13th of Octesh, 611 AR.
The chief mechanic in charge of the siege cannon held his hands on his head as if would keep the anxiety from spilling out his ears. Yegor surveyed the damage. Black carbon streaks covered the bottom of the mortar and the reinforced concrete.
“How…” Yegor hissed. His anger and fear fought each other in equal measure, causing him to grip his fists so hard his nails bit into his palms. The artillery kapitan beside him sidestepped away nervously.
“A shot fired from the second story of that building,” the kapitan said, turning and pointing behind them. “One of the men at the gun spotted it. The Cygnaran attack on our southern fence was a ploy.” He took another step back as Yegor closed his eyes, trying to restrain his anger.
Frost bloomed on the ground around him causing both the kapitan and the mechanik to jump back, shaking their feet against the sharp cold penetrating their boots. Yegor released a breath and loosed his fists. The frost vanished.
“Empty it,” he ordered. “Interrogate the occupants.”
“It has already been done,” the kapitan declared.
“Why was I not informed?” Yegor asked, turning his wrath to the kapitan. The man stood straight as a rod but did not retreat.
“My lord, Kapitan Pietra was notified and questioned them herself, since she is in command until the Kovnik… erh, for the duration of Kovnik Bazarov’s, erh, absence,” he stuttered.
Yegor sucked his teeth. So, control was slipping while Vasily lingered, just as he feared. “Ah-hah.” He turned to the mechanik. “How long to repair it?”
The mechanik winced so hard it looked like he just ate a lemon. “Lord, the damage is…”
“How long!?” Yegor screamed.
“Maybe three days if we work day and night,” the mechanik said quickly and then continued before Yegor could interrupt him, “but without replacement parts, operating the weapon will be extremely dangerous even after we repair the warped loading door.”
“It was a flare round, was it not?” Yegor said through gritted teeth. “How did it inflict so much damage?”
“The shell detonated inside the loading breech,” the mechanik explained. “The round had enough powder to distend the hinge joints and bow out the compartment door. The springs were destroyed.”
“Can it fire now?” Yegor asked. The mechanik look appalled.
“No!” he said, then quickly added “well, yes, but it would permanently destroy the gun to fire a shell in its current state. I would not be able to repair it after that. That would require a total rebuild.”
“Thank you for your honesty,” Yegor said, and walked away.
This was the worst possible news. The siege gun was supposed to be the main deterrent for a buildup of Cygnaran forces sufficient to take Albyn; it had meant to buy them weeks, maybe even a month or more. Meanwhile, the desperate trenchers were supposed to throw themselves at the town again and again until casualties equalled or passed the steady stream of incoming replacements sure to follow, slowly and methodically bleeding the First Army’s resources.
But now, without the giant mortar, they were virtually defenseless.
The Cygnarans were at their most vulnerable moment and their reinforcements still had not come, yet Yegor was helpless to exploit their weakness. Soon, there would create a sizeable buildup outside this town and in a very short while– too short– it would be overrun, and there was nothing Yegor could do to stop it. He felt sick.
Before he’d even left the gun emplacement he was ambushed by Privat Menshikov and the fidgety little Llaelese doctor assigned to Vasily.
“What now?” Yegor barked in irritation. The young privat took off his ushanka cap and gripped it nervously.
“Lord Forgeseer,” he began, “I have been unable to locate the alchemist you requested,” he practically whispered. “We have searched everywhere.”
“His neighbors said he vanished a couple of days ago,” the doctor added, adjusting his glasses. Yegor blinked in confusion, and then remembered: he’d tasked these two with locating the alchemist to assist in ‘healing’ Vasily.
“What do you mean he vanished?” Yegor asked. The privat swallowed and opened his mouth, but the doctor answered first:
“Forgeseer, several people– many people– have gone missing in the last two days. The townsfolk are worried.” He waited for Yegor to respond. Yegor said nothing. “Did they… have they escaped?” he asked.
“Yes,” Yegor answered simply. “Our guards fell asleep and some of your people slipped through our fence.”
A weak lie. The doctor could see right through it. Yegor didn’t care.
“Ah. I see.” The doctor took off his glasses and looked away. “Well, perhaps Martin Bossquet was among the escapees.”
“Perhaps,” Yegor said.
“Then there is nothing more I can do to help your Kovnik,” the little doctor said defiantly. He flinched, expecting retaliation. To his surprise, Yegor was unmoved.
“Thank you for your assistance, doctor,” Yegor said robotically. “I know you have done all you can.” He glanced at Menshikov. “Escort him back to his house.” The privat saluted enthusiastically– relieved to be out of Yegor’s presence– and set off rapidly with the doctor in tow.
