Kale turned the rusted piece of metal over in his hands. He sat down, without much ceremony, and rubbed some of the rust away. It could hardly be called metal anymore. Judging from the width, it was probably all that was left of a great long sword, too massive for even the most gigantic of men to wield comfortably. Hokati steel, it was made in an age when swords were made to last the life of their masters—and for masters who thought they were immortal. That the steel had outlived them all spoke of both their craftsmanship and arrogance. It had sat exposed to the extreme sun and wind of the desert while the last of those who forged such swords were hunted down and slaughtered. Any other sword would have been reduced to dust centuries ago. Somewhere in the past, somewhere in this same Waste, the demon inside of him had held a sword just like it.
He turned the blade so that what was left of the edge rested against his palm, pushed down, and drew the metal down until he saw his own blood slip over the rust. Even now, if he shut his eyes, he saw Hokati blood watering the sands before him, remembered its scent. He felt the demon's surge of grief, felt the guilt of being the last survivor of a long dead race, and suppressed it. He was sitting, fully exposed, not two hundred yards from the nearest line of enemy archers. Getting distracted by it's suicidal feelings right now would very likely prove fatal for them both. "Not now…" he whispered to the demon lurking in his mind. "Makes me wonder why we're bothering at all, if you're so eager to join the dead. The only thing this place has ever held is blood and sand. I'd rather it not become my tomb."
Without bothering to wipe away a small tear he hadn't meant to shed, he tossed what was left of the Hokati sword into the sand and stared up at the tent set up in the no man's land between the walls of Ro'don and the three armies that surrounded them.
Young boys dressed in bright colors were holding the lines of the pavilions tight, to keep the damn thing from blowing over in the wind. They didn't look any older than Kale. And from the way the pavilion lines swayed, he could tell they were getting tired. When the wind picked up, they were in for one hell of a time.
The envoys had been negotiating for over ten hours. Occasionally, one would pop out of one of the tents, move to one of the army encampments, and then hurry back again. His captain had come out once, whispered a few quick things to his lieutenant, and then disappeared again. The lieutenant met Kale's eyes, turned the automatic salute into an awkward wave, and then called up for two of the Order's Enforcers to be lowered down. It took nearly twenty minutes for the prisoners to be released, and Kale wasn't surprised to find that the two Enforcers the Order thought were truly worth negotiating for were the only two out of all of their prisoners who had always been quiet and respectful. They looked a bit worse now than when they had been taken prisoner, but they weren't hurt. They were pale and unshaven, but not mistreated. Kale had made damn sure of that.
The lieutenant stepped aside and motioned for them to go in front of him, then ushered them into the tent. An Order Enforcer soon ushered then out again, and taken away to the largest of the board armies. Afterwards, the lieutenant wandered towards the gate and made a show of lounging in the shade. When his lounging had inched him far enough along the wall that he was a few yards from Kale, Kale tossed him a water skin.
"Thanks," the lieutenant caught it easily. After taking six long drinks, he tossed it back with an appreciative smile. "The Order is still holding things up," the lieutenant reported. "Monchol and Tirak were ready to accept our terms in exchange for a favorable trade agreement, but the Order refuses to give up control of the city. And they're still bitching about the value of their lost property. Tirak is asking to meet with you personally. They don't believe the captain is in charge. They've convinced the others, over the last few days."
Kale snorted. He'd ordered his captain to ignore any mention of their people as property, but ignoring it didn't seem to be working. The Order wanted to be back control of Ro'don and they wanted the fair market value of every man, woman, and child who had been in Ro'don at the start of the war. All Kale wanted was to get was enough food for every man, woman, and child in Ro'don to live through the winter without enslaving them all again. Kale would even settle for being able to take them all out of the city as refugees. He's be perfectly happy to let the Order pillage the tombs and mines all they wanted.
But the Order had made it quite clear that they resented even being forced into negotiations with the slaves of Ro'don.
"What does it matter who they're negotiating with?" he mused out loud. "It's not like they've sent their kings and generals to negotiate with us, so I don't see why we shouldn't take our cues from them."
"The Order's sent two Lord Enforcers today, and two members of their Elder Council. Monchol's emissary is one of their royal family. And one of the Tirak knights who keeps asking for you… When the Tirak ambassadors talk to him in Tirth, they call him Lord Rastalin."
