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 ceasefire 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 his constant guidance. Unfortunately. 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. Fighting had never been an issue before his father Yashim had killed his human body and trapped him in this alien one, and he still chafed at the limitations this body imposed.
Kyla waited at the door and performed another inspection, straightening his jacket slightly. She always made sure he looked presentable before seeing Alex, but this time, it might actually save his life. If he appeared weak, or in disarray, Alex might strike. If he appeared as strong and capable as always, then he would survive.
“Are you sure you should go in alone?”
“I have to,” he said.
“Treza, he has no authority to punish you. The captains of the ships are facing court martials, not you.”
It was true, though he was hoping he could talk Alex out of that. Han, the captain of his personal warship and the highest ranking person responsible for the fight with Wendigo that had led to the destruction of an entire fleet of ships, was being charged with negligence even though he had protested that he wasn’t to blame. No one was to blame, really, not in that fight. It wasn’t deliberate in any way, but that didn’t change the charges being brought against Han and the lower-ranking captains and lieutenants. He needed to get them cleared even while he kept himself alive. And it wasn’t just the ships Alex was angry about, though no one else knew that. In order to prevent Eve from killing his men in addition to the ships in the fleet, he had blackmailed her using highly dangerous information proving that he had a better claim to her throne than she did. He had been forced to tell his king about it as well, and Alex was furious.
“There’s more going on than the loss of property, Kyla. I need you and your soldiers patrolling Elnor’s border. I can’t afford to have you come with me.”
Kyla took a deep breath and attempted to calm the worry on her face.
“If anything happens to you, we will be at your side. Until then, we will do as you command.”
He nodded. He longed to ask Kyla to come with him, but there was a chance – just the slightest chance – that Alexander had corrupted her and bribed her to see if he would put personal interests above those of Lohen. If he asked her to come and Alexander found out, then he would be in even more trouble. As desperate as he was for some sort of company, he couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Even Kyla, 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 Kyla was poison in his veins but it was for the best, and he walked off the ship alone, the eyes of his troops watching him with unknown emotions.
The weight of the planet’s gravity threw him off balance as he entered the palace, an unpleasant reminder of his weakness. He had spent quite a lot of time in high-G the past five months during battle, and his ships were set to a higher-than-standard G even when outside of battle. Bressule was almost exactly normal-G but compared to what he had been living in, it was unpleasantly light and his reactions were exaggerated. Normally he adapted in a matter of steps, but today the change was lingering and it wasn’t just physical weight unbalancing him.
He entered the throne room resolutely, knowing full well he was about to be punished. He just had to hope that Alex didn’t kill him. Losing two fleets… Alex 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, he should have been able to prevent it. And if he had reached that conclusion, Alex certainly would. Once, this wouldn’t be a threat. He would simply apologize and if Alex tried to do anything to him, he would refuse to allow it. But that was before he was trapped in a weak Lithilien body, and before he had so openly disobeyed his king and gone after Sabine. Now he was hostage to whatever the man wanted and Alex knew it.
“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 would have to allow whatever punishment Alex decided on. If he did anything to anger the king, even look at him, Alex 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?”
He 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. There was no way Alex would kill him.
“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 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.”
He 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 easily enough to kill someone. Was Alex trying to kill him or was it just a warning? He tried to ignore the delight of the men around him, all of whom resented him 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 he faced Alexander alone.
“Your punishment is for more than the fleets you lost, of course,” Alex said. “You have been hiding your heritage from me for decades now.”
“I only learned of it a short time ago,” he said, not wanting to anger Alex but wanting to make sure his king 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,” he 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 Alex 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, he 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 wondered 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,” he 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 he 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,” he said, bowing low. Then he hesitated. “Sire, about my officers.”
“Provided you submit to your punishment without a fight, I’ll drop the charges against everyone else associated with these incidents,” Alex said.
“Thank you, sire,” he said, relief flickering through the fear that was starting to well up in his gut. Twenty lashes. Could he allow that to happen? He might be able to fight it, to turn on Alex right here and now and kill him, and worry about the consequences later. He had faced that temptation before and attacked, and still suffered for it. He took a deep breath. He wouldn’t. He would survive this and none of his other men would suffer any consequences. There was no way this could kill him.
