The Warrior King


By Chris Bunch

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The wizard Tenedos transformed decaying Numantia into a mighty empire, but his lust for conquest destroyed his land. Only General Damastes, imprisoned and exiled, knows Tenedos well enough to predict his schemes. And only Damastes can forge an army to challenge Tenedos and save a ravaged and hopeless land.




The unexpected ships arrived an hour before dusk. We'd seen them sailing toward my island prison for some hours and wondered — no one was allowed to sail in these waters without government permission. There were three of them, one a large merchantman, the other two fast pirate chasers, low sleek galleys.

My warders scurried to their fighting stations. They were frightened the emperor, now revealed to be still alive, might be trying to rescue me, the last of his bloody-handed tribunes who used sword and fire to take and hold the throne of Numantia.

But the emperor grew arrogant, thought himself greater than the death-goddess Saionji, and invaded the kingdom of Maisir to our south.

Our army was destroyed, Numantia invaded by the Maisirians, and I myself hurled Tenedos from his throne when he threatened to send a nightmare demon against first the invaders, then against his rebelling countrymen and our capital of Nicias.

Tenedos, like I, had been sent into island exile. No doubt Bairan, King of the Maisirians, hoped we'd be quietly garroted or have a convenient fall from a battlement when matters had calmed.

Indeed, Tenedos had been reported dead, and I'd been waiting for my own assassin, not caring, for all the world was a bloody shatter to me.

But then the world had spun about us all: Tenedos had faked his death, gotten to the mainland, and was now building his army, ready to take back his throne from Bairan's puppets who ruled in Nicias.

But as the ships approached the tiny port below my fortress prison, they made certain signals, and my jailers relaxed. The ships were from Nicias, sent by the Grand Council.

I, on the other hand, felt a whisper of fear, in spite of my supposed readiness to return to the Wheel, to be judged by Saionji and sent forth to a lesser life as punishment for the thousands I'd led to their deaths as First Tribune Damastes á Cimabue, Baron Damastes of Ghazi.

Not that I had escaped the gods' raking in this life. My wife, now deceased — Marán, Countess Agramónte — had divorced me after our mutual love, Amiel Kalvedon, was murdered by the Tovieti cultists; and later, in Maisir, Alegria, my beautiful Dalriada, died in the long retreat from the Maisirian capital of Jarrah.

I licked dry lips and then had the intelligence to laugh aloud — I'd spent all these times mewling for oblivion like a coward instead of a warrior, and now it portended, and I was terrified. I found resolve and determined to die well, die proudly.

I returned to my spacious quarters, only a cell because of the barred windows overlooking the sea and the double doors with a guarded anteroom between them, and considered matters. I could either stand nobly and calmly at the moment of death as heroes were supposed to or else go down fighting. I remembered an execution in Maisir, when Captain Athelny Lasta, instead of dying quietly, killed the executioner and eight others before returning to the Wheel.

I thought of him and of the various trinkets I'd procured over the long times of imprisonment and laughed once more. For what purpose does a man build weapons if he's seeking a nice, immediate death?

I had a pilfered table knife I'd laboriously ground to an edge against the stones in my cell and a knob of iron such as I'd used to kill the Landgrave Malebranche, far away and long ago in Kallio. I also had that most important of all weapons — four gold coins and three silver ones I'd managed to acquire from making careful wagers with the guards, first with coppers, then escalating my bets. I put these items in various convenient places about my person, then waited.

Two guards summoned me to the warden, Jelap. He was a decent sort, a bumbling old domina who'd spent fifty years under the colors. This was his last assignment before retirement. I often wondered what he thought of this assignment — four hundred guards and an enormous stone fortress with but one prisoner.

There were three men waiting in his office, all wearing a strange uniform, a rather bilious shade of gray with red facings I realized must be that of the Peace Guardians, the largest military force King Bairan had allowed Numantia. They were mockingly organized into corps as my army had been, though each corps numbered only about 150 men, led by the traitorous Tribune Herne, its ranks filled with thugs so in love with force they didn't mind using it on their own countrymen.

The three were Shamb Catalca and Pydnas Bosham and Huda. It said all there was to say about the Guardians that their ranks, the equivalent of our captain and legate, were the same as the Maisirian Army. These three looked as if they would find a back-alley thieves' den more comfortable than an officer's mess.

I expected anything from a murderous attack to a beating to sneering contempt. What I received was formal respect, which I found a bit amusing. All three were behaving as they thought noblemen should, very much on their best, if unfamiliar, manners.

