Please Kai, no more. Just let me sleep.
Rixken stepped into the hall and shut the door behind him, leaving Aysha in the room that was supposed to be his. Despite the bright fuzz of haxwine coating his mind and running along his nerves, he knew he was on the verge of collapse. Forty-eight hours, an unexpected coronation, an assassination attempt, three separate battles, a party filled with an army of lusty women, and a naked barbarian coming between him and his bed, all on one nap and two decent meals, was more than he could handle. Far more.
And now ancient memories were bubbling up of another woman with red rimmed eyes sitting on his bed. Only she hadn’t been crying in expectation of defilement.
He pushed away regrets over failures long past fixing, shouldered his duffel, and started down the hall for the rooms assigned to the mercenary officers. He was pretty sure he could remember which one the Warsisters had put Commander KarLagren in. Hopefully he was there. If not… maybe Rixken would just sleep in one of the sitting rooms.
Footsteps sounded on the hardwood floor of the hall. Light. Quick.
He glanced back.
Bright green eyes framed by dark lashes. A bouncing fall of black hair glowing with feathers. Swaying hips and a full chest wrapped in shimmering red and gold temisilk.
A playful rose-lipped smile.
Zemril almost skipped up next to him. It was the second time he’d seen her that night, and he still couldn’t believe the change from nondescript messenger boy to… this. She looked like some Rakash Darr’s prize daughter. The kind that had powerful suitors falling over themselves begging her hand in marriage.
What did she want? Please, nothing that would require him to think.
“So, think she’ll make a good addition ta your little army?”
“You were listening?”
“Of course.” Her smile quirked up on one side. “I had ta make sure she didn’t kill you, didn’t I?”
“You knew she was in there?”
Zemril stopped with him.
“Well, yes. I had ta check your room ta make sure it was safe. I’m here ta keep you alive, remember?”
“But not, apparently, to keep me out of compromising situations?”
“Not funny ones.”
She bit her lip as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
“I shouldn’t’a said that.”
No. No you shouldn’t have, Zemril.
Rixken resettled the strap of his duffel and turned to face her straight on. He felt anger like a bright song ringing through his being.
“Her people let her walk here naked and bleeding, and instead of giving her clothing or help, you let her sit in that room crying, fearing that I was going to come in and rape her? And you did it because you thought it would be funny?”
The person in front of him wilted from mature woman to little girl in moments. She dropped her gaze and flattened her ears out to the side.
“Look at me, Field Agent Zemril NerMagten.”
A twitch ran through her whole body at her name and rank. She tilted her head up and looked at him with green eyes gone very wide.
The look almost disarmed him, but then he thought of Aysha naked and bloody while Zemril waited outside the room, and his anger surged again, bright, and hot, and somehow not entirely his. He forged his words in the heat of it and then drove them home in a firm, quiet voice.
“You let that woman shame herself in front of me, Zemril NerMagten. I will laugh at what she went through when she does. May Aihay rebuke you for your hatred.”
It was the first time Rixken had ever invoked Aihay’s name against someone. He almost couldn’t believe he’d done it.
But Zemril’s eyes went even wider and she began to shiver. She dropped to her knees in front of him and pressed her face against the floor.
“Forgive me, Kaiag Rokoru. I was wrong.”
Hearing the old title for the Preparer come out of her mouth was just as surprising as when Daneth had used it. Twenty-four hours. It had been his for a day at most. But it was really his. And people were responding to it. And, it seemed, so was he.
Aihay, give me wisdom.
There was a formula that kevas used in these situations. Confession, assurance, repentance. Repentance involved… restoration and reparation when possible.
“Aihay forgives you, but you still have to apologize to the woman you hurt and tell her what you did. And because you laughed at her humbling, I’m assigning you to be her slave. When I don’t need you nearby, you will be getting her anything she needs and teaching her how to fit in as my bodyguard. Starting by getting her a full uniform, with honors. Understood?”
Zemril nodded without looking up.
“Good. Now go get to it. I need to find someplace to sleep.”
Rixken woke to Lor shining directly into his eyes through tinted glass.
What time was it? The room faced west, so…
Past noon. Argh.
At least he didn’t seem to have a hangover. The light was only annoying, not agonizing.
He stretched out on the couch, twisted, sat up, and looked around. Daneth’s bed was empty and perfectly made. Not surprising on either count.
The events of the previous day flickered in his mind. Orlin was still out there, hunting him, and Emprin itself was also a target for him, so Rixken couldn’t stay with the Warsisters, even if they’d let him. Nowhere else on Okend would be safe, either. At least, no place he could get to. He would still have to leave the continent. He also didn’t have any resources, besides Zemril, now Aysha, two anchors, and a lunger, and Orlin was certainly moving in more forces to block every possible exit. Far more forces than three anchors could defeat or slip past.
How much had Mesra meant when she offered him the pick of their equipment? And how long would her welcome for him as a guest last? He had wanted to ask her about both the night before, but she had been conspicuously absent from the party.
Would the Kerchaxes continue to help him? And should they? Could he afford them somehow if they asked for payment? Could he pay them for what they had already done?
Questions with no answers.
What to do?
Morning reading. Prayer. Shower. Dress. Eat.
Then, find answers, get more resources, and plan.
Best get to it.
He found Daneth and Krisga in the command tent in their camp, which they had set up in an empty field just inside the gates they had entered the Warsisters’ base by. Getting there involved a fast walk through cold winds as he didn’t have anything truly made for the icy breeze blowing in off the arctic currents that ran south of Emprin. When he first entered the two commanders were doing inventory while sitting on opposite sides of a large folding table. Very quietly doing inventory. Rixken felt the tension between them as soon as he was no longer distracted by being warm again.
