Damien rested his head on the soft pillow and shut his eyes. All of the monitors in the room were silent. King Alexander had managed to get a cease-fire out of Sabine and a large-scale ceasefire was being discussed by all of the nations. Fighting had dropped to its lowest level in months and Lohen could defend itself for a few days without Damien’s constant guidance. Unfortunately, Damien thought with a wince. He was headed to Bressule, the capital of Lohen, and would land in minutes. He hadn’t even gotten a chance to sleep for more than half an hour since the disastrous attacks from Wendigo and Kreutzer a couple of days ago and he had no idea how he could defend his actions. He would have to rely on the truth, but that was an unreliable weapon against an unreliable king.
Muffled knocking at the door. Damien stood and ran a hand through his hair. He examined himself in the mirror. Exhausted, but still capable. Good. He couldn’t afford to show any weakness. He checked his uniform carefully, making sure his weapons were ready and his medals properly aligned in his formal military dress. The medals were his primary protection against the Guard, who viewed any lapses in military decorum as a punishable offense. He wasn’t sure if he could fight in his Lithilien body, but the weapons were a necessary backup.
Kyle waited at the door and performed another inspection, straightening his jacket slightly.
“Are you sure you should go in alone?”
“I have to,” Damien said.
“Treza, he has no authority to punish you. The captains of the ships are facing court martials, not you.”
“There’s more going on than the loss of property, Kyle. I need you and your men patrolling Kreutzer’s border. I can’t afford to have you come with me.”
Kyle took a deep breath and attempted to calm the worry on his face.
“If anything happens to you, we will be at your side. Until then, we will do as you command.”
Damien nodded. He longed to ask Kyle to come with him, but there was a chance – just the slightest chance – that Alexander had corrupted Kyle and bribed him to see if Damien would put personal interests above those of Lohen. If Damien asked Kyle to come and Alexander found out, then Damien would be in even more trouble. As desperate as Damien was for some sort of company, he couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Even Kyle, one of his oldest friends, was potentially a spy. Even a request like this, seemingly made out of friendship, might be poised to land him in deeper pain. Not being able to trust Kyle was poison in his veins but it was for the best, Damien knew, and he walked off the ship alone, the eyes of his men watching him with unknown emotions.
The weight of the planet’s gravity dragged at his feet as he entered the palace, an unpleasant reminder of his weakness. He had spent quite a lot of time in zero-G the past five months during battle, and his ships were set to a lower-than-standard G even when outside of battle. Bressule had standard gravity and normally he adapted in a matter of steps, but today the heaviness was lingering and he knew it wasn’t just physical weight pulling at him.
Damien entered the throne room resolutely, knowing full well he was about to be punished. He just had to hope that Alexander didn’t kill him. Losing two fleets… Alexander had every reason to be mad, and that wasn’t even counting the news of his heritage. It shouldn’t have happened. Even with everything going on, Damien should have been able to prevent it. And if he had reached that conclusion, Alexander certainly would.
“Sire,” he said, kneeling in front of Alexander before the man could speak. “I apologize for the losses these past few days. I have already taken steps to ensure that it will never happen again.”
“It never should have happened in the first place, Treza.”
He remained kneeling, head bowed. If he wanted to live, he knew he would have to allow whatever punishment Alex decided on. If he did anything to anger the King, even look at him, Alexander might kill him.
“I see you understand your position,” Alexander said slowly. “Losing an entire fleet is a punishable offense. The surviving officers will have to defend their actions later today. But you’ve lost two. Do you have any defense?”
Damien swallowed. He wanted to say that his troops were spread too thin, that he barely had time to sleep, let alone spot traps and win battles, but instead he lowered his head further.
“You admit that your orders led directly to the destruction or capture of two fleets?”
Again Damien paused. Admitting this was treason, and Alexander would have the right to execute him. But it was also the answer that he clearly wanted, and Damien would rather admit to treason than alienate Alex right now.
“Yes,” he said.
Because his head was bowed, he almost didn’t see the hand flying through the air to punch him, and it took every ounce of strength to allow the blow. If he so much as dodged, he knew he would die. Alexander nodded, rubbing his knuckles and turning to the other men in the room, all captains in Alex’s Guard.
“Treza’s mistake is an honest one, and I have faith that twenty lashes will ensure that he never makes that mistake again.”
Damien didn’t move, afraid that he would show his fear. Twenty lashes? That was twice the maximum amount allowed by law, and ten lashes was enough to knock the person out for a day or two. Twenty was enough to kill someone. He tried to ignore the delight of the men around him, all of whom resented Damien for one reason or another.