"We have orders," Catalca said formally, "to convey you to Nicias, to the Grand Council, where the Lords Scopas and Barthou would be pleased to receive you."

Pleased? I was hard-pressed not to show surprise. I glanced at Domina Jelap to see if I could read a clue in his face, saw nothing but stiff propriety, and, just possibly, distaste at being a Numantian officer now forced to deal with turncoats.

I could be as circumspect as they. I bowed. "Having no choice in the matter, but appreciating the manner in which your orders are presented, I shall be ready to leave within the hour."

"Good," Catalca said. "For we're under orders to make the greatest haste. This matter is of grave import."

"May I ask what the lords desire of me?"

The uglier of the two junior officers growled. Catalca glanced at him, and he was silent.

"We were not taken into their lordships' confidence," he said.

"Then let me return to my cell and collect my belongings."

"Very well. Pydna Huda will accompany you."

"There is no need for that," Domina Jelap said. "If we've guarded Tribune Damastes for over two years — "

"The prisoner has no rank," Catalca said harshly. "His titles were stripped from him long ago."

"I stand corrected," Jelap said. "We merely used the old formalities."

"Those days are real dead," Bosham said, repressing a sneer. "Best forgotten about entirely."

Jelap inclined his head. "While the prisoner is securing his property," he said, "might I at least offer you a bit of a meal and …," he eyed the three carefully, "… some very strong mulled wine? It's been a grim day; more grim, I fancy, out there on the water."

"Now that's an excellent suggestion," Catalca said. He nodded to my two guards. "Bring him back here when he's got whatever he needs. Mind you, prisoner, your goods'll be well searched, so don't attempt any tricks."

"I have no tricks to attempt," I said, looking bland, and went out.

It took only a few minutes to gather my belongings. They said they planned to search me thoroughly, but by now I'd gained a few prisoner's tricks. The knife was in the sole of my boot, the small slug of iron in plain sight as one handle of my threadbare case. I considered that case and the worn cloak that lay over it and remembered when I had estates, castles, mansions, libraries, enough clothes to outfit a regiment. Life itself proves the Wheel's existence, with its own constant turning.

As we went back to Jelap's office, one warder, a Sergeant Perak, stopped me. The other went on a few steps, then stopped, out of earshot. Perak had always been a bit sympathetic and would give me forbidden news from Numantia.

"Be careful, sir. One of the boat's crew said th' emperor's taken two provinces away from the scum Councilors already. Those three pig-futterers're scared of you, as I suspect th' Maisirian worshipers they serve are as well. Scared men do desperate things."

"Thank you, Sergeant. I'm always careful." An odd question came: "When I leave, what'll happen to this fortress? And you and the other soldiers?"

"Not to worry," he said, with a twisted grin. "These're rough times, and a prison that can't be gotten out of's always useful. Somebody else'll be here before long." He glanced up and down the corridor, made sure the other warder was out of hearing. "With any luck, it'll be those bum-kissers Barthou and Scopas."

"Careful, Sergeant. They rule Numantia."

"The hells they do," he said vehemently. "Only with the swords of the dogpiss Guardians and the Maisirians behind them. Things change fast, and where they sit can change faster'n most."

"So who do you want to rule? The emperor again?"

Perak hesitated. "There might be worse," he said. "Barthou and Scopas were part of the Rule of Ten fools, and from what I read in the broadsides these days, haven't learned anything since."

"The emperor almost destroyed Numantia," I told him.

"Maybe so," Perak said quietly. "But there's enough who'd like to see him try th' throne again, and this time make it right."

I didn't argue, and we went on to Jelap's office. They'd done less eating than drinking, and all three were a bit drink-hammered. Jelap must've been encouraging them by example, for his nose was a little red, and his speech the tiniest bit blurred.

"Are we ready?" Catalca said.

"At your command," I said.

"Then let's go," he said, draining his glass. "I know little of the ocean, but I do know it's best to be away from the land when night comes. Follow us, prisoner, and don't try to escape."

I almost laughed. Escape? From this rock in midocean? If possible, I would've done that a year or more ago. But I looked properly obedient and picked up my duffle. They made no effort to make the promised search.

As we went down the dock to the boat Sergeant Perak came close, and his hand snaked out and passed me something. It was a sheathed dagger. I slid it into my case, looked at him. His face was blank, thinking only of duty.

