The Broken, sample chapters

The Broken, sample chapters

All right guys. Here we go. Two free chapters from The Broken, book two of the series. This should give you a relatively good idea what the sequel is all about, as well as massively spoil the ending of the first book, since a few very monumental things happen on the very first page. In the very first sentence of the first chapter. So I beg you, if you have not read The Broken, do not be tempted to scroll down any further. You have been politely warned. Cheers.

Chapter 1

Emperor Adam was dead.

The most ferocious ruler in all of the realms was dead. Perversely, in sharp contrast to the birth of his violent, war-drenched tyranny, he had died peacefully, in his sleep. Eighteen years of a dangerous, unpredictable rule had ground to a halt.

His death took everyone by surprise. And now, there was only one question they all asked: what next?

Councillor Stephan leaned on the balcony rail, staring at the early morning landscape of western Caytor. Former western Caytor, he corrected himself. This land was Athesia now, had been for nigh twenty years. Most of the people who lived here had been born as the free citizens of the godless empire.

Two paces away, an Eracian nobleman called Vincent shared the same pose, looking contemplatively at the brown-and-green hills, tiny details blurred by the river mist of what promised to be an exceptionally hot spring day.

Officially, the two men were enemies, although the kind of enemies that you may want to invite to a social occasion and then insult in the politest of ways. There had not been a major conflict between Eracia and Caytor in two generations, not counting the fiasco with the Feorans. The sons and daughters of the two realms mostly had Adam the Butcher to thank for the cool, aloof peace that existed. For the last eighteen years, Athesia had been the new border that separated former foes. Adam’s crazy military campaign had robbed Caytor of a sizable chunk of its best land and halved the armies of both realms, but out of this embarrassing defeat, a new hope had been born.

For the Caytorean nobility, Emperor Adam had been the best thing that could have happened to their ailing, dying country. Infested with the Feoran rabble, Caytor had been edging away from a powerful, prosperous realm built on trade toward a poor, chaotic anarchy based on religion and animalism. And then, all of a sudden, like the fire of the gods, Adam had cleansed the Feoran curse away, giving the rest of the land back to the High Council of Trade. Western Caytor was a small price to pay.

The Eracians probably did not like Adam much. He was one of their own, really. He had been the antihero, a simple man of simple birth who had proved to be smarter than their best generals and more popular than even the Eracian monarch. Half the Eracian soldiers had fled their army and joined his ranks. It had been an insult of the highest order. Still, like the Caytoreans, the Eracians were forever indebted to this strange emperor. Adam had spared their country the wrath of the Feoran plague and created a powerful buffer between Eracia and Caytor. Now, they could no longer bicker with their neighbors.

“The man is dead,” Vincent said, breaking the silence.

Councillor Stephan turned to regard the man. He was an old, proud Eracian noble, old enough to have been a green officer in one of the last border skirmishes between their two countries, old enough to have seen the world change.

“He was a strange man,” Stephan agreed carefully.

Duke Vincent turned to face him. “Our armies are still building up their numbers to what they were before the Great Desertion.”

“And we are still rebuilding all that was lost in the twenty years of the Feoran infestation.” Stephan leaned back. “Still, we have not lost a soldier to an Eracian blade in two decades. That must mean something.”

The other man nodded somberly. Stephan noted a hint of fear in those pale and unforgiving eyes. Yes, that was it. Fear. Emperor Adam may have been a thorn in both their sides, but he had brought a brutal stability to the Realms. He had been such a convenient target for the envy and frustration in their two countries. For all that they blamed and hated him, he had turned out to be their best ally.

A strange beast he was, Emperor Adam, Stephan pondered. Such duality. He had never tried to thaw his angry, cold stance toward the other two realms, let alone his outright animosity toward Parus. And yet, he had allowed free trade and passage. At the same time, he had never tried to insinuate his presence into the courts and guild houses of his neighbors. He had never asked for any favors, no political marriages, nothing. He had ruled in a simple, bleak, almost depressing manner. And yet, somehow, he had managed to make the Realms better, safer than they had ever been.

