Chapter 1: Loyalty Test
“King Alexander requires your presence, Treza,” an officer said, grabbing his arm and forcing him to stop as he headed towards his ship.
Damien paused and considered. He was on his way to Sola for the Council of Nobles. He had been planning this meeting for eight months now, ever since the ceasefire had ended. It had taken almost all of his attention and he had been forced to rely on the Guard more than usual in that time, and now this Guardsman thought he had the right to stop Damien when he had somewhere else to go?
“I will speak to him when I have time,” Damien said.
The man shook his head and refused to let go of his arm. Damien let out an angry sigh and followed him. Alex better have a good reason for delaying him. He needed to double-check security and get Lohen prepared before he returned to Sola and he only had a few hours to do it. Once he landed on Sola and the Council of Nobles started meeting, it was possible that Alexander would be removed from the throne and his troops needed to be in position to prevent an attack on Sola in case Alexander retaliated against him. Once Alexander had been replaced, of course, the Guard would fall into line behind the new ruler, provided it wasn’t Damien, and things would quiet down, but there was going to be fighting and Elnor’s border would be in a weak position.
He had planned this as carefully as he could, moving all of the vulnerable civilians to Sola where his army could protect them and moving the men loyal to him around Sola as well. Alexander would simply think he was keeping his troops near him for protection, not realizing that Damien intended to take his throne away. After all, Damien had refused to push for Alexander’s ouster every year since Lohen had been founded, so why would this year be any different?
But this year was different, because this year, Alexander was trying to take Sola away from him and he would not let that happen. If Alexander allowed him to keep Sola and removed the steep taxes on his system, then everything would go back to normal and Damien wouldn’t push for his removal. But if Alexander refused, and it seemed likely that he would, then Damien would have no choice but to side with the other princes and demand that Alexander step down. The next few days were going to be some of the trickiest days of his life, and he didn’t need a confrontation with Alex to complicate matters.
Elnor was the main threat throughout this. If it were just a matter of taking out the Guard, who were the portion of the army loyal to Alex, then this would be a quick battle. His people were far superior even if the Guard outnumbered them by quite a bit. They could easily win a civil war. But it wasn’t that simple, because Elnor had to be guarded at all time. Elnor was the neighboring nation and Damien guarded them fiercely, because they had five solar flares which could not be allowed to go off. Solar flares were devastating weapons. They didn’t always kill; two of the solar flares that shattered the galaxy about a decade ago had simply let people mute. But the solar flare at Calerad had doomed an entire solar system of over four billion people to agonizing deaths. He would do anything in his power to prevent that from happening again and it was why he allowed Alex to remain king. If he wanted to take Alex out, he had to navigate the war carefully to ensure that Elnor was guarded at all times. It had taken months to plan this, months as he and his top captains had poured over maps and contingencies and everything that could possibly go wrong. He had a plan, but everything needed to happen perfectly and he couldn’t waste his time on Alex’s demands even though he couldn’t refuse them.
He followed the soldier into the prisoner holding cells, wondering what Alexander was doing down there. They entered a large room. Damien saw Alexander and bowed, then noticed the others. His bow was perhaps a second too long, but he needed the time to school his expression. Twenty-four soldiers from Kreutzer, guarded entirely by Alexander’s men. They weren’t in uniform, but anyone could see that they were soldiers. Damien recognized most of them from his visits to Karena but wouldn’t allow himself to show any recognition. It could be deadly for them if he did. He was a little puzzled that two of Mat’s top captains were in the group, including Bryce, who Damien knew better than he knew some of his own captains and the man in charge of the border between Lohen and Kreutzer.
“A ship from Kreutzer was caught in the Gala Rings,” Alexander said.
Damien narrowed his eyes. Why would they be there? The area was specifically off-limits based on a treaty that had been honored for at least ten years. Why was Kreutzer violating it now? Did Bode not realize the consequences of entering that area? According to the treaty, any enemies found in that area could be put to death without violating any protocol.
“I have decided to spare the lives of all but the captain,” Alexander continued.
He met Alexander’s eyes again and understood. Alex wanted him to point out the captain so they could be killed. He scanned the soldiers again, careful not to let his eyes linger on Bryce or Naro. He didn’t actually know which of them would be captaining the ship and wondered why Mat would risk two of his best people on this mission, but he wasn’t going to tell Alexander that. Instead, he let his gaze wander over each of them equally. He was going to have to identify someone and send that person to his death.
There was sudden movement; one of the soldiers rushed at Alexander. Damien was between them instantly, pulling his dagger out to press against the man’s throat. How dare he attack Alexander while Damien was in the room? Did he really think Damien wouldn’t defend his own king? He paused before killing the man, though, and in that moment, one of the other soldiers pushed forward.
“Stop,” he said, yanking the soldier out of his grip. “He made a mistake. Your king has graciously spared the lives of my troops, I beg you not to let this change your mind.”
Damien sheathed his dagger and took a step back, though he remained between the prisoners and his king. He glanced at Alexander, nodding to indicate that this was the captain. He was most likely a Kaze, a man who had entered the army with nothing to lose and was willing to die for his nation. There was no other reason why he would pretend to be the captain when being the captain meant certain death.
Alexander nodded. “For leading an armed ship into the Gala Rings, the punishment is execution.”
The man paled, but didn’t try to beg for mercy. He had to be a Kaze.
