The Last General
by Grisha Syssoyev
The bells tolled a haunting dirge over the towers of Arendur as the city
laid its favored son to rest. The funeral procession made its way through
the Pillars of Endurance, stopping to rest at the cemetery where fallen
soldiers met their end.
His comrades bore his coffin, moving between the rows of onlookers who had
come out that windswept autumn day.
Standing by the cemetery was the mage Tolumvire and his betrothed, Jang.
They observed the pallbearers as they approached, faces bearing no emotion.
The Pillars loomed large in the background, twin monuments to soldiers who
died screaming the glory of Arendur through bloodied lips. Farcraft's name
would be indistinguishable from hundreds of others inscribed upon them.
Tolumvire extended a hand. After a moment of hesitation, Jang took it. He
did not look at her.
The soldiers reached the cemetery, where they laid the coffin at the
couple's feet. Tolumvire and Jang stood in the place of Farcraft's parents,
long deceased. From amongst the assembled men, the Marshal of Ceremonies
"Honored father, we bring to you your child Farcraft, son of Berentin," he
began. "He died on the field of battle, defending our land. His rank was
General of the Arendurian Army."
"I accept the honor of his life and death," replied Tolumvire.
"Honored mother, we bring to you your child Farcraft," said the Marshal.
"Do you wish to see him before he joins his ancestors?"
Farcraft's body had never been found. Nothing lay beneath the white shroud
other than an empty suit of armor.
Jang shook her head.
"Then accept the honor, and may you know peace."
The bells tolled their final melody before falling silent.
* * *
Among the crowds in the first row, Brigadier General Bron tried to hide his
His aide, Captain Mars, gave him a grim look.
"What right," said Bron in a low voice. "Does that mage have to accept our
Mars didn't answer at first. General Farcraft's coffin was lowered into the
earth, and the gravedigger began to pile earth upon it.
"They were close," muttered the captain. "Like father and son."
"Tolumvire killed his father. Killed Berentin and took his son as his
servant. Like a barbarian warlord taking the family of a vanquished rival."
Mars seemed more intent on the burial then the fury of his commander.
Bron scowled. "Mark my words, Mars. When I become General of the Arendurian
Army, we won't be dogs of the mages any more. In me, Tolumvire will find
someone far less eager to please him."
Mars glanced at his commander. His face remained hard.
* * *
The walls of Arendur loomed high over the city. Beyond were miles of forest
to the south and east broken only by primitive trade routes, and mountains
to the north from where a chill wind blew. Even in summer the sun seemed
distant, and as autumn came and the leaves reddened, the air grew very
The view was magnificent from a city that flew.
Arendur flew. Built atop a vast chunk of earth, the city was half a mile
above the ground, held aloft by an unseen force. The walls almost seemed
anachronistic, a throwback to a time when Arendur was anchored to the
Nonetheless, their ramparts served as wonderful vista.
Tolumvire and Jang walked along the wall in silence.
"I wonder who they'll choose to take his place," mused Tolumvire.
Tolumvire's society of mages, the Illuminated, prided itself on being the
finest since the fall of the Empire. Quieter voices whispered a darker
tale, one in which Tolumvire forced rivals to submit themselves or their
secrets to him, for fear of their lives.
"His corpse isn't even cold, and you're already thinking about his
successor," chided Jang. "Will you not grieve for him, not even for a day?
For an hour?"
Tall and dark-haired, the Grand Master of the Illuminated preferred to
remain aloof. His anger was controlled and frightening, his smiles cold or
fierce. Tolumvire was beloved by the wise for his depth of knowledge and by
the common man for his fearlessness.
"Don't assume I don't grieve, Jang." He touched his chest. "I grieve here,
but that doesn't mean that I won't take action. The Council will choose his
successor soon, possibly tonight, and I won't sit back and watch my army
given to an unworthy man."
Jang smiled. A dark-haired young woman seen by others as solemn, she
possessed an uncanny ability to fade away into a crowd.
"Your army?" she said, leaning against the rampart. "You're not even trying
to hide your aims. Do you really think the Council will give you the
Generalship? Give you two of the positions on the Triumvirate? Might as
well restore the Empire while you're at it."
"I remember when you were still a girl." His expression softened. "And I an
apprentice mage, scarcely older than you. You, the lost heiress, fleeing
from your uncle's hired knives, and me, a fool with grand ambitions."
"You told me I was your pawn," said Jang wryly. "A pawn you would make into
a queen. I was desperate and on the run; any port in a storm would do."
A sudden gust of wind sent coats and hair fluttering. Tolumvire reached out
a hand to steady himself.
"You'd get your birthright back. Jang, Empress of Arendur. Tolumvire,
Emperor of Arendur. I helped bring the Empire down; I could bring it back."
Jang remained silent for a few moments.
Tolumvire smiled, but said nothing.
"I'm not your wife yet. And I still don't know whether I intend to be or
not. I've hitched my future to ... what was it you said? A fool with grand
ambitions? As the saying goes, it's easy enough to mount a dragon, but a
lot harder to climb off."
"It's easy for you to laugh. You have your mages and your city. I have only
my wits and my birthright. You'll have to forgive me if I fear the
uncertainty of the future."
Tolumvire listened silently.
"Give me something of my own, Tolumvire. Give me the Arendurian Army. If
you want to be my husband, make me your equal. Let us be joined as husband
and wife, united in purpose, as rulers of this city."
Tolumvire looked surprised. Jang didn't give him a chance to reply.
"The Council won't give you the post. You could convince them to accept me
as a compromise."
"You're not a soldier."
"We both fought against the Empire, you with your magic, me with nothing
but a blade and my wits."
The mage turned away from Jang to stare down at Arendur, its sprawl of
arches and avenues gaping wide beneath him.
"Just remember, Tolumvire, if it's a soldier you want, you might as well
give the title to Brigadier General Bron."
With that, she walked away.
Tolumvire remained on the wall for a few moments more. The sun was setting,
and the winds beginning to rise.
"I'd sooner fling you off these walls," he muttered, "then give my army to
The Grand Master of the Illuminated departed.
* * *
"I apologize for my lateness," said Tolumvire as he closed the door behind
"No matter," someone said.
Prime Minister Icarus nodded politely as the mage took a seat beside him.
Besides Icarus, five other men were present: The Ministers of Law,
Commerce, and Artifice, the Marshal of Ceremonies, and the Captain of the
Guard. Their chairs were arranged in a circle atop a stone dais, where a
throne had once sat.
"I take it we are here to discuss the matter of General Farcraft's
replacement?" asked Tolumvire, giving Farcraft's empty chair a lingering
Icarus shook his head. "That matter is settled".
"We are here to discuss—" began the Minister of Commerce.
"Whom have you chosen?" interrupted Tolumvire.
"General Farcraft served us well," said Forrester, the Minister of Law.
