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When the forest shrunk to open grasslands, Carius met with a group of mercenaries in earthen toned cloaks and tabard greens. They toted large shields on their backs and crossbows slung over their shoulders. Each wore a light, laminated wood and leather breastplate and leg guards. They weren’t meant to fight in melee until the battle was won, the shield would do the real protection.


Their leader stepped forward, a large bald man with a few missing teeth, a thick beard, and the dark olive complexion of those who lived on the river.


Carius extended his right hand, “you must be Olgur.”


Olgur extended a three-pronged hook at the end of his wrist.


Carius hesitated, looking at it and said, “my apologies.”


The mercenary and his band laughed, then he held out his left hand instead, “it serves me fine. Just having a little sport with you.”


Carius shook the given hand. “I am Captain Carius of Lerian. We made good time, though I apologize if we made you wait.”


“You didn’t. I’ve brought a company of fifty from Pryle. That should be enough.”


That turned eyes toward the Prylian mercenaries. The Lerians expected more, and their king paid well for this support. Their own numbers brought the total force to eighty-three, and they might face twice that when the battle started.


“To be straight with you,” Carius said. “We expected more.”


“You paid to get the job done, not to bring an army.” Olgur pulled three coins from his belt and nodded to a few of his mercenaries. “This will be plenty.”


Three mercenaries took out their crossbows and Olgur tossed the coins. A second later, crossbow bolts flew and vanished the moment they left the weapon. All three shot out of the coins and into the grass, digging deep into the earth.


“We, captain, are very prepared.”


. . . . . . .


Athia left right after the attack. She didn’t want to linger where more might come or endanger those around her. The assassins didn’t plan on her resisting, or on the intervention of the Tricorn. If she died, they could have spun any story they wanted. Not like Lerian’s soldiers would care, so long as they didn’t realize the killers were Einarr.


To rest her knee, she tied herself sitting to her board and rode like that. Not as much fun, slower, and less mobile. Also a bit embarrassing. Still, it worked.


Each bump made her groan. She groaned a lot that day.


Her path took her down the south road before she hopped off and went through the woods, which slowed her a great deal as she pulled the kite in close so it wouldn’t catch on anything. Every root and knot sent her popping up and back down in misery. And yet it still beat a Clarient or Lerian jail!


That night she skipped the fire and food, too busy drawing her protective symbols. Fire might draw attention. And it might illuminate things she didn’t want to see. With her protections done she dozed off, stomach growling. She woke to find more pebbles and twigs around the base, an effort to disrupt its power. As she expected. Worrisome, but not a big deal in the given circumstances.


Athia took off again, wanting to leave all the local nonsense behind. Clarient wanted her dead, Lerian would want the same if they found out she turned their soldiers over to the Einarr. Chances are they’d find out if she was on a hit list.


Her knee felt good enough to stand and ride. Or maybe she just really hated sitting. Either way, she made a far better pace on her feet. Trees zipped by and she found the rough terrain made a fun ride of hops and weaves. Until one hefty jump set her knee to throbbing and she, begrudgingly, took an easier path.


By midday, she came out near a small trading town in southern Lerian. Squat log buildings and straw rooves made up most of it, with two larger stone structures toward the center. A particularly tall horse munched on one of the rooves while the people gathered in the town center.


Athia put up her kite and moved closer, curious and cautious.


A dozen soldiers stood before the assembled. A man with a plumed helm took the forefront and rolled up a decree.


“As you have heard. All men over the age of fourteen are to report to Lord Lerian’s keep. We need them now, more than ever, to fend off the Einarr menace. We can make exception only to those families which will pay a sum of sixteen rens to help fund the war effort.”


Athia ducked down behind a stable, her stomach churning.


People argued and begged, growing a clamor of desperation. Those that volunteered went first, the rest came pried from their families. Soldiers beat back anyone who resisted and couldn’t pay, but the few that could afford left the square destitute. A ren often meant a week of work from any tradesperson.


