“Your bath is ready my lord,” the servant said, adding a slight bow at the end of his sentence. Rising back up, his face took on an inquisitive look and he continued. “Shall I remain and assist you?” As one versed in the delicate balance between servant and master, he, of course, knew the answer; he also knew that proper decorum and his position required that those last words be spoken.
“No, leave me. I’ve bathed myself for over fifty years – I’m neither a child nor an invalid.”
“As you wish, my lord,” he said, picking up the uniform and heavy armor his master had discarded only a few minutes before. Turning away to leave he paused, looked back and added, “Although the water was quite hot, my lord, it’s already starting to cool.”
Seeing his master make no obvious movement towards the bath, the servant shrugged to himself and bowing once more, quietly left the room, silently closing the large oak door behind him.
Standing clad only in his small clothes, Marcus Andris Zakaria, Eighteenth Duke of Lionsgate, Lord Protector of the Seal of Kalas, and Lord High Commander of the First Army of Xannameir, stood gazing absent-mindedly out the window and down onto the square of Tardon. A few feet away from him stood a large marble tiled tub filled with hot, steaming water. The tub sat on a raised platform and was deep enough for a man to completely submerge himself. A washcloth, along with a pile of fluffy rose-scented towels, lay on the wide marble ledge that circled the tub. Within easy reach stood a large basket filled with scented oils, perfumes and a variety of soaps.
The bath looked warm and inviting. But instead of making his way to it, Marcus Zakaria continued to stand near the window looking out at the movement in the square. Almost naked, he stood unmoving, allowing the cool air of the room to chill his damp, sweat-drenched skin. A part of his conscious thoughts told him he should make his way to the bath – his aching muscles certainly could use a long soothing soak in the warm water of the bath after the workout he’d subjected himself to.
He’d spent the afternoon sparring with two of his captains, Ronan Torken and Adnar Jess – both strong and able swordsmen. It had been years since he had sparred more then once a week, but now he found himself doing it on a daily basis. He’d thought Ronan a good and worthy opponent, one of the best he’d engaged in the past few days – that is, until Adnar went against him.
The man was young and possessed speed and strength, something the now fifty five year old general was starting to fear he might be losing. Captain Jess gave as good as he got, and while in the end Zakaria defeated him, he was glad the man was a member of his army instead of an opponent’s. Each day, a fresh pair of soldiers would fight him, one after the other. As soon as the first man became exhausted, the second would take his place, continuing to fight the general until he, too, could no longer raise his sword above his head. But Zakaria took no pleasure in the exercise. Each day he would return to his chambers, exhausted and sweat-drenched, easing the pain of his muscles in the scalding hot water of the large tub. And each day he would stare absently out the window at the square.
At least he didn’t have to look at those rotting heads, he thought to himself. A few weeks earlier he awakened and was greeted to the sight of five heads stuck on pikes hoisted high above the square. The heads had belonged to a man and four boys. He’d been told of their arrival at the provisional offices he’d commandeered upon his occupation of Tardon. The five had found and brought… well, he’d played the events of that day over and over in his head and yet somehow couldn’t resolve all that had occurred.
“Damnable holy bloodsuckers,” he thought to himself.
Gude and his stinking monks had been at the bottom of that muck. He despised the Holy Office. As soon as he saw the gory scene, he demanded the heads be removed. Now standing here, gazing out the window into the almost empty square, it occurred to him that was the very day he’d begun his daily sparring. He didn’t know precisely what drove him to suddenly increase his sparing schedule, but an uneasy mood had settled on him that day, and he was too experienced to ignore such feelings.
Slowly, he began to remove the remainder of his clothes. Just as he tossed the last of them onto the floor, a sharp rapping sound came from the other room. Ever since the day the windows of his office in the town hall of Tardon had been smashed, he’d used his private chambers as both his office and residence. It meant that he was often disturbed during meals, his reading time, and baths, but that mattered little to him.
“Come,” he shouted.
There was a pause, the sound of heavy boots crossing the floor of the antechamber, and then, slowly, the door of the room creaked open. A soldier dressed in a captain’s uniform entered. The man had the remains of dried mud crusted on the heels of his boots, and he was almost as sweaty as Zakaria. Once completely in the room, he caught sight of the general standing before him stark naked. Quickly, he averted his eyes.
