Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 18: Jacob's Gamble

Jacob had thought that facing his father and Anna would be the hard part, and after that, the rest would be - easier. He hadn’t known how much it would hurt to watch family after family pack all their possessions and walk away to the west. Less than a third of Ironwood would remain after the evacuation. That third would not include his father or his brother. Most of Ironwood’s town guard, including its Master at Arms, and nearly all of the Ironwood Trading Company, would ride to Marin. Loggers and farmers who would not leave that land where they were born, stubborn old men and women who refused to change, and teenagers who would risk it all to claim their own land - that was Jacob’s Ironwood.

Jacob had dived immediately into cajoling people to stay. He gathered a team of young clerks to record all the claims of land ownership, trying to remind his neighbors what they were leaving, and recovering the land from those that did. He’d convinced a few to remain, and that was going to be important, as he rebuilt the Ironwood Trading Company. Kaelynn, on the other hand, was deep in conversation with Charlienne, planning out the new shape of the world. Strangely enough, both seemed to think they had gotten the better of Jacob’s deal.

Some things, however, were even more urgent than building his princedom, which was how Jacob found himself knocking gently on on the door of one of the keep’s larger apartments.

“Hello?” a feminine voice called from within.

“It’s me, Jacob. I wanted to talk to you and my brother, before we have to say goodbye.”

The sound of a bolt unfastening echoed through the hallway, and then the door opened to reveal a round face with near-black hair and exhausted, reddened eyes. Liliana wrapped her arms around him, and buried her face in his chest.

Jacob, stunned, placed his hand tentatively around her shoulders. “Shh, it’s alright. It’ll be alright.”

“No, no it’s not,” she replied, sniffling. “It’s really not. Erik and I were going to grow old together, raise our daughter here, and half a dozen other children beside. I was so happy here, did you know that? After the pit of vipers I grew up in, this was a dream come true. And it’s gone.”

Jacob still held her, but coughed lightly. “Your daughter?”

“Oh God, yes,” Liliana half-laughed, and pulled away. “Come on, let me show her to you. But stay quiet, she hasn’t been down for long.”

His sister-in-law deftly skirted the corners to find the nursery. She was still rounded from her pregnancy, but she looked good, healthy. He supposed that meant the delivery had gone well, not at all like the day that took his own mother’s life. Some day, he would marry, he thought, and his own wife would face that. If things had gone just slightly differently, it would have been Anna. He wondered how she would have felt, to see him fighting Sorcerer after Sorcerer, until the day he finally lost. Whitehall would have had him doing that too, eventually.

Liliana, oblivious to his dark reverie, tip-toed softly up to the wooden crib where her daughter lay. The newborn was so tiny, her face scrunched up in sleep, her body swaddled in linen. “She’s beautiful,” Jacob whispered.

“She is,” Liliana replied, not looking up.

Jacob looked around, at the brightly colored tapestries, and at the soft rugs that were laid out, for when the babe began to crawl. There was a small chest, lovingly made, to hold all the cloths a newborn would need. And there was a stoppered pot nearby, filled with all the stained clothing a babe could generate. The room itself smelled like milk and the acid of partially cleaned diapers and lye.

As her features softened with tenderness, Liliana only looked more fatigued, more frightened by the changes to come. Jacob could not help but note that nothing was packed, though Erik had softly insisted that both would leave for Marin. “I’m sorry. I wish you could stay. We would love to have you here.

“This isn’t how it was supposed to go, Jacob,” his sister-in-law whispered. You were supposed to marry Anna, and we were all supposed to be fast friends. Our children were going to grow up playing together, the best of cousins. Even in Marin, we could have done that. I put my heart into Ironwood, though. I’m not sure I have it in me to make that place my own, like I did here.”

“You do,” Jacob said, “If anyone can make Marin a wonder, it’s you. You’re just tired, and you deserve some time to recover. But in a few years, when your children are running around, it will feel like home. It just takes time. I wish I could be there.”

“Why aren’t you, Jacob? Why did it have to be like this. You’re not the only one to lose Anna. She’s never going to forgive you, and I’m never going to see her again, either. Will I even see you?”