"But the Army cannot continue to exist in its current state. Our troops are
spread too thin, and what soldiers we do have are mercenaries and
conscripts of uncertain loyalty. We need reform, and we need a level of
expertise that can only be provided by a professional soldier."
"You've chosen Brigadier General Bron," replied Tolumvire with a grimace.
Forrester nodded. "Indeed. Those were largely his words."
"I should have been here for your decision. I could have told you much
about Bron and his vaunted reforms. We've never had any significant
problems with conscripts or mercenaries. Moreover, we're not fighting the
Empire anymore. Concentrate our troops, and our real foes—bandits and
giants, rogue mages and petty warlords—will slip through our defenses.
We're the largest nation for miles around, the only one to rival the
Empire. What would we need to concentrate our forces for? We have no
enemies near to our size."
"That might change," said Prime Minister Icarus.
Tolumvire must have looked surprised, because Icarus smiled.
The third member of the Triumvirate, Icarus was the youngest man in the
room. Shrewd and unflappable, Tolumvire could not claim to truly know him.
No one in Arendur could.
"Shortly before you arrived," explained the Minister of Commerce, "a
scouting party reported that one of the warlords at the edge of Imperial
lands had succeeded in unifying a huge swath of territory under his rule."
"What of it?" asked Tolumvire. "Men like that come and go. We endure."
"He has a vast army," interjected Forrester. "His nation is wealthy, and he
has the backing of a very powerful priesthood. His people believe him to be
anointed by the gods."
Tolumvire let out a note of derision, prompting Forrester to smile
"What is his name, this divine messenger, and what does he call his
kingdom?" asked Tolumvire.
"His name is Bolgar, King of Ragnarok."
"The twilight of the gods," mused Icarus. "What an odd name for a country."
"You anticipate war?" asked Tolumvire. "Even if Bron's reforms are right,
that does not make him a suitable commander. The man's a fool and a
troublemaker. He only sees failure, and believes he is the only one
equipped to solve the world's problems."
"Were the two of you not friends once?" asked Forrester.
"We fought together in the rebellion. We had a good working relationship,
but we were never close."
Icarus frowned thoughtfully, leaning his chin on his fist. "Who would you
recommend instead of Bron?" he asked.
"We were unanimous the first time," objected the Minister of Commerce. "We
can't just vote again and again every time someone has an objection."
"We'll hear him out," said Icarus. "Decisions like this shouldn't be
"Thank you," he said. "If Brigadier General Bron proposes that we
consolidate our forces, I would outdo him in that regard. Rather than
simply shift troop numbers, I would propose that we merge the Illuminated
and the Army into a singular organization. The mages of Arendur are already
called upon to fight, yet they serve in an undefined capacity. Merge the
organizations and let me command them. The mages will serve in the army,
allowing them to draw the pay of a soldier, as well as allow them a chance
for advancement and higher rank."
Silence greeted the proposal. Icarus seemed intrigued, but few others
showed much enthusiasm.
"You are not a soldier," pointed out the Minister of Commerce. "And with
all due respect, Grand Master, no one man should have as much power as you
are asking for. The Triumvirate has three men on it for a reason."
"We have heard the arguments," said the Prime Minister. "We shall vote on
Tolumvire's suggestion, to merge the Illuminated and the Arendurian Army
and grant command of the new organization to him. All in favor?"
Tolumvire raised his hand; as did the Minister of Artifice and the Captain
of the Guard.
"All against?" asked Icarus. Forrester raised his hand, as did the Minister
of Commerce and the Marshal of Ceremonies.
Icarus nodded. "Three for, three against. The tiebreaker vote is mine. You
argued well for your cause, Tolumvire. It was no easy argument, considering
that you are asking us to give you an unprecedented amount of power."
"I don't expect you to approve of my plan. It would tilt the scales against
you; any sane man would fight back."
The Prime Minister gave him a pained smile.
"Let me finish. It's not entirely that. You may want to command your mage
army on the battlefield, but I've got another use for you. What we left out
earlier was that King Bolgar refused to negotiate with the scouting party.
He told them that unless they wished to petition him for something, he
would not negotiate, for they were not his equals. If you can ply your
words with Bolgar as you did with us, you'll be far more of an asset as our
representative. If you want a title to go with it, you can call yourself
the Ambassador to Ragnarok. Call yourself whatever you need to get him to
meet with you. If we are to reclaim the lands and people of the Empire, we
will need an ally. Offer him anything within reason if it will achieve that
Tolumvire's face grew thoughtful. "And if he refuses?"
Icarus shrugged. "Do what you see fit."
* * *
Bron made his way to the council room, Mars by his side.
A messenger had brought the news of Bron's promotion earlier that evening.
His was not to be the only advancement that night, for Mars was to take his
place. Both were preparing to give their oaths before the Council, just as
Farcraft and Bron had given theirs one year ago.
"We've come far." Bron was smiling.
Mars nodded. "A road paved with blood. We endured."
"We can be proud."
They waited in the hallway outside the closed chamber. The atmosphere was
stifling and dark, with lantern light flicking on the polished mahogany
walls. The singular window faced an unlit garden. A guard stood outside the
council room, halberd in hand, wearing an ornate suit of red armor. Even in
the dim light, the plate glimmered, reflecting a hellish glow.
The doors swung open, and Tolumvire stepped out. Bron stepped forward to
enter, but the mage made a gesture, and the doors swung shut.
"They're not ready for you," he said.
"Are you not going to be present for the oaths?" asked Bron.
"Do you want me to?"
The two men stood in tension for a few moments. Tolumvire, tall and
radiating hauteur, stared at his glowering rival with contempt. Bron was
rigid, taking no great pains to hide a scowl.
"Farcraft died to raise this city to the skies," admonished Mars. "Grand
Master, General, put aside your quarrel for his sake. You are not enemies!"
Tolumvire's eyes flashed with anger at the remark. Bron's scowl deepened.
He turned to Tolumvire.
"I'm not your enemy. Rule your mages as you please, and let me lead the
army as I know how."
Tolumvire smiled indulgently. "The Brigadier General asks me to bear
Farcraft's legacy in mind, Bron. He thinks it would be served by our
reconciliation. I am your enemy, Bron. There is no one in the Arendurian
Army capable of doing what Farcraft did. You think you were chosen by the
Council for your military expertise—you were chosen because you are my
rival. When Farcraft was alive, he and I ruled the city. We were of like
mind. You are nothing but a political piece aimed to divide the
"You're full of shit," retorted Bron. "You don't think anyone's worthy of
your respect unless they worship you. I know how you treat those who love
and respect you. You take them for granted, use them until you wear them
out, throw them aside."
Bron ploughed on.
