Fortune’s Soldier: A Bloody Crown, Chapter 03

Chapter 3: The Month of the Dog, Turisday the Fifth.

Kaessekros on the Red Isles in Kellalh

Fortune's Soldier Cover

The last time Alec Rathwig had stood in Kellalh, he watched a city burn. He had sailed away as flames consumed everything behind him. He had survived Surraev’s invasion, but his home had not. His friends had not. His father had not. Behind him, he had left a mother, a brother and a sister. Behind him, he had abandoned his family. That still haunted him.

He could not surrender, not then and not now. He would not let Surraev win. Someday, somehow, he would beat them. Back there, on the mainland, his soldiers mustered. Still under Taulmeeran pay but ready for something more. He had not told them of his plans. What would even his most trusted lieutenants say if he told them they were going to free a nation? What would they say if he told them Taulmeer wanted rid of them, but feared them, and so was willing to finance this compromise?

Perhaps he would lose them. Perhaps he would lose his army. But he could not lose the Cyclops Banner. That would be forever his. That was worth any army. Surraev’s king knew it. Surraev’s nobles feared it. They had stopped trying to beat him in the field. Instead, they had first tried to buy him and then they had tried to assassinate him. The Cyclops Banner did not fall. And raising it in Kellalh? That was worth all the coins Taulmeer could offer.

He had never been to the Red Isles, an archipelago in the province of Selcost. In his youth, he knew of it as a remote fief of fishermen and kerns. It had no wealth, only stubborn warriors ready to die for their leaders and fast ships that destroyed everything arrayed against them. When the armies of Surraev came, wealth didn’t matter so much any longer. Selcost had proved inaccessible and defiance counted for more than the depth of one’s purse.

Clustered around the docks, few of the buildings had even a second story. Having just come from a bustling port in the Republics, it seemed open to the sky, touched by a glimmer of sun from between the clouds. The walls of the structures were stacked stone, and Alex could discern no mortaring at all. It had been a long time since he had seen a building in the traditional Islander fashion. In his time, he had seen that kind of construction in more than a few locales in the north.

“Well, this is . . . different.” Johanna offered a smile.

Dressed like a Taulmeeran courtier, Johanna nonetheless carried with her the tools of her trade. On her left hip, hanging from a worn and pedestrian baldric, she had her arming sword and on her right hip, hanging from an expensive belt probably worth more than the boat that had brought them across, hung her long Kadeteran dirk, serpentine in appearance, curving like a sliding snake.

“Get used to it.” Alec scratched his left cheek, just below his eyepatch. The scar that ran from the brow above the patch to Alec’s jawline tingled. Annoying, insistent, it only added to the disquiet that had dogged him on the sea voyage from the continent. He looked back at the galley which had brought him across the sea. Did he see the far shore there, just at the horizon? No. The Cemetery Bar—a sand bar just a hand or less out of the water and a hazard to all shipping—appeared from the docks like a shoreline. The sand bar protected Kaessekros from those unfamiliar with the area, and also helped to protect the port from the sea’s often savage weather.

Four fishermen carried their two chests. A silver Taulmeeran pistole each had secured their services and sickening deference. Wealth from the mainland might have reached the merchants who trafficked with the smugglers and pirates, but not so for those who fished. Still, these four had strong backs and clean clothes. They did not suffer, and he doubted their children did either. Considering the kingdom lay under the boot of a conqueror, the village of Kassekros—at least outwardly—had avoided the depredations of war.

Sod and what looked like straw covered the roofs of most buildings. Some had tiles, but those were few. Smoke drifted up from the multitude of chimneys, creating a discoloured vault over the village. The tallest of the structures near the docks, built of mortared and cut stones, with a roof of tile and two chimneys, Alec guessed would be the Fish and Fiddle, the inn recommended to him—but also the only inn in Kaessekros.

And above the village, built into the cliff that dominated the shoreline, a fortress marked the seat of the Old Baron.

Though some might have considered the buildings of this village primitive, they looked sturdier and better maintained than he expected. Perhaps the barony’s poverty had been exaggerated, or perhaps being the last free Kellei province had proved profitable for Baron Trevean.