“That’s up to you, Liliana,” Jacob sighed. “Margon might not let me visit, but you’re always welcome to come here. You can bring my brother and the kids anytime, and there will always be place for you. You can all come for the Cerelia.

“But I had to do it, or everything here, everything I was brought up to love about what Ironwood is and has done, would be lost, pointlessly. I can’t let that happen. I don’t expect Anna to forgive me. I’ve earned her hatred, but there’s nothing else I could do and live with th choice.”

“You’re a good man, Jacob,” she said, with a sad smile. “I know you’re just trying to do what you think is best. Changes are hard, that’s all. Oh, and thank you for asking me to pray to St Thomas, at his Shield. I think he helped. Eleanor is going to be a blessed child, I can feel it.”

“I’m glad, Jacob replied softly. “You deserve it, both of you.”

Liliana’s smiled revealed deep dimples. “Erik’s with his father, in the Baron’s office. You should talk to them. Goodbye, Jacob. Visit if you can.”

“I will,” the Prince of Ironwood promised. “If I can, I most definitely will.”

“Come in”, the Baron said, and Jacob complied.

The past day had been awkward, to say the least. Jacob had begun the process of creating a new government of Ironwood, in rebellion against the one that was leaving, and yet somehow the affair was peaceful and orderly. He and his father had mostly ignored each other, until now.

Unlike his brother’s apartment, the Baron’s office was almost packed. All the tapestries and curios were in wooden crates, ready to be loaded. The walls were stripped bare, and only his father’s desk and chair remained. In a week, or less, the wagons that had gone to Talyk would return, and be filled to the brim with anything that could be carried, mostly food and construction supplies. The keep of Marin supposedly still stood, and would be filled to the rafters with refugees soon. Construction of makeshift shelters in the middle of the winter would be hard work, to say the least, but it could and would be done so that all would be in order when the Spring planting season began. His father was nothing if not organized.

“It’s good to see you,” Jacob said.

Erik, who had been leaning against the wall, turned to smile. “You too, little brother, though you sure like to stir the pot!

“Congratulations, Erik, on your daughter Eleanor,” Jacob said. “She’s a pearl. I stopped by looking for you, and Liliana was kind enough to introduce us.”

“Yes, thank you,” Erik said, though his face clouded. “I couldn’t be prouder, though I’m worried about Liliana. So far, she hasn’t made a move to pack, and won’t let me, either.”

Jacob shook his head. “She’ll be fine. She just needs a little time. It’s not good for newborns to be jostled about in wagons, anyway. If she needs to stay a little longer, she can, but once she’s said her goodbyes to Ironwood, she’ll leave without regrets. She’s done it before, to join you here.”

“Yes,” Erik replied, a ghost of a smile entering his face. “I just wish she didn’t have to. I know how much she loves it here, but they need me as badly in Marin as Ironwood needs you here. I’m proud of you for staying.”

“Proud?” Jacob replied.

“As am I,” Baron Ironwood added. “You don’t think either of us actually wants to go to Marin, do you? I’ve spent thirty years trying to make Ironwood the Jewel of Annaria. The only thing more important to me is my people. Can you promise me, one hundred percent, that you can keep Ironwood safe from the wars between Sorcerers? Can you keep every one of our people alive in the wars against Travan?”

Jacob shook his head slowly. “No. There are people far more dangerous than me in the world. I’ll give everything I have to give for them, but that’s all I can promise. On the other hand, I’ve been spending enough time with Sorcerers to know there are worse things than death, such as not standing up for what you believe in.”

His father barked a laugh. “Too true. But your brother and I chose Ironwood’s people, and you chose Ironwood’s spirit. We’re both just fighting in the arenas we know. You’ll do well, my sons, both of you.

“What might get tricky is how to split the profits between us for the goods flowing between Margon and the East. I imagine there will be many of them. But while I might be thankful I don’t have to compete with your wagons in Margon, King Whitehill will let you travel to Marin to visit, I promise you that! He’ll need us too much to deny the point. I’ll take as many good and loyal people as I can to Marin, but I do not begrudge my love to you or any who cannot let go of the land where you were born.”