We got into the boat, and it began pulling away. I turned back for one last look at the prison I would never see again and witnessed something most odd.

The warders were drawn up, on the fortress battlements or along the path to the dock, Domina Jelap at their head. All were at rigid salute.

For whom?

Certainly not the Guardians.

I refused to believe it was for me, the last vestige of Tenedos's tyranny.

But I still got to my feet, braced myself against an oarsman, and returned their salute, clapping my hand against my shoulder.

Then I turned away to the waiting ship and what might lie ahead in Nicias.



I kept trying to catch the future's drift as we sailed toward the Latane River and Nicias. I wasn't chained nor closely guarded, which I took as a good sign, although where I could've gone save overboard to my death I couldn't imagine. Catalca said if there was any attempt at rescue, he was under orders to kill me immediately.

I was given the first mate's quarters, which were fairly spacious. I spent happy hours just staring out the port or on deck, glorying in being able to look for leagues without seeing stone walls.

The ship's crew stayed well away from all of us and refused to be drawn into conversation.

The dagger Perak had given me was a nastily lethal item — a handspan long, about two inches wide at the hilt, both edges razor-sharp. Its hilt and pommel were the plainest of metal, the grip of a black hardwood. The weapon's purpose was clear. I devised a hiding place for it — a thin cord knotted around my loins, the sheath hanging in front of my cock. I'd seen how men are always uncomfortable searching around someone's genitals. I had to be a bit careful sitting down, for fear of being suddenly qualified for singing in upper registers instead of warfare, but I felt far better about everything, as a warrior always does when armed.

After four days we saw land, the low green jungled islets of the Delta, and I smelt the hot, tropic welcome of my homeland.

The coastal watch station at the end of the channel was unmanned, run-down, and the buoys marking the channel had gone unpainted. I saw few seagoing ships either coming up or going down channel, as well.

A day upriver we passed a manned heliograph station, and signals went back and forth, messaging our arrival to Nicias.

There was a scattering of fishing boats outside the channel, bringing up succulent green Delta crabs. One galley rowed alongside a boat and came back with a deckful, some of which were hoisted aboard to be steamed for our dinner.

The fishing boats were manned by young men, actually boys, a scattering of young women among them. Since I knew little of the Delta customs, I asked a seaman if this was customary, and if so, where did the menfolk work?

He stared at me as if I were a prime idiot, looked about to make sure he wasn't being seen talking to the disgraced prisoner, and said, "Their menfolk're fertilizer, in places like Maisir, Cambiaso, Kait … or'd you dis'member there was a war not so long ago?"

Chastened, I thanked him, went back to the rail. I noted the fishermen's expressions were hardly friendly, and one spat as we passed. I chanced being called another fool by asking Huda what price crabs brought these days?

"Hells if'n I know," he said. "You don't think Guardians pay, now, do you?" It was, indeed, a foolish question. A man with a sword only pays when he, or his officers, is honorable.

• • •

I saw Nicias when we were some distance away, by the glow in the night sky as if it were on fire. The city is lit by jets of natural gas seeping from underground deposits, and legend has it the day the City of Lights falls into darkness, Numantia's doom is at hand.

We anchored below the city that afternoon, so I guessed the Council had ordered me brought into Nicias under cover of darkness. Gods, what could they have to fear, I wondered. Wasn't I the cursed first tribune, hated almost as much as the emperor? Or had things changed?

We raised anchor when the dogwatch came on, and sailed on, landing at Nicias's docks near dawn. A mounted unit of Guardians was waiting, escorting four of the black, tiny-windowed ambulances Nicias's warders used to transport prisoners.

"You'll go in one," Catalca said, "and if anyone's waiting to lift you, they'll not know which one."

I marveled at the subtlety of his plan, wondered if he knew enough not to eat soup with a fork, and entered the indicated carriage.

I crouched at the tiny window as we clattered through the morning streets. The City of Lights had always bragged it never slept, but things had changed, for there were few abroad except the lamplighters extinguishing the gas jets, some few drunks, and early risers heading for their jobs. Even the drunks turned away when they saw the Guardians' uniforms — Herne's Harriers had exactly the reputation I thought.

Nicias was gray, tired, dirty, when once it'd been a flashing metropolis of light and color. The war … the occupation by Maisir … the looting of Numantia's treasuries by King Bairan … and above all the grinding knowledge of utter defeat had changed this capital I loved so well.

Entire blocks looked abandoned, and once-prosperous districts were now slums.

