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-A Falcon From The Capital-

(Kaliev)

The winds blew and Prince Kaliev Beratevsson Taniyzda quivered. It was a grim reminder that summer had ended and that the snows would soon fall. And once the snows fell, they would fall heavily and end any chance of concluding a peace settlement between the Kruzmonite Empire and the Xinzuans for half a year at least.

“My Prince,” Volod the Translator said in the Emeraldi Tongue, grabbing Kaliev’s attention. “Clan Chief Tep says he will agree to a truce so long as the Xinzuans are given back their deity within three years.”

Kaliev guffawed. “That means we only keep their deity for one year for each of our victories. That is not enough. The Emperor will never accept that as a just settlement. The Xinzuans invaded Kruzmonite lands! Tell Tep that we shall keep his deity for nine years: three years for each of our victories, and on condition that not a single Xinzuan crosses either the Horse-Shoe River or the Bleak Mountains. Tell him that for every Xinzuan who crosses the Empire’s borders without official permission from the Count of the Osprey Region, another three years will be added to their deity’s keeping each and every time.”

“Oh, and Volod,” Legionnaire Griyzkov Aninkevsson Izhutin added. “Remind Clan Chief Tep that we will need hostages as well.”

“Yes, that too,” Kaliev said. “Make sure Tep hands us the children of all of his deputies.”

Impassive, Volod turned to Xhou-Gengu Tep, the warlord of Xinzu. Kaliev listened to the half-Kruzmonite, half-Xinzuan translate what he and Legionnaire Griyzkov had said into the Xinzuan Tongue. Kaliev’s heels ached from standing. He was beginning to regret holding the talks in the open, standing beside the Horse-Shoe River. He had believed the final round of talks would have been concluded, shaken on, and kissed on faster this way. How wrong he had been.

Finally, Volod ceased speaking and Tep responded. “Clan Chief Tep accepts that the Horse-Shoe River and the Bleak Mountains shall be the borders of the Kruzmonite Empire,” Volod said. “But he will not hand over a single one of his people as a hostage, unless you hand him back his deity.”

Kaliev snorted. “Tell Tep that if he does not hand over hostages, the Empire will-”

“My Prince,” Legionnaire Griyzkov intervened. “Could I counsel you for a moment?”

“Please do.”

They turned away from Volod and Tep. “Please do not force Tep to hand over hostages,” the stout, seventy-six year old Legionnaire said. “I know I requested for them, but it was only a negotiating tactic. Tep won’t give us any hostages, meaning that our only way of acquiring them will be through the continuation of the war and we don’t have the men for that. Also, do remember that Tep handed back Siritch’s body and sword as a gesture of goodwill to make peace.”

Kaliev hummed. It was true, Tep had shown honour and compassion when he had returned the body and the Wild Sword of one of Kaliev’s oldest friends, Siritch Aleksiusson Hrovska. Kaliev could not ignore that. Nor could he ignore that the Xinzuans had cannons that had blasted through the Kruzmonite ranks, devastating the Empire’s forces. So long as they could still shoot projectiles, the remaining Kruzmonite men left in the Osprey Region would be vanquished within hours of the resurrection of fighting.

Yet, if Kaliev did not resurrect the fighting to acquire hostages, how could he ensure that the Xinzuans would uphold the peace? More pertinently, how would he convince his father that the peace on the Empire’s north-eastern border was secure? Kaliev dreaded having to justify himself to the Emperor on an issue he could not justify to himself. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end at the thought.

“Remember,” Legionnaire Griyzkov continued. “You have beaten Tep thrice in battle. You have pushed Tep and the Xinzuans back further than the old borders. You have achieved all that His Highness asked of you when he sent us here. Better still, you have captured the Xinzuan deity. My Prince, you don’t need hostages to ensure that the peace is kept. These people care more for their two-headed god than they do for their children. If they want their deity back in nine years, they will have to keep the peace.”

The sun burned through the clouds. Its rays brightened the terrain and sparkled on the Horse-Shoe River. Kaliev smiled. It was a message from Kruzmon, the Sun God. And a message from the most prominent of the gods of the Emerald Garden could not be forsaken lightly. “Legionnaire,” Kaliev said. “Kruzmon shines in agreement with you. Thank you for your counsel.”

Legionnaire Griyzkov gawped. “My Prince… I-I cannot take credit for this. I was merely giving my opinion, as the gods and His Highness demand of me.”

“You are too modest. I am very fortunate to have you here with me.” Kaliev turned to Volod. “Tell Tep that the Empire no longer demands he hand over hostages and that, at last, we are happy to make peace with Xinzu.”

Volod told Tep. Subsequently, the Xinzuan warlord stood before the Prince, clasped his hands together and bowed respectfully. It was the gesture to conclude an agreement and bid farewell to others in his country.

Kaliev stared at Tep as the chieftain straightened up. Tep’s eyes were slim as slits and reeked of lies. The Xinzuans, like the Natalkans, were said to be as deceitful as snakes. Did Tep mean to honour the agreement?

“My Prince,” Legionnaire Griyzkov said. “Is something wrong?”

Do all peace agreements tear one’s mind apart? He wanted to ask the Legionnaire if his mind had ever been so torn. The Legionnaire had been part of many victories, defeats and peace settlements for more than half a century. He could have confirmed Kaliev’s doubts or laid them to rest.

