s horse. He spoke to the captain, who initially regarded him as if he did not understand what was being said. Suddenly, Nash nodded and dismounted. Without any hesitation, Reznik climbed on, provoking a stir among the soldiers of the 26th.

Reznik drew and raised his sword. “Listen!” he shouted clearly and purposefully. “We need to buy some time for the 21st and the rest of the companies behind us to pull back. And we must aid our comrades in the lower platoon. Leaving them to fend for themselves is unacceptable. Those of you who are not comfortable with this, join the retreat. But I will not turn back. The soldiers ahead are doing their best to show off the resiliency of the Coranthian Army and I plan to join them in doing so.”

The Upper 26th was confused by this outburst from an avet who had commandeered the captain’s horse. Many of them looked to Nash for a response.

Seeing this, Reznik added, “I shall stay and fight! Captain, what do you say?”

Nash turned to regard his soldiers. The sea of faces hinged on his every word. “Listen to Avet Sylvera,” he said, though his voice did not project well, now that he was off his steed. “To those who are willing and able, the lower platoon is in need of your services.”

After a moment’s pause, some of the soldiers stirred and sheathed their weapons and resumed heading west. Others looked uncertain but held their ground. Cyrus saw Philip join the retreat, carrying Liam’s body on his back.

“Hey!” Cyrus barked.

Philip’s normally gentle brown eyes glared wrathfully at him, and he kept walking. Soon, he was out of sight, helped along by several other soldiers who also decided to leave.

All in all, well over three-quarters of the platoon remained. There were even a few cheers as they tried to rally their spirits. Reznik addressed the remaining soldiers.

“We will form a wall at the front lines and advance until we meet with the others, absorbing the lower platoon and anyone else left. After that, we’ll retreat, while maintaining formation. We must hold formation at all costs! That will be the key to our survival.”

He spoke with the sternness and confidence of a colonel. Madeline felt a twinge of hope and pride swell within her, in spite of the grim circumstances.

Josef sighed. “I guess this is better than waiting to die.”

“That may still happen,” Cyrus said with a grimace.

“Well, you’re still here, aren’t you?” Patrice said, struggling to calm down.

Reznik pulled gingerly on Alma’s reins and trotted past the 9th Squad to the front of the formation, with Nash following on foot. He ordered the rearrangement of soldiers into six rows, each row, except the last one, spanning the width of the passage. The front two rows were comprised entirely of those with shields.

“Why the hell should we listen to you?” one of the soldiers shouted. “What estate are you from?”

Reznik blinked rapidly and let out an incredulous, humorless laugh.

“Do you have a better idea, sir?” he asked, jumping off the horse to fall in with the front row. He said to Nash, “Thank you, Captain. I apologize for taking your horse.”

Nash nodded. “Avet Sylvera’s plan is sound,” he said to the soldiers who were lined up in front of him. “We will proceed with it. Forward, troops!”

“Forward!” Reznik echoed.

The wall of soldiers began to advance. Although the battle had been within his sights from the beginning, Reznik could not easily follow its details. Before long, the gap was only one hundred meters. Coranthians and Amelarens alike paused to consider the arrival of the Upper 26th. Most of the Amelarens withdrew to reorganize, granting their opponents temporary respite. Reznik saw that many of the remaining Coranthians had grouped into a staggered formation to hold off the Amelaren force bearing down on them. He recognized the twin captains of the 28th from their armor and was able to make out Glen and Douglas who were standing just behind them as the Upper 26th approached.

Before the two Coranthian units could merge, the Amelarens returned, charging hard into the group led by the Curtlands. Although he was a scout, Glen fought up front with the more heavily armored soldiers. He wielded two gladii just as well as they could a sword and shield. An Amelaren heavy axman took a swing at him. The weight of the blow knocked him back, but Glen recovered immediately and slashed the warrior’s right leg, slicing through to the bone. The injured Amelaren screamed and fell over and was quickly pushed aside by his comrades as a new fighter took his place. Meanwhile, Douglas held his own with a lance and shield, though he was almost completely spent after having fought for so long already. Still, he pressed on, fueled purely by adrenaline.