"Even your fiance is terrified to be around you, because she might fall in
love with you and become your ornament. Look me in the eyes and tell me
she's anything more than a war trophy taken from the Empire you boast of
"My relationship with Jang is something that you have neither the basis nor
the right to speak about," replied Tolumvire with anger in his eyes.
"You've always thought I seek power for its own sake, and you've always
thought wrong. Power wasted and misused is a crime as vile as theft and
murder. Your world is fixed and literal, Bron, and you are incapable of
perceiving the philosophical. You can defend our nation's borders, but why
must those borders be defended? For our own existence? Why does Arendur
exist, then? What is our role in humanity's story? These are questions I
have never seen you try and answer, and for that reason, I will always
"The General does not philosophize," said Bron coldly. "The General obeys.
No one shares your madness."
The door swung open, and the Minister of Commerce stepped out. "We're ready
for you," he announced.
Wordlessly, Bron strode in. Mars moved to follow him, but Tolumvire grabbed
him by the shoulder.
"Those are questions you should think about if you ever hope to lead the
Arendurian Army, Mars," he said with calculating glint in his eye. "Now go
take your oaths."
* * *
"Welcome back, Grand Master," said a high and solemn voice.
"Jotunheim," replied Tolumvire as he walked into the library. "You
"I usually do."
Tolumvire glanced down at the boy. There was something disturbing about his
dark smile and knowing eyes, which possessed far more intelligence than any
boy's eyes should.
Jotunheim had been a young boy for a very long time. He had been a young
boy when Tolumvire was his apprentice, and he had been a young boy when
Tolumvire himself had been a young boy.
And he had probably been a young boy for many years before that.
"I require use of the Gates of Heaven," he announced. "My destination will
be a city named Ragnarok, ruled by a man named Bolgar. He and his people
are said to be beloved by the gods. I have been chosen as Arendur's envoy
The library was almost empty. Besides the Grand Master and Jotunheim, there
were three other mages. Two read silently while a third stalked the aisles,
searching for a book that evaded him.
"Is it wise to leave the city?" asked Jotunheim. "Many of your plans will
suffer in your absence."
"We'll manage. I'm not sure I have a choice. The Council expects me to be
"You could send someone else. Hole up in the Tower. There's a lot you could
accomplish from the shadows."
Tolumvire laughed, leaning against a bookshelf. "Are you asking me to send
you? I don't think King Bolgar will listen to a child."
Jotunheim smiled. "You think he'd prefer a godless man? I was thinking you
could send Jang. Trustworthy, level-headed, courteous, and of royal blood."
"Send a woman? She'd be a good hostage if Bolgar wanted leverage against
us. Can you imagine her able to deliver threats if she needed to?"
The childlike mage shrugged. "You have made your decision. I will fetch
Thorren. In the meanwhile, I ask you think about the advantages of sending
someone able to articulate your vision without being wed to it."
As he walked away, Tolumvire shouted after him. "That's what I fear! Lack
Jotunheim was almost certainly not his true name. Mages were entitled to
their secrets. No one in Arendur knew Tolumvire's true name. He had left it
behind in the isles of his birth to be forgotten along with the rest of his
Jotunheim was not long in returning. The man who came with him wore an
ornate set of red plate similar to the one worn by the council room guard.
He bowed to Tolumvire upon arrival, putting a fist to his heart.
"Grand Master," he murmured respectfully.
"Thorren," replied Tolumvire. "I assume Jotunheim has explained where we
"He has," said Thorren. The one-eyed knight, Tolumvire's red shadow, the
Grand Master's sworn man—when the mage left Arendur, he followed.
The three headed to one of the upper rooms in the tower. Inside was a
hideous chimera. It had two heads, that of a crocodile and that of an ibis,
on the body of an ape. Its claws were retractable, its eagle wings were
heavy and vestigial. A thing of blood and clay and alchemy, the beast had
been trained to recognize the smell of its masters. It slunk into the
shadows, two sets of eyes gleaming with loss and hunger.
Tolumvire and Jotunheim went to the far wall, each placing a hand on it. A
wooden door appeared, which the Grand Master unlocked with a key drawn
forth from his pocket.
The room beyond ended with an open entryway. The floor was polished marble,
and a single lantern hung from the ceiling. Beyond the gate was mist
interspersed with pools of darkness.
A golden sigil had been carved on the floor. Semicircular in shape, its
placement suggested that its other half would be behind the gate.
The Gates of Heaven were a doorway to the wider world. The knowledge of its
construction had been lost with the Empire.
Thorren and Tolumvire stood before the gate while Jotunheim knelt upon the
sigil, put his hands to the floor, and began to speak:
"I commend you to the Gates of Heaven. The void awaits you! Awake it with
Using a spiked ring he wore for purposes like this, Tolumvire pricked a
finger and flicked a drop into the darkness.
"The void hears you! Where would you let it take you?"
"Ragnarok," said Tolumvire. "The city of King Bolgar."
The mist shuddered, the pools of darkness expanding and contracting like
pupils. Behind them, mist was starting to rise from the sigil.
"Offer your gifts to the void!"
"Can I give another year from my life?" asked Thorren quietly.
"You can give as many as you want," replied Tolumvire. "But are you sure
you have nothing else? This is the third time you've done this."
"I'll die in battle. Old age holds little appeal."
Tolumvire nodded. Reaching into his coat, he revealed the offering he had
brought. A pair of withered hands, one still wearing a ring, he tossed them
into the mists, which began to roil.
"The exchange is made," pronounced Jotunheim. "A year of life and the hands
of the Emperor! Journey to Ragnarok, the city of King Bolgar. Open the
The mist turned bright, and like sparks it faded and fell away, revealing
the inside of a stone temple. Three priests stood by the alter, talking.
They wore white robes, and tabards with the symbol of a wolf tearing free
from its chains. The three broke off their conversation and stared with
shock at the portal that had opened before them.
Tolumvire and Thorren walked through.
"Forgive us our intrusion onto your holy ground," said Tolumvire. "Our
intentions are peaceful."
"Prove the truth of your words and close your portal behind you," said one
of the priests.
He wore two loose silver chains across his chest, from shoulder to hip.
Older than the other two, he was hooded, and leaned on a staff.
Tolumvire turned to Jotunheim. "We'll return by land."
Jotunheim removed his hands from the sigil. The gate became mist, swiftly
The temple was sparse. At the center was an altar. Behind it was a statue
of a wolf, wrapped in chains and shackled to the ground. Nearby was an
empty crucible on a metal tripod.
The Grand Master inclined his head respectfully. "I am Tolumvire. I have
been sent from the city of Arendur as an ambassador to your king. I seek an
audience with him."
The senior priest dismissed his companions with a gesture. "You may speak
with me if you wish."
"Forgive me, but I was dispatched to confer with whoever rules the Kingdom
"I am the High Priest in Ragnarok. You may find me of more help than
Tolumvire smiled scornfully. "Is this your habit, to act as gatekeeper for
the king you serve?"