Argus Trevean, Baron Selcost, had once resided in the town of Torclach, further inland and with a larger population. Alec had heard that Torclach remained untouched by the Surraeveans after three disastrous campaigns in the years following the invasion, but he could understand why the Old Baron might have decided on Kassekros for his main holding, even though it was little more than a fishing village. Surraev’s navy had faced defeat every time it ventured into the Red Isles. The men of Selcost had much-deserved fame for their skill with the local galleys—warships one day, merchant lighters the next, whatever the need.

Alec pointed to the building he took to be the inn. “We’ll secure our lodgings then see if the Baron is as receptive to our offer as Taulmeer claims.”

“If it were me, and a Taulmeeran courtier came to offer to win me a war, I’d never believe it.” Johanna shrugged. “Come to think of it, if a Taulmeeran general did the same, I’d feel the same.”

Alec’s eyebrows rose. “I would like to point out you’re wearing Taulmeeran fashion.”

Johanna tapped the side of her nose. “I’m not the one promising to win them their war. That’s you. And you more than look the part.”

Rather than engage in a battle he knew he would lose, Alec started forward toward the inn. They would get their rooms and then send a runner to announce their arrival to the Old Baron. He was prepared to play the game. The Old Baron would make him wait, establishing his superiority. Alec would accept it. It cost him nothing. Then, when the Old Baron finally sent for him, the game would truly begin.

Though he didn’t excel at it, Alec could play at politics and perform the dances that often accompanied that game. Leading mercenaries required different skills in the field and then at court. The size and importance of his companies spoke to Alec’s abilities in the arena about which he cared the most.

The residents of Kaessekros watched the two and their following porters with poorly concealed interest. Alec wore the split-circle token adopted by the Kellei in exile as a mark of their shared culture as a broach. He could have been a Kellei sailor, or perhaps one of the pirates that frequented the docks for all anybody knew, except they had hired porters with Taulmeeran silver, had brought with them the chests those porters bore, suggesting both a hint of wealth and an intent for more than a short visit, and Johanna walked at his side, dressed as a man. Some might mistake her for a young man, but other than her clothes, she made no attempt to hide her femininity.

If nothing else, her attendance and appearance would get tongues wagging. It always did.

The building Alec took to be the inn did not sit far from the docks. Before he reached it, he noticed two men approaching. Unlike the villagers who glanced at the strangers but did not stare, these two men had their gaze fixed on Alec. They also wore swords as well as breastplates and greaves—seemingly cobbled together or repurposed from other, older sets.

Johanna touched Alec’s shoulder. “I would wager our lives are about to get more interesting.”

“I can’t argue with that observation.” Almost instinctively, Alec’s hand rested on the pommel of his sword.

Neither man looked more than a few years over two decades. Both had long hair, one dark, and the other sandy-brown. Their clothing marked them as Islanders: all dark, earth tones, their cloaks reaching almost to their ankles, their boots cross-gartered and reaching up to their knees. The taller of the two, the man with sandy hair, appeared younger, and had no beard. A broadsword in a fine-looking scabbard hung from a thick baldric at his waist. The shorter of the two had a solid build, with no apparent fat on him. He carried a broad, half-moon bladed axe topping a pole almost as tall as him.

Either these were kerns sent to escort Alec, or someone was looking to hassle the new arrivals who apparently had coin in their purses.

Johanna’s hands hung loose at her sides, but Alec knew that in an instant they could be filled with her sword and dirk. “Just for clarity, if something starts, do I kill them, fracture them, or just leave them questioning their life choices?”

In spite of himself, Alec almost smiled. “No killing, no blood-letting if at all possible.”

The two stopped four or five strides from Alec and Johanna. Alec and Johanna also stopped. Alec could feel Johanna watching him, but he remained silent. His silence seemed to perplex the two men. The older, shorter of the two men stepped forward.

“You’re Alec Rathwig, the mercenary?”

Alec’s eyes narrowed. He tapped the guard of his straight-bladed sabre, and with a finger. “And if I am?”