Even his legacy was a wonder. He had been the emperor of the smallest empire in the known world. Athesia was a small country, less than one-third the size of Caytor, more like a province in an empire than an empire itself, hardly befitting its title. Reading the books on great military leaders like Vergil or Pyotr or the half-mythical Busan the Impaler, you got a different kind of notion what empires were like and how far they ought to stretch on a map.

Stephan wondered why the man had chosen to halt his campaign so early. Shortly after his meteoric defeat of the Feorans and the Parusites, he had stopped warring, turning toward peace and economy. It was every much as unpredictable as his glorious string of victories.

Now, he was gone. What would become of the Realms? Was Athesia going to crumble to dust? Was the reality of the last two decades going to erode into nothingness? Would there be a new war between Eracia and Caytor, if for no other reason than the fact there had not been one in a long time? Emperor Adam only had one daughter, and she was barely sixteen, unmarried yet. Her chances were slim.

Still, she had managed to rally the dignitaries from the entire known world and have them present at her father’s funeral. It was an odd custom. You normally invited people to rites of ascendance. Death was meant to be a springboard for future hope. You mourned the dead ruler, but only so that a new one could step forth.

Regardless, she had kept her father’s body iced for the last two months while nobles, diplomats, and rich merchants from the known corners of the world traveled to pay their respects and maybe even gloat over the grave of their most despised ally and foe. Stephan was sure many Eracians would whisper silent curses as the decaying flesh of the godless man was buried. Or burned. He had no idea what new customs they had in Athesia.

Many people had been skeptical, even wary, of attending the funeral, Eracians and Caytoreans alike. Monarch Leopold had refused to come, fearing this whole affair was either a giant trap or a huge mockery, Adam’s last joke at everyone’s expense, Duke Vincent had told him. Even in death, the man was unpredictable. Instead, he had sent away half his court, those he could spare and those he did not want back home, just the right amount of guests that would not be interpreted as an insult. The High Council had been less reserved, but then, they ruled as a collective.

Stephan had seen quite a few people from Sirtai, many nomadic tribe chiefs and wisemen, people from the northwest. But no Parusite had been invited. It was a deliberate slight. Like her father, Amalia would have nothing to do with religion.

The young woman was a mystery and a surprise, just like her father had been. Most people had expected Empress Lisa to rule after his death, but she had stepped down and let her daughter take the throne. It was an unsettling thought, a young and inexperienced woman at the helm of a fickle, dangerous realm. But most of all, a woman.

Roalas now hosted close to a thousand guests, not counting trains of servants, slaves, helpers, adjutants, and personal guards, most of whom camped outside the city walls while the dignitaries leisured in expensive inns and mansions. The most important guests shared the residence with the future empress of the young realm.

Stephan snorted. The imperial manse was not exactly the most luxurious place in the world. A siege keep quickly converted into a palace, it had a morbid mix of cold, military austerity and soft elegance that clashed in a disturbing, annoying manner. Yet another legacy of Adam’s perverse, godless rule.

Both Duke Vincent and he were considered important enough to have been given chambers in the east wing of the would-be castle, with a splendid view toward the once-Caytorean wheat and rye fields and spectacular sunrises. Now and then, the sun would reflect off the Telore River’s wide curves perfectly, blinding the guests with shimmering brilliance.

“My son defected to his army,” Duke Vincent confessed in a low voice. “Just like that. Took his entire garrison and marched off across the border. I’ve never seen him again.”

Councillor Stephan sucked his teeth. That was a serious blow to a man’s pride. He could only imagine the dark reasons that had driven the Eracian to come here and partake in this unwholesome glorification of Adam’s death.

“I never understood why. That Adam was just a commoner. A lowly lieutenant, nothing more. Why would anyone want to follow him?”

“Did you inquire about him, your son?” Stephan asked.

The old man squared his jaw. “Blake is dead to me.”

Stephan looked back at his own life two decades back. He had only grudging praise for the Eracian rebel. As a man who had fought tooth and nail to earn his gold, he could relate to the fierce, unrelenting determination of the lowborn. What more, Adam’s revolution had saved him. Saved the entire High Council, really. Without Adam, there would have been no one to check the Feoran expansion. After swallowing the entire Territories and maybe even crushing Eracia, they would have turned their zealous eyes back home and purged the nobility. The guilds would have been destroyed. The council’s power had been melting away ever since the Night of Red Lilies. The private armies might have held a few more summers, but the end would have been inevitable.