“My lord, forgive me, I didn’t know you were bathing. I’ll wait for you in the other room.”
“You will talk to me here,” Zakaria said, the sound of cold steel in his voice. “That’s why I requested that you enter. Now, what do you have to report?”
“Well… ah… well… my lord… ah,” the man paused, stammering a bit and shuffling in his place, acting more like a groveling servant than the high ranking officer he was. Zakaria watched him intently and noticed some of the dried mud flecks falling off his dirty boots, as he shuffled his feet.
“If you’re trying to tell me you have nothing to report, then just say it, Menolus,” Zakaria barked, giving the man a frown. “You wouldn’t be the first.”
Once more, the officer averted his eyes. Then he swallowed hard and tried a second time to speak.
“Ah… my lord… well…ah… unfortunately, yes my lord, there is nothing to report,” he said – now feeling even smaller under the frown of his commander. “We have pursued every report, every story, and every rumor, my lord, but we’ve found nothing.”
Zakaria did not respond to the man, but instead turned and strode across the room. Moving to a table pushed against one of walls, he picked up a parchment tightly rolled and tied with red twine. Pulling on the twine he unfastened it, then walked over to the man and handed it to him.
“This is yet another report, Menolus.” He said. “It describes something that was found at the edge of the Ardentin forest near Altplain. Investigate it at once.”
“Yes, my lord,” the officer said, bowing deeply.
As he did, Zakaria noticed even more mud flecked from the officer’s boots. Captain Menolus carefully tucked the parchment behind his breastplate, bowed to Zakaria and quickly backed out of the room, right into Commander Jasper Locke, who’d flung open the door and barged into Zakaria’s bath chamber. The commander had knocked on the outer door of the general’s apartments and passed through into the antechamber. Locke had been instructed that the news was important enough to disturb the general, so when he saw no one in the antechamber but heard voices in one of the inner rooms, he quickly crossed the chamber with the intention of following the sound of the voices.
For a few seconds Locke simply blinked without saying a word, partly due to the force of his collision with Captain Menolus, and partly since he was now looking at the Duke completely naked.
“I… I’m… I’m sorry, Captain… ah, my…ah, Lord Zakaria…” stammering, he attempted to regain his wind. “I didn’t mean… I have an urgent message… I’m sorry…”
“Never mind that,” Zakaria snapped, cutting off Locke as he continued to make apologies, “what news have you brought me?”
Still flustered, Jasper Locke reached his hand inside his breastplate and into his battle tunic, pulling out a tightly folded parchment. He quickly handed it to Zakaria, and had by now recovered sufficiently to execute a quick and crisp bow of his head.
Zakaria snatched it from his hand and opened it so quickly he ripped one of the corners. As the small fragment from the parchment floated to the floor, landing near Zakaria’s bare feet, he read the communiqué with quick and thorough efficiency.
“Are you familiar with the content of this?” Zakaria asked Locke.
“Ah, yes my lord general, I am,” he replied defensively, not sure if Zakaria suspected him of surreptitiously reading the message. “I was there when Captain Bloken dictated it. He wanted to make sure that I knew its content and could answer any of your questions.”
“And how long ago was this supposed sighting?” Zakaria asked.
“Three days ago, my lord general.”
“But according to Bloken, there were no firm witnesses?”
“No my lord, the information came second-hand from a farmer, who got the news from a peddler, who came across a troupe of performers and entertainers – it was a small circus I believe.”
“Wait here,” Zakaria ordered both men, then he strode, still naked, out of the bath into his outer office. A few minutes later, he returned with piece of parchment that had been folded in half.
“Take this back to Bloken, man. And you,” he said looking at Captain Menolus, “accompany him, then between you and Bloken, check out the report I gave you earlier and allow Bloken’s troops to assist you in this matter. By combining both of your forces, we might be able to learn something.”
The officers quickly bowed, and then, as if they couldn’t leave the general’s presence fast enough, both headed for the door at the same time, bumping into each other. Red-faced, both men again bowed and hurried out of the bath chamber. The somewhat comic exit of the officers was lost on Zakaria, who had already turned his back on them, once more moving to the window and looking out onto the square of Tardon.