 The dark-haired man looked back at the taller, sandy-haired man, who shrugged. The older turned back to Alec. “Just answer the question.”

Johanna stepped forward, her hands still nowhere near her weapons—which Alec knew meant nothing. “Is this the welcome one receives in Selcost? For shame. To whom am I speaking?”

The younger man pointed at Johanna. “You’re not a guest yet, so you’d best tell us your names and your purpose. I don’t know if you’re his bodyguard or his jester, but if you play with us, you’d best be ready to bleed.”

Johanna burst out laughing. “Oh, that is rich.”

Alec offered the younger one a wink. “You’re welcome to try.”

He shouldn’t have said that, but he didn’t regret doing so. There was no need to goad them, and in truth, Alec didn’t need this. He was far beyond proving anything to anyone. But if the Old Baron wanted to test him with these two, he would make a point.

The two acted in the predictable manner. The sandy-haired man reached for his sword and the dark-haired man raised his axe. Johanna had the blades of both her sabre and her dirk at the younger man’s throat while Alec had the tip of his sword resting just under the dark-haired man’s chin.

The older, dark-haired man’s eyes looked down at Alec’s sword. “Night’s Blood, but you are fast,”

“Gentlemen, my associate asked you to introduce yourselves.” Alec allowed his sword’s point to press against the dark-haired man’s flesh. “Or maybe we should just see who pays for the burial.”

“Take it easy, captain.” The dark-haired one held his axe loosely while he used his other hand to gently push Alec’s blade to the side, away from his throat. “We’re retainers of the House of Trevean. I’m Domnall Padraig.” The dark-haired man nodded to the sandy-haired man. “That over there is my brother, Cormall.”

“Could you not have led with that?” Alec took his sword away from Domnall’s throat.

Johanna lowered and sheathed her blades. “The two of you won’t live long playing games like that.”

Cormall laughed and offered Johanna his hand. “Fair enough. Welcome to Selcost and the Red Isles.”

Alec was already shaking the hand of the older man—Domnall. “Don’t hear much about the Padraigs these days. Would you be any relation to Gillas Padraig in the Republic?”

Domnall nodded. “If you mean Gillas Padraig in Janssins, he’s our father.”

“And we almost ruined his day.” Johanna patted Cormall’s upper arm. “That would have made me so sad.

Alec touched his chest above his heart with his left hand. “I’m honestly pleased to meet you. Your father has been kind to many of the Kellei who have not been fortunate on the continent. He’s offered employment to men whom many would not. I saw him last two weeks ago, and he was in fine health and better spirits.”

Cormall lunged forward and embraced Alec. “Thank you.” He released Alec and took a step back, his face red and his eyes finding nowhere to rest. “We rarely hear of him and hear even less from him.”

“He has tried to avoid some of the less savory elements that ply the trade with Kaesskros, which means he rarely has a chance to send a letter or greetings.” Johanna offered a tight grimace rather than a smile. “It seems the trade is almost exclusively the unsavory.”

Cormall cleared his throat, tears evident in his eyes. “I know it. Well, I know it in my head. But my heart? It still worries me when we don’t hear from him often.”

“And it’s always said the Kellei think better with their hearts than their heads.” Domnall sketched a short bow to Alec. “So, my thanks as well. You are invited to stay in the castle.” He pointed to the cliff and its fortress, perched above the village.” He turned to Johanna. “Both of you.”

Alec gestured to the inn with his thumb. “I was ready to enjoy a meal and a drink at the inn.”

Domnall looked away, the smile drained from his face. “I don’t want to impose on someone who has offered us a kindness, but we were told to bring you to the castle directly.”

“The Baron is known as a direct man, so I should probably have guessed I would not wait long.” Alec gestured along the road. “Then lead on.”

Neither of the two commented on Alec’s characterization of the Old Baron, but set off, Cormall gesturing to the porters to follow. Domnall and Cormall stayed a few strides ahead of Alec and Johanna, and they conferred quietly, Cormall often looking back. Alec could have interjected himself, but thought better of it. Why create friction when he need not? He wouldn’t be negotiating with these two, so let them have their gossip. Johanna glanced at him sidelong, but Alec could only offer her a lop-sided grin and show open palms.