And then, out of nowhere, an Eracian bastard had showed up and saved them. No one would admit how much they owed him, and so, they hated him even more for that. Stephan could not recall the number of unsuccessful assassination attempts commissioned by the council. He only vaguely remembered the burlap sacks loaded with severed heads of Pum’be dwarfs, sent back with mocking letters of apology. Still, Adam never severed the trade ties with Caytor. He had allowed their caravans to travel freely, to bring goods into a ruined land and revive Caytor. No one knew his exact reasons for such patience and benevolence. Stephan could only guess he needed both his neighbors strong as a deterrent against one another. If so, the ruse had worked. The ruse turned into eighteen years of peace. The loss of some land was a small price to pay, even if no one dared speak that aloud.

The funeral was scheduled for today. Perfect timing, Stephan thought. Tomorrow was the Spring Festival. Tomorrow, Empress Amalia would officially crown herself as the ruler of Athesia. Today, she was still a humble girl mourning her father’s death.

Empress Lisa was the provisional ruler for now, but she did little to impede her daughter’s ambitions. It was a symbolic gesture to custom, nothing more. Amalia was running the show.

Another intrigue, Stephan thought. Like Adam, Lisa was a lowborn merchant girl turned leader of the newborn realm. She had rarely shown her face in public, letting her husband govern the country. The woman was a soft-spoken, shy person, really, a balance to Adam’s sterile, calculated rage. Even now, she would not let her presence shadow her beloved’s death.

“Are you a gambling man, Councillor?” Duke Vincent asked, breaking his reverie.

Stephan leaned back on the rail. “Well, sometimes.”

Any good businessman had to be. A servant walked by, carrying a tray of refreshments. Stephan reached for a glass of pale yellow juice. He raised it and saluted to a friend, Councillor William, standing some distance away and drinking eagerly.

“What do you think will happen now? No. Would you like to bet what is going to be with Athesia?”

The Caytorean smiled. “What kind of a bet did you have in mind?”

Duke Vincent grunted. “A thousand gold coins.”

“That’s a respectable sum.”

“Indeed it is. I say Athesia will be torn to pieces before the year’s end.”

Stephan regarded the old man with care. “Assuming we can still meet on friendly terms to see this wager done.” He sincerely hoped that would be the case.

“Yes, indeed,” the other man mumbled after a short pause. If Athesia were going to perish in the flames of war, there was a good chance Eracia and Caytor may exchange blows over who got to own the ashes.

“If fate does permit that we meet again, I accept,” Stephan said. “Athesia will remain for many more years.”

“Gentlemen,” a polite, clear voice called. It was one of the household clerks, wearing simple gray-and-black livery. “You are invited to join the empress and empress-daughter in the mourning ceremony. Follow me, please.”

The man led them up and down a series of wide corridors and flights of stairs converging toward the large terraced garden on the north side. Once mustering grounds for cavalry, the mucky bailey had been turned into an impressive courtyard lush with long, sweeping banks of flowers, blue spruce, and all kinds of decorative hedges.

It was large enough to hold several thousand people at ease. Knots of guests were entering the courtyard from its many entrances, small groups of guests led by servants, the exact replica of their own tiny group. Stephan and Vincent did not speak as they walked toward the gardens.

Lush grass, wet with dew and morning haze, left muddy spots of green on shiny leather boots and billowing hems of silk dresses, turning the somber faces of assembled guests into caricatures of slight anger and dismay. This must be on purpose, Stephan thought.

A buzz of displeased chatter rose as perfectly chosen attires were smeared with dirt and mud, only getting worse as more feet padded onto the garden greens. Servants rushed into the fray, carrying trays loaded with drinks and fruit, silencing the murmurs with rigid smiles and obtuse cheerfulness.

Stephan chose a spot at the edge of the growing commotion, wiping sweat off his neck with a handkerchief. It was already quite hot, and the presence of so many people milling about did little to diminish the miasma of discomfort. Behind him stood a row of household help, stone-faced, waiting for their cue to charge into the crowds and start grinning madly. Higher yet, on the second and third, more intimate tiers of yet-unblemished terraces, fresh hosts of servants waited, standing by narrow gravel walkways. An odd guest would stray their way, but they would politely, yet persistently guide them back into the cauldron of beautiful greenery at the first level.