Kale froze. Rastalin was the family name of the Emperor of Tirak. As far as Kale knew, there was only one member of the Rastalin family left. The fifteen year war between the Rastalins and the old kings was said to have started when King Parnell of Visari sent a dozen assassins to kill every member of the Rastalin family, because he believed they had betrayed him. The assassins missed a single son. That single son had gone on to conquer the cities of Tirak and annihilate the old kings. Even Kale was hesitant to piss Theodrick Rastalin off. "Well, fuck. How was he introduced?"
"He wasn't introduced at all."
"Do they know you understand Tirth?"
The lieutenant snorted this time.
"Obviously, if it was Rastalin, the others would know. And if they didn't feel like being honest with us, my decision remains unchanged. From what you've heard," Kale asked carefully, "Do you think they know the storm is coming?"
The Lieutenant's sneer was all the answer Kale needed.
"Tell your captain to carry on as ordered, then. The Order will not be compensated for their crimes against us—unless we repay them in kind, of course."
The lieutenant nodded and strolled back to his post.
Kale scratched a few numbers in the sand, triple checking the figures once again. He had cut rations in half over the course of the last month, but it wasn't going to change the figures in the sand. Even if they could wipe out each of the enemies before their gates, they'd all be forced to go hungry within three weeks, either way. Three weeks after that… Kale didn't want to imagine what would happen to Ro'don when his people got hungry enough to look around and realize that the only things to eat were the insects in the mines and one another.
So long as no one else knew how close they were to starving to death, it might not actually happen. And so far, no one else knew. Of all the people in the world, only Ari Chime understood. And Ari Chime had spoken less and less in recent years, receding back into the darkness of Kale's mind.
Not that the demon's advice would have made any difference, of course.
Kale would have made the same decision, with or without Chime's help. But still, it'd be nice to have someone who could see the way things had to go. Someone who wouldn't think he was just giving in.
"You look bored..."
Kale's adrenaline spiked and his heart started beating fast. He didn't look up, but unfocused his vision to take in as much of his full field of vision as possible. He forced himself to breath slowly. He didn't recognize the voice, but the accent was Western. How the hell had a Westerner made it past his archers? And passed his own peripheral vision to effectively sneak up on him? What the hell were the men on the top of the gate doing?
He shrugged in a way that he hoped didn't looked dramatic. "It's been a boring day."
"Probably the most memorable day in history," the stranger mused, "But I suppose out here there doesn't seem to be anything special about it."
Kale pulled his feet under him, shifted his weight to the balls of his feet so he could roll away or sprint if need be. "They say everything's a matter of perspective... Every 'most important day in history' is usually summed up in a few sentences once history is actually recorded. For those who record them, they're probably fascinating. For those who live through such days, dusk doesn't come any faster than normal." Kale shifted his head into the shade to get a decent glimpse of the westerner. He was tall, with darker skin than most and black hair that spoke of the desert. His eyes were that bright shade of blue that only a few human families had ever passed down to their descendants, a blue that evidenced their Hokati ancestry. Kale's breath caught at the sight of that incredible color.
The stranger had approached the gate unarmed, unarmored, and with both of his hands outstretched in a gesture of peace.
That was how he had managed to get so close. Kale had given explicit orders to the guards on the wall when their watch began, and those orders included not shooting any of the foreign emissaries unless they were armed and obviously belligerent. They were trying to reach a peace accord, after all.
But he was Ari Kale the Demon Child. It was supposed to be just as impossible to catch him off guard as it was to defeat him in battle. Ari Kale the Demon Child, caught unaware by the enemy because he was doodling in the sand—that was going to go over really well.
The stranger's lips turned up ever so slightly at the corners as he stared down at Kale. Too late, Kale realized he was blushing. Blushing and still staring at those damn blue eyes.
Kale cast his eyes towards the horizon behind the man, feeling foolish but unwilling to lower his guard by letting the man out of his peripheral vision. "The day is going to get a bit more interesting, before long." Kale nodded behind the man.
The man turned and looked around, then looked back down at Kale curiously. "The clouds?"