“I would speak to Treza in private first,” Alex said. “I will summon you when it is time to take him to his punishment.”
The men bowed low and left the room, and Damien faced Alexander alone.
“Your punishment is for more than the fleets you lost, of course,” Alexander said. “You have been hiding your heritage from me for decades now.”
“I only learned of it a short time ago,” Damien said, not wanting to anger Alex but wanting to make sure Alex had all of the facts.
“I suppose you learned this when you kidnapped Sabine. Is that when you learned she was your sister, or did you know before and that was the reason you kidnapped her?”
“I learned it after,” Damien said, keeping his eyes on the ground. He was afraid if he looked at Alexander the man would take it as a threat. He deeply regretted having to reveal the information to Alexander but the situation had been dire. Sabine was a ruthless opponent but her grip on her throne was shaky. By revealing that her father had specifically stated he would prefer Damien on the throne, Damien had won the lives of his troops and a ceasefire on Sabine’s border for a month. And it might cost him his life, he thought grimly, wondering if twenty lashes was enough to kill him. A human wouldn’t survive, but he wasn’t human. He could heal himself, and he was determined to survive.
“What were you planning on doing with this knowledge?”
“Exactly what I did with it,” Damien said. “I used it to make sure that Lohen remained safe.”
“You had no ulterior motives for releasing the information when you did?”
“No, Sire, and only you and Sabine have this information. No one else knows.”
Technically Edmond knew, but Damien didn’t want to explain that. Better a lie than have to explain Edmond and his attempts to persuade Damien to join Kreutzer’s army. Then Alex would skip the lashes and just kill him.
“That is acceptable,” Alexander said. “But you will still be punished. I expect no one else to find out about this information, and I expect you to remain a loyal Prince of Lohen and not attempt to take the throne of Wendigo.”
“Of course, Sire,” Damien said, bowing low.
Alex waved his hand carelessly in Damien’s direction and summoned the Guard. Damien took a deep breath. He had survived Alexander’s scrutiny, but would he survive the punishment? He didn’t talk or struggle as his shirt was removed and his hands tied to a post. No one questioned his tattoos; they probably thought he had always had them. Tattoos were fairly common and he was glad that no one knew what they meant. Then he would really be in trouble.
He managed not to cry out until the fifth blow, but then his self-control couldn’t contain the pain anymore. He retained consciousness only by reminding himself that once this was done, he could heal himself. He would lose a lot of blood and be weak for days, but there was no way this would kill him, as the man wielding the whip clearly hoped. In response to his pain, the sixth blow was even harder, and he tried to make his mind blank until the punishment was over.
He was in a daze of pain before long, and he barely felt it as he was cut down from the post and carried away. They brought him to what must have been a prison cell, because the surface they laid him on was made of rock, and then they left. If they were hoping he would bleed to death, though, they were wrong. He fought against the pain and urged his body to stop bleeding, and it slowly responded. He didn’t have enough strength to heal any of his wounds, but at least he wasn’t losing too much blood anymore. Time passed in a blur as people came and went. At one point a doctor came in to inspect him because he somehow ended up with bandages around his torso. He was moved to a more comfortable room and when he first woke up and realized where he was, Kyle was sitting beside him.
“Kyle?” he managed to say through parched lips. He was lying on his belly and his back ached. He was incredibly weak and even though he assumed he had been sleeping, he didn’t feel rested at all. Kyle turned to him in surprise.
“You’re awake,” he said.
Kyle brought him some water and helped him sit up. Then Kyle sighed.
“Look, I know you need to recover, but we have a problem. Jason needs to speak with you. Right away.”
“Of course,” Damien said, his voice still cracked but his throat less parched now.
Kyle left and was replaced by Jason, one of his oldest captains and his third-in-command. Jason took one look at him and shook his head.
“This is exactly what I mean,” he said. “Look, Treza, I’ve spoken to my men, and we simply cannot serve King Alexander anymore, not after what he’s done to you.”
“What do you mean?” The fuzziness in Damien’s mind vanished, replaced by familiar worry.
“We’ll leave you the ships, of course. I know how badly you need ships. But my men and I, we can’t stay. We’re leaving.”
“You can’t just leave,” Damien said. “Where will you go?”
“We’re heading to Vega,” he said. “We hear that’s a good spot for soldiers to find work.”
“You’ll end up working for Eve if you go there,” Damien said darkly.
“We won’t work for her, don’t worry. We won’t ever fight against you. You’re still our commander, but until you stand up to Alexander, we can’t remain here. He should not be King, yet you do nothing to replace him.”
