Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright December 28th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Lon read. His brothers stood around him.
“Well, what does it say?”
He slammed the paper down on the desk.
“Surrender at discretion.”
The others growled. It was Rias who spoke up.
“Don’t gripe. We knew this would be coming.”
Kiel stalked away.
“I’d hoped we’d get a second season.”
Rias shook his head.
“By then we would be too powerful.”
“So they attack now.”
Wess flopped down into his chair and sighed. He ran a hand through his hair.
“There is some good news. If we’ve forced their hand, they might not be fully prepared for a fight. Maybe we can draw it out. Make them pull back.”
Lon examined the map on the desk. Undead soldiers had been sighted less than fifty miles away.
“How are the volunteers?”
“The armouries have been emptied. The weapons are on the carts.”
“Why haven’t they been distributed?”
Kiel looked at Rias. Lon turned to face him. His brother answered.
“We don’t know who we can trust. There’s no need to arm our friends until it’s too late for them to become our enemies. The men guarding the carts are loyal. They’ll move them into position when the time comes.”
“I wish we had time to build a proper army.”
Rias sat down. He understood his brother’s position. Kiel was the only one of them with military experience. He understood the regular army. He understood uniforms, drilling, and organization.
He didn’t understand the mob.
“We knew we wouldn’t have an army. When we chose this strategy we forfeited that option. An improvised militia is the only way to retain control in the long term. It is able to fight when needed but poorly capable of turning on us after the dust settles.”
Lon rolled up the map.
“At least we’ll outnumber them.”
“And we still have our ace to play. How long has it been since anyone checked on them?”
Rias stood up and fetched himself a drink.
“This morning. I examined them in the vault. They appear every bit as potent as before.”
“I hate handling them. They feel…sickly.”
Lon stood up.
“They are sickly.”
Rias sipped his glass.
“Nevertheless, those trinkets may save all our lives.”
“I hope so. We paid enough for them.”
“They were no more expensive than your sorcerer.”
That was Alto, speaking up for the first time during the meeting. He didn’t often contribute to military discussions. He was an accountant and an intellectual. Generally he preferred to dedicate himself to the organization and the house.
He went on.
“Speaking of whom, how is the enchanted stove coming along? There isn’t much time left and I’d like to have it in the hall before the night.”
“She swears it will be done on schedule.”
“And what of the sorcerer? Have we decided what’s to be done?”
Lon turned to Rias.
“You told them?”
Wess answered for him.
“Of course he did, and shame on you for not telling us yourself. There aren’t supposed to be secrets between us.”
Lon turned to the others.
“You’re right. I apologize. And to answer your question: I haven’t decided about her yet.”
“It seems pretty straight-forward to me. She’ll have to be eliminated: her and the thief.”
Lon shook his head.
“We don’t know that’s necessary.”
“Yes, we do.”
They all turned to face him. Lon stood under their gaze. As a rule, they never voted. Their father always believed a vote within the family represented a failure; that relations should be able to put each other first and decide together. The only time any of them had failed to honour that, they had all been sentenced to exile.
Lon frowned. Rias had been right to remind him. Still, he would ask.
Rias regarded him. His face was hard, but as with all his brothers, there was respect in it.
“She is a powerful sorcerer, but as a professor she is ignorant of the true gravity of our business. Perhaps you’re right that she has…strayed, but she may not know what that means. Give me a final chance to bring her around. If I fail…I’ll deal with her myself.”
His brothers looked back and forth between each other.
“If you fail, we will deal with her.”
Lon looked at his brothers. They nodded agreement.
Kiel shook his head.
“You’re too close.”
Wess interrupted him.
“If she’s just misguided, as you say, you’ll be able to convince her to come around. If not, then she is our enemy and yours too. Besides, you never liked…that side of the business.”
Lon looked back and forth. His brothers were united; worse, they were right. If he were standing in the place of any one of them, no matter how much he hated it, he would be saying the same things they were now.
He’d been selfish before. Not again.
Azarelle tapped the back of the stylus. A tiny sliver of metal curled away from the surface of the stove. She brushed it off with the back of her hand.
It was good work, and the materials that Lon had provided were of fine quality. Properly maintained, the spell would keep the stove burning for more than a year.
She stood up and then flopped down onto her couch. She sank into the cushions. Her back ached from all the crouching. She reached back over her shoulder towards the work table and the mug of coffee that rested on it.
Out of reach. Groan.
She flopped back down and stared at the stove. She still had to perform the casting to ignite it. All the components were inside, wrapped in carefully ordered layers around the smooth black stone that would hold the enchantment.
She heard the door open.
Her mug magically appeared at her shoulder. She took it and looked up at Lon, standing behind her.
“You appeared to need it. I know how hard standing up can be.”
She chuckled. He came and sat down.
“So that’s it?”
He pointed at the stove. She nodded.
“So it’s ready?”
“Almost. I still have to perform the casting.”
“I want to review my notes first.”
“Trial and error?”
She shook her head, finishing her yawn.
“Not for this step.”
“Well, I’m sure you can handle it.”
She nodded and sipped her coffee.
He didn’t say anything more, and she didn’t push him. These days they got along better if neither of them said anything. It made it easier to maintain the illusion that everything was fine.
They’d had so little time together before it came to that.
She fiddled with the pin he’d given her. It was as beautiful as it ever was.
He faced her. It was obvious from his expression that there was something big on his mind. He took her coffee mug and set it down.
“Have you ever made a mistake you felt like you couldn’t take back?”
“Sure, a few times.”
“And did you ever get caught?”
She gave him a little smile.
“I ended up here, didn’t I?”
He gave a weak laugh at that, but the weight on him didn’t ease. She could tell he was leading up to something. She hoped it was just that they were breaking up. As much as it pained her, it would make everything easier. At least it would feel less like the betrayal it was.
He went on.
“I made a big mistake once too. It was my brothers who gave me the chance to make it right, and when they did I swore I would never let them down again. No matter what. I would never put anything before my family.”
“It must have been pretty terrible.”
He nodded, staring at the floor.
“It was. I was selfish and stupid and before I knew it…”
He trailed off. Azarelle straightened up. He was beating around the bush.
“Lon, what’s wrong?”
She knew the answer, but she had to play coy. He turned to her.
“I guess what I’m trying to ask you is: if I gave you a chance to take back a mistake, as long as you promised never to put anything before my family again…would you?”
She looked at him quizzically.
“Lon, what’s wrong? Is it the invasion? The money for the stove? My project?”
He shook his head.
“No, no, no. It’s not that.”
She was silent. How much did he know? Was it over between them, or was it something more?
She couldn’t risk it. If he knew what she was up to, he would have said so. If he still wasn’t sure, there was no reason to confirm his suspicions, and in the meantime it would be better to assume he was just hoping for the same kind of forlorn affirmation that everyone craved at the end of a relationship. They hadn’t been together for long; nevertheless, he…felt deeply for her.
She took his hand.
“Of course I would.”
She didn’t say any more. He looked into her eyes and saw right through her. He slipped gently out of her hand and left.
She sat in silence.
Had she given him the wrong answer? Had there been a right answer to give?
The trouble wasn’t the answer.
It was the question.
She’d lied to Lon on more than one occasion. She’d manipulated him for protection and money, but he hadn’t asked her about him. He hadn’t asked if she wouldn’t hurt him again. He hadn’t said “him.”
He’d said his family.
The room felt suddenly darker and colder…and far too quiet.
She felt a need to pack.
And she had to find Polly.
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