"Means the wind is shifting. When the winds shift back and forth, things get very interesting. As soon as the sun begins to set, the temperature drops fast. If the wind is moving just right, the cold air makes it whip down from the mountains, driving the sand ahead of it. Then, when the light starts to fade it'll catch the dust hanging in the sky and the entire horizon will glow. Every other part of the desert you don't get it, because you just have normal sand. Here, though, the demon-fire scorched the sand and turned the top to glass. The Gods of the Covenant who marched against them struck with such fierce attacks that they shattered it again." He held up a handful of the tiny crystals, and turned them so they caught the light. "The storms have happened at least once a year since then for two thousand years. As if the last battle was so horrible that even the land itself still pays homage to the carnage. Compared to that day, whatever is happening inside that tent is about as exciting as hauling water. Perspective, hm?"
"Well, I've found quiet the poet. The Hokati Sky," the stranger looked amused. "I've always wanted to see it."
"You'll get your chance." Kale stood up and dusted himself off. "It's beautiful at dawn. And it will definitely make the day a bit less boring."
Without the sun in his eyes he could see the stranger clearly. He wore the crest of the Moncholian royal family, and was, in a way that most westerners would never appreciate, handsome. He was skinny, with the awkwardly long limbs of a teenager, but his sharp, angled features made him look older. And in the center of those sharp features, eyes like sapphires smiled at Kale with a hypnotic charm. The stranger glanced down at the numbers scrawled at Kale's feet.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you." He stepped around Kale so he could see the numbers the right way up. "What are you trying to work out?"
Kale shrugged. "Nothing. The Commander said we all have to know how to do figures, and read and such, so I was practicing."
The stranger pointed out the digits with his finger. "Looks like it doesn't add up. I hope that's alright."
"It has to be. There's no way to make it into a positive sum. Believe me, I have tried," Kale admitted. He kicked the sand ruefully. "Don't suppose you know what's going on in the tents?"
"No idea. We haven't gotten even a rumor of news. I actually was hoping you might have heard more than we have. I promise you, we all want this to end so badly we're ready to slaughter the Order ourselves, but well, none of us are in charge or we'd be in there sorting it out."
Kale shrugged. "I don't have a clue. I think they're still arguing over possession of Ro'don."
The man rolled his eyes. "I can't believe they're being so stupid! I don't mind telling you, if we don't get our men back to Monchol within the next four weeks, we're in for a very, very hard winter. And there's not even going to be grain to buy because your Commander salted the plains of Visari when he took Tirak'don. The Order's going to starve us all just to satisfy their fucking pride."
Kale stopped himself from nodding. This was a con. It had to be. This man was echoing back things he thought would put Kale at ease, trying to get Kale to open up, to let his guard down. Kale took a cautions half-step backwards, dropping into a wide-legged stance with the movement.
The stranger didn't seem to notice.
"Anyway, my men and I were just about to have lunch, and since you've been sitting over here all morning, I figured you must be hungry, so... Well, if you'd like, you're welcome to join us. We might get some news, too."
Kale resisted the urge to fold his arms. Instead he kept his hands ready and stared at him. "You can't be serious."
"Because I'm from Ro'dan. You're from Monchol. Look," he giggled a little too girlishly. He coughed and forced his voice a half-octave deeper. "I don't know anything about the war. I run errands, I carry water, and I occasionally burry bodies. I don't know what you imagine I might be able to tell you. And, in case you didn't notice, we're standing on what is likely to become a battle field when the negotiations inside that tent break down."
The stranger physically drew back, holding up both of his hands in a gesture of peace. "I just thought you might be hungry. I don't really need information. The way I see it your Commander can't last much longer if our supply lines hold. From the Order's records, I'd say there can't be enough food in the city to last more than two months at the moment, and that's an optimistic guess. And there's nowhere else to get it except from Anari. Since we've blockaded every trade route south, that's impossible. He has to settle this and he knows it, otherwise we wouldn't even be negotiating. It's just a matter of time before it's over. Now we've got some dried elk and some really, really bad wine. But it's up to you." He stared at Kale for a moment, then smiled and held out his hand. "What's your name?"
Kale's mind reeled. How had he not imagined that the Order would have maintained records of their stores outside of Ro'don? Two months of food might have been possible, if Kale had just gotten over his own fucking issues and ordered his men not to bother taking prisoners. As if was, they were feeding hundreds of prisoners on top of their own people. But to kill men who were unarmed, who were begging for mercy… That would cross the line between the tides of war and murder.