But the Prince chose not to ask. Instead, he lifted his hand; his reservations reflected in the trembles. But he gripped Tep’s hand and gave him a firm handshake. Then, he kissed the warlord once on each cheek, as was the way to conclude an agreement and bid farewell to others in the Empire and among the other Emeraldi peoples of Natalka, Thekland, Kalushka, Tiyonac and the former Zhanyan Kingdom. Legionnaire Griyzkov and Volod did the same.

Tep then turned around and trudged across the bridge. The sun vanished behind thick clouds as Tep reunited with the token force of his beaten, dejected army. Kaliev did not take his eyes off the clan chief until Tep and his eight hundred men had ridden away, deep into the unmapped Broken Lands of the East.

“You don’t believe that Clan Chief Tep will keep to the agreement, do you?” Legionnaire Griyzkov asked.

No. Tep and the Xinzuans will return. I’m sure of it. “My opinions are irrelevant now. I have made my peace. Come, let’s go back to the Citadel and drink some Clear-Fire to celebrate.”

A small smile blossomed on Legionnaire Griyzkov’s petal-like lips. The lines around his whiskered mouth deepened, pushing out his cheeks that had sagged with age. “My Prince, we do not need to go back to drink and celebrate.” He pulled out a flask from within his fur-coat. “We can drink and celebrate now! Here, have some of my Clear-Fire. I have had enough for the morning.”

Kaliev smiled and took the flask. He unscrewed the cap and downed two gulps. The liquid fire plummeted to the bottom of his stomach and exploded inside it, exquisitely.

“It tastes good in triumph, yes?” the Legionnaire asked.

“Never better.”

Kaliev inhaled deeply, taking in the air as he took in what he had achieved. In his thirty years, he had never tasted triumph before. His two-faced, larcenous brother, Prince Eriskoff, had gloated after his annihilation of the Zhanyan Kingdom that triumph tasted as satisfying as steak and as sweet as sugar. For once, his younger brother had been right.

“Pass it here, My Prince,” Legionnaire Griyzkov said.

“I thought you’d had enough for the morning?”

“You can never have enough Clear Fire, regardless of the time.”

Kaliev laughed. “Volod deserves some too. Give him the Clear-Fire when you’re finished.”

“If I leave him any.”

Kaliev laughed again and untied his horse. He put his foot into the stirrup and tried to climb into the saddle. But he failed and slid back down the side of his horse. Kaliev grunted. I should not have given my squires the day off.

The Prince tried again. This time, Volod put a hand on his backside and another on his ribs. Kaliev purred at the strong, manly feel, before a push sent him up into his saddle. “Thank you,” he said.

The stallion grumbled, but the Prince silenced it with a whip. The beast turned westward and galloped past the columns of the remaining five thousand Kruzmonite soldiers in the Osprey Region. They had marched with Kaliev, Legionnaire Griyzkov and Volod to deter Tep from staging an ambush and it had worked. Now, Kaliev and the soldiers could go home and endure the winter in peace with their families. Kaliev looked forward to it. He had not seen his sons since he had left the capital two years ago. He wondered how much Delev and Kobylev had grown in the time he had been away.

“My Prince,” Legionnaire Griyzkov said. “Now that you have made peace, what will you do?”

Kaliev shrugged. “Go back to Hawkpoint, I suppose. I hope Father will welcome me back to the same ovation as he gave Eriskoff when he returned from the Zhanyan War. Perhaps, he will throw a ball for me too. That would be nice.”

“I am sure His Highness will honour you sufficiently when you return to the capital. Mayhap, there will even be another Brideball so you can choose another wife? It has been nearly three years since Katarina died and no-one wants… rumours starting again.”

Kaliev understood the implication clearly enough. “You do not need to remind me of Katarina for that. But I will not choose another wife. I chose one once. It was enough. I have sons, unlike Olezya and Eriskoff. I have done my bit for the family.”

He exhaled and looked ahead at the remains of the Citadel of Osprey’s Outreach, the administrative centre of the Osprey Region. Of its five towers, only the Keeper’s Tower was intact; its white and brown painted walls, with its elaborate patterns, had miraculously been spared of the Xinzuan sacking, as had the blue-and-gold striped onion dome at its peak.

But the rest of the citadel was a crumbled, burnt ruin. “A part of me would rather stay here for the winter and help begin the rebuilding of the citadel,” Kaliev said. “It would be nice to be involved in the process. I could personally choose who would have the honour of rebuilding the fort to its original magnificence.”

“We shall have to see, My Prince,” Legionnaire Griyzkov said. “His Highness may have other ideas for you. But if you are going to have input into the rebuilding of the citadel, would you consider giving a fine young architect the chance to potentially redesign or even expand it?”

“I am happy to consider it and suggest it to Keeper Pyatev.” Then, it chimed as to why the Legionnaire had asked. “And if you would like, as a token of the Empire’s appreciation for your service, I could recommend that your granddaughter be given the opportunity to display her talents to the Keeper and, possibly, myself?”

Legionnaire Griyzkov smiled; his chubby cheeks reddened. “That would be most appreciated, My Prince.”

Unexpectedly, trumpets blasted to the tune of triumph and Kaliev smiled with delight. He had waited thirty years to experience a sense of achievement, and he intended to savour every moment of it. Gods knew, he might have to wait another thirty years before he enjoyed it again. If ever again.

Then, however, the gates to the citadel opened and a sole rider raced out of the ruined complex. Kaliev’s chest constricted. No-one galloped at heart-attacking speed to report good news; particularly, when one’s intended listener was merely half a mile away. No, it had to be bad news; grievous news even. “Call a cease to the trumpets,” the Prince said. “I have a nagging feeling that the tunes will be ill-suited to the news about to greet us.”