I don’t know. Let’s see what transpires.

Alec considered the fortress as they approached. Atop a sheer cliff, it offered only one access on the landward side. The closer one came, the narrower the trail—and one could not call it a road, though it had wheel ruts suggesting regular traffic. The fortress had a large gatehouse and stout towers at each corner. Its fortifications stretched to the very edge of the incline, so even if one climbed the cliff face, one would be faced with a wall. Atop the highest precipice near the village, no point within arrow or cannon shot overlooked the fortress.

Men patrolled the walls and four men, armed with swords and spears, stood just inside the gatehouse. They wore a mixture of hardened leather and metal plate as armour. They saluted the approaching group.

At a signal from Domnall, the porters deposited the chests. With muttered thanks, and quick glances at Alec, the porters left, a whispering huddle scurrying back to the village. The gate opened Domnall and Cormall ushered Alec and Johanna in.

“They’ll take your chests to the room . . . well, rooms prepared for you.” Domnall gestured to the tall tower that overshadowed the rest of the fortress. “But you’re expected in the great hall.”

Alec counted almost as many buildings inside the walls of the castle as in the village, and of better quality. The tall tower on the seaward wall that was their apparent destination seemed a castle in its own right. It would be the keep, the centre for the castle. Around the keep nestled stables, smithies, barracks, warehouses—everything necessary to maintain the castle and its occupants in the event of a siege. At this height, atop solid rock, Alec wondered what they would do for water. Stored water wouldn’t suffice in a real siege and one couldn’t count on rain.

Soldiers and regular townspeople mingled within the walls of the castle. While many men carried weapons and wore armor, many others carried tools.

As they entered the keep, Alec noted a recess in which a portcullis rested. The great, wood door, banded and studded with iron, sat open with a single soldier standing within it. He nodded to Domnall with a faint smile, but that vanished as he considered Alec and Johanna.

They quickly reached a set of double doors which Domnall opened. Stairs led down, though a ledge, wide enough to walk along, bordered the room. A large oaken table dominated the centre of the sunken area. Chairs surrounded it. Halfway between the door and the end of the hall, fires burned in hearths flanking the table. Tapestries depicting what Alec guessed would be the heroes of the House of Trevean and its history as lords of Selcost covered the walls.

At a great chair at the head of the table sat a woman. She had her auburn hair pulled back from her face and sharp features. He noted her eyes—emerald, penetrating, and intent on him. A sword on a baldric hung from the chair and he assumed it was hers. She wore utilitarian clothing and he couldn’t tell if she had a skirt or pants. He would bet pants.

He had heard of Rhona Trevean back on the mainland. She had never wed and stories spoke of her beating suitors senseless. He couldn’t see her arms well, the sleeves of her tunic fashionably long, but she had broad shoulders. He doubted her scarred hands would do a good turn at embroidery.

A man at least a decade her junior stood to her right. Spare of frame with a flat nose, deep set eyes, and all but bloodless lips, he matched the description Justyl of Tramecelle had provided of Raendulf, the factor. The Taulmeeran dandy had said the factor ruled in the place of the sick master. An idiot. The factor remained a factor, and Alec would be dealing with Trevean’s blood.

Behind the great chair stood a thin man, all but bald but with a full beard shot through with gray. His beard plaited, his clothes utilitarian but clean and of obvious quality, his easy posture all led Alec to assume he was a trusted advisor, probably a noble or elite retainer.

Just inside the door stood a person whom Alec initially took to be a kern—the elite, household warriors of the Kellei nobility—with his shaved head, scarred visage, and tattooed arms. As with the older man standing near Rhona Trevean, this one’s clothes and his sword spoke of some wealth, so Alec guessed this would be one of the Old Baron’s thanes.

“I am Glamorgall, Thane of Lanshiel, sworn to House Trevean.” The man spoke with a rough lilt Alec didn’t recognizes. Then again, he had been away from these shores for more than a decade. “You are welcome in this hall. I don’t know of your birth, but you’ll be civil or you’ll answer to me.”