Stephan saw his colleague Adrian push and shove, displeased by the heat and mud. The councillor waved at him. The man just nodded, a sour, grumpy look on his face.

The mingling lasted for well over an hour as all the guests were found, escorted, and ushered into the courtyard. Stephan regretted drinking so many glasses of juice, because now, he urgently needed to piss, but did not want to lose his spot. He enjoyed a bit of shade from a spruce tree, there was some breeze from one of the side corridors, and no one bothered him. It would be a shame to move.

The empress-daughter showed up suddenly, unexpectedly, without any fanfare or announcement. She stood on the second balcony of the north castle wing, gazing down at the crowds. She was silent. Her quiet presence slowly drew eyes, and the chattering buzz died away.

Soon-to-be Empress Amalia was a slim, pretty thing, tall, willowy, with fat, luscious lips you wanted to bite. She looked as if she had a row with the entire world. Behind her stood the empress-mother, small and unassuming, and half a dozen honor guards.

The girl was holding a slender, fragile-looking glass rod in her right arm. It was adorned with some kind of a ball at the top. Stephan was too far away to judge, but he thought the thing was Red Crystal from the Emorok Hills.

There were all kinds of rumors about that rod. Adam had never been seen without it, but few knew what it really was or what it signified. Some claimed it was nothing more than a fancy ornament, the one trinket the spartan emperor would indulge himself in. Some claimed it was a terrible magical weapon. Those who swore by the souls of their children to have witnessed the thing used against Adam’s foes told such ridiculous, conflicting stories it was hard to discern truth from fantasy.

The fact no one really knew what the thing was made it a symbol of Adam’s unshakable power. It was the perfect weapon, one made of rumors and awe. After his magnificent showdown eighteen years ago, Adam had needed no further demonstrations of his combat acumen. The legends had been born in the First and Second Battles of Bakler Hills and stayed. People probably believed Adam’s piss was poison.

“Dear guests,” Amalia spoke, breaking the tense silence. No ceremonial announcement for Adam’s daughter, Stephan noted, how befitting. “I want to thank you for coming to Roalas. I am grateful that you chose to honor my father’s death, an unusual custom in the Realms. Some of you saw him as a friend. Some of you saw his as an enemy. You loved and you hated him, but you came nonetheless.”

Stephan wiped his sweat and fidgeted. His bladder was bursting.

“You are all probably asking yourself what kind of empress I am going to become,” she said. A wave of whispers exploded in the crowd. This sudden, blunt admission was shocking. Amalia let the surprise wither before continuing. “I want to be the empress my father taught me to be.”

My bladder, Stephan moaned.

“And so I will be. As you all know, the power transition is the most fragile period for any realm. One ruler goes; another comes. Everything hangs so precariously on such a delicate balance. It is a time when people may want to try to change the balance, influence things their way.”

She lifted the rod and grappled it in both hands. “I want to avoid this imbalance. Like my father taught me, stability is the most important deterrent. I will not permit rumors and speculation to nibble away at the peace he forged in the Realms.”

This is good, Stephan mused. The daughter sounded reasonable.

“My ascension to the throne may be perceived as an opportunity to settle old scores. A favorable moment to try to topple Athesia and restart the state of war between Eracia and Caytor. You may think I’m an inexperienced girl who has no place among rulers. And you have every right to doubt me.

“Which is why I am going to do the following. To prevent any attempts to destabilize the region, and to give my allies and foes time to get to know me, realize that I’m my father’s daughter and as capable as him at ruling Athesia, I am going to detain all of the Eracian and Caytorean guests for an indefinite period.”

A blast of murmurs exploded in the crowd. Once again, Amalia let it subside before speaking again.

“You will be treated as honored guests, but you will be kept under armed escort at all times. If you try to escape, you will be hunted down and locked in cells. Your freedom will reflect your willingness to cooperate. You will not be harmed or mistreated. You will merely be hostages until your realms can come to terms with Athesia under my rule.”

