“The most dangerous opponent for a master is a novice. Therefore, seek to be a novice in all things.”
– Isabella the Mad, only general to ever defeat Theodosius the Unconquered on the field
Anaxares, to his surprise, was still alive.
Perhaps his utter irrelevance in the grand scheme of things had seen him spared, he pondered, but such a thought was too optimistic. More likely the kanenas had all assumed another one of them was going to trigger the stone in his stomach and one would get around to it whenever they remembered. His impending death was such a certainty he no longer spared any time troubling himself over it – what point was there in cursing the river when you were already drowning? At the very least his last days would be interesting, in a truly horrifying manner. The Tyrant of Helike had seemingly adopted him as a pet of sorts, naming him an official advisor to the crown and now dragged him along wherever he went. The villain was amused by his calm. Calling the contraption the two of them were currently on a litter would have been a misnomer: the boy had essentially built a massive dais, slapped a throne on it and now had it carried around by porters everywhere.
A pavilion could be added to cover the surface when weather demanded as much and tables were positioned to allow for the taking of a meal should the Tyrant demand it. The wretched labour involved offended his sensibilities. Foreign Slavers Will Be Known By Their Wicked Works, he added out of habit. May They All Choke On Ashes And Also Snakes. The villain had tried to have a smaller, noticeably cheaper throne put next to his for Anaxares to sit on but the Bellerophan had flatly refused. He’d claimed a wooden stool for the people and discreetly carved the sigil of Bellerophon – three peasants waving pitchforks – on the side. The small act of rebellion had been deeply satisfying, if utterly meaningless. Not, he decided, an inept description of his own existence.
“Finally,” the Tyrant said, “we’re getting decent weather.”
Anaxares looked up at the massive storm clouds gathering and cocked an eyebrow. The lands between Helike and Atalante were known for the occasional bouts of week-long rain and storms, blown south from the Waning Woods and the madness that passed for nature over there. The Fae toyed with the winds and the sky the way men did with their clothes, and the farms beneath them paid the price.
“It will be harder for your army to retreat in the mud,” Anaxares said.
He knew next to nothing about strategy – in Bellerophon the only people allowed to read books on the subject were the citizens who drew army positions, and even they had the knowledge erased from their minds past their term of service lest they Use It In Horrid Rebellion Against The People – but so far the Tyrant’s campaign against Atalante had not impressed him. For one, there’d been no battles. The famous Helikean army had marched east towards Atalante, whose farmers had already emptied their fields, without contest from the enemy. The Atalantians had remained behind their walls as the emptied their treasury buying up all the mercenaries in Mercantis they could afford, only taking the field after they outnumbered the Helikeans two to one. Twenty thousand men had then dutifully marched towards the Tyrant, who had immediately taken his army back through the farmlands he’d just gleefully set fire to.
“Oh, we’re done retreating,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “I’m bored with it now. Got what I need anyway.”
Anaxares pulled at his third wineskin of the morning, trying to wash down the taste of impending doom. The Tyrant disapproved vocally of his drinking habits, but the man’s servants kept bringing him skins anyway.
“As my advisor,” the boy said, his bad hand visibly shaking, “what would you advise me to do now?”
Just being called that qualified Anaxares for thirty-three different counts of treason by Bellerophan law. Fifty-something, even, if you counted all the articles about foreign collusion separately. His remains would be on trial for years after the initial execution.
“Return to Helike, slit your own throat and let your replacement beg the mercy of the League,” he replied without missing a beat.
“You’re a terrible advisor,” the Tyrant complained. “I should have you hanged.”
“If that is your wish.”
Less painful of a way to go than internal organ crushing, he assessed.
“You haven’t gotten tedious yet,” the boy mused. “I guess you can live.”
“I am, of course, relieved and grateful,” the Bellerophan deadpanned.
“You should be,” the Tyrant said cheerfully. “I’m so merciful, it’s why my people love me so much.”