“Thank you, father,” Jacob said, sincerely.

“Don’t worry, son,” his father added. “We’ll make this work. We just need to figure out the details, that’s all. We’ll split the wagons, and the supplies, and we’ll both get through this winter stronger than ever.”

Erik grinned. “Absolutely. And make sure you take care of my room, Jacob. I’ll want it ready for when Liliana and I visit. We Ironwoods have to stick together, east or west.”

Jacob laughed, love and relief filling his soul. “Damn straight, we will.”

Jacob had woken early, before the light of the late autumn sun began to creep across the horizon. Today, it was winter, even if the calendar technically disagreed. He had crunched across the morning frost in search of townsfolk loading wagons, in the hope of convincing them to stay. Some had listened, including Maisa, a hard-nosed gray-haired cook, two of whose daughters had married farmers too stubborn to abandon their homes. He had offered her the stewardship of the keep, and she had been on the edge of acceptance when the news came: Chieftain Dorgann was here, and waiting in the Great Hall with the Queen of the Western Kharshe.

Jacob excused himself as graciously as he could, promising to return for her answer later in the day. Putting together his council was going to be difficult, especially salvaging the Ironwood Trading Company and the Guard. Most of those unwilling to leave Ironwood were those afraid to leave the family farm, or hungry for the chance to own their own land. Jacob was reclaiming the land of those leaving for Marin, and doling it out to those adventurous enough to stay. It had been an effective tactic, but not enough so among the skilled and educated people Jacob needed most. On the bright side, he had convinced two schoolmasters to stay, and they would be worth their weight in gold when it came to training new merchants.

But that was a problem for later. Jacob slowly opened the door to the Great Hall, squinting against the faded light. Queen Kaelynn leaned back in her chair, sipping what looked like a goblet of wine. Chieftain Dorgann tapped his finger absently against the arm of the “throne”. He gave a brief nod at Jacob’s entrance. “Prince Ironwood.”

Jacob walked to the main table, hesitated a moment, then bowed lightly and sat at the Sorcerer’s left. “You called for me, Chieftain?”

“Emperor,” the copper-haired Kharshe warrior across from him corrected, with a smile as beautiful as it was enigmatic. As usual, there was not an unplanned wrinkle in her dress, not a hair out of place. Every line and curve of her was a bold and intentional work of art.

It was Dorgann who continued. “The night after you left, there were enough present who had called themselves Kings and Queens of the Kharshe to select the new title. Our people, for you are one of us now, Prince Jacob, declared that they would prefer to follow an Emperor to a Chieftain. In so doing, in choosing the western address over Khardum’s title, they chose Vallaton over Hell, forsaking the legacy of Khardum, though few even among our people fully realize it. Akhor is pleased. Forgive me, Prince, for not including you in that meeting, but you are still new to the Kharshe.

“How goes the preparation of Ironwood?”

The Queen touched her fingertips to Jacob’s hand, though she addressed the Emperor. “While the Duke of Margon made a persuasive counter-offer, the Prince remained loyal to us, and at least a third of Ironwood are willing to follow him. He’s done well, for a pale westerner.”

“Unsurprising,” the Emperor replied matter-of-factly. “He is a man of honor. Still, the Empire has questions about the status of Ironwood.”

“You Majesty,” Jacob replied, forcing the words through his drying throat. “As the Queen stated, about a third of the town proper intends to remain, though few in the surrounding villages intend to leave for the west. I expect that in a few years, we’ll have enough men and women joining us from those to help Ironwood recover its former size. In the meantime, though, the most skilled and educated are leaving or have already left. I will be sore pressed to re-establish Ironwood’s trading capability, much less the level of craft and manufacture Ironwood has enjoyed. We will have enough food for the winter, it seems, but next Spring will be challenging. It would have been difficult to raise a thousand-man army even if my father had not left; most of the population of the region lies in small villages that are currently untaxed. Changing that and conscripting large numbers of men into an army may prove impossible, especially with so many of the town Guard leaving. Three hundred men I can raise, perhaps much more in a few years, but not by Spring. Too many would rather leave for Marin than fight for Ironwood. That will take some time to change.”