A number of soldiers, wearing padded leather, swords, and crossbows, were suddenly there, blocking exits. The thousand guests had become prisoners.

“Dignitaries from other realms are free to go,” Amalia added. “Tomorrow is the Spring Festival, and I expect all of you to turn out in your best outfits and dresses. We shall have the coronation, followed by a lavish dinner party. Now, we shall see my dear father interred.”

Stephan grinned. He was a hostage now, and he had to piss like hell. But at least he was going to win his wager. Athesia was not going to crumble just yet.

Chapter 2

King Sergei liked mornings in the desert. A perfect display of reds and pinks stretched across arid hills and plains, masking the harshness with a cloth of serene beauty. And they were cold, the crystal air tingling with icy purity, rubbing into the skin like a mint salve.

It was the Spring Festival. Preparations for the celebrations were under way in Sigurd, three miles to the south of his position, with hordes of servants working day and night to festoon the city walls with banners. Around him, in his vicinity, a different kind of preparation was under way.

Parus was getting ready for war.

Eighteen years after orphaning him and his sister, the godless murderer Adam had died. But his death could not clean the slate of revenge so easily. Only war could lay Sergei’s demons to rest.

His father had died in combat, like a true Parusite hero. And his mother had killed herself, smothered with grief, as befitting a noble lady of her status. Archduke Vasiliy had assumed the rule as the regent until Sergei turned sixteen, when he had taken the crown.

In a way, Vasiliy was almost like a father to him. The old man had cared for him more than a steward should, offering help and advice, but never imposing. And he had never taken the stick to Sergei’s back, never taught him pain like his sire used to. No one had ever asked Sergei how he had felt about his parents’ deaths. They all assumed he was the brave prince and must bear the pain stoically. And he did, he did bear the pain.

Had they asked him, he would have told them how relieved he was that he must never fear the beatings again. They would have heard a child tell them a story of terror, of the constant expectation of pain, regardless of what he’d done, good or bad. He was his father’s son, and he was going to avenge King Vlad’s honorable death, but he had listened to his mother, too. He was not going to repeat his father’s mistakes.

And then, he had also listened to Vasiliy. The regent had faced a dreadful reign. With almost the entire army of Parus slaughtered in battle, the land had been left without able sons to defend it. Roaming hordes of bandits had attacked the realm like packs of rabid wolves, burning villages, raping women, and stealing children. Women had wandered the empty streets of Sigurd, hunting for husbands among the crippled and poor, because there were so few males left. And there had been no help from the gods.

But Parus had survived. And the young prince had listened carefully, learning about the art of dominion from Vasiliy, and he remembered his mother’s soft-spoken advice. When he was crowned, he swore that Parus would never suffer defeat again.

The gods must have heard his plea, for they had granted him ten summers of bounty. Rain fell every year, bringing nourishment to the cracked earth. Harvest came in twice every year, and the warehouses burst with goods. With enough food for everyone, Sergei could turn his attention to rebuilding the decimated army and defending the realm’s borders.

He had never learned the gory details of his father’s death, but he had studied what he could for many years. He had paid Eracian and Caytorean bards to travel to Sigurd and sing their side of the story. He studied the art of warfare and made sure he knew everything about his father’s butcher. Unlike King Vlad the Fifth, he had never dismissed his foe’s tricks, no matter how ungodly or cowardly. He had learned everything he could.

One of the most important lessons had been the inclusion of women in military ranks. At first, it had seen unfathomable to let women bear arms, but with few men left and the realm buckling under the onslaught of desert raiders, he had established the first women’s corps as a secret, experimental force. It was a hard truth for a Parusite man to admit, but the women had saved the kingdom.

He had hurled them into the maw of death, thinking they would never return. But they did. They came back victorious, with zeal and tears of joy in their eyes and eternal praise for their king. What his mother failed to achieve in her many years of rule, he had managed in one simple move—emancipating the Parusite women.

With female conscription given a royal blessing, the army ranks had swelled with volunteers, countless thousands of women seeking redemption from their cruel, meaningless lives. Scarred, abandoned, battered, bloodthirsty, men-hating, they poured from every hole and cranny in Parus and swore fealty to their king. Within just a few short years, the army had reached its old numbers. The bandit raids dwindled, then stopped completely. But then the vengeful Parusite legions raided the Red Desert and brought back trains of captured slaves. With her borders cleansed, the trade to distant lands bloomed. The royal coffers were soon overflowing with gold.

