Sobrathi looked around while she walked the narrow streets of the old center of the Zyntrean capital until her eyes fell upon a tavern that had the right degree of seediness. She entered, sat at a table by herself, her back to the wall, and ordered one of three specialties the house offered. She wasn’t particularly hungry and ate only a few spoonfuls of the stew and a small piece of the loaves of dark bread that accompanied it. It wasn’t long before a young boy of about ten years joined her at the table.
“Well, the tricks seem to be still the same. Make your move, boy, and give me a performance worth my money.”
The boy looked at the almost untouched food and then at her with wistful eyes.
“Lady, aren’t you going to finish that?”
“Are you hungry, lad?” Sobrathi asked. “Please, sit down and help yourself, you poor boy.”
The boy smiled at her as if she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He looked like an angel. A dirty angel. Not particularly underfed, Sobrathi noticed. She shoved the plate before him and the boy began to eat with gusto. When he had finished he hugged her, thanking her profusely, saying she was the only person who had been nice to him in more than a week, and he almost started sobbing, while his little hand expertly searched her pouch for coins. Just when he felt at least three moltars a much bigger hand grabbed his wrist in an iron grip and yanked his small paw upwards.
“Let go of me, you fat cow,” the little angel yelped.
“Be quiet, you little gallows’ bait,” Sobrathi hissed. “I have a business proposition. Or do you prefer I call the city guards? Remind me, which hand of little thieves do they hack off, the right one or the left?”
The boy had turned white under his layer of grime.
“What business proposition, old woman?” he managed to whisper.
Sobrathi grabbed one of his pinkies and forced it backwards.
“Be polite, little turd, or I will break all your fingers, and you won’t be able to scratch your lice-infested scalp anymore, nor pull at your little dick, let alone try to pick the pouches of defenseless ladies. Ladies, do you hear me?
“All right, all right. Lady.”
“Better. Now listen. Go to the leader of your nest and tell him the baroness of Burgotharr wants to speak to the Tektiranga. Do you think your puny, degenerate brain can hold that information long enough to pass it on?”
“Yeah, yeah. No need to be hurtful, Lady. Baroness Burgomarar. Tektiranga. Got it.”
“Burgotharr, you little maggot. Here’s two moltars. Your nest leader will want one, keep the other for yourself. Bring me the Tektiranga’s answer tomorrow. Here, around noon. There’ll be another few moltars in it for you. Now, scram.”
The boy took her hand and planted a wet kiss on it.
“Until tomorrow then, my beautiful lady,” he said sarcastically.
While leaving, he turned around.
“You’re quite nice, you know… for a fat cow,” he yelled at Sobrathi and ran out of the door laughing loudly.
By now the others accepted Hemarchidas’s special status. When Anaxantis motioned the Cheridoni that he wanted to go for a walk with him, they didn’t even interrupt their conversation.
The two friends remained silent while they made their way through the woods.
“You seem to be preoccupied of late. Something the matter?” Hemarchidas asked when Anaxantis had sat down beneath a tree and he had joined him.
Anaxantis moved a strand of hair out of his eyes.
“Not really. Some decisions that have to be made, is all.”
“You’re not worried? November is halfway, so that gives us at most, what, five, maybe six months before we can expect the Mukthars? I know we’re training soldiers as fast as we can, but it will not be nearly enough.”
“Oh, but we’re not training soldiers, my friend. We’re training trainers. I fully expect those men to pass on their newly gained knowledge and abilities.”
“Ah… I have a few ideas, but first I have to solve a few other problems.”
Anaxantis sighed. He shifted, turned and lay on his back, resting his head in Hemarchidas’s lap. For a long time neither of them spoke.
“Does your brother at least know what you’re planning?” Hemarchidas eventually asked.
“No. That’s one of the problems. Ehandar is falling apart. He does what he can, but he’s harming us in the long run. The worst of it is that deep in his heart he feels the situation is hopeless. So he doesn’t even try anymore. Not really.”
“He could be a serious obstacle then?”
“Not for long anymore.”
Anaxantis looked up at Hemarchidas.
“I’m going to need you guys in the coming days. There can be no division in command anymore.”
Hemarchidas looked at the boy lying with his head in his lap. His eyes studied the handsome face surrounded by the long, golden hair and the slender body.
“What is he planning,” he thought, while he rearranged a lock of Anaxantis’s hair. “Does he want to eliminate his brother? It would be in the family tradition, and I for one would love to see that haughty cretin gone. It’s strange, though, I had the impression they were getting along just fine. Well, no matter, we’re Anaxantis’s Clan. As far as I am concerned, what he wants he gets.”