“I am here to negotiate, and I’ll do my best to honour your lord’s hall.” Alec noted the man glance to the woman in the great chair when he mentioned ‘your lord.’

Glamorgall nodded. “And your retainer?”

“I am Joanna Gunter, captain-general of the Company of the Red Hawk.” Johanna sketched a bow that would have put Justyl of Tramecelle to shame.

Glamorgall grunted. “Captain, eh?”

Johanna offered him a sweet smile that did nothing to hide its promise of steel. “As much a captain as your lady.”

Glamorgall’s eyes grew wide and his face opened, hiding nothing if only for a heartbeat. But that heartbeat passed, and his face and eyes grew hard again. Nodding, he turned to lead Alec and Johanna into the hall. Alec glanced at Johanna who put her hand to her throat. Someone was dead. The Old Baron?

Just as they reached the table, they halted. Glamorgall held out his arm to stop Alec’s advance. “Far enough.” He turned to Rhona Trevean. “Milady of Selcost, may I present Alec Rathwig, late of Taulmeer and here at their bidding. With him is Johanna Gunter, captain-general of the Company of the Red Hawk.”

Alec offered a quick bow. “Milady, I thank you for taking the time to see me.”

Rhona Trevean rose. She did indeed wear pants. She walked toward the group, holding out her hand. “And I have heard much about your exploits, Captain Rathwig” Alec took her hand. Good grip. After grasping hands with Alec, she turned to Johanna. “A captain? Truly?”

“I am, milady.” Johanna offered another of her exceptional bows before grasping hands with Rhona. “My company is small, but we will soon have a reputation to rival that of the Cyclops Banner.”

“Then I am in illustrious company.” Rhona gestured to the table as she moved to retake her seat.

“I would say the same.” Alec did not take a seat. “I am honoured to have met you, but it’s your father I’m here to see. The Taulmeeran envoy told me he was ill, but I would at least like to pay my respects.”

That moment revealed the difference between the factor and the daughter. Doing business required deception—perhaps not outright, but one always hid one’s true thoughts. The factor remained impassive. The daughter didn’t have his skill. For a moment, only a moment, those eyes went from cold and intent to surprised, possible even anxious. In a heartbeat, they moved from hawk to prey and then back. At his side Johanna cleared her throat.

The Old Baron.

“But I won’t be able to, will I.” He nodded to Glamorgall. “Does he know? Do any of them?”

The daughter tilted her head down, glaring at him over her nose. It didn’t suit her and Alec imagined she had seen someone—her father?—use that to intimidate another. “Goodman Alec . . .”

“I’m a captain-general.” He crossed his arms as he watched her. “I’m not a good man. I’m a competent man, a capable man. Call me Captain Rathwig or call me Alec, I don’t care. Call me Alasdair if that suits you. That’s my name. My real name. Rathwig isn’t. I’m not going to lie to you about something so small. If we start off with falsehoods, we’ll never trust each other.”

Alec knew people. To lead, you needed to understand the people you led. And when it came to nobles and those who paid him to lead, he needed to know when they were about to betray him. He needed to see in their eyes and their faces when they lied, when they misled, and when they were being honest.

All he had learned of Baron Trevean had led him to like the man before ever meeting him. The little he had seen of his daughter told him that the apple did not fall far from the tree. She would appreciate honesty, and he thought she would reward it with the same. Audacity had been one of his tools as a captain. He decided to deploy it again.

Gesturing for Johanna to remain where she stood, Alec took a step forward. Glamorgall did not try to stop him. “I’m going to give you more truth: I came here as a soldier. If I came here as a mercenary, I’d be trying to figure out how long before you betrayed me. I’d spend more time on that than on figuring out how to win your war. I come here as a soldier so I only need to worry about the war. Maybe you don’t care, and maybe you don’t see the difference, but it’s there and it’s important.”