Archduke Vasiliy had watched Sergei grow from a confused, frightened child into a strong, powerful man. At the age of fourteen, he had been married, and his queen, Vera, bore him four sons and a daughter. The strength of his bloodline was another testament to the will of the gods.

As the ashes of destruction cooled, the Safe Territories were repopulated again. It was mostly pilgrims, outcasts, farmers, and former clergy who came to the blasted land and resettled the razed towns. The Parusites came in their numbers, bolstered by their religious conviction and a royal decree. To help rebuild the ravaged nation, Sergei had lowered the age of consent by three years and allowed the settlers to marry more than one wife. It had worked well.

Now, almost a decade since the Settlement started, the southern half of the Territories were in Parusite hands, rich, arable lands that yielded even more goods and made Parus stronger than ever before.

Most importantly, his settlers were more than just farmers. Most were highly trained soldiers, some retired, others still young and deft with a blade, sent to live in the Territories, but ready to take arms and go to war at any moment. Eracia and Athesia hardly knew they had tens of thousands of highly motivated, well-trained Parusites as neighbors.

He was grateful for the blessings from the gods. Only four days earlier, he had sent another four carts loaded with white marble to the Territories; they were going to Jaruka, to be used in the rebuilding of the Grand Monastery. The work was far from being done. It had taken seven years, and would probably take as many more before the temple was fully restored.

King Sergei was the most beloved king of Parus in many generations. He was smart and benevolent. The country was rich and strong. When his father had marched into war, he had led fifty thousand men into battle. Sergei had three times as many, not counting the women and the settlers. And he had other surprises awaiting the godless Athesians.

A fleet of more than seventy ships was assembling in Sigurd’s port, carrying thirteen thousand dreadful pirates from Oth Danesh. Soon, they would set sail north, land south of Eybalen, and then march toward Athesia from the east. Other fleets would follow them.

“We are ready, Your Highness,” Duke Gregory said.

Sergei turned. Behind him, ten paces away, stood Archduke Vasiliy, once the regent of the Crown, and several of his most trusted lieges. They were all wearing light battle gear. Further still, behind the rows of sand-colored tents, an army of forty thousand Borei mercenaries milled, raising a cloud of dust that obscured the view of the capital, even in the sweet, clear desert morning.

The Borei were terribly expensive, but Parus was rich. With trade flowing and the roads clean of bandits, Parus was gushing with gold. Rains fell and sweetened the land, and favorable winds made sure the sails were always full. Sigurd, Corama, Dusaban, and other ports all teemed with cargo ships, sailing to near and far lands, carrying people and goods. Parus had become the most powerful nation in the realms, and it was only a matter of time before the world bent its gangrenous knee and acknowledged its new master.

Sergei had learned a lot from his father. He had learned about pain. But mostly, he had learned about blind pride. And his mother had armed him with humility and female introspection that few men shared. Archduke Vasiliy had taught him patience. And his nemesis, Adam the Godless, had taught him the price of failure.

His eldest son, Vlad, would travel with him. This was a tremendous opportunity to teach his son the art of war. While the boy had skill and prowess, he had never fought in a real battle, never shed blood of an enemy soldier. The experience would toughen him, make him an even better successor to the Parusite throne.

It was a risk taking the prince-heir to war, but Sergei had no fears for his line. He had other sons. Vlad’s young wife was pregnant anyhow, bearing him a future heir. The last thing his son needed was to be around her now. Besides, Archduke Vasiliy, despite his vehement protests, was staying home.

Princess Sasha, Sergei’s twin and the commander of the Red Caps, was also going to war. She was the fierce leader of the women’s corps. And even though her deviant nature made Sergei ashamed and probably angered the gods, he trusted her with his life. But he never lost hope and prayed for her, every morning and every night.

Her army would march north into the Territories, meet the settlers, and then the joined force would attack from the west. His own force, spearheaded by the Borei, would strike from the south. The three-pronged attack would crush the Athesian resistance. And still, he had more surprises for Amalia, Adam’s daughter.