“Glen! Douglas! Glad to see you!” Reznik said. The Amelarens were temporarily beaten back, and the Curtlands, upon noticing the arrival of backup, shifted their formation to fold into that of the advancing soldiers of the Upper 26th, who advanced to relieve their winded compatriots.

Glen did not turn around, for his attention was trained on a group of oncoming Amelarens. He dodged a wild swipe of the warrior’s sword and rammed into the Amelaren, causing him to stumble backwards and trip two others.

“Come, get behind the line,” Reznik said.

“They charged right through after they jumped on the 17th, 35th, and 5th,” Glen said, coughing slightly as he waved at lingering tendrils of smoke. “Practically wiped them out, using only smoke bombs and grenades. They haven’t thrown any since. I think they used them all during the ambush, but watch out.”

“Thank you for coming,” Douglas huffed. “I thought … we thought, after Colonel Gavere’s orders …”

“Thank us later,” Reznik snapped. “Keep your shield up!”

He strode forward to meet another warrior, blocking two successive attacks before jabbing his sword into the enemy’s chest. Blood gushed from the wound, some of it spattering onto Reznik’s armor and shield. To either side of him were Josef and Cyrus. To their right, Alphonse waded enthusiastically into the mass of clashing flesh and metal, swinging his javelin in a frenzy.

“Medics in the back!” Reznik shouted to those retreating past him through the formation. Glen, noticing Douglas’s winded state, tapped him on the shoulder and indicated that they should withdraw temporarily to catch their breath. Panting, Douglas nodded, and the two went on their way.

Reznik got his first direct glimpse of the Curtlands. Though they wore partial face helmets, he could tell they were significantly older than he, though younger than Bethany. Both had tanned skin, thin lips, and dark brown eyes. Both were fighting for their lives and the lives of their subordinates in the 28th.

After smashing through a swarm of Amelarens with her one-handed ax and shield, Jasmine finally stopped to address Reznik after watching him for some time from her periphery.

“Disobeying orders, are you?” she said after relieving an Amelaren of an arm and a leg. “Who are you anyway? Where’s Captain Havora?”

“Avet Sylvera. I am acting as the captain’s proxy on the front lines,” Reznik said, blinking hard. His eyes had grown irritated from smoke and dirt.

“Avet? What—” Jasmine began, her eyes widening. She turned toward him, leaving her blind side vulnerable.

“Jasmine, focus!” Rosalina Curtland said. She fitted a bolt to her crossbow and fired, splitting open the skull of a warrior approaching her sister from behind. The fact that she was fighting up front with light armor, a crossbow, and a knife was not lost on Reznik; he was duly impressed by both women.

“Captain, please retreat,” he said to Jasmine. “We’ll buy you some time.”

“Retreat?” Jasmine roared. “The hell I will! Since when do you get to tell me what to do? My sister and I lead our troops, so we lead the fighting. We’re going to hold off these bastards. I don’t know what the hell Captain Havora is doing, but you’ll follow our orders. Understand?”

Reznik nodded. “Where’s Colonel Gavere?” he asked.

Jasmine shook her head. “I don’t know. Fall in beside me, Avet.”

“Yes, Captain,” Reznik said, with no small measure of relief.

Jasmine took command at the front of the wall, while Rosalina moved back several rows to issue commands from the middle of the formation. Slowly, the collective of soldiers retreated west. The Coranthians held the Amelarens with relatively little trouble, which seemed to take some of the warriors by surprise. Now that the soldiers had recovered both in terms of numbers and organization, the Amelarens were unable to break through their defenses. The Coranthians, their spirits somewhat renewed, pulled together, improving their performance. Soldiers stepped forward to fortify the wall whenever anyone in front fell or was forced to retreat with a grievous injury. The formation loosened further behind the front lines, enabling medics to shuttle injured soldiers to safety before working on them. The Amelarens launched volleys of arrows toward the rear of Coranthian formation, but the strong wind greatly reduced their accuracy. The retreat progressed relatively smoothly; after twenty reps, a messenger arrived from the west and spoke to both Nash and Rosalina, informing them that all of the companies behind the 26th had moved farther out. After this information was relayed to Jasmine, she issued an order for everyone to hasten the retreat. Roughly forty reps after the Upper 26th joined the battle, the two sides exchanged what seemed to be parting shots from bows and crossbows. While the Amelarens kept pace with the retreating Coranthians, they maintained a deliberate distance and ceased to attack.