As far as Anaxares could tell, the reason Helikeans ‘loved’ the Tyrant was that they had been told they did by men with swords and grim faces. The army, though, did seem genuinely loyal. Not surprising: whenever a Tyrant took the throne, they started invading everything in sight. The last one to hold the Name had broken the desperate alliance of Stygia, Atalante and Delos before the southern Proceran princes had intervened and put her down. Glorious war had been waged, victories tallied, and within a decade all the borders had returned to what they’d been before the woman had claimed the crown. Named or not, one could not change the face of the Free Cities.
“Admittedly there is no other claimant to the throne, since your nephew’s death,” the diplomat said instead of rehashing the histories.
“Pretty idiot got himself shot by an orc, of all things,” the Tyrant said delightedly, the red in his eye deepening for a heartbeat. “He always talked too much, it’s how he lost the throne in the first place.”
The Bellerophan’s eyes sharpened with interest as he swallowed another mouthful of wine. The Tyrant’s seizing of the throne of Helike had been one of the most unexpected diplomatic development of the last decade, in the Free Cities, but precious little was known about. A boy that had been by all reports a nonentity before the coup had in a single day taken control of the city and the army, killed the king in his own bed and purged his nephew’s supporters brutally. The nephew in question had fled the city with most of the young nobility and his surviving loyalists, becoming the Exiled Prince in the process.
“Talked too much,” Anaxares repeated, leaving the tone questioning.
“See, Dorian’s father was a lot like mine,” the Tyrant said. “Drank too much, dallied with servants, let the nobility and the army run things. Everybody liked that state of affairs. Dorian, though? He was just so pretty and so good.”
The bitter hatred in those words almost fouled the air.
“Now, the old guard didn’t care much for him. But their heirs? The swarmed him like flies a corpse. Hung on to his every word, his promises of reform and a better Helike.”
The Tyrant seemed almost amused at the prospect of the betterment of his city-state, as if such a thing was unimaginable.
“They figured out eventually that when Dorian took the throne, he was going to be an actual ruler,” he snickered. “Their own children would back him in this. Now that angered them quite a bit, Anaxares. If you steal power and keep it for long enough, eventually you start to think you have a right to it.”
He waved his good hand expansively.
“So they looked at the only other child of royal blood,” he said. “Approached me. And I said: why not?”
“They thought they could rule through you,” the diplomat said. “A mistake of some scale.”
“Most of the I fed to dogs,” the Tyrant smiled, that flash of sharp pearly teeth. “The others fell in line.”
“You were twelve years old,” Anaxares said, feeling old. “And already Named.”
“I wasn’t the Tyrant then,” the boy said. “Just Kairos. Can you keep a secret, advisor?”
“No,” the diplomat replied immediately. “I will report everything you say to the kanenas at the first opportunity, before my summary execution.”
The villain grinned.
“Treachery is pleasing to the Gods Below,” he said. “There’s a crypt in Helike, under the palace, where the first foundations of the city were laid. There’s a creature there, lying under a tomb of stone sculpted to look like someone holding a sword. There is a crack in the side just large enough that you can hear the thing inside whisper, if you press your ear to it.”
Anaxares would have shivered, if years of walking with death in his belly had not effectively burned fear out of him. The words were casually spoken but the description felt more vivid than it should have. He could smell the dusty air, feel the unsettling whisper of an abomination against his ear.
“I don’t know what it is. My father said it’s the first king of Helike, still straddling the line between life and death,” the Tyrant said. “The king, though, once said it is the god who once owned the ground the city was built on – tricked into the tomb and forever bound to give us advice.”
“Advice?” the diplomat repeated.
“Prophecies,” the boy said. “All of royal blood can ask one question if it, in our lifetime.”
“And it told you you would rule?” Anaxares guessed.
The Tyrant laughed.
“It told me,” he said, “that I would die when I turned thirteen. That there was nothing I could do to change this.”
The boy smiled.
“It was,” he said, “a great gift.”
Looking down at his shaking hand, the Tyrant seemed lost in memory for a moment before he gathered himself.
“We spend so much of our lives, Anaxares, shackling ourselves. Avoiding doing this and that because others would frown upon it. Because it is wrong and wicked and unworthy. Once I knew there was only death ahead of me, I started doing what I wanted. I ceased censuring what I was to please others.”
“The drow believed the same as you, when they embraced the Tenets of Night,” the Bellerophan said. “And look at them now, Tyrant – packs of savages inhabiting the ruins of an empire. Censure Is Just, Law Is Necessary.”