The Emperor crossed his bulky arms. “Unfortunate. However, it must change. These are no longer free villages, but citizens of a great Empire. They must be taught to understand that - swiftly.”

Jacob swallowed at the Queen’s nod, but continued. “It will take another two weeks or so for me to get the new Town Council to be up and running, much less integrate all the villages that dot Annaria east of the Wall. But you have my word to accomplish it, presuming I am here to do so, and not away at war.”

Dorgann’s frown was deep. “We will allow the reduction in conscription, given the circumstances. It would be foolish to destroy our newest province after working so hard to save it. However, you will not have the luxury of remaining here next Spring. You will have to delegate someone to set things in order, in your absence.”

“That may be difficult,” Jacob began, only to fall silent at a knock on the door.

“Come!” Dorgan’s voice boomed, and the echoes reverberated long after he was silent.

“I’m sorry, your Majesties,” Markus apologized from beyond the door, as he cracked it open. “I have word that Count Dorman is approaching the gates with a small force.”

The Emperor leaned forward to stand, a wolfish grin briefly crossing his hard face. “Then it would be rude not to greet him.”

Jacob shivered against the icy breeze as he walked to the city gates. It bit right through his heavy tunic and padding, which made a glacial mass of his armor. The Sorcerers were silent at his side as he paced the streets, passing by empty windows and anxious faces. Father would leave tomorrow, with Duke Charlienne, taking anyone with him who would go, in one great caravan that the Duke would protect. They were cutting the season close: the sky was hazy and overcast, and the wind carried a foretaste of snow. He hoped he would live to see it.

“Lord Jacob,” a voice called out, then gave a brief bow to the two Sorcerers. “I’ve been looking for you. Your Majesties.”

He turned his head to note the tall blond guardsman emerging from the Trade Company offices, and forced a smile of greeting. “It’s not a good time, Thaddeus. Count Dorman waits outside the town, and I go to treat with him. Markus is informing the Duke as we speak.”

His rangy friend fell in beside him. “Then I’m far safer with you than I am alone. I had a few questions about the management of the Company, but they can wait. Thank you again for offering me the caravan eastward.”

“Don’t thank me, friend,” Jacob replied softly, without turning his head. “I need you there. Ceann will be of more use in town, or perhaps in the caravan south. We’ll be stretched thin, in the days to come.

“Your Majesty, do you think we might persuade Dorman to consider traveling south, perhaps to the Free Cities?”

The Emperor’s face was a mask of stony, unreadable planes. “Neither Dorman nor his associate in the Spirit Realms may be trusted. In point of fact, Addarak was cast from the Council of Vallaton for disobedience, though he holds to the Compact still. I give you some leeway, since I count on you to deal with him, but a permanent solution is required. I will not have him free in my territory.”

Jacob swallowed. “If I’m to fight, I’ll need an audience. My sword only works against Sorcerers when enough people believe it will. I don’t know how close they have to be.”

The Emperor nodded, and the ghost of a smile crossed his face. He looked behind, where at least a dozen pairs of peeking eyes watched through windows, to see the royalty pass. They were quite the spectacle, Jacob had to admit. Queen Kaelynn was tall and statuesque, her hair glowing bronze against the pale sky, her cloak of spotless alabaster. Dorgann was taller, and built like an ox, resplendent in royal robes of crimson and purple. Anyone would look, especially the men and women of a small town, who had some idea which great men and women walked their streets. Dorgann’s voice was deep and resonant, carrying to watchers from doors and windows, and beyond. “Be calm, folk of Ironwood. Your Prince goes to confront an alien Sorcerer, in defense of the town. You need not fear, but for you own safety, I advise you not follow too closely.”

Jacob grinned mirthlessly as the whispers began. Yes, that would certainly guarantee a crowd.