“You want to get rid of Ehandar?”
“Not to put too fine a point on it, yes. I want him out of my way.”
“Aren’t you forgetting Commander Tarngord? You told me yourself that your father sent him here as your nanny.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of Demrac. But you’re right, he could become a nuisance. And I still don’t know who betrayed us twelve years ago and how it was done. I wonder if this time they, whoever they are, will try to get to him to accomplish their aims. If need be, we’ll have to eliminate him as well.”
“An old friend of your father. Quite an undertaking.”
“Ah, but Father is far away and I am very near.”
“And that’s not all I have planned,” he resumed. “Very soon I hope to test how we function as a fighting force.”
“You heard me. But I’m not telling you anything more.”
“Oh, yes you will. I’ll torture you till you do,” Hemarchidas said, laughing, and he started tickling the prince.
Anaxantis squirmed and wriggled, all the while uncontrollably guffawing and protesting. After a while Hemarchidas stopped.
“Fine, I don’t want to know anyway,” he mock-pouted.
Anaxantis wrapped his arms around him in a consoling gesture.
“Tell you what. You’ll be the first I’ll tell when the time is there. So stop moping.”
Which cost him a second tickling session.
“This is how his days should be filled,” Hemarchidas thought. “With harmless fun and laughter. Not with fighting and intrigues.”
When he stopped, Anaxantis stayed on the ground, panting. Hemarchidas leaned over him, their faces almost touching and it was only in the nick of time that he got hold of himself.
“I almost kissed him. By the Gods, I almost kissed him.”
He stood up and extended his hand to Anaxantis to help him get up too.
“Come, we better return, it’s getting darker.”
“Luckily he didn’t notice anything,” Hemarchidas thought, relieved.
“Oh, Hemarchidas,” Anaxantis thought while he wiped the leaves from his clothes, “in another life, who knows? As things stand however…”
He smiled at his companion.
“You’re right. Let’s return to the guys.”
Ehandar mulled over the laws of Portonas III and especially the Traitor’s Law. He had to admit that his grandfather had been a shrewd ruler who had rooted out all possible resistance. The Traitor’s Law was a masterfully crafted weapon to divide his potential opponents. After his accession, all who had fought at the side of Berimar IV were declared traitors and summarily executed. But the really devilish part was that all blood relations of convicted traitors were declared accomplices and stood to be executed also. The law however gave them a way out. To prove their loyalty and to distance themselves from the traitor, they could renounce their name and lineage. This gesture was supposed to mean that the one who took it abhorred the crimes of his relative so much that he didn’t even want to share the same name with him anymore. In effect it meant that the actual traitor died without heirs and that all his lands and possessions reverted to the crown. Which solved another problem, because Berimar had left the treasury completely depleted. The former relatives of the traitor, who now were literally nameless and destitute, could commend themselves into the protection of a friend. When this was explained to them by the royal notaries, it was suggested that the best friend they could hope for was His Glorious Majesty Portonas III. All the more so as it was intimated that the high king would be willing, not only to give them a new name, but also new titles and lands. This was not so much a magnanimous gesture of Portonas, as a way to prevent mass rebellion. When the victims of the law saw that those who submitted graciously were rewarded in this manner and Portonas was as good as his word, most of them got the hint.
It gave Portonas the occasion to fundamentally rearrange the power structure of the kingdom. Old alliances between Houses were torn asunder. Second, third and even fourth sons who hadn’t stood a hope of inheriting anything but a small amount of money, now saw themselves invested with titles and lands. A great duchy, that normally would have been inherited by the eldest son, was carved up into a much smaller duchy and one, two, or three counties. Usually this left one disgruntled older brother, while the younger siblings couldn’t believe their luck. After a few chaotic years the majority of the nobility had gotten used to their new titles and became staunch supporters of the new dynasty. Those of the old nobility who had managed to stay out of this imbroglio kept as quiet as possible.
Portonas III was very, very happy with the results of his creative legislation. With a few exceptions the Great Houses had ceased to exist. The newly rearranged nobility had more grievances against former relatives than against the king. There were no contenders anymore for the Devil’s Crown. Portonas could look back on his work with satisfaction.
It was not every robber baron who managed to steal an entire kingdom.
“What is he planning?” Ehandar thought, puzzled. “Is he going to accuse the duchess-regent of treason? If he can prove that she deliberately underestimated the levy of the duchy of Landemere or misrepresented its capacity to contribute, he could have a case. I should have thought of that. Purposefully weakening the defensive strength of the realm could be construed as, no, definitely is treason, high treason even. The duchess herself would face execution, and her grandson the young duke would have no other choice than to renounce his title, estate and lineage to escape being executed as well. In the meantime the duchy and all its vast resources would revert to the crown, or, in this case it’s representatives, the lord governors of the Northern Marches. Oh, I think Grandfather would have liked my little Anaxantis.”