“Treza,” Alexander said, and Damien gestured towards two of his soldiers to take the Kaze away.
Alexander lifted his hand, though, and stared at Damien.
“Kreutzer has grown far too arrogant if they believe they can enter Lohen’s territory at will. To ensure that there are no more transgressions, Kreutzer’s captain will be executed in front of his men.”
He didn’t react, but his heart was pounding loudly and heat flushed through his face. Did Alexander really think that he had given permission to these men, or even suggested that Lohen would be lenient if they were caught? He would never do such a thing.
The two women holding the Kaze looked to Damien for confirmation and he nodded. He wouldn’t disobey Alexander in public. But when Alexander handed him a sword, he stared for several seconds before accepting it. A beheading. Performed by Damien.
“If I may speak to you in private, sire,” he began, but Alexander cut him off.
“Once justice has been carried out.”
Damien looked at the man before him, forced into a kneeling position with his neck bare. He was aware of all the soldiers staring at him, his own as well as Kreutzer’s. Most of all, he was aware of the tattoos on his wrists. He had avoided fighting for months, but had always assured himself that in battle, he would be able to kill in self-defense if necessary. When he had fought Mat during the ceasefire, after all, it had felt like a normal battle once his instincts kicked in. But this wasn’t self-defense. This was murder.
He lifted the blade and cautiously set it on the back of the man’s neck to line it up. He would have one chance. He would rather kill the man than injure him, and a clean cut would give a clean death. A sloppy blow would lead to agonizing pain for the man and a second strike for Damien, and he didn’t know if he would have the strength of will for a second strike. He had never killed like this before, in cold blood, and he suspected that Alexander knew it as the man watched him with a look of malicious pleasure. He had killed, but only in battle and only when he had no other options. He avoided killing at all costs even when he wasn’t in his Lithilien body.
The blade glittered as Damien lifted it and took a deep breath. Then he swung down with all of his strength, ignoring his body’s instinct to pull back. A clean cut. The man was dead.
“A word, your Majesty,” he said, dropping the sword to the ground. Alexander nodded and they left the room, Kreutzer’s soldiers pale at the spreading crimson.
As soon as they were alone and in a relatively private area, Damien spun to face him.
“What the galaxy was that?”
“They were trespassing, and you were the only one who could identify the captain. None of them were carrying insignias of rank. Do you object to killing enemies?”
“No,” he said, trying to keep his voice down. They were alone, but a shouting match would attract Alexander’s Guard and that was the last thing he wanted. “But I do object to you keeping military secrets like that. Where did you find them? When? I don’t care what kind of twisted loyalty test you wanted to give me, how could you keep information like that from me?”
Alexander shrugged, his eyes cold. “They were captured three hours ago in the upper lengths of the Gala Rings. I hardly think a few hours will make a difference to your ability to protect Lohen.”
“I don’t care how long it was,” he snapped. “If you ever do that again – three hours?”
His tone changed instantly as the pieces began to fall into place in his mind. The ship in the Gala Rings, his scouts finding signs of Kreutzer’s activity along the border, the strange silence the past few days. Kreutzer was about to unleash a major attack, if they hadn’t already.
“Something wrong?” Alexander asked.
“Yes,” he said, mind whirling. He would need to deal with this before returning to Sola, and time was running out. “And if we lose any systems because of your secrecy, I will not take the blame. If you’ll excuse me, I have a battle to win.”
He left before Alexander could formally dismiss him, but the king knew better than to stop him when he had battle plans on his mind. If Alexander wanted him to keep Lohen’s borders intact, after all, he needed Damien to do his job. How could he not have seen it earlier? Of course Kreutzer was about to attack. The signs were all there. He picked up his pace and went to the nearest console, instructing his troops to jump to the probable site of attack without him. They were the Guard, but they would work. Normally, he would send his second-in-command to take care of this while he went to Sola, but Kyla had been captured by Kreutzer five days ago in an unexpectedly strong attack. She had expected to lose the battle, but they had both expected her to escape safely. Now she was in Kreutzer and couldn’t help with this battle. Damien couldn’t pull anyone else from Sola, not with the Council about to meet.
He studied the console and pulled up a map. Kreutzer would be taking them by surprise and was likely attacking in an area they were currently not actively defending, if he knew Bode. The Guard would get there in time to prevent them from taking too much, but unless Damien went to lead them in person, they wouldn’t be able to retake the systems, only staunch the attack. He was needed on Sola, but Lohen came first. As always.
Cursing under his breath, he nearly sprinted to his rooms and threw a few things together. His normal warship was already in Sola waiting for him. He had come here on a cruiser to report to Alex before returning to his home and there was no time to wait for the cruiser to be ready to leave. He would have to take a scout to the area. They would already be fighting by the time he showed up, but he wouldn’t miss too much. It would take hours, though, getting the systems back. If only Alexander had told him immediately, the way it was supposed to work. His wrists stung and he rubbed them absent-mindedly.
Since he was going to be joining the fight late, he might as well break in a few of the new recruits. This would be a good first battle for them, because their only mission would be to bring him to the main Lohen warship. He called for three of the most promising recruits and when he arrived at the dock, they were waiting and eager. They climbed into the scout and the pilot, a young woman with great potential, lifted off and sped them towards the gate. Damien held his breath and thought about Sola. This battle had better not keep him from getting to Sola on time.