Athia got down and crawled into a nook between the stable and the building next to it. It kept her hidden as the mustering continued. She wished she could go do something, but what could she? Take on an organized company of soldiers while they performed their lawful duty? Even if she could win, what would it amount to? More would come later. Lerian ruled here.


If she was right about their plans it might turn into a full-blown war. Or worse, a siege on Clarient. One where hundreds, maybe thousands would die. Then what, more executions? Wholesale slaughter? Looting and pillaging?


At the same time, the people of Clarient already suffered. If she could do something, why should she? One day someone was going to take Clarient from the Einarr, it wasn’t her fault or responsibility. She had no love for the Einarr, and life under them was miserable. It’d still be miserable under Lerian, or anyone else, but that wasn’t on her. Maybe prolonging the feud made it worse.


But Athia got back to her feet. She plucked straw from her hair and pulled out her kite and board. She’d stick it to Lerian and that Master at the same time. How, she didn’t know, but she knew she’d do it. Confidence was half of success.


That meant she was halfway there.


But first she needed to eat, and this town was far too depressing to get lunch from.


The wind caught and she left before anyone noticed. She thought that might be poetic, they spurred her to action and would never know. But that was getting ahead of herself.


She closed her eyes, enjoying the breeze as she traveled. If she didn’t take this detour, she’d be several rens richer. Yet she didn’t mind this. Because it might matter. Sure, chances were she’d accomplish little to nothing, or get clobbered for her efforts, but she’d take those odds.


The only question left was how. How would she do it? A few hours, alone on the road, gave her plenty of time to think. Pass warning to the Einarr? Petition Lerian to dissuade him?


Assassinate the Master herself? Assassinate Lerian? No, she didn’t kill people, even if they earned it. Go cause trouble in the mercantile states? She didn’t know how that would help.


Save the master?


There, there was an idea. Not because she thought him worth saving, but because of how she could do it. A seed of an idea settled comfortably in her mind. She now had a plan. One to prevent a war between petty little kings and maybe, hopefully, do something good.


With the road all to herself, Athia began to sing.


. . . . . .


A massive man stood beside the Master. Age speckled his dark hair with gray and striped his beard. He wore polished silver armor with black trim and two hanging lanterns on his belt. On his breast hung a silver pen, emblazoned with a great boar with spear like tusks. His hands gripped a letter, dwarfed in his tree trunk fingers.


“Master,” he said, voice a low grumble that resonated in the Master’s stomach. “Allow me to accompany you.”


“No, I trust no one else to safeguard the city in my absence, Urse.”


Urse flexed one hand, crumpling the letter as he did. His attention moved out over the courtyard. Below the palace balcony, a crew of gardeners worked to transplant in winter flowers. They kept their heads down, under the watchful eyes of a torchbearer who ensured their diligence in all things.


Once, Urse and the Einarr fought for the end of overseers. Now, all he did was appoint them. He wondered now if they had been wrong from the start. In these years since he beheaded the old king of Loiys, he came to an unpleasant realization. People needed hierarchy and, if they did, it should be the greatest who ruled them. A simple, primal truth. The First Law of the natural world.


Was this man, was the Master still the one with right to lead?


“We suffer this,” the Master said, in a soft voice, “because we must. For tomorrow.”


“You say that often.”


“Because I must.”


Urse slipped the envelope into a pouch on his belt. He spoke, but his voice lowered a degree without his meaning it to. “We should have disbanded the torchbearers years ago.”


“They’re necessary,” the Master said, his own voice lowering. “Perhaps you were right once, but now we cannot do without them. They dirty their hands, so the people don’t. One day they won’t be needed, and then we will do away with them.”


“And if they say no?” Urse whispered.


The Master smiled, turning back to the inside of his quarters and away from the balcony. The shadow of the awning fell behind him as he walked back to the room warmed by a large hearth. There Veil knelt, body tense and eager to snap.


“You bring poor news, I take it.”


