Barda and Jaxon walked from the weapons range to the palace, laughing.
“No no,” she said, “you are definitely getting better. You can actually hit the target two times out of ten now. With more practice, you may even be able to hit an actual person, provided they stand perfectly still just a few inches away from you.”
Jaxon feigned a hurt expression.
“Aww,” Barda teased. “I’m kidding. You honestly are making a great deal of progress.”
“Thank you,” Jaxon said. “In light of your kind admission, I will defer your flogging for now.”
“Your Highness is just and fair,” Barda laughed, offering a brief curtsey. She hooked an arm through his and leaned against him as they walked.
Jaxon felt his heart beat about a hundred times faster. His face was suddenly hot, and his palms sweaty. “Uhmm...” he said. “Listen, Barda, I was wondering...”
At that moment, a page came running up to them. “Your Highness!” he panted, breathless. “Please come quickly! Sir Jorrus has need of you!”
Jaxon broke into a run. He had been on his way to the throne room as it was, where he and the castellan were to hear petitions from the citizens, noble and common alike. Sir Jorrus knew he had target practice that morning, and that he would be along afterward, so for him to send for the Prince suggested great urgency. He found the old castellan in the throne room, naked steel in his hand.
“Prince Jaxon!” he cried. “Thank all the gods. And Barda, too. Good,” he nodded to her.
“What’s going on?” Jaxon asked. “And where are the guards?”
“Every available guard is rushing to support the main gate,” Sir Jorrus said. “We’re under attack!”
“By whom?” Barda asked. “Queen Jennix? Did she...?” A horrible thought entered her mind.
Sir Jorrus shook his head. “No, this is our own people,” he said. “It’s a sea of farmers, tradesfolk, beggars and thieves, even the nobles of lesser houses are out there, screaming for blood.”
“What?” Jaxon was startled. “That’s absurd. Whose blood? Let me go out there and speak with them. They respect me. I--”
“That’s just it, Your Highness,” Sir Jorrus said. “It’s your blood they’re screaming for.”
“No time to puzzle that out,” Sir Jorrus said. “I want you and Ms. Edison to leave via the kitchens. Take the special bags your fathers keep packed there, and use the tunnel.”
“Sir Jorrus,” Jaxon was clearly overwhelmed. “You...”
“Someone’s got to give you time to get away, lad.”
“But, my strength,” Jaxon protested. “I can’t be hurt. I should remain, and you should get Barda to safety.”
“Aye, you’re strong,” Sir Jorrus conceded, “and it seems nothing can hurt you, but those people want you dead. There’s no talking to them, and there’s no capturing them. They mean to kill you or die trying. Do you mean to kill all of them?”
Sir Jorrus smiled. It was a tired, sad smile. “That’s not a weight I want even your strong shoulders to bear, son. Get the girl to safety. I can do what needs doing.”
A guard staggered into the throne room, blood pouring from his head. “They’ve breached the gate!” he yelled, before falling to the floor.
“Go!” Sir Jorrus shouted, pushing them toward the rear exit of the throne room. “Now!”
The next minutes were a blur. Barda hardly remembered running to the kitchens. Jaxon had turned aside to his own room, and he arrived shortly after she did, wearing his new mail jacket, his sword and gun belted around his waist, two large packs hoisted over his shoulders. Otherwise, the kitchens were empty, the staff having already evacuated.
“Come on,” Jaxon said, pulling on a heavily laden shelf. It swung aside, revealing a dark stair leading deep under the palace. “This leads under the grounds of the estate, and will let us out in the woods, far from the road.” The sounds of battle came down the hall, along with a loud roar, followed by screams. “Sir Jorrus,” Jaxon said.
“Buying us time,” Barda whispered.
“Then let’s not waste it,” Jaxon said. “Go.”
He and Barda entered the stairwell, and Jaxon pulled back the shelf with its hidden door. Once closed, he made sure to latch and bolt it from the inside. Even if found, it would be near impossible to open. The stairwell was cool, musty, and pitch dark.
“I have light,” Jaxon whispered. “Somewhere in my pack...”