Yegor moved as fast as he could to the center of town where the ‘special’ prisoners were kept. A faint, distant wail was on the breeze. Yegor ignored it.
“Lord Forgeseer,” one of the guards addressed him as he approached. “That sound–”
“Shuttup,” Yegor spat. He unlocked the door and entered, locking it quickly behind him. The sound grew louder. He strode to the basement door. Upon opening, a grating chorus of wails emanated from below. He slammed the door behind him and raced down the steps.
The prisoners were keening pitifully in their shackles. Grekhov, Prokhor, and Ilya all stood in the center of the room with arms raised, a soapstone staff in each of their right hands glowing with a sickly blue-green light. Their eyes flashed with the same awful light, casting some dark spell on their victims who were convulsing violently and howling in their cages. Even Yegor found it a gruesome sight. As he entered the basement chamber the three greylords lowered their staffs and the light faded. The prisoners fell silent, eyes rolling into their heads.
Grekhov nodded. “Ah, Forgeseer. I’m glad you’re here,” he said in greeting. “I wished to speak with you.” He turned to Prokhor and Ilya. “Go check on the smaller ones,” he said softly. “I will join you shortly.” The two other greylords drifted to a small dark doorway at the back of the long basement chamber, closing the door behind them.
Yegor nodded his head at the door. “Is that where…”
Grekhov tossed his staff onto the table. “Yes, that is where your abomination is coming to pass,” he muttered with a sigh, resting on the table. “You ask much of us.” Yegor opened his mouth to reply by Grekhov held up his hand. “Please, no more of this ‘any sacrifice for the empress’ horseshit. There are smart sacrifices, noble sacrifices, necessary sacrifices. And then there’s… whatever this is,” he gestured at the back door. “Honestly, Yegor, I shouldn’t have agreed. It’s a needless waste of life. They will be worthless in battle.”
“How old?” Yegor asked. He did not want to know… He felt he must know anyway.
“Twelve at the youngest,” Grekhov answered. “Fifteen at the oldest. I avoided any younger, work with such fragile minds would have been too difficult. They would have tried to kill themselves immediately, I’m sure.” He shook his head. “They can’t even lift the weapon, Yegor. Even these people–” he pointed now at the cages around them– “will be useless in a fight.”
“You know that was never the point,” Yegor replied. “And I’m not here to argue with you.”
“Yes, well, then you should perhaps stop coming down here, because there is another problem,” Grekhov said, crossing his arms. Yegor closed his eyes and let out a breath. What now?
“I can’t deal with any more problems today, Grekhov.”
“Well you’re going to have to deal with this one if you want us to keep working,” Grekhov fired back. “We cannot do this in secret. Not in these numbers, at this speed. We need space to work. The guards have started peppering us with questions as we come and go.”
“Then I will replace the guards,” Yegor offered. Grekhov clicked his tongue in annoyance and waved his hand dismissively.
“That’s not the problem, Yegor! The next guards will ask questions, and the next.” Grekhov began pacing. “I have overheard the citizens complain of noises coming from down here. It’s not even been two days. And even if we could maintain our secret– and I am not sure we can much longer– the reavers need to be in the open soon. We’ve accelerated the bonding process, but at some point they need to develop the strength to lift the blade. These weigh a ton.” He lifted the hilt of a fellbade sitting on the table with the end of his staff– careful not to touch the cursed object with any part of his body– and dropped it back onto the wood with a clunk for emphasis. “Their urge to use the weapon is doubling by the hour. They’ll need swinging room and at least some animals to kill to sate their bloodlust.”
Yegor rubbed his brow. “This is not what you promised me.”
“I could say the same,” Grekhov countered. They glared at each other.
“I will… work something out,” Yegor said.
“Yes, well, work it out quickly.”
“The children cannot come out though,” Yegor added. “If the townsfolk or even our own troops see what we’ve done, I’ll have a coup on my hands.”
“You don’t expect such a coup when they lay eyes on these folks?” Grekhov pointed again to the comatose prisoners.
“The townspeople, perhaps. But they can controlled. Our own troops…” Yegor thought for a moment. “I will declare that these people were caught assisting the Cygnaran attack last night, and that is how the enemy were able to infiltrate the town. These are traitors being punished.”
“Yes, the standard justification for doom reavers,” Grekhov chuckled. “It’s true more often than you might think, actually. Even if it’s not true here.” He grinned. “There is a reason we try to recapture deserters alive.”
“I’m aware,” Yegor said. “I must ask, once the process is begun, how, erm, reversible is it?”
