Chapter 3: Forced Negotiations
The emergency lights barely flickered on and Damien quickly quarantined the bridge. The back half of his scout was smashed. Everyone was in the bridge, as usual during a battle, so there were no casualties. The damage to the ship was contained, but that would change if Kreutzer decided to fire again. He tried the console, but all communication was down. The engine wasn’t working. Air would run out soon. He ordered the recruits to evacuate the ship while he waited on the bridge for as long as possible, hoping he could send one last message to his troops.
One evacuation ship was pulling out as he climbed aboard the second and nodded to the pilot to leave. They just needed to get to one of his ships and start the retreat. He should have been on a warship to begin with, but Alexander’s idiotic delay had forced him onto this scout instead. The recruits with him had been terrified when Kreutzer targeted them the moment they entered the system. He had been at the controls since leaving the jump and that should have meant they could dodge Kreutzer easily, but they had been ruthless in following him and attacking. Now, with their scout disabled, he would have to hope that Kreutzer didn’t blast their evacuation ships as well.
As soon as the evacuation ships pulled clear of the damaged scout, they were faced with a Kreutzer warship and several cruisers. He narrowed his eyes and considered. What was Bode doing? They weren’t firing, but there was no way to get to his other ships without getting killed.
Two scout ships appeared and he swore before following them, hoping the other evacuation ship would follow his lead. Bode was taking them prisoner. A fairly typical move when a ship was disabled, but the only reason Bode would send a warship after a scout was if Damien was on board. Without Damien’s leadership, his troops would be forced to abandon the entire system. It was a small price to pay as long as he got to Sola on time, however. He only hoped Kreutzer released him after he ordered his troops to retreat and give up the system.
“Don’t worry,” he said to the pilot. “They won’t kill us.”
She was pale with fear, but she sat up straight and tried to look calm and composed. She almost succeeded. The scout ships guided the escape vessels into a small dock on the warship and soon they landed on solid ground. He took a deep breath in the light gravity of the Kreutzer ship. It wasn’t enough to slow him down, but the recruits with him would notice it quite strongly. They weren’t used to gravity shifts yet.
Damien opened the top door and waited. In seconds, a man appeared and ordered them out. Five other soldiers stood guard as they left the ship. Damien saw the other recruits safely leaving the other vessel nearby. They were a little unbalanced in the gravity, but not as much as he had feared. None of Kreutzer’s soldiers looked surprised to see him. The only question was whether or not they had heard about their captured vessel from the Gala Rings, and the fate of the Kaze. Kreutzer would be within rights to execute Damien, and he doubted Alexander would do anything to stop them.
“Treza,” one of the soldiers said. “You will come with us to negotiate your release.”
“And my soldiers?”
“They will be treated in accordance with galactic warfare codes and not harmed unless they initiate violence.”
Damien nodded and the young pilot glanced at him fearfully. She didn’t yet know that being taken prisoner by Kreutzer was nothing like Wendigo and she had almost certainly heard rumors about Wendigo. Despite the fact that sudden movements might cause the soldiers to attack, Damien laid his hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezed. Then the pilot was led away with the others and Damien was led out of the dock.
The captain of the ship waited just outside the doorway of the dock and Damien had to hide his surprise at the sight of the woman, her blonde bob highlighting pale grey eyes that glowed with victory. It was Chris. Chris had managed to outfight him, isolate his ship, and take him prisoner? He had been expecting Bode. It seemed Chris was not just Mat’s friend, but a far better fighter than Damien had suspected. He shouldn’t have been so surprised, perhaps, that Kreutzer’s second-in-command was so capable, but she wasn’t normally stationed on Lohen’s border so they had never fought before. Maybe Chris had just switched to this border and that was why Kyla had been captured. That would explain the unexpected capture.
At her orders, the soldiers disarmed him, then led him to a negotiation room. He wondered what Chris wanted, what Bode wanted. The soldiers remained at the door and Damien went through first, followed by Chris. She had to push him through because he stopped at the sight of Mat before him. For it was Mat, not Bode, sitting across the table from the entrance to the small room. He was unarmed and dressed in formal clothing as befit his rank as heir, and his hair was dyed blonde as it was when he was a civilian. Normally it was white, which always served to emphasize his almond brown eyes, but white was unusual enough that he dyed it as a civilian to escape notice. Damien had never expected to see him like this on a warship and he struggled to figure out what it could possibly mean.
Chris pressed him into a chair across from Mat but didn’t bother to tie his hands. Clearly, she didn’t expect Damien to fight. And she was right. With an annoyed sigh, Damien lowered his mask.
“What the galaxy do you want, Mat?”
“Sorry,” Mat said with a devilish grin. “That seemed the best way to talk to you.”
“So what do you want in exchange for my release? You’ll get it as long as you make it quick,” he said, furious at Mat’s amusement. The best way to talk? Ever since the ceasefire eight months ago, Damien had done a fairly good job of talking to him every week or two for non-military purposes. It was reassuring having a friend to talk to. It had been about a month since he had contacted Mat because he was so busy preparing for the Council of Nobles and he hadn’t thought Mat would take such drastic measure just to talk to him. Unless he had something else in mind. If Mat didn’t know about the Kaze that Damien had just killed, then there was no reason for them to talk, and if he did know, he wouldn’t be acting this polite.
“I want you to come to Karena.”
“What? Why? I guess I probably could in a few-”
“No, right now,” Mat interrupted. “I’ll let your soldiers go, but only if you come to Karena.”
“Keep them then. I’m not going to Karena.”
“King Edmond wishes to discuss a military treaty with you.”