“No need,” Barda said. “I can see just fine. I will guide us.” Indeed, when Jaxon looked at her, he saw that her eyes glowed green in the dark, like a cat. He was struck then by the fact that she wasn’t entirely human. Of course, given his own gifts, it was possible he wasn’t either.
“Tell me when we reach forks or branches in the tunnel,” Jaxon said, and she took his hand. Even now, amid all this danger and madness, he felt a thrill at the touch. His voice shook, though not from fear. “I-I know which paths to take.”
Barda nodded, though Jaxon could not see her, and led them down the steep and narrow stairs.
Queen Jennix stood in her private office, looking down at a large map of the five Southern Kingdoms. She was still dressed in her traveling clothes, a plate of dried fruit, boiled eggs, and cheese sat half-eaten at one corner of the map, and she sipped at a glass of wine. She had only just arrived back from the coronation, well ahead of the army she knew must be hot on her heels. Xana, the Royal Vizier, entered the room then, in the company of Jennix’s top military commander.
“General Romana,” Jennix said, “Xana. Thank you for coming.”
“We live and die by your commands, Majesty,” Xana said with a sweeping bow. “It brings your servant joy beyond measure to see the Light of Heaven returned to us.”
General Romana was less effusive, offering a crisp salute. “Majesty. Welcome home,” she said.
Jennix returned the salute with a curt nod. “Report, General.”
“As you predicted, Majesty,” Romana said, “the Kingdoms of Valens and Pash have joined forces against us.” She pointed to a spot on the map, within the territory of Valens, close to the border with Yad Haddom. “I anticipate they will cross our border within three days’ time.”
“Are Avalon and Vale with them?”
“They are, Majesty.”
“And have we managed to secure their families?”
“Apologies, Your Majesty, we have not,” Xana reported. “They prove... elusive.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Jennix nibbled a bit of the dried fruit. “The threat served its purpose.” She popped the last of the boiled eggs in her mouth, washing it down with wine. “Who leads the army?” she asked.
“The Kings of Pash, Majesty,” Romana said.
“Hm,” Jennix mused over the map. “Both the Pashan Kings, yet the Queen of Valens remains home. Why is that?”
Xana spoke up then. “My spies report, Your Majesty, that Queen Theora is ill.”
“The Secret Sickness, Majesty.”
“Truly?” Jennix looked up from the map a moment, a look of pity on her face. She looked back down at the map, her fingers tracing the borders of Valens. “Unfortunate, and lamentable. I had so hoped to meet the legendary slayer of Count Astrio in the field, and I would not wish the Secret Sickness on even my worst enemy.”
“The Light of Heaven is kind, even to her enemies,” Xana said with a bow.
Jennix laughed. “I would not go that far,” she said. To her general, she said, “General Romana, summon the bulk of your host to the border, leaving a small garrison behind in the new provinces. I will also need a squad of your finest soldiers. If both kings ride against me, that means Pash has naught but an untried boy on the throne, with a token force defending him. I can not pass up such an opportunity.”
General Romana cleared her throat uncomfortably. Xana shifted her feet.
“What?” Jennix eyed them both warily.
Xana bowed, spreading her hands wide. “Light of Heaven...”
“Let us skip the courtesies and titles, Xana, and come to the point,” Jennix said, with no small amount of irritation.
While Xana stumbled over her words, General Romana stepped forward. “The point is, Majesty, that there have been certain... complications.”
“Complications?” Jennix raised an eyebrow. “Do you mince your words now as well, General? I warn you, I have room for only one long-winded courtier among my councilors.”
The general flushed red. “Jax Edison,” she said. “She is the first complication.”
“What of her?”
“She rides with the kings,” Romana said, “and they have granted her the title of Sorceress Royale.”
Jennix laughed. “Sorceress Royale? They’ve revived that old sobriquet?”
“There has not been a Sorceress or Sorceror Royale since the end of the Clerical Wars,” Romana said. “Reviving the title has emboldened their soldiers, and will likely give our own cause to fear.”