Grekhov’s smile vanished. “Not. Not reversible, Yegor. Why are you asking this?”
“Is there a man named ‘Bossquet’ down here?” Yegor asked. Grekhov glared at him for a moment before retrieving a scroll from his robes. He opened it and scanned the list of names.
“Yes, over there,” he said, pointing to one of the cages at the rear. Yegor approached it. “What is this about, Forgeseer?” He followed Yegor to the cage in concern. The prisoner was a chubby bald man of around thirty years of age. His mostly-naked body was shining with sweat. His eyes were rolled into the back of his head like the others.
“Are you the alchemist?” Yegor asked the prisoner. The man’s eyes reappeared and he groaned, blinking. “Answer me.” Martin Bossquet opened his mouth.
“REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” a violent throat-tearing screech emerged from the man. He shut his mouth. Yegor took a step back in surprise, looking at Grekhov.
Grekhov shrugged. “The acceleration techniques we are using have cost them their language abilities, I’m afraid,” he said in mild annoyance. “An unexpected side-effect, but not terribly important. They don’t need to talk.”
“Ah.” Yegor wrinkled his nose in displeasure. “That is… unpleasant.”
“As I said. Irreversible.”
“Clearly.” Yegor turned to leave, frustrated. “I will let you to your work, koldun lord.”
“You’d better let us out of here soon, or this is all going to be for naught,” Grekhov called after him.
Yegor emerged from the dungeon and exited the building. The guards did not ask him any questions. Normally he would have punished them for doing so earlier, but it no longer mattered.
The siege mortar was all but destroyed.
Kapitan Pietra was taking over.
The kompany was growing suspicious of the greylords.
Grekhov was demanding more liberties.
And now Yegor couldn’t even enlist help in poisoning Vasily because the one person who could do it had become a screeching lunatic.
Yegor felt panic rising in his chest for the first time in a very, very long time. Breath came suddenly more difficult. He had to act quickly. He had to regain to control. He had to…
He had to kill Vasily Bazarov right now.
Yegor knocked gently on Vasily’s door. There was no answer. He cracked it and peered inside; seeing that the kovnik was alone, he stepped in and closed the door behind him, flipping the lock with a gentle click. The bucket of steaming hot water sloshed against his robe as he set it down at Vasily’s bedside. He sat on a little chair near the bed. It creaked angrily.
“Kovnik,” Yegor said softly. Vasily’s eyes fluttered open. His face looked even more waxy than the night before.
“Yegor…” Vasily murmured. “Water please…” Yegor took a glass of water resting on the nightstand and held it up to Vasily’s lips, letting him sip it slowly, draining the cup. Yegor put the empty glass back on the nightstand and rubbed his hands together.
“I brought you a bucket of water for your feet, to keep you warm,” Yegor pointed to the bucket, immediately embarrassed by his own lie. There was no call for it. He didn’t need to explain anything, he needed to just do the deed, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to end Vasily’s life so quickly. His nails bit into his palms.
Do it. Just do it.
“Well thank you, Yegor,” Vasily smiled weakly. “But I am hot with a fever, I hardly need to warm up.”
“Yes. Of course.” Yegor fidgeted. “Vasily, I–”
“Pietra already told me what happened,” Vasily interrupted. “Do not blame yourself. It is my fault.”
Yegor frowned in confusion. “How is it your fault?”
“I should have ordered you to assist the defense. You would have stopped the commandos, I’m certain of it.” He gave a weak smile. “But… I wanted you to have your moment.”
Yegor bowed his head. He had no words.
“I don’t have much longer, Forgeseer,” Vasily said. He tried to continue but was stopped by a long, wet cough. Blood was on his lips. He lifted a weak hand to wipe his mouth, looking at his crimson fingers in disgust. He wiped them on the sheets. “Kapitan Pietra will assume command. I expect you to treat her with the same respect you’ve given me.”
Now. Do it!
Yegor lifted his head. “Yes, Kovnik.” Vasily nodded approvingly and closed his eyes. Yegor gritted his teeth and shook his head. A long silence fell between them. At last he spoke again more firmly.
“No. No, Kovnik, you deserve my honesty at least. You’ve earned that.” He took a deep breath. “I will not be treating Kapitan Pietra with the same respect I’ve given you, because I have not given you a great deal of respect.” His hands trembled. He gripped his fists harder to make it stop. “In fact, she cannot take command.”
Vasily’s eyes reopened in surprise. “W…what?”
“I have secretly violated your orders and permitted the visiting ternion to begin producing doom reavers from the citizenry.”