Alex waved his hand carelessly in his direction and summoned the Guard. He took another 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. His face was exposed but none of the men recognized him, since none paid any attention to politics. It was a risk and he wondered if Alex had been trying to expose his identity in this punishment, since it was illegal to be in the military and also be a prince, but it appeared he was safe. 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, because anyone who recognized those tattoos as Lithilien would know he wasn’t able to fight in this body.
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, Kyla was sitting beside him.
She was staring across him out the window, her somber eyes gazing out to the courtyard below. Her ebony locs were hanging around her face today instead of pulled back as she usually wore them, and while she normal braided color into them, her hair was entirely black today. He wondered if there were a reason. She was in uniform, of course, but the collar of her ebony uniform was unbuttoned and it looked like she had been sitting here a while. He had sent her to Elnor’s border before facing Alex; why was she here now and how long had he been unconscious?
“Kyla?” 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. She turned to him in surprise.
“You’re awake,” she said.
She brought him some water and helped him sit up. Then she sighed.
“Look, I know you need to recover, but we have a problem. Jason needs to speak with you. Right away.”
“Of course,” he said, his voice still cracked but his throat less parched now.
Kyla left and was replaced by Jason, one of his oldest captains and his third-in-command. Jason was in charge of Wendigo’s border but Damien had deliberately kept him out of the battle that had cost him the fleet. He was grateful that Jason wasn’t also having to take the fall for this, though he had to trust that Alex had kept his word and dropped the charges. 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 fleet, and we simply cannot serve King Alexander anymore, not after what he’s done to you.”
“What do you mean?” The fuzziness in his mind vanished, replaced by familiar worry.
“We’ll leave you the ships, of course. I know how badly you need ships. But my fleet and I, we can’t stay. We’re leaving.”
“You can’t just leave,” he said. “Where will you go?”
“We’re heading to Vega,” Jason said. “We hear that’s a good spot for soldiers to find work.”
“You’ll end up working for Eve if you go there,” he 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.”
His hands closed into fists. “The Council of Nobles-”
“Does nothing, year after year. You didn’t even participate this 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,” he 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 people 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.”
He 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,” he said. “I won’t let Alexander hunt you down just because you choose to leave.”
Jason bowed to him and he 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 offense and he didn’t blame them. It was proof, after all, that they served an unjust king. They stayed in Lohen to protect the galaxy against the solar flares that Elnor had, and they supported Alexander because his presence on the throne maintained the order necessary to keep up that protection, but none of them liked the situation. By leaving now, Jason was putting Lohen in an extremely weak position that would impact his ability to keep Elnor contained, but he could understand why they were leaving. Who would want to serve a king who so openly turned against his commander? But they should have stayed, because their vows required it. They should be willing to sacrifice everything to protect against the solar flares, as he was. He had misjudged his troops and was paying the price. He just hoped the other troops didn’t react similarly, because if there was a civil war in Lohen, Elnor would be free to wreak havoc on the galaxy and he would never allow that.
“I’ll arrange for something later today,” he said, hating the words but knowing it was the only way they wouldn’t be killed by Alex. “Wait until you have my command, and please do leave the ships.”
Jason agreed and left the room, replaced again by Kyla, who watched him leave with anger in her eyes.
“He told you?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m going to arrange for his exit so Alexander doesn’t know what he’s really doing.”
She shook her head. “You’re too good a person, Treza. It’s going to get you in trouble again. But now that you’re awake, the king wants to see you. This time, I’m going with you no matter what you say.”
He didn’t try to argue, especially when he tried to stand and found that he needed help from Kyla to walk. He stumbled through several floors until they came to the throne room, and then he pushed her 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?” He 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 twenty-four 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 fleet 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 Kyla, who already knew his dual position, but still. He didn’t like how casual Alex had gotten about revealing his true identity. He would have to talk to the king about it, but not now. “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?” He was shocked at being asked to handle such an important diplomatic mission, especially with Kreutzer, where he had personal ties.
“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,” he said. “I’ll update you every day.”
“Good. Now hurry up before the ceasefire starts.”