Both mercenary commanders stopped working and turned to him. Krisga’s eyes were bloodshot. Daneth got up and bowed. Krisga followed a moment later.
“Preparer,” Daneth said.
“Please, call me Rixken or some standard honorific. Preparer sounds far too formal.”
“As you wish, your Majesty. Would you like to sit down?”
Rixken took a chair at the center of the table while the two commanders moved to the opposite side to face him and sat down again.
“What do you wish to discuss?” Daneth asked.
“First, I’d like to thank you again. Truly, I’d be dead right now if you hadn’t helped me. Even if you’d only refrained from shooting me.”
Daneth’s pale face went red. Krisga dropped her head.
“I owe you. Greatly. But I don’t have anything to pay…”
“No charge,” Daneth said.
Rixken paused and studied the man. Daneth wouldn’t quite meet his eyes. He glanced at Krisga. She still had her head down.
“You should be paid.”
Daneth closed his eyes for a moment. Rixken noticed he was playing with something held in his right hand. A small ring.
Krisga leaned over and stilled Daneth’s hand. Then withdrew her own like she had touched something hot.
What was going on between these two?
Dan opened his eyes and met Krisga’s gaze, his eyes tight at the corners.
Krisga turned to Rixken.
“You don’t need to pay us. The Warsister high commander awarded us full salvage on all our kills. Her maintenance department will also buy whatever we don’t repair.” She paused, glanced at Dan, then back to him. “We’ve been going over the inventory, and we just received more value in salvage than we’ve been paid for contracts in the past three years. And you won it for us when you fought in the ring. We would be ashamed to take payment from you.”
Rixken remembered the field of broken anchors, tanks, APC’s, and powered armor suits scattered through the city after after they finished fighting. He had seen some of the Warsister anchors loading broken equipment onto what looked like Imperial salvage and transport trucks, but he hadn’t imagined that they would be able to get that much of it back.
Apparently the Warsisters were as good at salvaging as they were at killing.
“I’m glad you haven’t lost out for helping me.”
He tried to think of how to ask what he had to ask next. It still wasn’t coming, even though he’d been trying to figure out the words since he’d woken up.
Krisga interrupted his thoughts by sliding a computer tablet across the table.
“This is the list of salvage belonging to Field Agent NerMagten.”
He looked at it. Three Danag mk2s and one Danag mk3, all holed through the cockpit or power core. Also, a light railtank and a handful of powered armor. He hadn’t realized she had done that much damage with her lunger. Where had she learned to pilot like that?
“We already told her about some of it when she dropped by earlier,” Krisga said. “She insisted we account for every bit of it and credit it to you. There’s also one more Danag mark two that you killed.”
It wasn’t an immense amount of resources, but it was still a tidy sum. The damage from a single hyper-velocity cannon shot in the right place was usually easily repaired in an anchor, all of which were already built for modularity anyway. All of those on the list he was looking at could probably fight again without much work, and built from scratch even Danag mk2s were flinchingly expensive. The tank, which could also be repaired, was probably worth three Danag mk2s all by itself.
When had she killed that? It couldn’t have been a direct shot. He vaguely remembered a few tanks coming up over the rubble barriers behind waves of anchors. It had to be one of those, shot through the underside the moment it came over the top.
The powered armor he dismissed, though it could be rebuilt too. Eight suits of that was pocket change compared to the vehicles.
Thank you, Aihay. Now what do I do with it?
Was it enough to hire the Kerchaxes officially?
He wasn’t sure there was enough money on the entire continent to pay one company to go up against the whole Empire.
But… maybe if it was a company that already had, there was.
Except, they had already risked so much. They no longer had a place on Okend, now that they had turned on Orlin. Without Rixken, they might be able to sneak out. But if Orlin knew they were guarding him, there was no way they would avoid fighting.
Next time, the Warsisters wouldn’t be there.
He looked at the two mercenaries. Both were watching him, now. Waiting on what he would do. He’d seen people do that with his brother. With his father his whole life.
But here there was something more. The two people in front of him weren’t just waiting.
They were expecting.
They looked like dogs that had been turned out of their homes into the wilds and now, suddenly, thought they might have found their master again.
A heavy weight settled in on him, as intense as what he had felt in the prison cell when he realized that accepting the title of Preparer meant civil war. Rixken knew that if he asked, these people would fight. They had risked everything for him already, and they would risk it again. And perhaps lose it.
He wasn’t worth that.
Would he really be better at ruling than his brother?
Orlin was a monster. But he was also strong. He knew how to keep people in line.
Rixken was just Rixken. Too weak even to protect people from himself, let alone his brother. He needed help. He needed strength.
His hand fell to the hilt of the sword at his side. Still there. If he needed help and strength, there was no other way but to ask for it.
He put both hands on the table and met the gazes of the two expectant commanders.
“I don’t believe I will be able to stay in this province. Orlin is already targeting it, and he’ll only fight harder for it as long as I’m here. I still need to get off of Okend, and to do that I will need more forces than I have. What would it cost to officially hire your company to accomplish that?”
Krisga lifted a sheaf of paper off the top of a short stack of documents and pushed it across the table, next to the tablet. She set a pen next to it. Glancing through the pages, Rixken saw that it was a contract, already filled out except for his signature. On top was an itemized invoice of services provided and expected remuneration. The total cost was…
Well… salvage rights. They were mercenary enough to insist on keeping anything they killed. He almost smiled, but truly he felt very small.
He looked up from the contract and held each of their gazes for a long time.
“Aihay’s blessing on you and your people.”
He picked up the pen and signed.
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and thematic elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki or Isaac Hooke’s Atlas series and sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.