“This is odd,” Josef muttered.

Reznik looked around and accounted for the remainder of the 9th Squad with the exception of Philip, who had carried Liam’s body back to the main force. Among the frontliners, Josef did not appear tired in the least, as he stood at attention and peered intently at the Amelarens. Cyrus and Alphonse were worn but uninjured. Reznik himself had suffered only an insignificant cut on his hand but remained tense.

“You’re right, Reinbach,” Reznik agreed. “There’s too little resistance.”

“Don't let your guard down until we back out of this passage,” Jasmine said. “They shouldn’t follow us once we make it out of here.”

Only two kilometers separated the 26th and 28th from the entrance to the gorge, where the rest of the main force awaited them. As the Coranthian force continued westward, the walls began to widen. To cover the entire width of the passage, the formation would have to spread out. Rosalina realized immediately what was happening and charged to the front, her crossbow at the ready. Madeline, Bethany, and Amy followed her lead.

Jasmine understood as well. “Reinforce the front! Get more soldiers up here now!” she shouted.

A roar went up on the Amelaren side as the steadily advancing warriors broke into a run toward the Coranthians. A man clad in studded onyx leather armor emerged from the center of the wave. Streaks of blood covered him from head to toe, most notably staining his blond and silver hair. Jasmine’s eyes were drawn to the man’s weapon, which dwarfed the size of any Coranthian blade. It took only a tick for her to recognize him as War Chief Tallen, carrying a massive broadsword that cast a long shadow of death over its inevitable victims. Though Jasmine was not well versed in Amelaren dialects, when he yelled and pointed that sword at her, she needed no translation: He was coming for her.

Once again, the Amelarens ran to engage the retreating Coranthians. Their vigor renewed, they fought savagely and relentlessly. The Coranthian formation buckled as the front line had been insufficiently reinforced. Tallen and the warriors around him hacked their way through several groups of soldiers. Reznik knew the situation was dire. Tallen locked into combat with a small group of shield-bearing soldiers who had separated from the rest of the formation and were trying to withstand the war chief’s onslaught. Although Tallen had yet to break through, he had not tired; on the contrary, he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. His face flushed as if with fever, he wound his broadsword and swung at his targets with all his might. The soldiers, who merely tried to brace themselves against the hit, were knocked to the ground. Several warriors jumped from out behind Tallen and descended upon the fallen avets, brutally hammering them to death and relishing the terrible screams of the writhing soldiers.

Most Coranthians were exhausted. Those without shields moved up to support their fellow soldiers, though many were unprepared to handle the ferocity of the enemy’s attacks. Before long, the line had collapsed. The Amelarens surged forward and tore into the Coranthian ranks. The passage entrance was now no more than one kilometer to the west; some of the soldiers decided simply to turn and run. Bodies fell quickly and unceremoniously. Swirling winds filled the air with the stench of blood and sweat.

Madeline and Amy scrambled to keep their wits about themselves as they fell back to the middle of the now-broken formation. Even some of the medics had been caught in the fighting, and without much protection, they fell to the blows of bloodthirsty warriors. Madeline looked around once or twice for Patrice, but did not catch sight of her. After trading blows with an Amelaren warrior, she feinted and caught her opponent off balance and then planted her gladius into the woman’s chest. The exchange was similar to the one that had taken place at Argiset, though this time, she could not afford a moment to reflect. Even a tick’s lapse in concentration would be fatal. She panicked as she realized she was unable to pull out her sword. She finally raised a leg to kick the body back, releasing the gladius. She fell on her backside and looked up just in time to see an Amelaren bring his sword down on her. She narrowly managed to roll out of the way and then jumped to her feet and continued to fight.