Queen Kaelynn was less restrained, grinning outright, gleaming white teeth visible between her parted lips. Did she have any expressions that were not stunning? “I do presume, my young prince, that these folk are aware of how your sword works.”

Jacob glanced at Thaddeus, who blushed as the gaze of the others followed. “Well, yes, my Queen,” the rangy blond answered. “The story’s a bit of a town favorite. I don’t think I’ve bought a drink since I’ve learned it.”

The Queen shook her head in amusement, sending copper waves rolling. “Then you have done us a service, guardsman. Try as one might, the needs of the future are inscrutable.”

“Right now,” Jacob answered quietly, “I think they involve speaking to the Sorcerer ahead, your Highness.”

All eyes followed his, past the front gate. There stood a tall man with nearly black wavy hair, and a slight Balinan cast to his skin, as the western Margons were wont to have. He was wrapped in mauve and gold, though the steel of his armor shone beneath his cloak. His face was thin and harsh, like that of a bird of prey, though it was striking enough to be handsome. His eyes, though, even from a distance, bore an intensity that spoke of pain near to madness. Count Dorman of Timor was not a man to be trifled with. And yet, that was most clearly Jacob’s duty, and so he walked forward, keeping his face as impassive as he could manage until the two men stood face to face. Dozens of yards behind, the hundred or more men who supported him faded into insignificance.

“Count Dorman,” Jacob finally spoke, to those glowing and expectant brown eyes, “it is a pleasure to meet you. I am Prince Jacob of Ironwood, and you stand before the newest addition to the Great Empire of Kharshe.”

The hawkish face twisted in what might be disappointment. “Has Akhor acted so quickly then? You have me at a disadvantage, young man. As you know, I am Dorman, former Count of Timor, before Whitehall’s treachery against the throne and Vallaton. For the moment, I seek only food, lodging, and passage for myself and two hundred of my subjects.”

“You shall not have them,” Emperor Dorgann’s voice boomed from Jacob’s side, in front of the other two. “Vallaton and Margon, allies of the Empire, have cast you from their sight. By their friendship with the Kharshe are you condemned. Seek elsewhere for succor.”

Dorman’s face twisted into anger. “You leave me nowhere to turn, Akhor. Let me south, past your borders, and you will hear from me no more.”

The Emperor barked what might be called a laugh. “After the destruction you’ve wrought in Margon? If you value anything in Torvah, turn around and return, or surrender.”

The Count’s dark eyes flared. “The damage I’ve done? That was only in recompense for the betrayal of Vallaton. Timor was promised to me, and yet you cast me out. Charlienne killed my people - my friends, my wife, and my children when I would not bend my knee. No, I’ll die before I swear to a member of Vallaton, and take all of yours with me!”

“That isn’t necessary,” Jacob spoke with a calm he did not feel. “Is there nowhere in the west that will have you? Emperor, might we help the Count’s people, if he agrees to separate from them and pass back west?”

“You will not take from me the last that I have!” Dorman snarled, though his eyes rested on the Emperor.

This was going badly, very badly, and Dorgann seemed determined to engineer a confrontation. Jacob, of course, could not afford to contradict him. “Your Majesty, might we have a moment?”

Dorgann met his eyes thoughtfully, considering. He seemed on the verge of speech when Jacob heard a sharp hiss, and whipped his eyes around behind, to see Duke Charlienne and his Marshal approaching. Damn.

“No!” the Sorcerer yelled, and Jacob’s mind echoed the word.

The thought hadn’t come quickly enough, though, because Dorman had already drawn his sword and was swinging it towards his head. Lightning reflexes or no, Jacob just wasn’t fast enough, just hadn’t quite accepted that a fight was inevitable - and Dorman moved with a Sorcerer’s speed. The only thing that saved the Prince’s life was a shove from Thaddeus, pushing him out of the way. The enraged Sorcerer’s retaliatory strike was swift, and Thaddeus, struck in the chest, fell. Jacob’s throat caught, but Queen Kaelynn knelt to tend him immediately, and he shoved the incident from his mind.