"I got a good description of the structure of power in Arendur from the
scouting party who came here," said the High Priest. "You're not Icarus'
servant, are you?"
"He's the head of government. I command a mage order. On the Council we are
equals. I represent the city, not the Prime Minister."
"And are there not certain issues for which it would be better to speak to
you, Tolumvire, rather than Icarus?"
"I suppose there would be."
"I am much the same," concluded the High Priest. "I serve the Messenger,
"You appear to keep your god in chains," pointed out Tolumvire, gesturing
to the statue.
The High Priest chuckled. "He's not our god. That's the one we keep at bay,
the wolf who heralds the twilight of the gods—who heralds Ragnarok. We
are the priesthood of the Messenger, the herald of the divine word. We do
not depict him in the temple, nor speak his name."
Tolumvire nodded disinterestedly. "I came to speak to King Bolgar. I don't
care how much influence you have. Rile up your people, whisper in the King's
ear, it doesn't bother me. You're not the one who commands the armies."
He received a measured look. "Follow me."
The High Priest led them out the temple into a spacious courtyard. To their
left were guard barracks, and to their right an open market. Tolumvire was
surprised to see how close they were to the city walls, which were only
partially made of stone. Large sections were little more than wooden stakes
banded with metal. Construction was evident by the large amounts of
excavated stone piled nearby.
"This is a small city," noted Tolumvire. "More like a town."
The High Priest nodded as they made their way across the courtyard. "It is.
It was founded by Bolgar's original army. Most of people here are soldiers,
mercenaries, or bandits. We've got a growing civilian population, but they
are still outnumbered. We do not have enough women or children. Most of
them were camp followers before they settled down."
"He must command incredible loyalty."
The High Priest smiled.
"Good deal the two of you have," mused Tolumvire. "He converts to your
faith and his men follow him. Then you proclaim him the messiah. And you
can be the true power behind the throne. Is that the way of it?"
"Your imagination betrays a cynical bent. One of our scouts told a very
similar story to me, of an archmage who helped bring down an empire. He
lusted for power but could not sieze it without betraying his hypocrisy for
this world to see. He pretended to adhere to republican values and his men
followed him. His government gave him a seat on the council as a reward,
but it's not enough for him. He wants more. Tell me, Tolumvire, how does
the story end?"
"You tell me."
"The Prime Minister grows sick of his intrigues and his greedy, grasping
nature, so he sends him to a backwater kingdom to be rid of him. If he ever
comes back, he'll have been gone so long that all his plans will be in ruin
and he'll have to start from scratch."
"There's one difference between our stories," said Tolumvire. "One of us is
a mage who tore an empire down. The other's a conceited old man waiting for
his god to arrive. Keep waiting, High Priest. Put more shackles on your
They had reached the royal hall. Two knights stood outside.
"This is an ambassador from Arendur," explained the High Priest. "Is His
Majesty accepting petitioners?"
One of the guards nodded. The other pointed to Thorren. "Just the
ambassador. The bodyguard waits outside."
The High Priest gave Tolumvire a long look. "Best of luck for your meeting
with the King. For the sake of both our nations, I pray it goes well."
The mage nodded as he entered the throne room.
* * *
Jang threw her arms around her sister. It had been long since she had last
Sharra had silver hair, a strange sight on someone so young, and bright,
lively eyes. Ethereal and ephemeral, she looked as if she were going to
fade away at any moment.
Pulling back from the embrace, Jang saw only a blank look in her sister's
eyes, eyes that once shone like the stars. Jang searched for any hint of
recognition and saw nothing, only an empty smile.
"She is under a deep compulsion," said a child's solemn voice. "She is your
sister, and yet she is not. You may as well cling to a doll. She will not
Jang turned to Jotunheim, who stood in the doorway.
"Why did he have to do it this way? Could he not have put her in a
dreamless slumber instead?"
"She might as well be sleeping," he replied. "Nonetheless, your
husband-to-be has a use for her."
"I must complete the scepter," explained Sharra, crossing to a table.
Spread across a bolt of cloth was a broken crystal staff, and several
shards of crystal. "It is the wish of the Grand Master that it be finished
before the new year."
Jang was unable to keep the scorn from her voice. "Doesn't he remember what
my uncle did with it? Tell me, Jotunheim, where is the Tolumvire who
shattered the Imperial Scepter in the first place? Where is the Tolumvire
who put a ring of chairs in my uncle's room so that men might meet as
equals? Where is the Tolumvire to whom you gave your oath in the shadow of
the Tower, the one Farcraft died for?"
Jotunheim walked inside and sat in an unused chair. Sharra turned to the
staff, cupping her hands over it and closing her eyes. Nothing seemed to
happen at first, then the crystal shards began to quiver, and emit light.
"You know him better than anyone, Jotunheim. He was your apprentice,"
"Sharra knew him better than I did," said Jotunheim. "He was my apprentice
for a short time at the beginning of the rebellion, but as soon as I
finished training him, he left to fight his own war. He took Sharra with
him, and it was she who was by his side for all those years."
Jang remembered the envy she had felt at the time, having been passed over
by the mage. She recalled his words as if he were saying them now.
"The Emperor wants you both. You cannot stay together. Jang, you're to stay
with Jotunheim and his men. They can protect you better than I can. Sharra
will come with me."
"I've been hiding for years," she had replied. "If my uncle's going to kill
me, let me die as my father did—standing tall, sword in hand, not hiding
like a coward behind the shields and spears of Jotunheim's army."
Tolumvire had ignored her then. She did not see him again for three years.
Jotunheim gave her a knowing look. "He left you behind because you were the
rightful heir. Sharra being only the daughter of a concubine—well, her
death wouldn't have mattered as much. Your death would have legitimized
your uncle's claim to power. It would have made him your father's heir."
Jang did not respond. Sharra continued to weave her hands over the Imperial
Scepter, the light dancing beneath them. Slowly, filaments of crystal began
to form and take shape, reaching towards each other, binding the shards
Jotunheim rose from the chair. He barely came up to Jang's waist.
"I'll tell you this much, Jang. Tolumvire has flaws. You know that already.
You knew it from the day you met him. I don't pledge my word lightly. Even
a flawed Tolumvire is the sort of man that only comes every thousand years.
Warlords and tyrants come and go, but none have his vision, his ideal, his
dream. I am willing to blindly trust that he is the man who will unify the
shattered Empire. If he fails, we will be no worse off than when we
started. If he succeeds ... then we will be the heralds of a new dawn for
mankind. Marry him, put off the marriage, abandon him, betray him, it
doesn't matter. The choice is, of course, entirely yours, and I truthfully
don't know what I would do in your place. Just choose wisely, Princess. It
may be your will that guides our savior."