Vasily’s face flushed. The pulse in his neck began jumping erratically.
“How…dare…you…” he bit off each word in impotent fury. “I will have you executed for insubordination. I should have known you would betray me…”
Yegor stood menacingly. “Yes, you should have known. And no, you will not have me executed.” Vasily opened is mouth to yell for help but Yegor clapped his giant palm over his face, muffling the scream. He placed his other hand gently on the back of Vasily’s head. Vasily thrashed but was too weak to resist. “I am sorry, Kovnik. I truly, truly am. I wish it had not come to this.” He gazed into Vasily’s panic-stricken eyes, tears threatening at his own. He began a spell.
Unnatural cold emanated from the hand on the back of Vasily’s head. Vasily’s eyes went even wider with pain as the terrible icy cold penetrated his skull. Frost crept along his hair and cheeks and he stopped struggling. The faint crackle of spreading cold sounded from inside Vasily’s head. After a few more moments his eyes went opaque with ice. Yegor released the spell.
The frost vanished and Vasily’s eyes cleared, but his head was still freezing cold. He was dead. Yegor blew out a long breath.
He’d actually done it. He’d murdered a superior officer in cold blood. A pillow would have been simpler, but that felt unfair; he felt he owed Vasily a look in the eye. It had shaken him far more than he had expected.
He maneuvered Vasily’s limp body to the edge of the bed, hanging his head over the side. Dragging the large bucket of hot water closer to the bed and dunking Vasily’s head inside, he waited. Footsteps sounded in the hallway. Yegor froze in fear. He should have just used a pillow! This was ridiculous! But the steps passed and he breathed a sigh of relief. After waiting several minutes he pulled Vasily’s head out of the scalding water, feeling his face: it felt warm again. Not quite as warm as he’d been in his feverish state, but warm enough. Grabbing a towel tucked away inside his robe he gently dried Vasily’s head, leaving his hair just wet enough to appear sweaty. He repositioned the Kovnik on his pillow, smoothing out all signs of struggle. Finally, he slid the bucket of water under the bed and walked over to the door to unlock it.
He paused a moment to rehearse his plan in his mind, and then he screamed.
“Tell me again what happened,” Kapitan Pietra demanded. Diana Pietra was a small woman whose fiery demeanor more than compensated for her stature. Long blonde hair hung in a braid that rested on her shoulder. Her bangs framed a round face that might have been pretty were it not for the criss-cross of random scars she bore from some long-distant battle, or perhaps many battles. Her shockingly green eyes seemed to be perpetually alight with anger, even moreso now. She and the other kapitans and lieutenants were gathered around Vasily’s corpse. Yegor sighed, leaning against the back of the chair, trying to convey weary grief.
“I entered the room to speak with him–” Yegor began.
“About what?” Pietra interrupted. Yegor sighed again.
“To inform him that the siege mortar cannot be repaired,” he explained, and to ask what his orders were for the loading crew. I suggested he re-equip them for combat and deploy them at the main gate.”
“I thought you were in charge of the Man-O-War assigned to us?” She asked skeptically, gesturing at Vasily. “You are technically one of them, no? Why come to the Kovnik?”
“Because,” Yegor said slowly, “I did not want to go over his head.”
“Again,” she spat.
“You did not want to go over his head again,” she clarified. “You invited the greylords here against his wishes. He told me this.”
“Ah.” Yegor shrugged. “He tells the truth. And I regret putting him in such a difficult position, so I agreed not to bypass his authority again. Therefore, here I am.” He opened his palms.
“What are the greybeards doing here?” Pietra asked. “As ranking officer I order you to tell me.”
Yegor was silent for a long time. The other officers waited expectantly, hairs on end from the tension. The giant wizard and the hot-headed young officer stared each other down.
“I wish to speak to the Kovnik alone,” he said at last. He ignored the confused looks between the officers.
“But, Lord Forgeseer,” one of the kapitans said, “he is dead.”
“He meant me, you idiots,” Pietra growled. Understanding dawned on their faces. Pietra nodded to them and they shuffled out quickly, shutting the door behind them.
“What are you not telling me, Forgeseer? Enough secrets.” She said the second they were alone. This was a delicate moment, perhaps the most delicate of all. If he failed here all would be lost. He had to coerce her into abdicating her command without totally losing her support. Brute force was not the path forward. His authority had to be legitimized and only Pietra could do that. Subtlety was the game now; deception, pressure points, veiled threats. Luckily the Covenant was practically built on such maneuvering.