We passed brick barracks I remembered well, once the home of the Golden Helms, the useless parade-ground force I'd once commanded. They were shabby, lawns unmowed, the whitewash on the tree trunks peeling, falling away, stone walks cracking. There were lines strung from windows holding drying laundry, some of it women's dresses, then, a sign in front of the barracks, Maisir's yellow superimposed on Numantia's blue, a mailed fist over it, and a slogan: GUARD WELL THE PEACE.

I'd hardly expected Nicias to be as I left it, but the reality struck hard, and I turned away until the ambulance stopped. The door opened, and there were half a hundred Guardians, weapons ready. I got out, looked around.

"So this is to be my new prison?"

"It's not necessarily a prison," Catalca said. "Just a place where you'll be secure until the lords finish with you." He smiled, not pleasantly.

I smiled back, and was amused, not by Catalca, but by my new jail, one which I'd created for other purposes. It was the four-story tower with an interior keep I'd chosen for the Seer Tenedos's safety, back during the Tovieti rising, and I'd also taken shelter there with my bride-to-be Marán. Later it became the emperor's sorcerous retreat, where he called up the demons that encouraged him to begin the disastrous war with Maisir.

Again I noted the turning of a wheel …

I was escorted to my quarters on the top floor of the outer tower — the same ones the emperor had used. I was told there were three hundred Peace Guardians assigned to this tower, their sole duty to keep me imprisoned.

Here I was to wait until summoned.

• • •

Of course, Barthou and Scopas being who they were, I waited for two full weeks on this matter of "grave import." But this was all to the good, for I was able to suborn one of my jailers, a pompous fool named Dubats, one of those who knows everything and must prove it constantly, and got a rough idea of events in Numantia.

The emperor, after rising from the dead, still unexplained as mummery or horrid fact, had left Palmeras for Hermonassa State, which cast off the Grand Council's rule and vowed fealty to him. The two corps of Peace Guardians sent to deal with him changed sides and became the nucleus, such as it was, of his new army.

Tenedos, the warder told me, had moved south along the western coast of Numantia, gathering strength as he did. Ticao had been the second state to declare for him. Unsure of what I myself felt in a world of bad choices, I didn't know if I was proud or ashamed that my home state of Cimabue remained loyal to the puppet government, as had its coastal neighbor of Darkot. But Bala Hissar, Khoh, and Gyantse had gone for Tenedos, as had, on our eastern borders, Bonvalet and Varan.

The government still held the center of Numantia, as well as the vital Latane River, the primary navigational route north and south.

Only Isfahan, directly south of the main province of Dara, wavered, and it'd been quickly pacified by Peace Guardians. Kallio, the other great state, which had risen first against the Rule of Ten, then continued its subversion against the emperor, naturally stood firm against him, as did Urey, which had been razed by first our own army in its retreat from Numantia, then, more savagely, by the oncoming Maisirians. The Ureyans wanted no more of war, on any side, in any shape.

The City of Lights had always been the first to overreact to any emergency, and so, the warder went on, they were planning barricades to hold back the emperor, plus which they worried that King Bairan would once more invade and this time destroy Numantia as he'd threatened, and of course demons would soon be sent by the arch-wizard Tenedos to turn Nicias into a wasteland.

This last was not unlikely, for Tenedos had planned on doing just that until I'd struck him down and destroyed the spell he was casting, before leading the last of the army's cavalry in a mad charge against Bairan's army as if I were a manifestation of Saionji herself.

But as yet, Dubats said, nothing much had really happened, other than rumors.

I asked about the Tovieti, the cult Tenedos and I had brought down once, only to see it arise in a different form, then vanish with our destruction. He'd heard nothing of the stranglers with the yellow cord, which was one bit of good news.

Knowing as much as anyone, there was nothing for me to do but wait … and spend hour after hour in muscle-wrenching exercise; for whatever was to come, I must be ready.

One other thing occupied my time. I'd originally found this tower for the emperor and made certain it was impossible for a Tovieti assassin to enter. Now I considered it from a very different perspective — how to get out. I'm afraid that I now thought little of my previous abilities, for I found three possible escape routes, two of which could also be used to enter the building. I'd gained new talents in Maisirian and Numantian prisons. It also helped that the Guardians' commander was an orderly, scheduled man, so the guards were fed, marched, trained, and checked with the regularity of a metronome.