Now, thanks to his own weakness—his own pathetic hope that holding on to that basic distinction between right and wrong might keep some small part of him human—their enemy knew just how vulnerable they were.
"Come on! It's good food, and I promise I shall provide polite company." He reached for Kale's hand but stopped when Kale pulled it from his grasp. He grabbed Kale's wrist and turned his hand over, examining the cut on his palm. "This looks deep. And dirty. What happened?"
"It's just a cut." He tried to pull his hand free, but then gave up. This wasn't the type of situation where making a scene would solve anything. He caught the way the shadows of the men on the wall shifted. He saw the shadow of two drawn bows. Kale held up his right hand in a silent signal for the archers to wait.
"What did you do, try to grab a sword blade with your bare hand? Not the brightest kid, hm?"
"The Order knows? How little food there is left?"
"Oh yes. It was their own records that they sited, to argue that there was no point in allowing this parley. My own Lord guessed something similar. Tirak's generals haven't quite realized it's possible to count past eleven without taking their boots off, so I doubt they have a clue. They're just brutes obsessed with battle, to be honest."
"Eleven?" As the man's smirk grew, Kale realized what he meant. If he were alone, he'd have smacked himself in the forehead. "I like Tirak," Kale found himself insisting. "I've never seen any swordsmen who can compare to theirs. Except the Commander of the Legions."
"Yes, they can fight," the stranger admitted. "But that's all they do. Your Commander, at least, I credit with basic intelligence. The fact that he has trained and educated a hundred thousand half-starved slaves speaks to that. Here, let me clean and bandage this for you, either way."
The Moncholian shrugged. "I am a healer," he said simply. "It's what I do."
"But I am your enemy!"
"And those Enforcers that were just released were your enemies, but that didn't stop your Commander from treating their wounds and feeding them, did it?"
"They were prisoners. A prisoner in custody is different."
The stranger eyed Kale carefully. "You're not an Enforcer, too, are you? That's the kind of thing they would say."
"How dare you? I am not one of those—"
"Alright, alright, I was just asking. I'm going to reach for a flask and a clean cloth," he said flatly. Then he reached behind him and pulled out both items. "Give me your hand."
Kale widened his stance, braced himself, and held out his hand. The Moncholian stepped closer and stroked his fingers over the skin on Kale's palm, flicking away the sand and specks of rust that clung to the cut.
The Moncholian was a good six inches taller than Kale, and standing this close, the difference made Kale squirm. He finished dusting off the sand and took Kale's wrist firmly in his grasp. He stared at Kale until Kale met that ice blue gaze again. He held the open flask over the cut on Kale's hand. "This is going to hurt," he tried to smile, "But it'll clean the wound. You ready?" He tilted the flask.
It hurt a lot. Kale kept smiling. If he did anything else, if he even jerked a muscle, the men on the wall would fire.
"There now," the Moncholian closed the flask and returned it to a pocket, then dabbed at the cut with a clean cloth. He draped the bloody, alcohol-soaked cloth over his arm and began to wrap a clean bandage around Kale's hand with a practiced ease. He tied it off quickly, and then rubbed his fingers over the bandage to smooth out the creases. His fingers ran over the skin on Kale's wrist.
Kale swallowed hard at the contact. He knew he was blushing like an idiot, but with arrows knocked and drawn above them, he didn't dare turn away.
"You're blushing. Am I making you uncomfortable, or do you enjoy the company of other men?"
"What? That's not something you just come out and ask."
"Is that a no?"
Kale swallowed hard. "Why would you care?"
"Because you're beautiful. Is your hair like that because of the sun?" the Moncholian asked, not letting go of him.
"My hair? What about it?"
"The color. Is it sun bleached, or were you born that way?"
Kale gaped at him. "What?"
"I've just never seen silver hair on someone so young before. I thought it might be blond until I saw it up close. It really is silver. It's striking."
"You should go," Kale said immediately. He used his other hand to remove the Moncholian's fingers from his wrist. Those blue eyes seemed to darken when he pushed the other man's hand away.
"But you haven't told me your name yet," the Moncholian insisted.