Glory To Peerless Bellerophon, Whose Laws Are That Of The People, he added silently.
“Your city is the mutilated remains of a people,” the boy said. “That you wielded the knife yourself is the only thing setting you apart from the rest of Creation.”
“We have no rulers, in Bellerophon,” Anaxares said.
This time there was no need for him to speak the words taught to all of them as children, the capitalized praises learned before one could walk. This, he believed for himself. Because the Republic was flawed, deeply flawed, and he could admit this to himself even if he deserved death for it. But what it stood for was… greater than the sum of its faults.
“No crowns. No nobles. No Names. This is not an accident, Helikean, it is a statement. We are all of us free or we are none of us free. There is no middle ground.”
“You’ve lived a heartbeat away from death all your life,” the Tyrant said, “and still you don’t quite get it, do you? You Bellerophans just traded one tyrant for fifty thousand. You don’t get to decide who you are. Others do that for you.”
The boy rose to his feet, stretching out gingerly. He looked almost fragile, thin and sickly under his red silken robes.
“When those nobles and generals came to whisper treason in my ear,” he said, “I did not hesitate. Because I felt like usurping a throne, because I hated Dorian. I was curious to see if it could be done. I was going to die soon, anyway, and what did I care what followed that?”
Anaxares was not a warrior, or a large man. He was thirty and more familiar with wine than a hard day’s work. For all that, looking at the boy, for a moment he was convinced he could snap his neck almost without effort. That the bones would break like a bird’s, shatter like glass. Then he saw the eye, the damnable red eye, and the Tyrant was a looming titan looking down on him.
“So I did it,” the boy hissed. “I crushed them and I stole the crown and I called the would-be puppeteers to heel. And when I turned thirteen, sitting on my throne as the Tyrant of Helike – I did not die. Because Fate isn’t a path we must follow, Anaxares, it’s a tug-of-war between the Gods.”
He leaned closer.
“And sometimes, if you put your hands to the rope, you can tug it your way,” he whispered.
The Named withdrew with unnatural agility, laughing. The intensity there had been to him was gone like mist in the sun. The Tyrant ripped out one of the banners that flew at every corner of his dais – his personal heraldry, a leering skull with a red eye on gold – and leapt down onto the wet grounds. The porters who’d been carrying the dais hastily slowed, not daring to drop the entire thing even as their muscles creaked lest their ruler be splattered with mud.
“Come along, advisor,” the boy said. “We must speak with my general.”
Anaxares followed. The soldiers, hard men and women in scale armour with swords and shield, turned into awed children whenever they saw the Tyrant. Some reached hesitantly for the hem of his silks, which the boy tolerantly allowed. There was no sign of discontent among them even after the pantomime that had been this campaign: in Helike, Tyrants did not fail. Not without betrayal or half the world set against them. They would follow the little madman into the fray without hesitation or doubt. The general they were seeking found them first, riding towards them. A woman, the diplomat saw, then his gaze lingered on her throat. Not that she had always been that.
“Sire,” the general said, dismounting hastily and kneeling.
“General Basilia,” the Tyrant said, patting her armoured shoulder affectionately. “The army is to cease retreating immediately.”
Something feral flashed in the woman’s eyes.
“We are to prepare for battle, then? The enemy is half a day’s march away, we can still set the grounds.”
The Named chuckled.
“There is no need to array our soldiers for a fight,” he said. “Stay in a column. We will be marching on Atalante before nightfall.”
She almost hesitated, Anaxares saw, but did not protest. Loyal, this one. To a boy more than half mad. Gods save them all. He should have brought the wine.
“As you command, sire,” she said. “There is a farm not far from here, should I prepare it to accommodate you?”
“No need,” the Tyrant said. “My advisor and I will be awaiting our friends on the field.”
Without even the semblance of an explication, the boy strode away with the standard resting on his shoulder. The diplomat sighed and made to follow but he was stopped by the general, who put a gauntleted hand on his shoulder. She glared down at him.
“If he dies,” General Basilia said, “you will follow him shortly. Screaming.”
“Nine,” Anaxares replied.
“What?” she said.