“Please,” Jennix waved her hand dismissively. “I have seen her, and you can believe me when I tell you that her legend is overblown. Call her what you will: Sorceress Royale, Alchemist, even the Indovinare reborn. All I saw was a woman well past her prime, grey-haired and sagging, and clearly out of her depth.”
Xana smiled and bowed. “The Light of Heaven is wise,” she said. “It is as you say.”
“Is that all?” Jennix asked. “Or do you have something other than a tired old woman with a used up bag of tricks?”
General Romana stood stiffly at attention. “The new provinces, Your Majesty,” she said. “They are not as pacified as we’d hoped.”
Jennix glared at her. “You assured me the occupation was ahead of schedule,” she growled. “You told me the people were tired, broken, and grateful for all we’d done. I quote: ‘The former Kingdoms of Otham and Byzan are yours, Majesty. Docile provinces in all but name’.” She flung her wine glass against the wall and the plate of food at the general, who did not move when it struck her face. “I made my play with the noble houses and those idiot northern Kingdoms because you promised me Otham and Byzan were mine!”
General Romana nodded, seemingly heedless of the cheese mashed into her hair. “My apologies, Majesty, I...”
“I don’t need your apologies, General!” Jennix screamed. “I need those provinces, and I need them pacified! I cannot face an invasion from the north if the south is rising against me!”
Xana stepped forward. “You are Mistress of War,” she said in soothing tones, “and of course your wisdom is paramount in all things. But if your humble servant might speak...”
Jennix rounded on her, fury blazing in her eyes. “For gods’ sake, Xana, if you have something to say, just say it!”
Xana nodded. “All that the general told you was true when it was reported,” she said. “However, shortly after your arrival at the coronation...” she looked over at the general.
“We began to receive reports of mass uprisings, all throughout lands we thought completely pacified. They overran garrisons, killed soldiers and those we’d sent to rule in your name... they were mad, Your Majesty, screaming some rubbish about how you planned to geld all the men of Otham and Byzan, so you might breed our men with their women. They could not be reasoned with, they could not be intimidated. Eventually, the garrisons had no choice but wholesale slaughter. This, of course, has made the situation much worse.”
“What?” Jennix shook her head, as though trying to dislodge the errant notion. “Geld their men? Breed their women? That’s...” she thought a moment. “That’s not a bad idea, actually. Breed them out, and breed us in.”
“Are any former soldiers part of these mobs?”
“No, Majesty,” General Romana said. “What remained of the armies of Byzan and Otham have been reorganized into auxiliary units within our own forces.”
“Do any of these auxiliaries serve in the provinces?”
General Romana shook her head. “Not anymore, Majesty. Once this started, I had them transferred to our local garrisons.”
“Good,” Queen Jennix said, her composure returning. “Very good.” She looked at her general and smiled ruefully. “Forgive me, General,” she said. “I believe my lunch has ruined your uniform.”
“Think nothing of it, Majesty.”
“No,” Jennix said, still smiling. “It was uncalled for, to treat you so. Please,” she offered, “my private bathing chambers are yours. Wash yourself, and I’ll see to the cleaning of your uniform.”
General Romana nodded. “Your Majesty is kind.”
“Not always,” Jennix said. “I do hope you can forgive me. I’m afraid my temper...”
“Nothing to forgive, Majesty,” the general said.
“As you say. Still,” Jennix plucked a bit of cheese and a piece of dried fruit from her commander’s lapel, “you reacted swiftly and brilliantly to this new... complication. I thank you for it.”
General Romana nodded. “Majesty.”
“Once you’re all cleaned up, I want you to move half of your forces, including the bulk of the provincial auxiliaries, to the front against the approaching army. The remainder of your troops not committed to our towns and cities will be sent to pacify the new provinces again. Make sure no auxiliaries are included.” She shrugged. “Athos and Tyron’s little princeling will have to wait. I’ve no soldiers to spare for him now.” She smiled. “But let us show this mob that I hear their concerns and I admire their creativity. Breed them out, indeed.” She returned to her map. “Kill them all if you must, General,” she said, “though try to capture as many as you can.”
“What should I do with the captives, Majesty?”
“Crucify them,” she said, “publicly.” A wicked smile played across her face. “But castrate the men first.”