“I am about to tell you three things that you cannot repeat, Diana.” He used her first name as though they were friends, carefully avoiding her rank; he did not want to acknowledge her ascendence to Kovnik, but he didn’t want to antagonize her by continuing to call her Kapitan.
“I will be the judge of that,” she said noncommittally, folding her arms. “And don’t call me Diana again if you want to keep your balls.”
Yegor snorted in amusement, and then seeing she was quite serious, he shrugged. “As you wish.” He stood, towering over her. She did not back away. “The first is this: before he died, Kovnik Bazarov asked me assume command of this operation. All of it.”
Pietra let out a surprised laugh. “How convenient he told nobody else, least of all me!”
Yegor ignored her and continued. “The second is this: I invited the greylords here to help us fight, but also to help me root out an insurrection that has been festering in this town since we arrived.” He paused, but she did not interject. He had her attention now. Good. He began to pace. “Kovnik Bazarov was initially against my calling on the greylords for assistance, knowing their methods were… unsavory. As soon as they arrived, however, they were able to learn of a large group of townsfolk who were in contact with the Cygnarans.”
“And how did they learn this, exactly?” The skepticism had not left her voice, but she was intrigued. He led her on further.
“We have tools at our disposal to release the truth from a liar,” Yegor said.
“Torture,” she spat.
“Ah.” That wasn’t something she could argue with. It was a lie, of course; there was no ‘truth spell’, at least nothing strong enough to be reliable. But the legendary reputation of the Prikaz Chancellery– the Covenant’s office of secret police– and its powers of discernment were carefully-fabricated and cultivated lies based on kernels of truth to instill fear and respect in the Khadoran population. Perfect for moments like this.
“When I presented the evidence to Vasily– erh, Kovnik Bazarov, excuse me– he realized I was correct to call the greylords,” Yegor continued. She began to object but he held up a hand to stop her. “I know, it was wrong to disregard him, but he did not order me to refrain from contacting the Covenant, he simply said he did not want it. I acknowledge the grey zone of that distinction, but it is important nonetheless, because I did not disobey any direct order.”
“I certainly hope that–”
“I am not finished,” he interrupted forcefully. She fell silent. That was good; she was becoming less certain. “The rebellion was more widespread than the Kovnik anticipated. Left unchecked, the people of this miserable little backwater plotted to betray us at the most inopportune moment.”
“Yes, it appears you were not entirely successful in stopping that,” she said bitterly.
“To my shame, yes,” he agreed. “I did not press them hard enough. I should have remembered there is only one way to deal with such rebellion.”
“Execute the conspirators,” Pietra finished for him. He could see the gears turning in her mind now, drawing connections between Yegor’s carefully-fabricated story and the events of last night.
“No,” Yegor corrected her. “That is not enough. Think what you may about my Covenant, Pietra, but you must admit we have hundreds of years of experience stamping out disloyalty. If anyone is qualified to handle the rebellion in this town, is it us.”
“So what are you proposing? And where are these conspirators now?” Pietra asked. She was trying to maintain an aura of skepticism but her anger, doubt, and intrigue were betraying her.
“I am not ‘proposing,’ I am telling you what we have done. What Kovnik Bazarov agreed to do. Perhaps too late, in hindsight.” Yegor stopped pacing and stood before her once more. She flinched a little. “We have chained the rebels to fellblades.”
Pietra’s eyes went wide. Her mouth opened. She shut it quickly.
“And tomorrow,” Yegor continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “I will place them in the public square as a warning to the rest of the people in this town, in case thoughts of insurgency continue to plague them. Rebellion is a disease, Pietra, and it must be extinguished with brutality. What happened last night cannot happen again.” He smacked his fist into his palm for emphasis. Pietra swallowed.
“I do not believe the Kovnik agreed to this,” she said in disgust, shaking her head. Fear was in her eyes. “You brought fellblades into this town without telling our own soldiers!? What if–”
“What if what?” Yegor asked. Pietra hesitated.
“What if one of them had escaped, or, or…” her revulsion at the atrocious usage of doom reavers mingled with her fear of the evil artifacts and secretive work of the Covenant. “To do this to civilians, Yegor… This is just not right. Execution is more just.”
“None of them have escaped, nor will they,” Yegor assured her. “And when the Cygnarans eventually breach this town, we will unleash their spies back upon them.”
“When they breach!?” Pietra spat. “Who–”
“Which brings me to the last item,” Yegor interrupted her again. “I must once again emphasize the importance of secrecy. If you were to repeat this, well,” he shrugged apologetically. “I would have to slay you.”
She stared back at him, trying to veil her discomfort with hostility. “Alright,” she acquiesced.
