"The Last General by Grisha Syssoyev"
Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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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 stepped forth.

"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 contempt.

His aide, Captain Mars, gave him a grim look.

"What right," said Bron in a low voice. "Does that mage have to accept our honor?"

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 cold.

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 earth.

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."

He laughed.

"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 that ape."

The Grand Master of the Illuminated departed.

* * *

"I apologize for my lateness," said Tolumvire as he closed the door behind him.

"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 glance.

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 indulgently.

"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 rushed."

"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 goal."

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?"

"No."

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 Triumvirate."

"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 having defeated!"

"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 despise you."

"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 anticipated me."

"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 to them."

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 gone."

"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 of resolve!"

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 past.

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 are going?"

"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 your lifeblood!"

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 gates!"

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 fading away.

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 of Ragnarok."

"I am the High Priest in Ragnarok. You may find me of more help than Bolgar."

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, not Bolgar."

"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 wolf statue."

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 seen her.

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 recognize you."

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," pressed Jang.

"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 together.

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 turned away."

"You said you wanted to speak to an equal."

The King of Ragnarok nodded. "You're a mage, are you not?"

"I am."

"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 unify."

"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 alliance."

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 Majesty!"

"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? Simple greed?"

"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 convince you."

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 one.

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 all!"

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 blade.

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 to serve."

"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 pounding head.

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.

"No."

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 remained silent."

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 rudderless."

"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 him.

"Do you want the truth from me, sir?"

"Always."

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."

Bron scowled.

"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."

Jotunheim nodded.

"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 new."

"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 me?"

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 Tolumvire.

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 out.

"Jotunheim," said Tolumvire. "Fetch me a healer."

The mage looked at Mars worriedly.

"I trust Mars," said Tolumvire. The Brigadier General stiffened. Jotunheim departed.

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."

"Why?"

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.

"No."

"Ask me anything else," he repeated. He spoke now with the force of sorcerous compulsion.

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."

"Bishops."

"Confined to half the world."

"Knights!"

"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. Jang shivered.

"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 ensure that."

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 Priest.

"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 room."

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 sky."

Bolgar nodded again.

This time, he smiled.

THE END


Copyright 2017, Grisha Syssoyev

Bio: 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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