In that moment, he was the sword he was unsheathing from his side. He was the Shield of St. Thomas that he unlimbered from his back. He was death. Count Dorman was driven back.

Jacob’s fury gave him a speed he didn’t know he had, and he soon out-paced Dorman, if only slightly. He needed the advantage, for if the hawkish figure in front of him was less powerful than Innoken had been, he was a far more competent swordsman, and he recovered quickly.

“Are you a Sorcerer?” Dorman asked, as he blocked, and snaked a counter-attack that just missed Jacob’s arm. “No, you’re that man, the one who killed Innoken. Well, you won’t have me.”

Jacob ducked slightly, then made a stinging counter-attack that cut through Dorman’s bracer, leaving a spray of blood from his forearm that was quickly staunched. The Sorcerer’s eyes widened at the realization that his armor had been pierced, but his grim smile made clear that he was not afraid. “You have no poison that will work on me, Ironwood. Strike me a dozen times and I will recover. Can you say the same?”

Jacob hammered back, only to find Dorman’s large shield between them. Dorman was strong enough to use a kite shield like a buckler. “Why, Dorman? I mean you no harm.”

“You’re a dupe, then,” Dorman coughed, taking a wicked swing at Jacob’s legs, which the younger man barely stumbled away from. “Another servant Vallaton will chew up and spit out. Didn’t they tell you the downside of serving a master for whom conflict is life?”

“I only want to protect my people,” Jacob replied softly, even as he feinted. “To keep them as free and healthy as I can. And restore peace to Annaria. Can real peace happen without trade? Can trade happen without Ironwood? It’s what I have to do.”

“You’re a fool,” Dorman said, swinging at Jacob’s head. The younger man deflected it easily, and connected a wicked chop at the Sorcerer’s thigh. A lesser man would have lost his leg. The Count only staggered for a breath.

However, the wound seemed to take effect, and slowing him down. Jacob pressed the advantage, with a kick followed by a thrust. “I don’t know what’s between you and Vallaton, but the Emperor is honorable. He’ll accept your surrender.”

“Are your ears stuffed with wax?” Dorman hissed, his counter-swing fast enough to deflect off of Jacob’s hand-guard and bruise his arm with the deflecting blade. The strike shook him - he couldn’t afford such mistakes. “I will never swear to a member of Vallaton in this life!”

The Count’s back-swing went wide, however, and Jacob’s reflexes acted without him, striking at the older man’s wrist, hard, dislodging the man’s sword. He stepped forward, putting the tip of his blade to the Sorcerer’s neck. “Swear to me, or die.”

In a flash, the Count pulled a dagger, and sliced Jacob’s hand, laughing. “You first.”

Jacob stumbled backward. The Count lunged forward, thinking to press his advantage, and Jacob dropped his shield, seized the Sorcerer’s wrist, stepped inside his guard, and threw him, as Brother Francis had once showed him.

The Count fell heavily, and Jacob’s dagger was out across his neck. A dagger that, he suddenly realized, could never pierce the man’s skin. Mind racing, Jacob said the only thing he could. “I’m no Sorcerer. Swear to me, not the Emperor. Swear to me, and you and your people can live with honor. We can defend them, and Ironwood. Against the Sorcerers.”

The Count met his eyes and suddenly laughed. It was a belly laugh, loud and full and free, and seemed to drain the madness form his eyes. “Very well, Ironwood. Very well. By Heaven, I swear it, I am yours while you live on Torvah, and while you are true to me and mine.”

“I accept your service with honor and gratitude,” Jacob mouthed.

Then, crucial words spoken, all the air left Jacob’s lungs. It was over.

The world returned slowly, or that’s how it felt: the bent grass, the cold wind, and the muted cheer of a crowd suddenly made its way into his consciousness. He lifted his sword, buckling it absently to his side. Then he remembered that Thaddeus had fallen. As Dorman rose to his feet, Jacob hurried over to his friend’s side. “Thaddeus?”

Queen Kaelynn, still kneeling by the fallen guardsman, shook her her sorrowfully, her eyes and cheeks red. “I’m sorry. I swear I would have preserved him if I had the power.”