“I should have gone. The torchbearers failed. She has eluded them and contacted the Lerians.”


Urse asked, “what is this about?”


“A spy, one Veil deems dangerous,” the Master said. “It is ok, Veil. You will be joining me in travel. The mercantile state of Iylia has agreed to send escort as well, for a fee. There is little danger.”


“Master,” Urse said, his words raw and hard, “why do you trust these corrupt dogs? Why are we even forming alliance with them? Closiah has made agreements and the Brigrisar have also parlayed. Both are mightier and more worthy of our consideration. The peoples of the Kol value us only for the road they can create to pass us by. We take a pittance to let them make a fortune with those we struggled against.”


“Mighty, you say that word often now,” the Master said, still holding his little smile. “Closiah and the Brigrisar are distant, and we are broke. Urse, I agree with you, but sacrifices must be made. If we must deal with the merchants to support the revolution, we will. Five years ago I would have, and did, refuse. Now I have no choice.”


He stood before the hearth, letting it warm his back.


Urse took a step forward. A hint of the fire danced in his eyes. “Master, must we keep sacrificing until we’ve lost all we worked for? If so, then why did we act at all?”


“You know my answer.”


Urse beat a fist to his chestguard. “How many more days must I wait before I may know if I have done the right thing? You tell me we work for tomorrow, but how many tomorrows have gone by without progress? Must this purgatory never end?”


Veil’s tension turned to a contained quiver as they got to their feet, slow and steady.


The Master gestured at Veil in a disarming manner.


“Urse,” he said. “You pledged your life to our cause. Fear did not shake your resolve, do not let impatience.”


“It is not impatience,” Urse said, voice grinding against his teeth. “My faith is wavering, with good reason.”


“Keep the flame burning.”


Urse shook his head hands clenching. “Master, this is now what we fought for. Every time you refuse to acknowledge that I become more and more worried that you have given up. Do we carry the flame to better tomorrow or is it to deny today?”


The Master’s civility fell away as a scowl cracked his face. “No more, you will speak no more of these things. I have entrusted you with the safekeeping of this city while I do what I can to make these peoples’ lives better. If you cannot handle that, if you do not believe in that, then I do not need you.”


“I welcome my end, if I know it happens for our ideals.”


The Master caught himself with a long breath. He turned away from Urse. “Be thankful you stand there, where you have the luxury of judgment.”


Urse opened his mouth to speak but caught himself when he realized Veil was missing. His muscles tightened, ready to act while his eyes scanned.


“I won’t have Veil kill you,” the Master said. “Think as ill of me as you want, but know I’ve not fallen that far. At least.”


Urse’s jaw quivered as he turned to the door. “I thank the New Order that Rinara didn’t live to see you and the hound you’ve trained.”


“Out,” the master shouted. “Leave my sight and pray I find some reason to forgive you while I’m away.”

. . . . . .


Veil’s sparse quarters were a few bars short of a prison cell. They sat at a small desk, on a heavy stool, and read over reports from the various Einarr spies. Veil made up several of those spies. One of them took a seat on the bed behind the original.


“You’re on edge,” the copy said.


The original turned back to its double. “I think Urse must die. The Master does not allow, but I am preparing for that eventuality.”


“Urse?” the double asked. “Of all people, who is more loyal?”


“I believe his loyalty to the cause, I do not believe his loyalty to the Master.”


The double said, “the cause above all.”


At that, the original turned and brought a fist around into the unmoving double’s face. It broke the mask and cracked the ceramic, leaving a deep cut on the copy’s cheek. Veil shoved their double back and stepped away.


“You,” the original said, “get to leave. Watch, observe, experience. When is the last time the dirty work fell into your hands? It’s been too long, I should dismiss you for one that understands.”


The copy held still as their mask stared at each other. One a blank white, the other streaked with red.


“To question him,” the original said, “is to question everything we’ve ever done. That I have done. He is right, there is no room for doubt. This dream dies when we stray from his guidance. An old copy could not understand.”

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