He stared back at her for a moment, making sure she understood the gravity of what came next: “Albyn was never expected to hold up under the full pressure of the First Army.”
“Then why are we here!?” She threw out her arms angrily.
“Albyn was originally established as a hardpoint to grind down Cygnaran forces approaching the Elsinberg-Merywyn rail line. Supreme Kommandant Irusk needed a backup plan if Kommander Harkevich was unable to hold Riversmet. The Great Prince Vladimir is currently waging a campaign to retake it, but Irusk is not confident.” Yegor began pacing again. “Months ago he asked Kommander Starovina and Section Three for support in defending this position with minimal resources for as long as possible.”
Pietra’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Why?”
“Irusk anticipates needing to move a tremendous amount of men and materiel to Elsinberg in the very near future. This means two things–” he counted them off on his fingers, “–one, this position must hold until Irusk has either moved his forces or deems it unnecessary, and two, he cannot spare additional support for us.”
“So why is Section Three involved?” Pietra asked.
“Because the Supreme Kommandant needs his plan to remain secret, and because defending Albyn under the present circumstances requires a certain degree of, hmm… subtlety… in High Kommand.” Yegor smiled. “Committing something like a siege mortar or fellblades to a highly vulnerable position at the brunt of an invasion is not exactly a popular move. Even less popular to admit it is not enough to rebuff the First Army.”
Pietra fell quiet as she took all this in. Yegor held his breath.
“So… High Kommand knows we will die here,” she said at last. It was not a question.
“Yes. I am afraid so.”
“And Vasily knew,” she added.
“Yes. When I approached him for help, it was his idea to lay the groundwork for the trap that the Cygnarans fell into last night.” He cracked his knuckles. “We were meant to attack them all night, but unfortunately the little incident has now crippled our plan. We are virtually defenseless, and yet no word has come from Irusk to abandon our position.” He held his arms wide. “You see our dilemma. You see my dilemma. Section Three is already overextended so they turned to the Prikaz Chancellery for support, and I was sent. Here I am, expected to lay down my life for results. Yet our work is not done. We must buy more time.”
“You fear sacrificing your own life?” Pietra sneered. “Typical greylord.”
“On the contrary, dear Diana.” He approached her slowly, stopping just a few inches away. He summoned every ounce of malevolent intent he could radiate. “I would gladly strangle every single living thing in a mile radius, including myself, including you, if it meant protecting the Supreme Kommandant’s plan,” he said softly, almost intimately. “He has the blessing of the Empress, and she is the incarnate will of Khador. I will not have my loyalty questioned by you.”
She cleared her throat and took a step back. “And you do not think I am capable of finishing the job, so you look to cast me aside,” she said. “By telling a lie about the Kovnik’s wishes.”
“I tell no lie,” Yegor said earnestly, putting his palms up in surrender. “Everything I have told you is the truth. More truth than you might ever hear from any greylord ever again.”
“And yet Bazarov failed to tell me any of this,” she said. The skepticism was creeping back into her voice. “Isn’t it convenient that he died right after declaring your leadership, with no witnesses?”
Yegor snorted. “I’d hardly call it convenient. Why he did not communicate his wish for me to assume command earlier, I don’t know. I suspect it was a choice he made as he felt his life slipping away.” He looked at the corpse of Vasily on the bed. He was glad the eyes had been closed; he feared the incriminating stare of death, like the eyes might have revealed Yegor’s true crime.
“So you think Vasily did not see me as capable,” Pietra said. She was terrible at concealing her emotions; the hurt was plain as she too gazed upon Vasily’s serene face.
She was prepared to fall. Time to set up the final blow.
“No, Kapitan Pietra,” he said gently. “On the contrary. Kovnik Vasily Bazarov always spoke very highly of you to me. Your troops have tremendous respect for you. I can see it in them.” He placed his fist over his heart. “I can feel it in their hearts.” He thumped his hand against his chest. “But a time is coming very soon where all true Khadorans in Albyn must lay down their life,” he said, dropping to a whisper. “Very soon they will realize there is no hope for us, and what then? What happens when they are asked to fight alongside mad townsfolk wielding fellblades, or to build suicidal boobytraps, or when the enemy crashes down on us with such fury that the only thing a reasonable person would do is flee? All while knowing it is pointless, that Albyn will fall no matter what?”
“I have full faith in my Winter Gu–” Pietra begain.
