The northern mercenary had been correct. It had taken an entire day to put down the riot which had broken out at the time of the prisoners’ escape, and Kalveston, seeing no other path to his goal, had ordered fifty of those wounded in the fighting executed in various awful ways. That had been ten years ago now, and there had not been a hint of insurrection of which he had not been informed in all the intervening years. The self-titled emperor was quick to credit his own horrible style of justice, which had killed hundreds of men over the years, and in this instance alone he was totally correct in his judgment. Around the fire at night his army still whispered fearfully whenever a man grumbled for more than a minute or two.
“Have you heard the story of the prisoners’ riot? How do you want to die?” On hearing this message, the malcontent invariably fell silent and refused to say a word more throughout the rest of the night.
But despite the reign of terror hanging over the army, that which Kalveston still considered their good fortune continued to grow. Kalveston himself was an old man by this time, having lived more than two and a half score of years. In spite of this, he was determined to live as if his life would last forever, putting himself through all the usual tests of strength and skill and wearing his distinctive battle armor regularly, if nothing else but to prove to his troops that he would not be defeated. As a result of his powerful will and ruthless leadership, the flaming wheel had recently rolled over the last southern redoubt to devastating effect, and all the lands below the northern border of Naibern were now simply providences and tributaries to Kalveston’s throne.
At the conclusion of the southern conquest, Kalveston had made the proclamation that soldiers were free to go their separate ways and attempt once more to make what lives they could. But this was not the result of a sudden change of heart. Kalveston had been planning ahead for months past, and he now made some of his plans known to the men. They could return to outside lives, so long as they kept themselves in readiness to heed the call to battle. Those who did not would be hunted down and destroyed.
As he had for the past ten years, Kalveston himself decided what the soldiers could and would do with their temporary and limited freedom. To ensure that no one lost sight of the goal which he had set for them, the emperor ordered that groups of men be set as soon possible to the task of resupplying and outfitting the army with new gear and materiel, and others he set to the task of building large numbers of engines of war, and others would build more and bigger ships with which to invade the northern countries from the sea. More were needed for this new invasion because the greater part of Naibern’s military equipment had already been used and destroyed over the course of the southern campaign, and in support of the coup in the northern kingdom of Corridane, which Kalveston intended to use as a staging ground for an invasion which he envisioned would eventually overrun all the northern territories, with the assistance of plans and spies planted even before his encounter with Railon the Gairadane.
On the present day, Kalveston was making use of his palace, awaiting news from the spies he had sent north and now finally had time to acknowledge. He had not sent them all at once, nor had he ordered them to report at the same time. He had not even ordered them all to send him reports. These men were to report only on the success of their mission, rather than waste his time with unhelpful rumors of progress.
However, even having planned it this way, he was growing impatient. No fresh news had been reported for the last week past now, and the emperor was being avoided even by his most subservient lackeys, whom he suspected were cowering in various empty rooms, waiting for his wrath to find and destroy them.
At long last in the later hours of the ninth day since his coming to the palace, the sound of a knock on the castle gate reached the emperor where he was, stalking the upper levels like a jungle cat and waiting to pounce on the first servant to emerge. When the noise reached his ears, his first reaction was to stop in his tracks and bellow to the empty hall.
“If none of you are man enough to come out, I’ll find you and kill you all! Cowering children are worth nothing to me!”
Before the echo of this very real threat had died, two servants emerged from different rooms. Without giving them time to close the doors behind themselves, Kalveston shouted again.
“Open the gate now, you fools, and send your better to me here without a wasted breath.”
The instant he had made this proclamation, the two servants began racing each other to reach the lower level first. Kalveston stood silently watching and then resumed his furious pacing.
At the moment of turning at the end of the hall for the umpteenth time, the emperor found himself face-to-face with yet another nervous subordinate, who was also profoundly exhausted. Kalveston stopped and pointedly stared at the man, who had moved away only a few feet from the stairwell.
Saluting, the man gave out his news in a clipped monotone. “It was difficult my lord, for the spy was stubborn. But he has surrendered to us, and your plan is proceeding.”
“I knew that it would, because I did not leave the making of it to anyone else. I would have been happier had he surrendered years ago; the conquest could have proceeded years ago. But the southern territories held out far longer than I expected. You have brought me good news, and you
deserve to rest for it. Leave me.”
Managing to hold back a sigh of relief, the messenger broke his salute and disappeared down the stairs at a respectable walk. Alone once more, Kalveston made his way to his chamber, the only room which he knew his servants would never hide in. He had hardly shut the door before he was muttering to himself, going over the plan again.
“So our spy is on his way. That is good, all good. But what of the others? I have heard nothing from any of them. Surely they would have succeeded in my designs after so many years. I have sent so many soldiers north... Perhaps I should go myself, and teach that clumsy oaf Keltran how to keep a command…But no, now is not the time. The army must be ready to march before that can be done.”
When Kalveston finally emerged from his room some hours later and walked among his minions again, he received yet more of the kind of news he had been waiting for. Keltran had returned to the fold, with a travel-worn young woman at his side who seemed to be wary of their surroundings and clearly wanted him to go somewhere else. Keltran rose and saluted when the emperor entered. Giving no indication that the man should resume his seat, Kalveston seated himself and began the interview.
“Did I not send you forth to take the throne years ago?”
“You did so, my lord, and I am grateful.”
“But you should be fearing for your life, because you have clearly failed me. Had you been successful, you would not be here giving this report yourself.”
“I understand, my lord. Our army was defeated.”
“My army, fool! I only gave you the charge of them so that I could deal with more important matters. You misused all those men and betrayed me in the process. Why do you deserve to remain here, live and speaking to the emperor?”
“I live at your command, my lord.”
“And who is this woman who has come with you? If you dare to admit that it took a woman’s misguided feelings to get you out of the Corridanes’ clutches, I swear you will die, slowly and painfully! There is no failure in my ranks!” Rising from his seat with an emphatic thrust, Kalveston left the room. Speaking toward the empty space and the doorway before him, he said casually “Guards, remove that thing. I no longer wish to see it alive.” Ignoring the miserable and futile cries for mercy voiced by both the man and the woman, the ice-cold emperor left them and departed from the castle by a different way.
On exiting the castle, the emperor mounted and rode straight to the great camp outside the city where he had ordered that the army should assemble. Wasting no time, Kalveston went directly to the chief general’s tent and called the man out.
“Have you not had much time to prepare for this day?”
“I have, my lord, and we are well prepared.”
“Begin your preparations now. War will come to the north before the month has passed. Such is my command.”
“It shall be done with all speed, my lord. Will you be leading your men again?”
“I will. I will go myself with the Corridane force. You will be leading the rest into Gairadane to the East. You will not fail me.” With this veiled threat, delivered in an undertone only the general himself was close enough to hear, Kalveston left the camp without the slightest acknowledgement of the salutes of the soldiers. He had had enough of rest. Kalveston, now supreme ruler from Corridane to the southern ocean, was ready to fulfill his destiny.