"Are you suicidal?" Kale barked out a harsh laugh. "You came away from your lines to ask about my hair? Do you have any idea how many arrows are pointed at you right now? How many soldiers as mustering inside that gate right there, ready to storm out and kill you?"
"If those archers were going to shoot me, I figured they would have done it already," the Moncholian said with a level grin. "I didn't know about the men behind the gate, though."
"Please go," Kale whispered urgently.
"Not until you tell me your name," he repeated.
To Kale's shock, it was the Moncholian who blushed this time. "I told you, you're beautiful."
"I'm your enemy."
"Will you be out here again tomorrow?"
"Even my best archers can only hold a drawn bow for so long! I do not want them to shoot you. Please go."
The Moncholian's eyes shinned as he stepped back several feet, making sure that his hands were out and visibly empty.
"Thanks for the bandage!" Kale called out. He turned to head back to the wall, but stopped. He spun on his heel to see the Moncholian turn away, back towards the rows of archers and pike men.
"Wait!" Kale called after him. The Moncholian stopped and smiled back at him.
"The storm will slaughter you, if you're not ready. Tell your men not to run when the winds come. A quarter of your men will be trampled by the rest if they don't know what's coming. And those still standing are likely to get killed by the sand itself. It cuts into your skin like knives. Your men should lie down and cover their heads with a heavy blanket. Get your horses down when the winds come up, and cover their heads too. And cover your water with hides or steel. Layer your shields if you have to and pack mud between them as a seal if you can."
The Moncholian stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. "How long, do you think?"
"Two hours, maybe less."
"Right," the Moncholian gave him a curt, half-nod. Then he was gone.
Kale watched him until he disappeared among the Monchol front line. Along the walls, drawn bows were relaxed. Kale noticed one of the shadows moving over the others. He heard the smack of a rope against the sandstone behind him.
"Commander?" a cautious voice called out behind him.
The voice belonged to the captain of the Second Legion. He was a few years older than Kale, and he was one of the few men Kale counted as a friend. Unfortunately, Kale shouldn't have made the mistake of thinking that friendship and a tendency to understand tactics in an abstract sense would make him a capable Captain. Kale had placed Brock in command of the Second Legion nearly two years ago, and he still had to double check his decisions and training regimes.
"We're in trouble," said Kale as Brock came to stand beside him.
"When aren't we in trouble?"
Kale was going to protest, but had to nod in agreement. "Monchol, at least, knows we've got no choice but to surrender… We have to assume the others know, too." He turned to the tall boy who had proven so capable over the last eight years. "We need to end this—tonight."
"With a storm coming?" Brock looked horrified. "I'm not too keen on open battle while I'm getting my skin ripped off."
"I meant after the storm. We'll hit them as they're still recovering. Have the First and Second Legions assemble before the winds die, we'll take them out in the darkness, before the sand settles at dawn. They're to dress in black, everything that shines is to be covered. I don't want to see them standing in line until I walk into them."
"Weapons?" Brock asked in a whisper.
"Small units, knife work. We'll hit the Order and their Joss allies first, we take out officers, nobles, and any idiot in stupid toy armor or with those fucking plumes in their helmets. We don't want to raise the alarm until we can't help it, and I don't want anyone straying into the other two camps. We leave Tirak and Monchol untouched, regroup with the others at dawn and give them a chance to surrender."
"But as soon as they get wind of the attack, they'll have us in a pincer movement within minutes."
"Yes. That's why the first news of the attack they have will be seeing our handy work at dawn. See to it that the First and Second Legions both know their duty while I brief the other Captains. They'll need to assemble the other Legions to march out just before dawn. We'll fall back and join them in front of the wall once we've lost the cover from the darkness. Then we will end this siege."
"Commander, are you sure? We're making progress…"
"No," Kale grinned. "We are being strung along because it's easier to starve us out than to fight us. They want to play games, so I'll play."
Kale stared at the lines of enemies again. He took hold of the rope and pulled himself up the sheer sandstone quickly, hand over hand, then turned and offered Brock a hand over the ramparts. "Where is Celeste on duty?" Kale asked.
"She's running the Third through archery drills."