Sergei had not been invited to the man’s funeral. No Parusite had. In a way, it had been a deliberate affront against Parus. But he carefully nourished the anger, knowing that sweet revenge was near. Yesterday, fools and sycophants from the realms had stood honor guard to the worm food called Adam, in a vague hope that his daughter would keep feeding them with peace. Grudgingly, Sergei had to admit the man’s mastery of diplomacy. He had kept the rabid animals called Eracia and Caytor at bay for two decades. It had not been an easy task. He had given the two nations hope. And he had made them fat and rich. He was their savior, even though they hated him for it.

Sergei could not help but wonder, in the tiniest hour of the darkest nights, when he woke shivering from nightmares, ghosts of pain flickering across his shoulder blades, that Adam was his mirror. A perverted, sick image of his glory and goodness. But he was a man who had fought, against all odds, like the scruffiest mongrel, and won against the bigger beasts.

This Amalia was a feeble child, roughly half his age, a girl raised in the warmth and safety of the court, a soft, slim thing that would break under the slightest pressure. Once, he may have thought her weak, because she was a woman, but he had long since lost the ancient Parusite belief that women were stupid things used for breeding and cooking. He was a far cry from his sire, Vlad the Fifth.

Amalia may try to be her father’s daughter, but she was still only a white-skinned lady of the court. She had never tasted the blood of her foes, never chased brigands across a sunblasted desert, never had to drink blood and piss to survive.

The Parusites had never laid their blades down in the last eighteen years; the Athesians had never lifted theirs. Her veterans were old, decrepit fools basking in the legend of a dead man.

Even if Adam had lived, Sergei would still have marched into war. But now, the odds of a quick, merciless victory looked even better.

Captain Speinbate, the Borei commander, was walking toward him. Buying mercenaries with gold was easy, but he had bonded the man with more than just his weight in coins. He had promised him lands, a title, even a marriage into one of the noble families, if he carried out his duty. It was not going to be easy, maybe even fatal, but the Borei had taken his chances.

“My lord,” the man said, thumping a fist against his chest, “my troops will be ready to march in two days. But we must first observe the rituals.”

The man was obviously referring to the festival, Sergei thought. “That is good, that is good,” he murmured.

Something made a noise. It was part screech, part hoot, a sound like air escaping taut-pursed lips, only a hundred times louder. Sergei craned to see what it was. Behind the rows of tents, a mouse-colored thing the size of a house reared, flapping its snakelike trunk. It had huge insect-nibbled ears and two tusks like Gowashi sabers. There was quite a bit of commotion around that thing. People with shepherd’s crooks were goading the thing away.

“Remind me, what do you call that?” Sergei asked.

“Olifaunt,” the mercenary said and grinned, his mouth studded with false gold-capped teeth.

The king rubbed his chin. “Dangerous in battle?”

The southerner clicked his metal teeth. “Very. Even our own troops fear them.”

Sergei nodded. “Just make sure they trample Athesians.”

Someone chortled. It sounded like a pig’s grunt. The king looked around and had to lower his gaze to meet the owner of that wordless comment. It was the last of Sergei’s secret weapons. Half the size, twice the fury, they said. Pum’be were expensive little devils, but they always got the job done, they said. If they could not, they killed themselves.

Each cost a little fortune. Together, the eleven assassins were worth the same as the entire Borei contingent. But Sergei had never balked at their exorbitant price. Parus was rich. He could pay them.

Pum’be needed no talking to, no preparations. They knew what they had to do. Tomorrow, they would march off alone, a huddle of dwarfs wrapped in dark cloaks of wool. They would head north ahead of the main force, with one simple goal: to kill every army commander in Athesia and bring him the head of Empress Amalia doused in tar.

Vengeance will be mine, Sergei swore. After eighteen years, he would make his enemies suffer. Revenge was best served cold, they said. But no, he had an ever better saying. Revenge was best served forgotten. That was just a small part of his grand plan.

He turned and headed toward his horse and the small retinue. Tomorrow, they would wage war. But today, he had the Spring Festival celebrations to attend to. It was considered very bad luck for the king to miss the festival.