Meanwhile, Glen, having returned to the fray, single-handedly engaged two ax-wielding Amelarens. He managed to dispatch them both after a brief struggle, but did not see Tallen barreling toward him until the war chief was almost on top of him. Instinctively, Glen raised his swords in front of him to block the blow, but Tallen’s swing knocked him to the ground. Glen struggled to rise and was suddenly pushed back down. He heard a large clang and looked up to see that Reznik had blocked Tallen with his shield. Tallen shouted in surprise and staggered. Jutting from a notch in his armor, near his upper thigh, was a knife with a gold Coranox painted on its hilt. Tallen grabbed it, yanked it out, and hurled it blindly back at them. It struck the dirt several paces away from Glen, who scrambled to his feet.

“You!” a seething Tallen yelled in Laestran. Lifting his sword, he prepared to rush Reznik.

“Glen, go!” Reznik shouted.

Glen bent down and picked up Reznik’s knife before retreating to help the rest of the unit, leaving Reznik to face Tallen.

Reznik winced. Tallen’s sword had struck his shield, causing the armor to dig into his skin. He felt warm blood seeping through the joints of his shoulder plating, which was damaged. His shield had crumpled and would not withstand a second blow. He tossed it aside. Tallen charged him, prepared to swing. Reznik fought the impulse to throw a parry and stepped aside instead, avoiding the sword’s downward arc. He felt confident that he could evade Tallen’s swings, though was surprised when his attempt to counter was met with the large blade of Tallen’s sword. The war chief handled his large weapon exceptionally well and was able to deflect the swing easily.

Reznik soon found he had crept far enough back that he had reached the gorge’s western entrance. He was fatigued after trading many attacks with Tallen and knew it was only a matter of time before he would no longer be able to keep up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jasmine shout something in his direction and turn to run for the opening with the remaining Coranthian soldiers. He reversed the grip on his sword and launched it with all his strength at Tallen. At the same time, he remembered the tactic Glen had used earlier and rushed straight at the Amelaren. Tallen raised his weapon and swatted away Reznik’s sword but could not recover before Reznik slammed into him, causing him to lose his balance. Reznik turned to run, though had not stopped Tallen completely. From his knees, the Amelaren war chief swung wildly with his sword. The blade sliced through the back of Reznik’s armor, causing him to stumble and arch in pain, but he was quickly on his feet again, running as hard as he could.

Tallen got back up and pursued the remaining Coranthians to the edge of the entrance and then stopped and darted behind a rock as a hail of crossbow bolts flew into the passageway, killing a number of Amelarens behind him. After remaining in cover for several ticks, he peeked out at the retreating Coranthians. A look of satisfaction crept across his face as he turned toward the other warriors and called out for them to withdraw to the east.

Madeline was safely behind the Coranthian line, having escaped the passage together with Douglas. Leaving him to catch his breath, she looked for her squadmates and for Reznik in particular, though found no one. Suddenly, she heard a piercing scream and recognized Amy Trenton’s voice. Pushing her way through to the back of the Coranthian formation, Madeline emerged upon a large area that had been cleared to dress and treat the wounded who were strewn across blankets on the ground. Medics tinkered with their supplies as they tended to injured soldiers. Madeline saw Amy speaking frantically to a middle-aged medic with dense, knitted eyebrows and an impatient expression on his face. She grabbed his sleeve, causing him to flinch and pull away. He barked something at her and walked away hastily. As he left, Madeline was able to see behind him, where Alphonse lay thrashing and groaning. The blanket was soaked with blood. The lower half of Alphonse’s left arm was missing. The young man mumbled hoarsely to his sister, having already expended his voice from screaming in pain. Patrice was by his side working furiously to stop the bleeding.

Madeline was so focused on Alphonse, as she walked up to where he lay, that she did not notice Nash, who approached from her right and immediately began to prepare a tourniquet with Patrice.

“Captain, help!” Amy gasped. “Please, help him.”

“He’ll be fine,” Nash said. “Everything will be fine.”

As he worked, Nash repeated these words several times to calm Amy. Occasionally, he raised his arm to wipe the sweat from his forehead and push up his glasses.