Jacob suddenly crumpled to his knees, examining the vacant eyes and still form of his friend. Everything he was, everything he had been, was simply gone. The man who had not wanted to ride east, but who had in the end taken a sword for him, would never return to his wife and children. Jacob wanted to ask if he had Ascended, but he didn’t dare hope. Thaddeus’s spirit would move on, but all of the memories that made his life remained only with his friends and family. Jacob closed his eyes, wanting to weep, but no tears would come. Nothing.

He didn’t know how much time passed before Dorman spoke, but it was not enough. “I am sorry for your friend. I regret - there is much that I would change. The world has enough pain.”

The Prince of Ironwood stood reluctantly. Ceann stood uncomfortably beside him, and Kaelynn with her sympathy. Dorgann, on the other hand, wore an unreadable intensity, a problem for later. “Ceann, would take Lord Dorman to the Greenwood Estate? Its former occupants have ridden westward already; it should suit our new member well. Work with him to see that his men are fed. We can determine any other payment and apportionment later.”

“A moment, Ceann,” Dorgann spoke, in a voice resonant with power, and curiously absent of emotion. “Dorman has waited weeks for a home - he can wait a little longer. Walk with Jacob and I, please.”

The Emperor turned back toward the city gates, great crimson cape billowing behind. He did not wait to see if the others would follow, and so Jacob silently lengthened his stride to reach his Emperor’s side, waiting to be addressed.

“Prince Jacob,” the Emperor asked, after a moment, “did you consider that the Council of Vallaton discarded Addarak for a reason? What possessed you to take him into a service he had already forsaken?”

“I suppose I did not want to kill him, your Majesty,” Jacob admitted. “Doing so unnecessarily seemed dishonorable, and a terrible waste besides. We’ll need every Sorcerer we can get to defend the Empire. After the chance you gave me, it would be difficult not to extend it, and you gave me the authority to handle the problem myself. This seemed the most appropriate way to me, your Majesty.”

“Did allowing a Sorcerer to swear to you rather than me seem appropriate?” the Emperor asked conversationally. “Or offering to fight with him against ‘the Sorcerers’?”

Jacob winced. “Your Majesty, when I made that offer, I no longer had my sword in hand. Lord Dorman was unaware that I lacked the ability to kill him, but at that point his surrender was my only chance to survive.”

“Is that not a natural consequence of your overabundant mercy?” the Emperor pressed. “Desperation often lays truths bare that comfort leaves hidden. I will not have a Prince of the Empire whom I cannot trust.”

“I understand, your Majesty,” Jacob offered softly.

“I think not,” the Emperor replied. “You have a gaol within your keep, do you not? Take us there.”

“Of course,” Jacob replied, leading the silent pair past the guards, along the hall, and down a twisting stone stair. The stone below was musty, and dusted with cobwebs and moss. It was unoccupied, and currently dark. He began to fumble for flint, to light the torches near the steps. Instead, the Emperor merely touched them, and they sprang into flame.

“Show me the cell in the far left corner,” Dorgann instructed mildly, and Jacob was forced to comply.

“Remove his coat, shirt, and sidearm,” the Emperor told the clearly uncomfortable redhead, “and chain Prince Jacob to the wall, so that he faces it.”

The Prince shivered, closing his eyes in mental anguish, as Ceann complied.

Emperor Dorgann lifted his own weapon, as Jacob squinted over his shoulder to see, and before his eyes it shifted into a whip, one tangled with barbs and thorns. This was - this couldn’t be happening. “Your Majesty?”

“Guardsman, administer ten solid lashes. Any that displease me will be repeated. Then you may return his coat. You may feed him and offer water, but do not speak to him.

“Jacob, in three days, I will hear your apology, and decide whether to let you keep your station. Make it a good one.”

There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by a drop of water from above and the soft squealing of disturbed rates. “Ceann, you will of course speak to no one of what happens here. Now, begin.”

The sound of the whip rising and falling for the first time cut rivers into his soul. The pain was excruciating.

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