But my scheming was purely to keep my mind occupied, for where would I go once I got beyond the tower's walls and guards? No one would shelter me, and I thought most would see my unfortunately quite memorable face and scream for the warders … or attack me with whatever weapons were at hand. If I had to die, I'd rather die by the clean ax blade or noose than be ripped apart by a mob.

Guards came early one morning, and once more I entered one of the ambulances and was taken to the Grand Palace, once the Rule of Ten's, then, massively refurbished, made modern and luxurious, the emperor's.

The carriage rattled across the moat into the central courtyard, then went to a rear entrance, and I was hustled inside to a small chamber, where once more I waited, four guards watching me nervously.

After a while, the door opened, and half a dozen other guards made sure I hadn't massacred my captors. Scopas came in next, even fatter than he'd been the last time I'd seen him, which was … and it took some thinking back … more than ten years earlier. Scopas had been one of the first members of the Rule of Ten to support Tenedos and was considered the shrewdest of those incompetents. After the emperor's coronation, he'd tried to weasel his way back into Tenedos's graces, but without success.

Later, when we were fighting in Maisir, he'd led a revolt that failed, but managed to escape and hide before mounting a second, successful rising just before the defeat at Cambiaso.

Behind him came Barthou, formerly the Rule of Ten's Speaker, in spite of his position, never considered terribly astute.

I bowed courteously. Scopas did the same, while Barthou, puzzling on what the proper response should be, made none.

"Damaste á Cimabue," Scopas said, "we have brought you here to offer you life and a chance to rejoin Numantian society as a nobleman, with estates we shall grant you for a gracious living."

"All we want," Barthou put in, and I wondered if they'd rehearsed the put-and-take of their lines beforehand, "is for you to perform a task."

"I wish I could say I was at your service," I replied. "Technically, as your prisoner, I am. What do you wish me to do?"

"First," Scopas said, "I have a question. Have you been approached by the traitor named Tenedos?"

"How could he do that?" I asked, amused. "Remember, you've had me imprisoned, sealed off from the world."

"Magicians," Barthou said, looking from side to side as if for ears to magically protrude from the walls, "have ways of doing things mortals like us cannot know of."

"I'll answer your question with the obvious: No one has approached me to do anything," I said.

"We're aware you swore an oath to the one who was once our emperor," Scopas said. "And I'm also aware of your family motto, We Hold True."

I was slightly impressed — I didn't think the fat man was that aware. I nodded.

"Do you consider your oath still stands, considering the man called Tenedos still lives?"

I thought of various subtleties, decided I wasn't capable of them.

"I don't know," I said truthfully. "I was the one who struck Tenedos down, at Cambiaso, and possibly permitted the Maisirian victory. Doesn't that render the continuance of my oath rather meaningless?"

Both Barthou and Scopas reacted in some amazement. There were but two mortals who knew what'd happened in his tent before Cambiaso. I'd said nothing, out of shame, and evidently Tenedos had done the same.

"That's as may be," Barthou said. "The question stands — are you still willing to serve the emperor?"

I shook my head. "I serve no one now," I said. "As a prisoner, not even myself."

"Would you wish to change that?" Scopas asked.

"We must stop the interloper Tenedos," Barthou said, "and quickly. Or else the worst will happen."

"What's the worst?" I asked. "That Tenedos takes the throne once more … or that King Bairan comes back with his army, which I assume he would if the emperor returns?"

"You've answered your own question," Scopas said. "As to how we wish you to serve us, specifically: we are getting permission from King Bairan to increase the size of the Peace Guardians, to make the force large enough to stand against Tenedos."

"What's the matter with the traitor Herne, who now leads them? I understand everyone loves him for his political realism," I said harshly.

Both Grand Councilors looked unhappy.

"Guardian of the Peace Herne is not exactly a leader the populace warms to," Scopas said. "We need someone better known, better thought of, both to gain the recruits we need so desperately and to serve as a beacon in battle."

This stopped me. I thought the people of Numantia thought me the worst of villains for having led them into slaughter. But if I assumed these two knew what they were talking about — quite an assumption from their past record — things might be different.

"You mean I'd be a figurehead," I said, "with Herne still in command."

"Of course," Barthou said. "What else could there be?"

"Since Herne is little more than raw ambition in the flesh, and completely unqualified to be a general of the armies … even a pissant one like the Peace Guardians … I'd be several species of a fool to serve under him. Particularly if his mistakes would be blamed on me, as you've indicated."


On Sale
Feb 1, 1999
Page Count
384 pages