* * *
The King of Ragnarok loomed over other men. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, he
wore a sword at his belt and a surcoat emblazoned with the image of a wolf
tearing free of its chains. When Tolumvire bowed to him, he made no
immediate reply. He seemed to size him up.
"Introduce yourself," commanded Bolgar.
"I am Tolumvire, Grand Master of the Illuminated. I am the envoy of
Arendur, a nation to the east. During the rebellion, my followers and I
fought to destroy the Empire. I sit on the ruling council, and command the
sole remaining imperial mage order."
"I know of Arendur," replied Bolgar. "It was you who sent the scouts I
"You said you wanted to speak to an equal."
The King of Ragnarok nodded. "You're a mage, are you not?"
"Why is Arendur interested in my kingdom?" asked Bolgar. "I don't care
about you. If I had my way, you would stay far away from me, and I would do
the same for you. I have my own subjects to care for."
"We seek a union of nations. Your kingdom of Ragnarok is the only nation
besides Arendur to emerge from the ashes of the Empire."
"Be more specific when you say union of nations. Do you expect me to join
your ruling council? Or is it a trade relationship you are asking for?"
"That is what I am here to negotiate," replied Tolumvire respectfully.
"Compromises would have to be made. We must begin by determining what we
have to offer to one another."
Bolgar smile was not unfriendly, but it lacked warmth. "We will begin with
what we want from each other. You want a single nation. I refuse to cede my
power to anything that walks or flies or crawls. If the Council of Arendur
is prepared to acknowledge me as their king, I will negotiate how we might
"Are you serious, or is this a negotiating trick? I will not play this
game. Arendur did not break free from the Empire to bend the knee to
another king. You could continue to rule Ragnarok, but you would be part of
a greater ruling council that encompassed any nations that joined our
He shrugged. "I told you my terms. Accept them or deny them, it makes no
difference to me."
"Why did you tell the scouting party that you would only negotiate with an
equal if you had no intent to negotiate?"
"Only an equal can surrender to me."
Tolumvire burst out laughing. "I can only suspend disbelief for so long.
Who the hell do you think you are, making demands of me? You think because
you are a great warrior that you can browbeat us into submission? Or do you
really believe your priests when they whisper into your ear, calling you
god's gift to mankind? Arendur tore itself kicking and screaming out of the
Empire's corpse! At least show me some respect for my part in that, Your
"You are nothing."
Tolumvire's eyes flashed with rage. Bolgar's mouth quirked.
"Tell me, Bolgar, why do you refuse to even consider a partnership? Do you
feel that you alone deserve power? That you have been given it by the gods?
"How can I trust anyone else to protect my people? Will your council
undertake that task all the way from Arendur? Tend to your country,
Tolumvire, and let me tend to mine. Rebuild your empire without me."
Tolumvire's voice was hard. "Arendur and Ragnarok are the first two nations
to emerge from a shattered empire, and that puts us in a unique position.
How will the new order look? A dozen petty kingdoms warring with each
other? Or a dozen kingdoms striving towards a common end, unified in will
and purpose? I helped tear down the Empire, and I don't want to leave
nothing in its place. As its heir, I would see it rebuilt."
"Heir to the empire? You think that? Just because you've taken someone
else's city and someone else's people, and you have some mages at your
command? Now you can call yourself the shepherd of mankind?"
"You speak of caring for your subjects, Bolgar. For all its cruelty, the
Empire kept the monsters of the old world at bay. Don't know the stories?
Already, we war with giants, and worse is yet to come. Wraiths and
vampires, demons and gorgons, dragons and other beasts. In return for
safety and unity, the Empire made slaves of us. We in the rebellion broke
our shackles, but in doing so, we discovered that we must become our own
defenders. Would you and your people fight alone?"
"You speak of the old world and its monsters. I've fought them. That world
might be a thing of the past for you in the flying city, but those of us on
the borders, it's the world we've always lived in."
"You would trust everything to your sword-arm?" retorted Tolumvire. "We
have mages, relics from the Empire, a vast army, and a flying city.
Standing alone against the world isn't bravery, it's suicide."
The King of Ragnarok leaned back in his throne and bared his teeth in a
slight smile. "You must think you control all magic in the world. You're
quick to dismiss the gods and those who follow them. There is power in
faith! You are blind with arrogance and contempt. You fail to see that you
are the one alone here."
"What we in Arendur know is that the people of the world are one, and that
our duty is to unite and protect them. You would stand in my way. You
fought the old world and fancy yourself invincible. Perhaps only force will
Raising a hand, Tolumvire drew forth the flames from every torch in the
room, weaving them into a lance of fire. As the room plunged into shadow,
he made eye contact with Bolgar. Weaving a snare for his foe's mind, he set
forth a sorcerous trap. Fear or anger would be the ideal trigger, but any
passion would lay bare his mind.
Search for a weakness, Farcraft had once said. If you don't find one, make
Bolgar stood, drawing his sword. His face did not so much as flicker.
Tolumvire tried to overwhelm his psyche with force of will. It was like
trying to claw through stone. As Tolumvire flung the fiery lance, Bolgar
held the sword point-downward between them. The mage briefly perceived a
snarling gorgon's face, snakes hissing. The reflection of the lance became
real, hurtling back towards him. Tolumvire swiftly gestured with both
hands, muttering a counterspell.
Bolgar began to close the distance between them. Letting loose a cry, the
Grand Master gathered the electricity in the air, releasing it in several
arcs of lightning. As if repulsed by a magnet, none of them met their mark.
Tolumvire's eyes widened with fear and fury as Bolgar bore down upon him.
The mage grabbed an unlit torch, altering its form to create a spear, six
feet long with wide prongs on either side of the blade. Raising it in time
to redirect Bolgar's lunge, he swiped at the king's head, grazing him and
drawing blood. Tolumvire struck out once, twice, thrice. Each time, Bolgar
caught the spear prongs on his sword. On the third thrust, the King of
Ragnarok saw a weakness in Tolumvire's grip. Putting his weight behind the
parry, he pushed the spear out of the mage's hands.
Bolgar rushed at him, aiming for his chest. Tolumvire leapt aside only for
Bolgar to pivot and shove him off balance. He tried to rise, but the king
stepped on his throat.
Bolgar raised his sword for the final blow and swung.
It met steel.
Thorren stood beside Tolumvire, sword raised to protect him. It dripped
with the blood of the king's guards.
"This is not a battlefield! Forgive my master's rage. Get him to a healer
and we will discuss this, soldier to soldier."
Bolgar gave Thorren a cold look. "Stand aside."
"Would you make a coward of me?"
Tolumvire's eyes darted wildly. Gasping and wheezing, he could not breathe.
"Stand aside," Bolgar repeated. "If I have to repeat myself, I'll kill you
Thorren's attack was immediate.