“Look at you, Pietra,” Yegor cut her off. “You have their respect, yes. Their greatest respect.” He shook his head. “But you do not have their fear. Now look at me.” His eyes suddenly glowed azure and faint runes whirled around his hands. The air temperature dropped precipitously and his giant beard whipped in a whirling gale that tore papers off the nightstand and rustled Vasily’s sheets. Pietra stumbled back in surprise. He dropped the spell, returning to normal.
“That… wasn’t necessary,” she said, voice shaking, trying to regain her composure.
“Do you think any one of your troopers would dare disobey an order of mine?” he asked. Her face fell.
“That’s right,” he nodded, “and if they did, I would break them in half with my bare hands,” he said fiercely. “Pietra, Vasily did not want you to have to bear the moral weight of ordering enslaved village people into chain gun fire or to blow up houses full of children.”
“You have no problem bearing that burden, I see,” she said bitterly.
“I have borne far worse.”
“I do not want to imagine,” she whispered.
“No, you do not,” he answered. There was a long pause. Yegor had thrown everything at her, now all he could do was hope it was enough. He held his breath. She gazed at her hands.
“If… if it was the Kovnik’s wish,” she said at last.
Yegor slowly released his breath.
“It was,” he affirmed.
“I will inform the other officers,” she said in defeat. She made a motion for the door but he stopped her.
“First, I want you to tell me what you learned from the traitors in the apartment by the gun,” he said quickly. “I am told they have already been interrogated, and time is short.”
She gave him a confused look. “But, if you have already extracted information from your own prisoners, don’t you already know?”
“We know they were planning to assist the Cygnarans in their next attack, but many of them are operating independently,” he said, thinking quickly. “We could not know who yet remains to betray us, or how.”
“Ah. Well,” she began, “several commandos slipped through our wire during the attack and at least one of them took position on the second story. He fired on the artillery round just as the crew loaded it into the breech, and then escaped with one of the residents.”
This last part caught Yegor’s attention more than anything else.
“What? The commandos took a civilian with them?” he asked in surprise.
“Yes,” she said. “If what you say about the rebellion is true, then perhaps she was one of the informants. Presumably she is tattling on us as we speak, telling the Cygnarans all about our defenses,” she grunted.
It would have been a good guess, except the ‘rebellion’ was a complete fabrication. So then why had the commandos taken her? Did they need intelligence on the town? More than likely. In fact, her disappearance meant Yegor would have to modify their defenses as much as possible to foil any intel she could provide. That alone was another problem stacked onto an increasingly impossible situation. It didn’t feel sufficient, though.
He was missing something.
Yegor tried to put himself in the southerners’ shoes, tried to imagine their motivations. His hatred for them made seeing through their eyes very difficult, but he used his finely-honed powers of inquisition to try and understand. He had done it many times before to track informants or expose traitors. He could do it again.
He pictured himself sneaking around the edge of the town, cutting through the wire in the dark and coming upon the heavily-defended siege mortar. He imagined realizing it could not be taken by force and looking for a way to disable it at a distance. He pictured the apartment building in his mind, its perfect vantage point over the loading crew. A single soldier would have been picked, probably their best sniper. Slipping through the town, trying to evade being spotted, entering through the first floor, encountering the family within…
“They assisted the enemy, yes?” Yegor asked her.
“Yes, and they admitted it freely.” She sounded puzzled.
“Of course they did,” Yegor said. “They know they are dead either way, so why anger us with lies?”
Pietra shrugged. “I suppose.”
So the little rats had helped the sniper. He supposed that was to be expected. But surely the Cygnaran would have known simpy by being there he was condemning those villagers to death…
“Pity…” he whispered.
“Sir?” Pietra looked at him, not understanding.
“How old was the woman who was rescued?” he asked.
“I didn’t ask them,” Pietra admitted. “Why does that matter?”
“Come with me,” he said suddenly, whirling back to the door and throwing it open to reveal the officers eavesdropping conspicuously. He strode past them.
“Where are you going?” one of them asked in bewilderment as he stormed by.
“The Forgeseer has been given command of the rest of Nestha and Paitrot kompanies,” Pietra announced as she followed hot on Yegor’s heels.
“What!?” one of the kapitans exclaimed. “How–”
“No questions,” she bit.
The three elderly townspeople sat on their knees before Yegor in the town square, their wrists bound. That was hardly necessary– they looked too feeble to fight back even if they weren’t tied up– but it sent a clear message to the gaggle of onlooking civilians peering through windows and doorways in horror. He was flanked by a unit of Winter Guardsmen who sneered and made lewd jokes in Khadoran at the pitiful traitors. Pietra watched calmly.
“How old is your daughter?” his voice boomed in perfect Llaelese. They remained silent. He crouched down, gently lifting up the old woman’s face. “I can make you talk, if you force me to,” he said softly.