As she had been instructed she went to the Three Legged Dog, a tavern even seedier than the one where she and the cheeky dirty angel had met. As she had promised him she had given him three moltars.
“That’s for your services,” she had said.
As she had promised herself she had then slapped him across the face.
“And that’s for the fat cow,” she had said with a genial smile, leaving a stunned little thief clamping three coins in his tiny fist and nursing a glowing red cheek with his other hand.
She accosted the landlord.
“My name is Sobrathi. You have a room for me,” she stated rather than asked.
“Second floor, first door,” had come the equally sparse reply.
The room was completely dark when she entered it, and it took a while for her eyes to adjust. Then she saw the vague contours of a slender figure.
“Cut it out, Merrick, and open the shutters so I can see you.”
“So harsh. I remember you as more… inviting,” a melodious voice answered.
The shutters opened and daylight flooded into the little room. Sobrathi saw a lanky man with sharp features and a prominent nose looking smilingly at her.
“Ha, you murderess,” he said. “I am but a poor bungling thief, but you killed my young heart, you cruel woman.”
“Bah, you are a thief, true, but neither are you poor nor a bungler. And my dagger shattered on that stone you call a heart.” She laughed out loud. “It’s good to see you, Tektiranga.”
“Likewise, Baroness Burgotharr. The years have been kind to you. Though there is somewhat more of you than I seem to remember. But your beauty and charm are as blinding as ever.”
“Only you, Merrick, only you can insult a lady and flatter her at the same time.”
“So what brings you here, besides, of course, my irresistible charm?”
“Emelasuntha needs a little job done quickly and discreetly.”
The Tektiranga whistled.
“The Lioness of Torantall, the Shield of Astonema, the Maiden upon the Walls herself needs my inadequate services? Well, well. Ha, I still can see her upon the wall walks, going from sentinel to sentinel, in her long white robes, a sword at her side and her golden hair loose in the wind. An encouraging word for all she had, and she inspected every weapon herself. I swear, the whole male population, and at least half the females of the city were in love with her.”
Sobrathi remembered all too well. Some twenty years ago Zyntrea had been the helpless prey of the Warring Barons who disputed the royal authority. Emelasuntha’s father had been forced at last to take the field against them, and while he was far away with his army a rebel force had threatened the capital. The city prefect, with scant troops at his disposal, had wanted to surrender Torantall to the advancing insurgents. Emelasuntha, all of sixteen years at the time, had somehow got wind of his intentions and her fury had been indomitable. Followed by the Royal Guard and with little Kurtigaill, her brother, in tow she had burst into the council room where the prefect, a few officers and some city council members were discussing the terms they would offer.
“You miserable worm,” she had thundered, “you stinking rat, how dare you plot the surrender of my city to the enemy in my own palace?”
“Your Royal Highness, this is no place for girls,” the city prefect had replied haughtily. “You don’t understand these things.”
“I understand that you are a coward and a traitor.”
She had turned to the Royal Guard.
“Men, arrest that sorry lot, and kill everyone of them who tries to resist.”
The prefect had protested. In vain. Held in check by the soldiers of the Royal Guard, there was nothing he or the others could do.
“Strip that pathetic excuse for a man.”
“Your Highness…” the city prefect had protested in horror as the first smirking soldiers began to tear his clothes from his body.
“Shut your treasonous trap before I cut your balls off with my own hands,” the princess had hissed, most unladylike.
Minutes later, as naked as the day he was born, the city prefect, encouraged by slaps with the broad side of a soldier’s sword on his buttocks, was marched out of the room, out of the palace, into the streets and unto the Great Market. Emelasuntha had climbed the stairs of the Council House with her soldiers, her little brother and her hapless prisoner. On the highest point, clearly visible, she had started addressing the mass of people who had gathered in the meantime. She had vilified the traitors and especially the city prefect, who she had grabbed by the hair, yanking his head down which forced him into an undignified posture with his rear end in the air, to add to his already humiliating condition. She had exhorted the people by giving them the choice between seeing their homes burned to cinders, seeing their daughters and sons raped and gutted by the barbarian mercenaries of the Warring Barons, or resisting with every drop of energy that was in them and every implement they could find that could serve to hack, stab or beat an enemy. Howling they had chosen the latter. With a kick in his butt she had made the prefect stumble down the stairs and told the people to do with him as they saw fit for a traitor who had tried to sell them as slaves. Late in the afternoon his unrecognizable, bloody remains had been found and thrown over the walls into the river. By that time the rest of the traitors hung by their necks from the city gates.