Kale hurried down from the ramparts and ran towards the training yards, past squads of soldiers set to sparring with swords or in hand to hand combat. He preferred to move at a run while inside the city. If he slowed down, someone inevitably came to him with some new catastrophe, convinced that he alone was the only person in the city who could deal with it. If the problem of the day was important enough for whoever needed help to try and keep up with him, then he listened. But he couldn't move through the training grounds that fast without throwing off the sparring pairs. He wove among them at a quick walk, knowing every form, every technique, and every move that would be made around him.
He didn't have any trouble finding Celeste, captain of the Third Legion. Even at the end of a row of archers wearing exactly the same plain wool jerkin as everyone around her, she stood out like a gem.
She was walking back and forth among the youngest archers of the Third Legion, adjusting postures, elbow positions and stances, as she went. Occasionally she would stop to reprimand an archer for getting distracted, more often she would stop to compliment them on improvements. She spotted Kale coming out of the corner of her eye and called the squad to attention. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he sent them back to practicing.
She was beautiful. Gorgeous, really. She had flowing chocolate hair and bright green eyes that were shadowed so that they always looked a bit narrower than other women's. She carried herself with all the bearing of a noble lady, except that instead of a gown she wore trousers and a homespun tunic, with weapons dangling everywhere. She had, in fact, been a lady until five years ago. When Kale sacked Tirak'don she was one of the many prisoners taken back to Ro'don on the off chance that they might be ransomed later.
Because she wouldn't be of much value if she couldn't be ransomed as a maid, Kale had kept an eye on her each night for the better part of a year. That led to quite a few rumors about the two of them, and Kale had done absolutely nothing to correct those rumors. If Celeste had ever lost her maidenhead, it definitely wasn't Kale's doing, but the fact that no one else would take advantage of her for fear of angering Kale did have its advantages.
They had spent a lot of nights talking. It hadn't occurred to Kale, until a year of late night conversations later, that a lady could be just as much a slave as anyone from Ro'don—that a prison with curtains and featherbeds is still a prison. She had cried when he voiced that thought out loud. Celeste had learned to fight well enough, plus she had been brought to Ro'don with skills that few others possessed. She could read. She had, in fact, read every detailed account of history that she could get her hands on. She'd heard enough tales of battle to know how one was supposed to go, and she'd seen enough melees at tournaments to be able to analyze combat effectively. As a little girl, she had learned more about military tactics than most of the knights in her father's service.
Celeste was really very bright. No one had ever noticed her at Tirak'don because she was just a lady. Fair to look at, but a daughter and therefore not to be taken seriously as anything other than a bargaining chip to be married off when necessary. Celeste had once insisted that at least slaves didn't have any illusions about their lives. Noble girls had to say what they were told, do what they were told, and sleep with whoever they were ordered to, just like slave girls. But the slavers didn't expect a girl to be grateful afterwards.
Still, Tirak'don had been her home until she was fifteen. She'd once cheered for Tirak's knights and officers at tournaments, danced with them at balls. Somewhere out among the dust covered tents, her father was probably un-strapping on ornate gold armor, lamenting the death of his baby girl, and settling in to try and get some rest for the night. Kale couldn't make her fight him. Certainly couldn't make her steal into his camp while it was still lost in the confusion of the sandstorm and kill him.
When Kale offered Celeste her freedom three years ago, Celeste offered Kale her service. Kale always secretly suspected that Celeste had originally meant to betray him, so he'd gone out of his way to make Celeste feel as appreciated and respected as possible. That would bring out her treacherous side quickly and get it over with. That meant taking her seriously and giving her responsibility, trust. When Celeste did not betray him the first time Kale was expecting it, he let her get a bit closer. And then, when he was certain that Celeste would betray him, she disappointed Kale yet again. Each time, Kale let just a little bit more depend on her, and each time Celeste was there at the end.
But there would be no more tests of her loyalty.
During the last battle before they sealed the gates, she ran out to Kale's rescue. Kale had been distracted, trying to find two of fighters in particular among the Tirak knights, when large knight had swept Kale to the ground and was about to crush him with a mace when Celeste appeared and ran a sword through the side of the knight's armor. He'd already broken Kale's arm with the mace, it would have taken just a single blow to finish him off.
Of all the soldiers of Ro'don, it should not have been Celeste who saved him.