He frowned. Mat was being serious, but what could he possibly want? A military treaty? King Alexander would never sign it. Damien had barely gotten Alexander to sign the last treaty he had made with Edmond and the only reason he had agreed to sign it was because if he didn’t, Kreutzer might have broken the ceasefire and Lohen would have been destroyed. And this was the worst possible timing. Didn’t Mat realize that the Council of Nobles was about to meet? Didn’t he realize that Damien was finally about to do the very thing that Mat had been pushing him to do almost since they first met?
“If your king wants something from me, he has to go through my king, not through me,” Damien said. “I can’t make any treaties without Alexander’s permission.”
“Then you’ll get his permission.”
“You don’t understand, Mat. Any treaty made now will be void in a matter of days. Let me go and we can make a real treaty in a few weeks.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Mat said, leaning forward. “This ship is already heading towards Karena, and you will remain on it. Do you want to request permission from your king or do you want me to request permission on your behalf?”
“He’ll never agree to this deal.”
“Then let me ask him,” Mat said. “Or would you rather have Edmond himself ask?”
“What do you expect to get out of this?” Damien asked. “Do you want that system? It’s yours. Name a system, you can have it. Just let me leave.”
Maybe there was some other way to get out of this predicament. They were already heading into Kreutzer, so the longer he took, the longer it would take to get back to Sola, but he couldn’t afford to have Mat ask because he was afraid that Alexander would say yes, knowing it would keep him away from Sola. Because if he wasn’t on Sola when the Council started, he wouldn’t be able to participate and all of the planning he had done would be for nothing.
“Just answer the question. Who should ask for permission?”
“King Edmond is the only one with the right to ask for my presence,” he snapped. “But you don’t understand, Mat, you have no idea what this is going to do. I have to get to Sola, now.”
Mat ignored him and turned to the console, sending a brief message. He turned back to Damien.
“We should receive a reply shortly. King Edmond warned me that you might insist on him being the one to ask.”
“And you won’t tell me what you really want out of this? You can’t want a military treaty; you know Alexander won’t approve. Mat, please, you don’t want to do this.”
There was a bing from the console and Mat transferred the message to the console facing him. There it was, a message from King Alexander requiring Treza to report to Karena to discuss a military treaty. Alexander must have been thrilled to know that he wouldn’t be on Sola and wouldn’t be able to take part in the talks. Without Damien there to defend himself, it was highly likely that he would lose Sola and become a court prince, and then he would never again have the power or authority to challenge Alexander. He stared at the message, at the end of months of preparation all dissolving into futility.
“You have no idea how happy you have just made Alexander,” he said softly, still staring at the message. “And how much you’ve cost me.”
Mat looked uncertain for one long moment, then he closed the console. Damien shut his eyes. So he wouldn’t be there for the start of the Council. He could still get back and participate in most of it. He could still make this work. He would not give up yet.
“You win,” he said. “I’ll go. But I’m not staying more than a day. I have to get back to Sola.”
“That’s really up to King Edmond, isn’t it?” Mat asked, lips hinting at a smug smile as if he couldn’t believe he had won. Damien glared. It was true, and no doubt Alexander knew it too. And a military treaty would take days to discuss, not hours. But perhaps he could shorten the time by giving in to all of Edmond’s demands without argument. After all, the treaty would be void soon enough, so why bother putting any energy into it? Edmond would probably be insulted, but it wouldn’t matter in the long run. All that mattered was getting to Sola, demanding a cessation to the taxes and, most likely, leading the fighting that would take Alex out of power.
“My soldiers will be safely released?”
“Of course,” Mat said. “Immediately. Your troops have retreated to the third planet; we’ll send them out with a truce party.”
“Will you let me talk to them?”
“I guess you can,” Mat said. “If you really want to.”
“They’re recruits. None of them had been in a battle before,” Damien explained. “I want to make sure they’re all right.”
Mat and Chris looked startled, and Chris led Damien down to the prisoner’s quarters before excusing herself so that Damien could be alone with them. She was still watching and listening to him through the one-way glass, but he didn’t mind.
The recruits looked up as Damien’s shadow fell over them. All were scared and pale, but none had been harmed. Good. He had been worried that one of them might try to fight since they didn’t know the prisoner protocols yet. As soon as the guard closed the door, they began questioning him about what had happened.
“It’s all right,” he assured them, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “You’re leaving in a few minutes with a truce party. They said the main force is near the third planet, you’ll be released there. This won’t affect your records at all. Tell the captain not to retreat any further, and to report this immediately to the king and to the Council of Nobles.”
They didn’t know he was a prince, but he needed to let the Council know about this before Alexander could twist the situation. The few nobles who knew about Damien’s army position would pressure Alexander to delay the meeting or else allow him to participate from offplanet. Once they knew about this, they would make sure that Sola wasn’t penalized.
“What about you?” the pilot asked.
“They’re taking me to Karena to negotiate a deal. It’s fine,” he repeated. “You shouldn’t worry about me. Just make sure that you report this to the Council of Nobles.”
The young pilot looked skeptical, but all of them nodded.
“All right,” Damien said, again looking at each of them in turn. “You’ll be fine. This happens far more often than you’d imagine, and don’t worry about losing the ship. You won’t be held responsible for anything. Just make sure the captain reports this to the Council.”
He waited until all of them looked sufficiently calm, then knocked on the cell door to be let out. He was again surrounded by guards, but this time, he was escorted into the upper decks, usually reserved for officers. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting – Mat wasn’t going to throw him into a cell – but he hadn’t been expecting officer quarters. Surely Mat’s men would object. They continued, and Damien realized they were heading to the commander’s room. Of course. Mat needed him somewhere secure, somewhere he wouldn’t run away. Of course he would keep him as close as possible, in the most secure room on the ship. Mat’s room.