Alec moved slowly to stand behind a chair at the table. He put his hands on it. “Taulmeeran coin could bring a lot of men here, yes. They’ve agreed to send over my entire company. If that is your wish, I can make it happen. However, I offer you a thousand men, all with arms. I offer only a thousand because if all five thousand of my company make the crossing, at that moment I would expect the Taulmeeran pay to stop. It would then become your problem. You’d send messages to the king in Aneros asking about the money. At first, they’d send excuses, then—when you get really desperate—they’d just ignore you. And then it really would be a problem. My men are competent men. All of them are good mercenaries. Some of them are good soldiers. Many of those good soldiers come from this land, are of Kellei blood, and wish to see their homes again. I just want to bring them over and leave the mercenaries for Taulmeer to think about, but that’s your decision to make.”

Trevean took a deep breath. She didn’t look to her factor, nor to her captains. She gestured to the seat to her right. “Please, captain, let’s talk about this.”

Alec slid off his own baldric and hung it from the chair. Johanna took the seat beside him. Rhona introduced them to Raendulf—whose identity Alec had guessed—and Mordwech, the captain of Trevean’s household—whom Alec had not known. They all sat. With a bow to Rhona and studiously ignoring Alec and Johanna, Glamorgall left.

Rhona spoke first, balling up her fists. “As you guessed, my father has died.”

“My condolences. I did not know him well, but I know he was a good man.” And he meant that. “All Kellei will miss him, here and on the mainland. He gave them hope.”

She turned back to him, the grin on her face so obviously forced. “Now we must.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Alec said.

“But without a contract.” Raendulf rested his chin on his hand, his elbow on the table. “The Taulmeeran representative told us that you would negotiate directly with us, that the contract would be with Selcost but the coin would come from Taulmeer.”

“The coin from Taulmeer won’t last.” Alec sat rigid, his gaze moving between the three others opposite him at the table, including them all in the conversation. “And we will have no contract. We will have an understanding. I do not come here as a mercenary. This is no land for a mercenary. There’s no profit here. I come here as a son of Kellalh, and as a soldier who knows how to beat Surraev. Soldiers don’t fight simply for pay. They fight for something else. They fight for something ephemeral. If I’m to be a soldier of Kellalh, I’ll need more than coin. “

Rhona melted back into her chair, the disappointment hovering on the edge of her words and the set of her jaw. “Any promise of land would be hollow. If you want a title, you can have a title, but it will be meaningless. There’s no king to grant it, not even a pretender. Even with a pretender, Surraev will make a mockery of any claim. The thousand men that you offer won’t be able to stand against the ten thousand Surraev can bring north.”

Johanna waved off the comment. “Once the Cyclops Banner is planted on Kellalh, Surraev will bring more than ten thousand, I assure you.”

More than ten thousand?” Mordwech rubbed his eyes. “The Halo’d One’s cold hands.”

“I would not come here if I didn’t intend to win this war, to push out Surraev and secure our kingdom.” Alec held Rhona’s eyes in his own, willing her to listen, to believe. “Those thousand men will not be our army—they will train our army and lead it. Surraev can put no more than twenty-five thousand men into the field by next summer.

“If they march now, from their castles in Newtown and Caerthual, they can put together maybe six thousand,” Johanna said. “Seven thousand at the most. But that would leave those castles vulnerable.”

Alec followed on immediately. “If we reach an agreement, we will have an army that can face them. It might be smaller, but that is immaterial. We have beat armies of Surraev when they have outnumbered us. And here, we will field an army trained to beat Surraev. By the following summer, we’ll double our numbers with a core of blooded veterans.”

Mordwech’s eyes narrowed. ” You’re deluded. Where would you find even five hundred soldiers in Kellalh?”

Alex shook his head. “We won’t find five hundred soldiers, but we can train fifteen thousand easily. Fifteen thousand young men ready to fight Surraev? That will be no problem. A thousand Kellei soldiers who have trained with and marched in an army that has beaten Surraev? That is waiting across the sea. We put those two together and by the thaw, we will have our army.”

“Where would this happen?” Mordwech opened his arms in an expansive gesture. “We haven’t the food or the roofs in Selcost for so many.”