Thorren had the advantage of armor, but it was he who fought on the
defensive. The king drove him backward with a furious assault that allowed
little time to counterattack. Unarmored as he was, Bolgar could not afford
to finish off Tolumvire for fear that he would expose himself to Thorren's
As Tolumvire choked and gurgled, blind panic overtook him. He grasped
Thorren's ankle with a blooded hand. The mage's blood burned white and the
greave crumbled. Thorren grunted with surprise. Gripping tighter, Tolumvire
began to cast another spell.
Blood magic required sacrifice. Tolumvire's blood for shattered steel.
Thorren's life essence for Tolumvire's healing.
Thorren's leg buckled. Pale smoke rose from the stump of his ankle.
Tolumvire's throat reknit itself, air flying back into his lungs.
Rising, he summoning a blanket of fog to shroud him from view.
"Just drop your sword," said Bolgar. "There's no shame, not after you've
been stabbed in the back like that."
Thorren's laugh was chilling. "I never had illusions about the man I chose
"Then you shall be the first to die for him."
Tolumvire discorporated into the fog, flying through the building and into
the courtyard. Soldiers had arrived in response to the death of the guards;
the mage paid them no mind. In the light of the sun, the fog began to
evaporate and rise. Tolumvire rose with it.
Calling upon the wind, he took flight.
His face bore no emotion.
* * *
Brigadier General Mars left the war council with with a grim face and a
The collective might of the Arendurian Army indeed! Everyone had something
to share during the war preparations against Ragnarok, an opinion or a pet
project, a torrent of unsolicited advice.
Mars felt his presence before he heard him speak.
"Were you ever present for a war council during Farcraft's tenure?"
Hooded, with his black longcoat buttoned up against the wind, the Grand
Master of the Illuminated seemed more shadow than man.
Hoping to avoid conversation, Mars continued walking. Tolumvire grabbed him
by the elbow.
"I'm not done with you yet," he said, amused.
"You want to use me as a pawn against the General, is that it?"
"You anticipate me. Why do you ask? Do you wish to be used?"
Irked, Mars faced him. "Humor me, Grand Master."
The mage's smile hardened. "Account for your commander, Mars."
"I wasn't aware that I had to."
The two of them were standing alone in the middle of the street. The other
attendees of the meeting had left, and no one else was eager to be outside
in such cold weather.
"Farcraft kept order. Farcraft insisted upon discipline. Everyone knew
their place and spoke when they were called upon. Those who had nothing to share
Mars nodded. "I'm not surprised. I assume this is where you expect me to
heap scorn on General Bron? Because I won't, Tolumvire."
"Keep your silence if you must. The fact that you cannot defend him speaks
louder than any slander."
Bron spoke little during the war council. Sensing weakness, various
officers and specialists debated amongst themselves and asked questions
unconnected by any narrative. When Bron did speak, his words were usually
directed at Tolumvire. His anger was a palpable force in the room.
"Bron has no business leading this war effort," continued Tolumvire. "He is
incapable. He thinks that by doing so, he is fighting for me and enabling a
great evil. Nor does he keep a tight reign on his men. The army will be
"What do you want from me?" Mars raised his voice. "This isn't about you
venting. We all know you never vent. Your anger takes the form of action,
and you want me to be your instrument."
The Grand Master's smile returned. "Don't sound so indignant. I'm not
asking for a specific action from you. I'm asking you to think long and
hard about the future of the Arendurian Army, and to do as you see best."
"All armies depend on a chain of command. To turn on Bron would set a
dangerous precedent. You too should be wary. Cheapen loyalty and you might
have someone intent on bringing you down."
His smile grew ominous. "It is my duty to ensure that Arendur is served by
the best and the brightest. I'm not suggesting that everyone start turning
on their leaders. I'll make those judgements. Bron's inability to lead his
men will lead to senseless death. Look into your heart, look me in the
eyes, and deny the truth of my words. I'm not asking you to betray Bron.
Just give him enough rope and he'll hang himself with it."
Mars narrowed his eyes.
Tolumvire began to walk away before pausing in his stride. "Just remember.
Anyone who wants to bring me down brings the city down with me."
Mars' anger grew as he walked back to the army headquarters. Curtly
saluting the guards, he made his way to Bron's office.
General Bron gave Mars a heavy-lidded stare. His desk was scattered with
maps, memorandums, and military bureaucracy.
"You look like you have something to say," grunted the General. "Feel free.
Distract me from this shit."
Mars tried to look apologetic.
"No, I mean it," insisted Bron.
"You didn't speak much during the council."
"What the hell was there to say?" Bron was an angry as Mars had ever seen
"Do you want the truth from me, sir?"
Mars leaned on the edge of Bron's desk. "You let the general staff run
roughshod over you. There was no one in control in that room. I'm sorry,
sir, but you looked weak. If you stay silent like that in the future, the
men will either go their own ways or look for another leader."
"You'll hate me for pointing this out, but did you see Tolumvire's men? War
wizards from the rebellion, all of them. Hard, fearless men. He keeps them
on a leash. They speak only when he allows them to. You need to do that."
"I'm already the damn desk clerk for his war," snapped Bron. "I'm not going
to make his work any easier for him. If he's so damn good at his job, let
him deal with the general staff!"
"If you're going to challenge him, at least challenge him from a position
of strength! He'll roll right over you if you don't!"
Bron leaned back in his chair, smiling slightly to himself. "What's all
this about? Why are you suddenly so eager to school me in the arts of war?
You used to be so ... quiet."
Catching a cold glint in the General's eyes, Mars froze.
And made his choice.
"I was disappointed, sir," he said flatly. "I might be quiet, but don't
want to see us become Tolumvire's personal army. Frankly, sir, I have no
desire to go to war with men I've never even seen. I thought you'd put up
more of a fight in the meeting."
Bron stared at him.
"Let me be blunt," continued Mars. "I will stand by you up till a point,
put I'm not going to be a dog of the Illuminated. There may come a point
when you'll need to look for a new Brigadier General."
Bron got up suddenly. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?"
"You're going to tell Tolumvire what you told me. Let's go. The Tower of
the Illuminated awaits."
Bron strode out of his office. Mars still stood in amazement.
The fate of Arendur would be decided within the hour.
* * *
"Icarus wanted me to forge an alliance with King Bolgar on any terms,"
explained Tolumvire to Jotunheim, who sat across him in the library. "He
refused to give up his sovereignty. So long as Ragnarok remains free under
his rule, the Empire will never be reunited."
"Is it true that he attacked you?"
"It was inevitable that we would fight."
"I know why his people believe him blessed by the gods. His priesthood—the priesthood of the Messenger, they're mages. They've woven a shield of
protective magic around him. Magic to make him swifter, to sharpen his
senses, to strengthen his arm, to shield his mind. None of my spells had
any effect on him."