“The number of times I’ve been threatened with death today,” the diplomat clarified. “Will we make it to ten before noon? It is an auspicious number, in Bellerophon.”
He strode away after that, while she was still too surprised to protest. He found the Tyrant alone in a sprawling field of grass, gazing ahead. The boy hummed, as he approached.
“And now?” the diplomat asked.
“Now we wait,” the Tyrant said.
It was mid-afternoon when the forces of Atalante arrived.
They were a sorry bunch to look at, compared to the soldiers of Helike. Citizen levies armed with spears and shields and decked in hardened leather, city and caravan guards who’d traded cudgels for swords, unarmoured conscripts with javelins and slings. Only the cavalry looked professional, nobles with long lances and chain mail. The mercenaries looked more fearsome, infantry from all parts of Calernia that dwelled in the mercenary villages surrounding the shores of Mercantis until hired by patrons. There were Ashurans there, he saw, with their curved bows and ornate armours. Levantines with painted faces and hooked swords, even Callowan knights with long banners who must have survived the Praesi purges. Behind him, the army of Helike remained in an orderly column and did not move. The commanders on the other side ordered a halt, but after most of an hour passed without anyone moving orders began being screamed along the Atalantian lines. In good order, the enemy began to advance again.
“They’re not even sending an envoy to talk with me,” the Tyrant complained.
“You murdered the last one,” Anaxares said.
“It’s still very rude,” the boy said, rolling the wooden shaft of the standard between his palms. “They ought to have better manners than that.”
The diplomat watched twenty thousand soldiers marching in his direction and wondered which one would kill him. Hopefully one with a sword. Spear wounds tended to kill slowly, he’d been told, unless something important was pierced.
“Last night, Malicia’s hounds set foot in Penthes,” the Tyrant said conversationally.
“May The Ground Open Up To Swallow The Base Penthesians,” Anaxares replied out of habit.
“The city will be eating itself alive before a fortnight has passed,” he said. “Nicae won’t move until they’ve grown fat with Proceran silver and ‘mercenaries’, Delos will be dealing with the Stygian phalanx moving north. That leaves only our dear Atalantian friends and their escorts.”
“Who you have decided to fight,” the diplomat said. “Without your army.”
“Oh, I could have had General Basilia tear those poor fools alive, if you’ll forgive my language,” the Tyrant said. “It wouldn’t even have been very hard. That’s how the Praesi do things, nowadays. Let tactics and preparation carry the day.”
The frail boy’s lips curled in distaste.
“And to think they were once the greatest among us.”
“The Dread Empire is the most powerful it has been in centuries,” Anaxares frowned.
“And their Empress plays shatranj with the First Prince across an entire continent, winning more often than not,” the Named said. “For all that, they’ve lost their way.”
The Bellerophan raised a sceptical eyebrow.
“It’s not about winning, Anaxares,” the Tyrant said. “It’s about how you win.”
The standard rolled again between the boy’s palms as the enemy host crept ever closer.
“Even now, if I gave General Basilia the order I believe she could win this. It would be a victory, yes, but would it be a victory for Evil?”
“You are a villain,” the Bellerophan said. “A victory for you is a victory for Evil.”
“A mere clash between armies? No,” he said. “It takes more than that. The war I am fighting has little to do with steel: I am soldier for the Gods Below in the game that will settle Creation. A point has to be made, a sense to the story.”
“And what is the point of us standing on this field, watching death arrive?” Anaxares asked.
“Twenty thousand men march to end me,” the Tyrant said. “They will break, because they are in my way. Watch, diplomat, and learn.”
The boy drove the standard into the ground, flying his banner of one in the face of the host that spread across the plain.
“I am Kairos Theodosian,” he laughed. “Tyrant of Helike. And I say that my Rule extends to even the sky. Come, servants of the Heavens. The Age of Wonders is not dead yet. Not while I breathe.”
The cloud above thickened, more black than grey now. For a long moment nothing happened, and then lightning struck the soldiers of Atalante. Thunder clapped, the sky danced to the whims of a madman and Anaxares watched the largest army he had ever seen break apart at the seams. The Tyrant of Helike stood there, smiling.
His hand no longer shook.