The de Nothram family crest was on the knight's shield and on his tunic, and their colors covered his clothes. Celeste must have known who the knight was when she charged. And she knew the blow she struck would pierce his lung. She knew he was as good as dead. Still, she didn't cry until she had helped Kale back to the city and seen to it that someone set his arm.
No one, Kale resolved, should have to choose between taking the life of a brother and betraying their commander.
Kale doubted if he'd ever be able to utter enough apologizes. If rebuilding Tirak'don and installing Celeste as its queen would have made the pain go away, Kale would have done it already. He still might, just on the off chance that it helped heal a fraction of the injury he had dealt to her.
"Celeste," he said absently. "I'm taking the First and Second out tonight, before the sands settle. I'm going into the Order encampment and taking out every officer and Enforcer I can find. We'll regroup by the walls before dawn and then... end this stand off. Put the Third on notice that they will muster two hours before dawn. You'll take the Eastern flank, against Monchol and the Eastern cities."
"Jon, you heard the man. Muster two hours before dawn, put the word out," Celeste barked.
Kale was absurdly grateful that Celeste, along with all of his Captains other than Brock, could all effectively organize her men and delegate orders without Kale watching over her shoulder. Still, it was much too late to do anything about Brock now except to keep an eye on him.
"Walk with me for a bit," Kale said softly. "I need a favor."
Celeste nodded for a junior officer to take over and fell into step beside him.
"This… It's going to get bloody, Celeste. If you'd rather take charge of the city, keep the children safe, it'd be fine."
Celeste stared at the horizon, thinking as they walked. Finally, she whispered. "No. If I stayed and all of my men turned out to be marching to their doom, how would I ever forgive myself?"
Kale nodded at that. "If there was another way, any other way, I would take it. They know how vulnerable we are now. Some Monchol twit just told me so, and he's right—I have to end this, before it destroys us all. I swear I've tried to think of something."
Kale did not want to talk to Celeste about the man he'd met outside the wall. "Yes, twit! This moron just walked up to the wall, completely unarmed and all alone, and stared talking to me, all to ask… If I had heard anything about the negotiations."
"The negotiations?" Celeste glanced sideways at him.
"What color is my hair?" Kale asked, trying to avoid her gaze.
"White," she said immediately. "But you know what color your hair is. You must have hair other places."
Kale missed a step, caught himself before he landed on his face, and tried to force the blush off of his face. "Not much, actually. Is it really that strange?" he asked, trying to pull one of the short locks into his line of sight.
"Oh yes. Throw your eyes into the mix and it's really odd. Why?"
"What's wrong with my eyes?"
Celeste folded her arms across her chest and stared up at him. "What are you talking about?"
"What's wrong with my eyes?" he asked.
Celeste pulled out a small dagger, huffed on to the blade and wiped it as clean as possible, and then held it up so that Kale could see a burry reflection of his own eyes in the flat of the blade.
"So, they're nearly the same color as your hair, just darker. Except the gold star bits in the center. Everybody here has those, though, so I think it's from the sun. If your skin wasn't so dark, I'd think you were an albino."
"Don't worry about it. It's odd, but it suits you. Now, tell me why you're worried about it or I will spend the entire storm torturing you."
Kale laughed at her threat and easily stepped out of range as the knife swept towards him.
"What did your Moncholian twit say about it?"
Kale wanted to curse. But he needed to keep moving when Celeste had a knife in her hand, so it was better to stay focused. Celeste followed his gaze and sheathed the knife. "Tell me."
Kale dropped out of his stance and ended up shuffling his feet. "He said it was striking. He came over to ask if it was sun bleached or if it's always been this way."
"He came up to the walls to ask about your hair?" she practically squealed.
"Keep it down," Kale had to settle both his hands on her shoulders to keep her from bouncing as she began to laugh.
"And you're blushing…" Her laughter turned into a cackle. "So, I'm on the eastern flank... Do you want to tell me what this twit looked like, in case we end up taking prisoners?"
"If he's a prisoner, then he's..."
Celeste roller her eyes. "I was your prisoner, too. Didn't stop you from taking a special interest."
She had to be talking about the one sloppy kiss they had shared. She had instigated it, and it left Kale fumbling, terrified, and convinced there was something wrong with him. "You promised you wouldn't tell anybody about that," Kale whispered.