“No,” one of the old men protested. “You don’t need to do that. We’ve told you everything already.” He glanced at Pietra.
“Not everything,” Yegor said, releasing the quivering old lady. He looked at the old man. “I asked you a question, not the Kapitan.” The old man looked up at him and then back down in terror. “What is your name?” he asked.
“L-Louis,” the man answered.
“And who is this, Louis?” Yegor asked, pointing to the old lady.
“My wife,” he said.
“Do you love your wife?”
Louis trembled violently. Tears sprang from his eyes. “Yes. I love my wife.”
She sobbed in reply. They did not look at each other. Out of the corner of his eye Yegor saw several of the people in the windows and doors look away in fear of what was to come.
“Then you should answer my questions, Louis,” Yegor murmured.
“If you are going to kill us,” Louis said, his voice warbling in vibrato, “then please, just do it.”
“Not just yet, Louis.” Yegor clicked his tongue. “You tell me how old your daughter is.”
“She is twenty-four,” Louis answered finally. “She came to us after a decade of trying, long after we’d given up hope.” His pride and defiance momentarily overtook his fear. “Why does that matter?”
“Is your daughter beautiful?” Yegor asked. Louis recoiled.
“Why do you ask me this?” he whispered.
“Just tell me the truth,” Yegor said.
“You cannot hurt her now,” Louis countered. “She is safe with the Cygnarans.”
Yegor nodded in agreement. “Yes, she is. Supposedly.” He rose, glowering down at them. “Your wife, on the other hand, is not. So you need to answer. My. Question.” He extended his hand toward the old woman, eyes flaring brilliantly with arcane energy. She quailed in fear.
“Yes, yes, she is beautiful, very beautiful,” Louis blubbered. Yegor laughed and the light in his eyes faded.
“As I thought,” Yegor chuckled. “So you let the filthy little swan into your home, and he rewarded your hospitality by fleeing with your lovely daughter. How heroic,” he chuckled.
“No!” Louis shouted angrily. “He offered to help one of us, but my wife and brother and I are too old to escape. Yet my daughter… my precious daughter…” he trailed off. His wife let out another gasping sob, wetting the cobblestones with her tears. “I am glad she is with them, now. Away from the likes of you!”
“What does he say, Forgeseer? Does he beg for his life?” one of the Guardsmen jeered.
“Shuttup,” Yegor said calmly. The soldier’s smile vanished.
It couldn’t have been lust. This infiltration had been performed with an extraordinary skill. Special forces. The commando had offered to take one of them to safety, but did not specify who. Surely he must have known only the girl was fast enough, but he did not make the choice for them. That meant he did not want to make the choice. Why?
Guilt. He felt guilty for not being able to save them all. Of course! To the Cygnarans, the Khadoran presence here was a violent, oppressive occupation; they imagined these people had been living under an iron gauntlet for years now, toiling beneath the Red Boot. That was the supposed justification for their entire invasion, after all; ‘liberation.’ And here this commando came face-to-face with the terrible, mistreated townspeople he was meant to be liberating, knowing his actions would get them executed instead. He had tried to absolve himself by risking his life to free one of them. She was not important, and the enemy did not steal her away as a spoil of war. No, she was a burden!
And now she was almost certainly back in the Cygnaran camp, desperately begging them to save her family, because she too must know of their impending execution. The Cygnarans’ pity for these people– and their guilt for not doing more– was their soft spot, their mental weakness. Yegor had always known the Cygnarans would do everything they could to save innocent lives but his hostages made the swans even more vulnerable than he’d expected. He could use that.
A new plan developed, one that might rescue this defense from the jaws of defeat. It would require an epic bluff, masterful deception and a distinctly unorthodox approach, but now that he had wrested control away from Bazarov and Pietra, he was free to make such a maneuver. A cruel smile spread over his face.
How poetic that now he alone could save Irusk’s plan. There was nobody here better suited to such a play.
He turned to Pietra. “Kapitan, tell the crew at the siege mortar to load a round and prepare to fire.” She stared back in stunned silence. He raised his eyebrows. “Was my order unclear?”
“Lord Forgeseer, if we fire again, it will destroy the gun!” she protested.
“I am aware,” he said calmly. “Do I as order.” She hesitated, then saluted.
“As you order,” she answered. Her obedience was confused and reluctant. But it was obedience nonetheless, and in full view of her men. His authority was now secure. “What payload?” she asked numbly.
He thought for a moment. “Load a quake round,” he said at last, “I want to leave an impression.” He smiled at his own joke.