She had organized the defense of the city, had rallied every citizen, male and female, of fifteen years and older and made them man the walls. She had ordered that all children from ten and upwards were to help and assist as much as they could. She had given the example herself, and not a day went by or she was seen patrolling the walls herself. She had forced young Kurtigaill, the crown prince, to haul water and food to the sentinels for hours on end each day.
When the rebel army had arrived before Torantall and found the gates firmly closed, they had laid siege to the capital. After three months the food in the city was almost depleted, but a contagious disease broke out in the camp of the besiegers. After a week of this the Warring Barons had to abandon the siege and marched off. The citizens of Torantall thanked the Goddess Astonema and her representative, Emelasuntha.
Sobrathi, already a close friend of the princess, had witnessed most of this first hand. She had also experienced her first crush, made more romantic and intense by the constant threat of destruction and death, and nights spent together on the walls with the campfires of the besiegers as background. This first love had died as soon as the immediate danger had passed, as a result of the enormous difference in social standing and the physical distance that was caused by her friendship with a restless, traveling princess.
With a deep sigh Sobrathi returned to the present, and when her eyes focused she saw Merrick looking amused at her.
“I see that like me you retain fond memories of those days,” the Tektiranga smiled.
“Yes, a pity they are gone forever, but gone they are,” Sobrathi said, suddenly all businesslike again.
“So, what is it the queen wants to have done?” Merrick asked, picking up on her change of mood.
“Emelasuntha wants a certain doctor to be discreetly brought to her new residence.”
“I take it that this person would have to be, eh, encouraged.”
“Not only that. Nobody must ever know that he was transported or whereto.”
“In other words, he must simply vanish from the earth. Well, that is perfectly feasible. Has the queen… how shall I put this?”
“As usual the queen would be very grateful. You have a choice. She is willing to pay you in coin or in royal pardons. Three for immediate release in the case of accusations that don’t carry the death penalty. Plus one royal pardon for accusations that do carry the death penalty. Immediate release and immunity in said case. All to use at your own discretion. I’m sure you can see how that last one could come in handy for your own use. Sooner or later your scrawny neck is bound to be on the line.”
“Hm. May I ask why the Maiden on the Walls wants this person to disappear?”
Sobrathi thought for a moment.
“I don’t see why not,” she said eventually. “He was an accomplice in an attempt to poison her son.”
The Tektiranga whistled again.
“Woe the man who touches the Lioness’s Cub.”
Late in the afternoon Ehandar had ordered his horse saddled and had ridden out of Lorseth Castle. Once out of the camp he spurred his horse into a gallop, standing in his stirrups. He stopped at the ruins of the watchtower and dismounted panting. He felt a strange relationship with the dilapidated building that stood abandoned and lonely on its hill, surveying the surrounding landscape. He wished Gorth were there. He seemed to be better at making decisions when his friend was around. Just talking to him cleared and ordered his mind. But he didn’t expect Gorth to be back before next week, and by then it would be too late. Anaxantis would have moved out.
“How can I convince him to stay? His main concern seems to be that our relationship could impede his effectiveness as lord governor. And he seems set on standing his ground till the last possible moment. Eventually he will come to see what I know already. That it is of no use. That it never was of any use. That we were dealt a rotten deal. As long as he doesn’t see that, his pride will prevent him from calling it quits. As long as he wants to stay in the game, he will see our relationship as a threat to his chances of winning. I obviously can’t remove him from the game, but maybe I could remove myself. What if I were to resign as lord governor? Leave it all to him? Surely, that would satisfy him. He gets complete control over the ship, sinking though it may be, and I cease to be a threat to his authority. There would be no reason anymore for him to move out. I’ll keep myself in the background. I’ll be like a private citizen, in no way connected to his official functions. He’ll have his hands free to organize the defense and I mine to prepare for our inevitable retreat. It will be like he once said. A division of tasks. Then, when disaster strikes and flight is the only remaining option, all will be ready. I’ll send Gorth back to Soranza to buy an estate and to prepare everything for our arrival. He’ll probably be in shock by defeat and failure, but I will be ready to look after him.”
When he arrived back at Lorseth Castle, Ehandar felt a lot better. His mind was made up, his path was clear. He mounted the stairs with a light step.
Anaxantis was sitting in the big chair by the hearth.