"And I haven't. I won't tell anyone about delivering some Monchol twit to your room, either," she whispered, her grin becoming pure evil.
"I doubt it would work. If you and I survive, odds are he won't. If he survives, well, that'll mean I didn't. It's an entertaining thought, though." Kale thought about the taller man's incredible blue eyes again and smiled.
"It's not fair, you know."
Celeste shook her head and smiled sadly. "Your whole life you've kept the demon imprisoned, you've protected us all from that monster, you've protected all of them!" She nodded toward the outer all. "You shouldn't have to be as celibate as one of the damn Enforcers."
Kale shrugged and folded his arms over his chest.
He saw a few of the men they passed flinch, realize what they were talking about, and pretend not to listen. He hoped to leave it at that, but when Celeste grabbed his forearm, he knew what was coming. "Can't he stop it? I've heard the stories of what he did during the first battle... If you show them, if you show them his power..."
Kale had considered it so many times. But the Order was determined to keep hold of Ro'don precisely because it had been Ari Chime's prison. Informing them that their ancient enemy was not only real, but free, wasn't going to change their stance on the matter.
"Chime hasn't spoken to me in a very long time," Kale whispered. "To be honest, the boundary between us is blurring. Sometimes, in my mind, I see Hokati walking these halls and I am not sure if I walked among them or Chime did. I have aches and pains in places where he was wounded. I am not sure quite what part of me is me and what part of me is the demon anymore."
Kale noticed the glances the guards around them exchanged.
"But can't he end it? I've heard the stories of how the war began, can't you do that again?"
With so many others listening, Kale had no choice but to play up the stories.
"Yes. I can." Kale smirked and let a sliver of Ari Chime's power seep into his voice. "You've heard the stories, Celeste, but you weren't there. You didn't have to deal with the mess it left. You didn't have to argue with Chime about burning every single soul in Ro'don, rather than just the overseers and Enforcers. The last time Chime's full power was unleashed upon this world, it scorched one of the most beautiful and fertile plains in the world, sunk the land into a crater, and turned everything within that crater into a lifeless desert."
"The Wastes," she gasped.
"Do you imagine that letting him finish this war unchecked is going to leave anything alive? He will water the sands with the blood of every human being within a hundred miles, and he will do so with absolute glee. Our enemies, our Legions, the children down below… everyone." He dropped the power completely and shut his eyes. "But I will not let him. Even if it means defeat, even if it means losing whatever is left of me, I will not let this world burn again."
Inside, Kale felt the demon stir.
Not out of any sense of blood lust, but because of the potential for a few laughs growing from the lies Kale was spouting. When Kale was too young to understand much of the world around him, when the nuances of communication and leadership were still confusing, Chime had always been in control of his body. Kale often felt like he had viewed most of his childhood through someone else's eyes. He wondered, sometimes, if his most trusted subordinates could even tell the difference between following his commands and following Chime's, because the reality was that they had followed Chime for more years than they had followed him.
Chime had enjoyed the social dynamics that their unique union inspired, he'd made a game of manipulating those dynamics for his own amusement. Kale doubted that he had really held Chime in check during that first rampage, but he knew that Chime had held him in check ever since.
And even that didn't matter to the Legions of Ro'don.
Chime had long ago framed their mutual existence in the minds of the people of Ro'don so that Kale was the bright divine savior who protected them from the demon held imprisoned within him. And while Kale had once been terrified of failing to fulfill that role, he had quickly found that Chime had painted this image so thoroughly in the minds of his men that there was very little he could do, from making stupid mistakes to making stupid comments, that would persuade them that he was anything less than what Chime made them believe he was.
Celeste was pale, but she managed to meet his gaze when few others would have dared. "He created the entire Waste?"
"He destroyed an entire land, yes."
"And there was nothing left of the Overseers he destroyed but ash, black blood, and bits of bone," Kale said flatly. "Ari Chime is not a weapon." That was true enough. If Ari Chime still had that kind of power, Kale would have used him to end the war before the siege ever began.
Kale saw one of the guards, faithfully staring straight ahead, swallow and grow pale. He bit back the smug grin that threatened to creep up on him. Whether it came from his own perverse sense of humor or from the demon's, he couldn't say.