|The Warrior King|
|excerpt courtesy of Time Warner Trade Publishing|
The unexpected ships arrived an hour before dusk. We'd seen them sailing toward my island prison for some hours and wonderedno one was allowed to sail in these waters without government permission. There were three of them, one a large merchantman, the other two fast pirate chasers, low sleek galleys.
My warders scurried to their fighting stations. They were frightened the emperor, now revealed to be still alive, might be trying to rescue me, the last of his bloody-handed tribunes who used sword and fire to take and hold the throne of Numantia.
But the emperor grew arrogant, thought himself greater than the death-goddess Saionji, and invaded the kingdom of Maisir to our south. Our army was destroyed, Numantia invaded by the Maisirians, and I myself hurled Tenedos from his throne when he threatened to send a nightmare demon against first the invaders, then against his rebelling countrymen and our capital of Nicias.
Tenedos, like I, had been sent into island exile. No doubt Bairan, King of the Maisirians, hoped we'd be quietly garroted or have a convenient fall from a battlement when matters had calmed. Indeed, Tenedos had been reported dead, and I'd been waiting for my own assassin, not caring, for all the world was a bloody shatter to me.
But then the world had spun about us all: Tenedos had faked his death, gotten to the mainland, and was now building his army, ready to take back his throne from Bairan's puppets who ruled in Nicias.
But as the ships approached the tiny port below my fortress prison, they made certain signals, and my jailers relaxed. The ships were from Nicias, sent by the Grand Council.
I, on the other hand, felt a whisper of fear, in spite of my supposed readiness to return to the Wheel, to be judged by Saionji and sent forth to a lesser life as punishment for the thousands I'd led to their deaths as First Tribune Damastes á Cimabue, Baron Damastes of Ghazi.
Not that I had escaped the gods' raking in this life. My wife, now deceasedMarán, Countess Agramóntehad divorced me after our mutual love, Amiel Kalvedon, was murdered by the Tovieti cultists; and later, in Maisir, Alegria, my beautiful Dalriada, died in the long retreat from the Maisirian capital of Jarrah.
I licked dry lips and then had the intelligence to laugh aloudI'd spent all these times mewling for oblivion like a coward instead of a warrior, and now it portended, and I was terrified. I found resolve and determined to die well, die proudly.
I returned to my spacious quarters, only a cell because of the barred windows overlooking the sea and the double doors with a guarded anteroom between them, and considered matters. I could either stand nobly and calmly at the moment of death as heroes were supposed to or else go down fighting. I remembered an execution in Maisir, when Captain Athelny Lasta, instead of dying quietly, killed the executioner and eight others before returning to the Wheel.
I thought of him and of the various trinkets I'd procured over the long times of imprisonment and laughed once more. For what purpose does a man build weapons if he's seeking a nice, immediate death?
I had a pilfered table knife I'd laboriously ground to an edge against the stones in my cell and a knob of iron such as I'd used to kill the Landgrave Malebranche, far away and long ago in Kallio. I also had that most important of all weaponsfour gold coins and three silver ones I'd managed to acquire from making careful wagers with the guards, first with coppers, then escalating my bets. I put these items in various convenient places about my person, then waited. Two guards summoned me to the warden, Jelap. He was a decent sort, a bumbling old domina who'd spent fifty years under the colors. This was his last assignment before retirement. I often wondered what he thought of this assignmentfour hundred guards and an enormous stone fortress with but one prisoner.
There were three men waiting in his office, all wearing a strange uniform, a rather bilious shade of gray with red facings I realized must be that of the Peace Guardians, the largest military force King Bairan had allowed Numantia. They were mockingly organized into corps as my army had been, though each corps numbered only about 150 men, led by the traitorous Tribune Herne, its ranks filled with thugs so in love with force they didn't mind using it on their own countrymen. The three were Shamb Catalca and Pydnas Bosham and Huda. It said all there was to say about the Guardians that their ranks, the equivalent of our captain and legate, were the same as the Maisirian Army. These three looked as if they would find a back-alley thieves' den more comfortable than an officer's mess.
I expected anything from a murderous attack to a beating to sneering contempt. What I received was formal respect, which I found a bit amusing. All three were behaving as they thought noblemen should, very much on their best, if unfamiliar, manners.
"We have orders," Catalca said formally, "to convey you to Nicias, to the Grand Council, where the Lords Scopas and Barthou would be pleased to receive you."
Pleased? I was hard-pressed not to show surprise. I glanced at Domina Jelap to see if I could read a clue in his face, saw nothing but stiff propriety, and, just possibly, distaste at being a Numantian officer now forced to deal with turncoats.
I could be as circumspect as they. I bowed. "Having no choice in the matter, but appreciating the manner in which your orders are presented, I shall be ready to leave within the hour."
"Good," Catalca said. "For we're under orders to make the greatest haste. This matter is of grave import."
"May I ask what the lords desire of me?"
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