Damien’s hands closed into fists. “The Council of Princes-”
“Does nothing, year after year. You weren’t even here last year. Oh, you always talk about deposing Alexander, but when the vote comes, you all stick with him. Until you’re ready to lead Lohen in a revolution, we’re leaving.”
“You can’t leave now,” Damien said, aware of a helpless note in his voice. “You know how weak that leaves us.”
“I’m sorry, Treza, truly I am, but my mind is made up. Some of my men will stay here, but the majority agree with me. We’re heading to Vega later today. Alexander won’t know we’ve defected until we’re already gone.”
Damien sighed. They were determined to leave, then. It was a nightmare and the pain in his back wasn’t helping.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t follow,” Damien said. “I’ll come up with some reason for you to go to Vega, and then we can always say that Sabine has taken you prisoner.”
“You would do that?” Jason sounded surprised. “Even though we’re abandoning you?”
“You’re still my men,” Damien said. “I won’t let Alexander hunt you down just because you choose to leave.”
Jason bowed to him and Damien sighed. He hadn’t counted on his troops’ reactions to his punishment. He had figured he would face Alex alone, but apparently his troops took his whipping as a personal offence and he didn’t blame them. It was proof, after all, that they served an unjust King.
“I’ll arrange for something later today. Wait until you have my command, and please do leave the ships,” he said.
Jason agreed and left the room, replaced again by Kyle, who watched him leave with anger in his eyes.
“He told you?”
“Yes,” Damien said. “I’m going to arrange for his exit so Alexander doesn’t know what he’s really doing.”
Kyle shook his head. “You’re too good a person, Treza. But now that you’re awake, the King wants to see you. This time, I’m going with you no matter what you say.”
Damien didn’t try to argue, especially when he tried to stand and found that he needed help from Kyle to walk. He stumbled through several floors until they came to the throne room, and then he pushed Kyle away. He would enter the throne room on his own two feet, no matter how much it hurt. He refused to give into the pain as he stood before King Alexander, who watched with malicious glee.
“It seems you’re in luck, Treza,” Alexander said, extending a sheaf of papers towards him. “Wendigo has decided to initiate a ceasefire. A galaxy-wide ceasefire,” he added.
“What?” Damien looked at the papers in confusion.
There had been talks about a large-scale ceasefire over the past few days, but he had dismissed it as idle gossip. Everyone knew it was impossible to get a galaxy-wide ceasefire. But she had already received tentative confirmations from every leader, including Alexander.
“Wendigo has never fully reestablished its monarchy,” Alexander said. “And given recent revelations, Queen Sabine is eager to focus on her throne and she can only do so in peace.”
“That’s great news.”
“You don’t sound pleased.”
“It’s just… She actually got the consent of every government? That’s incredible.”
Alexander shrugged. “I think every nation can gain from this. We can certainly use the time to rebuild our troops and secure our holdings.”
“Of course, Sire. When does the ceasefire go into effect? There will probably be a last minute attempt to get as much as possible.” His brow creased as he mentally scanned through all of the planets along Lohen’s border. “With your permission, Sire, I believe we can secure the space around several planets before the ceasefire. During the ceasefire, the planets will be completely cut off from the main military and when the ceasefire ends, we can easily take them.”
“Of course,” Alexander said. “You have twelve hours. I’ll send Lohen’s final confirmation of the ceasefire. If anything happens and this falls through, however, you need to have a good plan of defense. I’ll let you know immediately if that happens.”
“Thank you, Sire,” he said, already planning how to take two planets and also send Jason and his men to Vega in a way that fooled Alexander into thinking they had been captured and not that they had defected.
“Prince Damien,” Alexander added. Alex rarely mixed royal affairs with military affairs and it was dangerous to announce his position in front of military officers like this. It was only Kyle, who already knew his dual position, but still. “The King of Kreutzer has extended an offer of a treaty, to be discussed during the ceasefire. Given your influence there, I believe it would be beneficial for you to go to Karena and do the negotiations.”
“Really?” Damien was shocked at being asked to handle such an important diplomatic mission, especially with Kreutzer where Alexander knew he had personal ties.
“Our Ambassador has been withdrawn, so you’ll be on your own. I expect you to use that time to learn about Kreutzer’s army, and their plans,” Alex warned. “This will not be a vacation, nor a simple mission. You will report on the positions of their troops as soon as you get the chance.”
“Despite the treaty?”
“It will be primarily economic. I don’t think a military alliance with Kreutzer is a good idea, considering our present relationship with them.”
“Of course,” Damien said. “I’ll update you every day.”
“Good. Now hurry up before the ceasefire starts.”