"I've heard of things like that," mused Jotunheim. "Rogue mage orders
during the Empire pretending to be legitimate organizations. Priesthoods,
academic institutions, houses of healing, other things of that nature. We
were alone in choosing to rebel."
"We had courage. We alone did not hide or surrender."
"Courage," snorted Jotunheim. His dark eyes narrowed. "Yes, we have
courage. Courage to fight a man born to slaughter us. Whoever wins this war
will live in a darker world than the one we have now. Mage turned against
mage. A return to the horrors of the rebellion."
"A rebellion you began," reminded Tolumvire.
"I rebellion I regret beginning. I did not raise my fist against the Empire
to usher in the end times."
Tolumvire smiled wearily. "End times? Melodramatic of you. War is nothing
"Ragnarok. The twilight of the gods. The name of Bolgar's kingdom. Forgive
me my superstitious musings. I have been on this world for too long. My
legacy looms large in my thoughts."
Tolumvire laughed. The sight of a boy lamenting his legacy was too much for
him to take.
Jotunheim met his gaze with the eyes of an old man, and Tolumvire grew
silent. Not for the first time, he wondered how many years the childlike
mage had lived.
A sudden warning look in Jotunheim's eyes made Tolumvire turn around.
General Bron and Brigadier General Mars had entered the library, and were
making their way towards them.
Bron's face was thunder. "Account for yourself."
Tolumvire leaned an elbow on the side of the chair. "What do you want from
Brigadier General Mars' voice was cold. "We want to know why we are at war
with a people we have never laid eyes upon."
Tolumvire sneered. "I thought the General didn't philosophize. The General
obeys. Isn't that what you said?"
"Not you," barked Bron. "I don't owe you obedience. The Arendurian Army is
mine, Tolumvire. I decide where it fights."
"I thought the Council decides that," said Jotunheim softly.
"Tolumvire doesn't need you to speak for him, boy!"
"The Council decides who we fight," corrected Mars. "This is your war,
Tolumvire. You made it, you own it, and you'll fight it. Not us."
Tolumvire rose to his feet. The contempt on Mars' face startled him.
"Seems like Bron does need you to speak for him," remarked the Grand
Master. "I never heard any of this in the war council. I didn't hear much
of anything from Bron, in fact."
"It was his first major command," pointed out Jotunheim. "I wouldn't be
surprised if he got nervous."
"Maybe I was," admitted Bron darkly. "But you'll see no more fear from me
now. I'll make your life hell for you. You won't get a single soldier from
me. I'll defend this city, but I'm not going to conquer an inch of land for
you to lord over."
Tolumvire broke out into laughter, pounding a fist on the arm of the chair.
"You were so eager to become General, Bron. You had such brilliant reforms
in mind. You were ready to take me on. Look where you are now. Standing in
my library, shouting threats at me. Threaten me, Bron? You can't even get
your own officers to take you seriously."
Tolumvire burst out into another round of laughter.
"Maybe I'm wrong about you. Maybe this will be your chance to put your
reforms to use. To prove your worth to the people of Arendur. Establish
yourself as Farcraft's successor, a hero for generations to come. Maybe
you'll even martyr yourself like he did, and we can bury your empty armor
next to his!"
"It's easy to think you're ready for responsibility when you're on the
outside," said Jotunheim.
Bron endured the Grand Master's mockery with rigid dignity. Hearing the
pity in Jotunheim's voice, something snapped. Drawing a dagger, he leapt at
Mars moved quickly to restrain him. Bron shoved him out of the way, murder
in his eyes.
Jotunheim flung himself in front of Tolumvire. Too small to fully interpose
himself, he nonetheless caused Bron to stumble and miss the mage's throat,
imbedding the dagger in his shoulder instead.
Mars drew his sword.
"Finish him!" urged Bron. "We liberated Arendur once, we can do it again!"
The blade was pointed at the General.
"We all broke the laws of the Empire for a good reason!" shouted Bron.
"It's only a crime if we lose!"
"When do the rebellions end?" asked Mars. "Tolumvire overthrows the
Emperor. You overthrow him. Who overthrows you? It has to stop eventually.
It stops now."
Collapsed in his chair, Tolumvire pointed at Bron. His voice was thick with
pain. "Attempted murder and treason. We have enough witnesses. Mars. I
declare him guilty. His punishment shall be death by beheading. Do it."
Mars shook his head. "He fought valiantly in the rebellion. You owe him for
that, at least. It's not just to kill a man you goaded into attacking you."
Jotunheim spoke directly to the General, who stood defiantly in the center
of the library.
"You have a family here, Bron. I'm not threatening them. If you die here,
you leave your wife a widow, your children growing up in the shadow of
their traitor father. Just take them and go. Resign your title. Our wish is
to have you gone, not to make your loved ones suffer."
Tolumvire lacked the strength to argue. He nodded stiffly.
"I don't want your pity," growled Bron.
"I don't pity you. I pity your family."
Tolumvire had his hand over his wound in a feeble attempt to staunch the
bleeding. Blood welled through his fingers. "We're finished with you. I
need a healer. Get out now or we'll kill you."
Bron gave the Grand Master a lingering look. "If I ever come back, it will
be as the enemy of Arendur. All of you have embraced this man."
He looked like he wanted to say more, but he turned on his heel and strode
"Jotunheim," said Tolumvire. "Fetch me a healer."
The mage looked at Mars worriedly.
"I trust Mars," said Tolumvire. The Brigadier General stiffened. Jotunheim
Mars still had his sword drawn.
"Both of you were right about each other."
"No," said Tolumvire firmly. "False equivalence. Don't be seduced by it.
And stop brandishing your sword. Killing me might get you the executioner's
block, or the Generalship. You don't want either. You think you can rule
Arendur with Jotunheim and Icarus?"
Mars' mouth quirked. "I do, actually. But I've no wish to kill you. Your
Arendur frightens me, but I'll die defending it if I have to."
Tolumvire nodded. "Good. You won't be alone. Many men are going to die. The
blood of men like you is the mortar of paradise."
"You won't live to see your paradise. A perfect world has no men like you."
Tolumvire smiled bitterly.
He already knew.
* * *
Jang saw little of Tolumvire in the coming weeks. He was consumed by war
preparations, readying the Illuminated to fight. More and more often now,
he was with the new General of the Arendurian Army, Zadira, a cold-eyed
mercenary and master engineer with a fascination for alchemical weapons.
She was able to catch him one day, and so, they went to the walls.
"I have questions for you," she began.
"I'm not surprised," he replied. "Ask away."
He gave a brief smile. "You'll have to be more specific than that."
"Everyone in Arendur has a different story for why you provoked a war. By
all accounts, you tell a different story to each person."
"Ask me anything else," he replied.
"Ask me anything else," he repeated. He spoke now with the force of
Cold chills running through her body, mouth dry, Jang clung to her will. It
would be so much easier to simply let the question go, to submit and
accept. Even so, she clung to her will, and managed to speak.