For a few minutes the Duke of Lionsgate stood lost in thought, then as if roused by something, Marcus Zakaria looked about the room as if he were seeing it for the first time, and finally made his way to the tub. His firm, muscular body had its share of scars. Standing before the raised tub, he flexed his arms and rubbed his hands along his sore and aching thighs. Gods, would that old wound above his right knee never stop aching? If he didn’t get into the bath soon, not only would it be too cold to do him any good, his muscles would ache even worse later, and he probably wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep.
“Not that I’ve gotten a good one in days,” he said, muttering under his breath.
Slowly he walked up the steps to the raised platform. After sitting down on the ledge of the large tub, he lowered himself in. He was surprised to find that the water was still quite hot, and he was grateful. Ignoring the scented soaps and perfumed oils, Zakaria picked the plainest and coarsest soap in the basket. It had no scent, and its rough texture scratched his skin instead of soothing it. Then he began to methodically scrub his body, as if the coarse cake of soap grating against his skin would ease the weariness in his muscles. His actions were unconscious and almost mechanical as he slowly worked the soap cake over his sore muscles and continued to think.
Since he was a small boy, he’d been raised with the old stories and legends – everyone had. But now he had to confront the fact that maybe the legends weren’t legends at all – maybe they were true. He’d even had the very proof in his hand, yet he let it slip away. “No, not even that, old man,” he thought to himself, “you threw it away.” And he recalled tossing the chain with the strange gold coin on it to the young winged boy – Jamie, the second one named Nic had called him. There hadn’t been any reason to do it, just as there hadn’t been any reason to let them both escape. But he had let them escape, hadn’t he? Let them escape and on top of it all, he’d even thrown that amulet to the boy.
The boy had somehow been able to read his thoughts, he was almost sure of it. And while he still found it hard to believe it happened, he grew more and more convinced with each passing day that it had happened. And not only that, the one thought this little winged boy had discovered, he’d dug up from a place so deep within Zakaria’s mind that even he never ventured there to recall it. In fact, until a few days ago, he’d almost convinced himself that it had never happened. The thought both annoyed and aggravated him. Zakaria did not suffer foolishness happily, least of all in himself.
“Blood and steel,” Zakaria shouted in anger, splashing the water of the bath.
Even after realizing what the young boy had seen, Zakaria had still thrown it to him. And not only thrown it, but also felt compelled to return it to the boy – a blond haired boy with wings who could read minds!
“Blood and steel,” he thought to himself.
Replaying the scenes of that day for at least the hundredth time, Zakaria stared into the water of the bath. The older boy had risked his life to fight for the younger one. His actions bordered on suicidal, yet were heroic – and, Zakaria thought, selfless. But he’d prevailed – easily. He’d taken on a small retinue of some of his best soldiers and defeated them. How he wished some of his own men could fight half as well!
And the little one, all fire and spit. Even after being dragged half naked across the city, subjected to Gude, and escorted under guard to the office of the provisional governor, he’d been more than impressive standing alone, facing down himself, Gude, and a room full of soldiers. There was no hesitation in his speech, and he’d even presented himself with a touch of grace and poise – making Zakaria wonder if he were of noble birth.
Why, he’d even stood up to the older boy and demanded, yes demanded, that they take a lowly slave boy with them. There was no doubt in his mind that they formed a pair – maybe a very dangerous one. But for good or ill, he didn’t doubt that together they had the potential to be quite formidable. Zakaria always prided himself on being accurate regarding his judgment of the character and abilities of others. It was a trait that had earned him the reputation of being the most successful strategist in all the kingdoms.
Rousing from his thoughts, Zakaria looked down at his left hand. The soap had slipped from it and sunk to the bottom of the deep tub. “Blood and steel,” he cursed. Some things there are, he mused sardonically, that ignore the will of even the Duke of Lionsgate. For a few seconds he peered into the depths of the water, wondering whether to retrieve it. Deciding not to, His Lordship, the Eighteenth Duke of Lionsgate, sunk deeper into the tub, allowing the water to come up to his chin, and brooded.