Madeline had been thoroughly disappointed with Nash, perceiving him to be a coward and a poor captain after his display while he was in command. When Reznik took control of the Upper 26th, it served only to further her sentiment. On the other hand, it was hard for her to deny that he was an excellent medic. He worked quickly and calmly and took the time to offer reassurance to those who needed it, which made her less disdainful of him. Nash seemed the type of person who got along well with and earned the respect of everyone off the battlefield. He and Patrice worked together without missing a beat.

“For Creon’s sake,” Madeline heard someone exclaim in a distressed voice, “is he going to make it?” Faintly, she realized the words had come from her own mouth.

“We need to stop the bleeding,” Nash replied without turning his head.

Nash reached into his bag and pulled out a thin wooden stick that was wrapped in a clean white cloth.

“Get him to bite down on this.”

Patrice looked up and said, “Amy, hold his head and grab his shoulder. Madeline, take the other shoulder.”

Madeline did as she was told. Amy whispered into Alphonse’s ear, urging him to relax and clamp down on the stick as Patrice brought it to his mouth.

Meanwhile, Nash opened a small pouch on his belt and produced five small vials of dark blue liquid.

“What’s that?” Amy asked nervously.

“We have to cauterize the wound immediately,” Nash said. “Hold him still.”

The three women held Alphonse tightly as Nash popped open three of the vials and poured the contents onto the wound, which began to smoke and sizzle. Alphonse let out a howl, his eyes rolling into the back of his head, and he passed out. Nash checked him quickly, before removing the stick between his teeth.

“What was that? What did you do?” Amy cried, nearing hysterics.

“He’s unconscious from the pain, that’s all. We should have neutralized any possibility of infection.” Nash returned the vials to his pouch and began to wrap the tourniquet around the stump.

“I’ve never seen that type of cauterizing agent before!” Madeline said.

Nash finished bandaging and stood up. “It’s my own concoction,” he said as he wiped his glasses.

Patrice’s eyebrows shot up, but she said nothing.

“I’ve done about all I can. Avet Konith, please look after him.”

“Yes, sir,” Patrice said. Casting a glance at Amy, she added, “He will pull through.”

“Th-thank you,” Amy stammered. “I apologize for snapping. I was … I was …” She broke down, unable to finish.

Nash smiled, but his voice was strained. “Take care of your brother, Avet Trenton.”

He turned to walk away. Impressed that he remembered their names, Madeline ran after him.

“Captain, what you used on him … What was that?”

He frowned. “Yes, well … That’s not important right now. His life is no longer in danger. That’s what matters.”

“My apologies,” Madeline said, sensing his reluctance to elaborate. She fumbled for a proper transition into what was really on her mind and then gave up and asked point-blank. “Have you seen Avet Sylvera, sir?”

Nash appeared relieved to change the subject. “Yes, of course. I saw him come in with Captain Curtland.” He pointed north. “He should be over there, with the 28th.”

Madeline thanked Nash and left in that direction. On her way, she spotted Cyrus and Josef who were helping escort the wounded to the medics. She also recognized some soldiers from the 28th and saw Douglas resting on a patch of grass, oblivious to his surroundings and thoroughly spent.

When she finally managed to locate Reznik, he was helping Glen carry an injured and unconscious woman toward the medical area. Falling in step with them, she took one of the woman’s legs. The three avets carried the woman to an open blanket and laid her down. When Madeline and Glen stood up, Reznik did not follow suit. Instead, he doubled over on his knees, breathing heavily, which exposed the tear in his armor and the gash across his lower back. His wound bled profusely.

“What?” Madeline cried out. “Why didn’t you … What were you thinking?”

“I’m fine,” Reznik muttered. “It’s not too bad.”

Glen, who had started to walk away, peered over his shoulder. His eyes widened, and he rushed back to help his friend.

“Really, you’re making too much of it,” Reznik said. “I’m just …”

“You’re a fool,” Madeline said, feeling a lump rise in her throat. “A damn stubborn fool.”

Reznik made to reply but managed only to choke out a weak cough.

Madeline slung Reznik’s arm across her shoulders. Glen grabbed his other arm. The two carried him off in search of a medic.

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