"Don't make me ask a third time. When you were in Ragnarok, you were face
to face with King Bolgar. Did you provoke him? Did he provoke you? Was it
to oust Bron, or to gain power for yourself? Was it to rebuild the Empire?"
"I truly ought to push you off these walls," he muttured.
He remained silent for a little while.
"Everyone," he began slowly. "Seems to think they have a right to know why
we make war. Everyone thinks this is about them. This isn't the rebellion,
Jang. I'm not waging war for the common people, for the soldiers, for you,
or for anyone else. This is a war being fought between two inimical dreams,
between two different fates. All the rest of you have been swept into
something far beyond you. Bolgar thinks every man has the right to choose
his own destiny. I think—no, I know—that mankind's shared fate must be a
thing of singular will and purpose. I am sorry for everyone who is caught
in this war. I am sorry for you. I am sorry for the widows and orphans I
will leave in my wake."
"Are you sorry for Jotunheim, whose loyalty you take for granted?" asked
Jang. "Are you sorry for my sister?"
"Both are sworn to serve me. If I commanded them to follow me through the
gates of hell, they would owe me that. If I commanded them to go through
the gates of hell without me, they would be obligated to do so. You are
not. The people of Arendur are not."
Jang did not reply. She had no idea what she should say, and feared the
possibility of what might come out of her mouth.
"Marry me this very day," said Tolumvire suddenly. "I'll declare us Emperor
and Empress of Arendur, and we will fight the war as it was intended to be
fought. No council to hamper our will. No general content to ignore our
commands. It will be like the rebellion once more; we will destroy our
fetters. We could be equals. You could reclaim your birthright and take
back what was lost."
He was staring at her with frightening intensity. She remembered when he
was a young man and she a frightened girl on the run from her uncle's
knives. Against all reason, she had chosen to trust in him.
"And what will happen when you decide that your equal is dragging you
down?" asked Jang. "What will happen to me then?"
Tolumvire paused for a moment.
"I shall tell you my true name."
Jang remembered how her uncle had devised a means to erase all memory of
his name. Her father had objected, asking his brother why he mistrusted his
family so much.
"I trust the man who is my brother, but I do not trust the man who is the
Emperor." That had been the reply. "You should not trust me either. I am your
brother, but I am also the Prince. In the halls of power, there are no
family bonds. Childhood is over."
Tolumvire did not know the magic to erase memory, for that dark art had
died with the Empire. Once she knew his true name, there would be no way he
could take it back.
"Why? My uncle used to say that a mage's true name was a key to his power.
What if one of your enemies tortured it out of me."
"Any other woman in Arendur would be overjoyed at such an offer."
"You wouldn't make the offer to any other woman in Arendur," countered
Jang. "Sometimes I've wondered if this is just a power game. You get to
call yourself Emperor and you can rest content that no women in your city
would dare refuse you."
He began to laugh. Jang stared at him, waiting for him to finish.
He seized her hand. "Why wouldn't this be a power game? My life is a power
game. I'm the king, and you're the pawn I've been moving forward. I would
make you the queen. I've always wanted an equal, and I've always wanted it
to be you."
"A queen isn't always necessary." It was the only reply she could think of.
"There are rooks."
"Cumbersome to maneuver."
"Confined to half the world."
"Roundabout and slow!"
"The knight is undaunted by those in her path," replied Jang. "No one can
stop the course of a knight. If you wished for an equal, you could have
made me General of the Arendurian Army, as promised. I cannot believe that
you had no influence over the choosing of Zadira. The Council would not
have picked a mercenary without your urging. And if we speak of pieces and
their weaknesses, what of the king? No one is slower than he who must be
protected, who cannot even engage his foes directly."
"The king moves where he chooses," said Tolumvire, releasing her hand. "The
king dictates the ebb and flow of the battle. It would be madness to make
you general in a time of war. As it is, I would give you far more than
that. I would make you empress, and give you a throne beside my own."
The autumn wind picked up, a damp, chilly gust that promised future rain.
"How can I answer you? I've been betrothed to you for a while, but to marry
you now—to become Empress, and enter a war—I would be mad and foolish
to make such a choice so quickly."
"You're not wrong," allowed the Grand Master with a grimace. "I forget that
you are not any other woman in Arendur."
"You would do well to remember."
Thunder sounded in the distance. The storm would come, and at these
heights, the walls of the flying city were no place to linger. When
Tolumvire said nothing, Jang spoke.
"Here is my vow to you, Tolumvire of Arendur. Win your war first. Prove the
rightness of your dream to me. Only then will I consent to be your bride.
As your wedding gift, give Ragnarok to me, and thus shall we rule, as
Emperor and Empress of Arendur and Ragnarok. In the meanwhile, you can keep
your true name. The only thing that I ask is that you free my sister from
your compulsion. I don't care about the relic she's reconstructing or her
madness. If your dream is righteous, she will serve you anyway. I will
Thunder sounded again, closer this time. Tolumvire glanced towards the
storm clouds, and smiled back at Jang.
"Nothing pleases me more than the thought of you on Bolgar's throne. For
the promise of that sight alone, I will take your oath."
Jang smiled back, but felt a deep chill.
If Arendur fell, she was not the one who would fly free.
* * *
"A petitioner of note is here to see you, Your Majesty," said the High
"What do you mean by noteworthy?" asked Bolgar. "The last time you said
something like that, we found ourselves at war."
"Perhaps you should see for yourself. He awaits you outside the throne
Rising from his knees, Bolgar left the temple. He was happy for an excuse
to do so. His priests expected piety from him, but he could not shake off
the feeling that he was wasting his time. The gods had fashioned him to
fight for them, not kneel on stone in their name.
"He arrived with his family," explained the High Priest. "We have
temporarily put them in the hostel."
Bolgar nodded. They stepped outside the temple, where a man waited in the
rain. Bald and bearded, he barely came up to the King's midriff.
"I am Bolgar of Ragnarok," announced the king.
The man went to one knee.
"So this is the warrior king who sent Tolumvire scurrying in terror," he
said with grudging admiration. "Your Majesty, my name is Bron. I was
General of the Arendurian Army--the last General who wasn't a dog of the
mages. I wish to be of service to you, sire."
"What can you do for me that I don't already have?"
"I know how the Arendurians think. I know how they fight."
Bolgar nodded dismissively. Bron did not break his gaze.
"I know what keeps the city flying. I know how to bring it down from the
Bolgar nodded again.
This time, he smiled.
Copyright 2017, Grisha Syssoyev
I am a college
student, and I have published two short stories with Aphelion before; "The
Apostle's Tale" and "A Show of Strength." I have attended the Juniper
Institute for Young Writers and the NYS Summer Young Writer's Institute.
E-mail: Grisha Syssoyev
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