“I have my thousand in Taulmeer right now who remember their homes.” Alex jabbed the table with this finger for emphasis. “Not mercenaries—soldiers. They’ll be happy to return to their homes individually, quietly, and find there some young men who want to rid themselves of the Surraev yoke, make a name for themselves, or just see some coin.”

Raendulf held up his hand. “But the Taulmeeran coin will end once your mercenaries . . .” He dipped his head before correcting himself. “Your soldiers. Pardon. Once your soldiers have left Taulmeer, the coin will stop.”

“True, but there will be plunder with every victory, as Surraev transports pay with armies.” Alec touched his throat, ran his hand along the whiskers lengthening there. He’d need to grow out his beard to fit in which this lot. “But you are correct: the Taulmeeran coin will stop once all the mercenaries from under my banner are in Kellalh. But the mercenaries are not coming to Kellalh. Only the soldiers are. They’ll take what coin they can and come. The others—there are more than six thousand of them including those under Johanna if you care—will remain in Taulmeer and they’ll be Taulmeer’s problem.”

Mordwech rubbed his chin, tilting back his head. “And when the Taulmeeran crown complains?”

“They’ll send messages to which we’ll reply with excuses.” Rhona straightened in her chair, a smile touching her lips. “When they get desperate, we’ll ignore them.”

Alec touched his nose then pointed to her.

She rose and gestured to the empty table. “Would you like a drink?”

That made Alex chuckle. “I would kill for one, which is an honest statement, given my occupation.”

Raendulf touched Rhona’s shoulder and glanced at her chair. She nodded and sat. Alec caught the calculating look Raendulf cast at him before he turned to call for food and drink.

“We will gain maybe a few months,” Alex said. “Maybe. We have an ally among the Taulmeeran nobility who will be useful, and the crown will turn to him when we begin to ignore their requests. He may need to take on the men we leave behind, relieve the crown of the burden, otherwise he’ll lose his title. That’s fine. The few months will be all we need.”

Rhona relaxed in her chair, a leg tucked against one of the armrests. “This ally, that would be the captain of the Unicorn Banner?”

Alec rose slightly from his chair to take a cup passed to him by Raendulf. “Cristobel, Marquis de Terenquist, late captain of the Unicorn Banner, yes. He’ll have work for any of my mercenaries the Taulmeerans dump on him. The Unicorn Banner is legendary in the West Kingdoms.”

Mordwech had the pitcher of strong Kellei ale and poured himself a cup. “Is he Kellei?”

“No one really knows.” Alec held out his cup as Mordwech poured. “I think he’s from the Republics, but sometimes he claims to be from Kadetra. I can tell you he’s the best commander in the field I’ve ever seen, and he’s as good at politics as he is at strategy. I’m not sure if King Denis understands entirely how capable Cristobel is, but I know the King has great admiration for him. We’re hoping King Denis’ fondness and respect for Cristobel can be used to our advantage.”

Raendulf watched Alec as Mordwech filled his cup. “This is all good, very good, but you had mentioned that as a soldier you needed something to fight for, and it would not be money. Perhaps you can enlighten us.”

Alec shrugged. “I will fight for that which I think you are all fighting—a free Kellalh with a Kellei king on a Kellei throne.”

Raendulf continued to hold his cup but did not drink. “But?”

“Yes, but . . .” Alec took a deep breath before charging in. “But who will that king be? The Royal House is gone, destroyed utterly. The cadet branches have scattered into the wind. Over the seas, over in Aneros, there is a gaggle of vultures that will swoop in and start a civil war seeking for the crown. They’ll bury us all so they can rule over the carnage, and then they’ll have nothing left in the field when Surraev comes north again.”

Mordwech leaned forward, brows furrowed. “Are you suggesting—“

“I’m not suggesting anything you might guess.” Alec held up a hand as if to halt Mordwech. “Only that we need a king. That it needs to be a choice we can defend with the laws of this land. And that king needs to be crowned before even our first victory or we’ll be facing the vultures of Aneros.”

Rhona touched her chin. “But who?”

Alec smiled. “That is what I am here to discuss.”

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