Chapter 41:

38 - Winning's Reward

The Fallen Diadem

“Mark, you look awful. What happened?” Xon asked. He wore white clergy robes. Sister Evey seemed to be attempting to convert him, or at least hire him for the infirmary.Bookmark here

“Port Pelagus tried to kill me,” I said, rubbing my bloodshot eyes. The town around Vichtstein was bubbling over with activity. The army camp seemed to be almost dismantled. Everything extraneous had been broken down and I could see demi-brigades forming up to begin marching sunwise, towards Piedtri. It seemed that Amaranth had elected to divide his forces and send some on ahead. He must have been concerned about desertion, or perhaps even rebellion, and needed to keep them moving forward.Bookmark here

“Where’s Charlie?” Neeka asked as she walked over to us. She was still in the dress, as I was still in the suit coat, but I suspected that the moment I took my eyes off of her, she would be back in her normal clothes.Bookmark here

Xon snarled. “Hungover. Theo threw him in the stables. Bad night.”Bookmark here

I winced. “Is Claire meeting with Amaranth right now? Is she going to explain what happened?” I asked, glancing over at Neeka.Bookmark here

Her head drooped, unable to look up from the mud. “Yeah, that’s what she said she would do. If we’re going to run, now’s the time. Before he summons us for answers.”Bookmark here

I saw Xon’s brow curl up, the stub spikes fanning out. “We weren’t expecting you back so soon. We aren’t prepared.”Bookmark here

I licked my lips and grinned. Opening up my coat to the fat purse of silver, I said, “Well we can afford to now. The only thing keeping us here is Charlie’s sword.”Bookmark here

“We should convince him to forget about it,” Neeka said. Xon and I rolled our eyes.Bookmark here

When we found our glorious leader washing himself off with well water, trying to scrape the filth off without ruining his latest bandages, he of course said, “There is no way I’m leaving without my father’s sword! No way, no how, out of the question. I’d sooner see the three of you go without me than leave that behind. After all I’ve… all we’ve been through you think I’m going to let him get away with that?”Bookmark here

I could still smell the brandy on his breath. It was enough to even make the scrawny stable horses turn their heads and look at him. Neeka had to pinch her nose shut just to stand near him. “Charlie, will you stop being bullheaded and listen to me for once? Mark killed Brekhart!”Bookmark here

I spun my head around. We were behind the main road, a block away from Theo’s beer garden. The stable was usually manned to tend to the horses and other animals. There had never been a theft, but once a hauler-lizard had taken a bite out of one of the horses because a fence slat was loose. I could have sworn I saw a flurry of blonde hair. One of Theo’s daughters perhaps. I didn’t think she’d rat on us at least. “Keep it down, will you?”Bookmark here

Charlie frowned and leaned back, sizing me up. “You mean without your armor? How’d you do that then? Stabbed him in the back? Smothered him with a pillow in his sleep?”Bookmark here

“Well, I mean, I kinda got forced into dueling him and I stabbed him to death. I used all the stuff I’ve been practicing with you and with the new sword I beat him,” I said. I stopped short of calling it a fair fight. I knew I had only won because of the diadem.Bookmark here

Charlie nodded and planted his good hand on his hip. “Right. Is that so? I guess I did pretty good teaching you then, didn't I?”Bookmark here

“You saw him when we robbed him the first time. He was a coward, right? A nobleman who uses money and influence instead of skill and strength. He never stood a chance. His fault for demanding the duel be to the death. He underestimated me.”Bookmark here

Xon crossed his arms and dropped to the floor. Sitting cross legged, he grumbled with his eyes closed. “Complicated,” he said. “Dangerous. You’re thief and murderer. Amaranth won’t let you go. Likely won’t give sword back either.”Bookmark here

“It was a legal duel!” Neeka protested, her tail bristling behind her. “There were witnesses and everything. He’s the one who set the terms and we have evidence he was cooperating with a mass murderer too!”Bookmark here

Charlie’s glare tightened as he looked at me. “How exactly did you get forced into a duel with him anyways? I thought you were accompanying Claire just to get evidence?”Bookmark here