“Make room for me, will you? I think I have a solution so that you won’t have to move out.”
He smiled confidently at the surprised reaction of his brother.
“Ehandar… That would be wonderful, but I don’t see how.”
Ehandar sat down and dragged his brother half onto his lap.
“Then let me explain. What if I were to tell you I would resign as lord governor? That would leave you in complete control. Let’s face it, I’m no good at this governorship-thing anyway. Our private life here and your obligations as lord governor would be completely separate. Since I wouldn’t be involved anymore in official business, there is no risk of, eh, awkward situations or embarrassing questions.”
His heart sank when he saw Anaxantis look at him with a mixture of sadness and disappointment.
“It’s very good of you, that you want to do this, and don’t think that I am ungrateful… but it’s simply not enough.” Anaxantis looked thoroughly unhappy at him. “You can see that, can’t you? You would still be a prince of Ximerion. At any moment a group of officers could challenge my position and demand to reinstate you. They could even use you as a weapon against me. So, it would solve a private problem, sort of anyway, and immediately create a much more dangerous one on another level. Sorry, but thank you nevertheless for proposing it.”
“Come, the next step is self-evident,” he thought.
“No, as much as I hate to do it, by the end of the week I move out,” Anaxantis added sadly.
Ehandar saw the deep furrows on his brow and felt Anaxantis’s hand pressing his, as if to hold onto him against all hope. He himself felt as if the world had again begun to spin around him. He had been prepared to fade into the background and now it appeared that even that would not suffice. But what else was there?
“What do you want from me?” he thought becoming more and more desperate. “Don’t you see I am prepared to do anything to keep you with me? I love you. I am yours and there is nothing I can do about that. And I owe you, by the Gods, I owe you.”
As if he felt Ehandar’s despair, Anaxantis put his arm around his neck and drew closer to him. Ehandar shivered at the sudden intimacy and the all too real possibility of losing it forever. When Anaxantis kissed him softly on the cheek, it came to him. Feverishly he thought it over, tried to estimate all consequences, but gave up and decided, on the spur of the moment and under the pressure of the unbearable prospect of being abandoned by what was undoubtedly the love of his life, to take the plunge.
“Listen, my love,” he whispered, “I can’t bear to be separated from you and I’ll do anything to prevent that from happening. As it happens I read Grandfather’s Traitor’s Law. I suppose you want to use it against the duchess-regent of Landemere. Very clever of you. But we ourselves can use it as well. I will not only resign my commission as lord governor, but I will also renounce my lineage—”
“Ehandar, no. I can’t let you do that. You’ll lose everything.”
“Oh, brother, how easy it turned out to be,” Anaxantis thought sadly. “It took almost nothing to goad you to this point, and now you will talk yourself deeper and deeper into your own downfall. And to think that I don’t even know whether I could have gone through with it.”
Ehandar kissed him on the lips.
“Shush, I know you love me, and I myself have often enough said that I love you too. But words are cheap, so let me prove it to you. The law allows me to commend myself to your protection, and that is exactly what I’ll do.”
He smiled encouragingly at his brother who looked doubtfully at him.
“You see, you can move to wherever you want. You’ll have to take me with you. So, why not stay here?”
“No, definitely no. I don’t want the responsibility.”
“Anaxantis, you already own my heart, so you might as well have all the rest too. How could I be safer and more secure than in the hands of the one who loves me? It will be all right, I know.”
“And in a few months it won’t make any difference anyway,” Ehandar thought. “Once we’re in Soranza neither our titles nor our lineage will matter one bit.”
“Just promise me you’ll stay here. With me,” he added softly.
“Ehandar, I don’t know what to say. But if you’re sure, I’m certain we can make it work.”
“That’s settled then.”
“Think again, Ehandar. Think carefully, what you’re getting yourself into. It is a monumental decision.”
“I don’t have to think. I love you and I have an outstanding debt to you. If this is what you want, this is what you get.”
The gray-blue eyes looked inquisitively at him.
Later, when they were in bed, Ehandar was more than ever sure that he had made the right decision. Anaxantis’s love making was so hungry, so needy that Ehandar knew that his little brother had dreaded the separation at least as much as he had, probably even more. It felt like handling an over-enthusiastic puppy. To Ehandar it was intense and unconditional love, unabashed, shameless. It was almost being in Soranza.
Afterwards, his mind at ease and his body satisfied, Ehandar fell almost immediately asleep. Anaxantis, on the other hand, lay awake for hours, staring into the near dark, once in a while looking at the vague shape of the body sleeping so peacefully beside him.
“Once this is done, I own you.”