I scratched the back of my head and tried to think up an excuse, but then I told him everything that had happened with the chimeras. When I got to the end, how the mage nearly killed a god, Charlie held up his hand to stop me.Bookmark here

“You’re telling me one of Throne’s diadems got stolen?” he asked. Bookmark here

“That or this was sponsored by the senate.”Bookmark here

Then it was Charlie’s turn to sit down, though he chose the edge of the well instead of the ground. “I guess the next throne war really has begun. Maybe Amaranth will find the diadem in there.”Bookmark here

I glanced over at Xon. “You didn’t tell him?” Xon turned his head away and Neeka cleared her throat while putting her back to me. Bookmark here

“Tell me what?”Bookmark here

I showed Charlie the black mark across my palm. “Amaranth isn’t going to find the diadem. I already did.”Bookmark here

He blinked back at me like the words were still crawling from his ear to his brain. “You what?”Bookmark here

“When I stepped out to the fight and nearly got myself killed? When you had to save me? What I picked up was the diadem. It, like, called to me or something. Didn’t you notice my arm healed too quickly? Brekhart stabbed me through the leg and I’m walking fine, see?” I asked, stomping my injured foot .Bookmark here

“You? You have the diadem? The ticket to fight in the throne war? A chance at sitting atop the world? You?” Charlie asked as he got back to his feet and walked over to me. His finger jabbed into my chest like it was an accusation.Bookmark here

“Yeah, though I can’t really use it. I’d get rid of it if it hadn’t like, fused with me.”Bookmark here

“You mean I’ve been crippled because I went in to save you, so that you could steal a super weapon from a Holy Lance of Throne? Are you kidding me?” he asked, his face twisting up with anguish. “So that someone who knows what they’re doing can just come and kill you whenever they feel like it and for what? So that now I’m maimed for life and you’re dead?”Bookmark here

“Charlie.” I put up my hands. I took a step back, but he marched me all the way to the stable walls. “Calm down.”Bookmark here

“He didn’t do it on purpose you idiot!” Neeka said, grabbing him by the arm. “He nearly got killed trying to clear up our honor and this is how you’re acting towards him?”Bookmark here

“Shut up!” he roared. “I may never be able to fight again and you’re telling me it was for bullshit like this?”Bookmark here

“Look, Charlie, we can go to-” I didn’t get to finish my sentence. My friend’s fist slammed into my cheek. My head bounced off the timber and I went down. By the time I blinked the stars away, my mouth was full of blood and my neck ached. I checked my teeth with my tongue. Tender but still in their sockets. The sky above Vichtstein looked like it had a different color to it as I stared up from the ground in a daze.Bookmark here

“Let go of me!” Charlie demanded, throwing Neeka off of him and marching away.Bookmark here

“Charlie, what is wrong with you?” she demanded, stamping her foot beside me.Bookmark here

“Oh yeah, keep defending him. See if I care!” he shouted, waving goodbye.Bookmark here

Xon’s hand reached down to pull me up, but I shrugged him off and got back to my feet on my own. “Let him go. It’s probably just the hangover. I’m sure he’ll cool off and come back,” I said, and spat my bloody drool out across the ground.Bookmark here

“What an incorrigible ass!” Neeka shouted, and she looked like she wanted to cut a tree down with her claws alone.Bookmark here

Once Charlie was around the corner, I slumped back down. The strength in my legs just wasn’t there yet. He had hit me really hard. It wasn’t just the exhaustion getting to me. “He’s too smart to do something like go rat me out to Amaranth. He just needs to go blow off some steam and get some food. Let’s give him his space for now. In the meantime, I have some armor to pick up.”Bookmark here

Gerald the blacksmith had just finished the sizing to my measurements the night before and was happy he did so; I tipped him extra for the work. The armor didn’t look quite the same on me as it had on Sir Robbes. I was still slimmer of frame even if our heights were similar enough. “You’ll want to get some fresh enamel on it when you have some time. I would have thrown it in on top, but I got the impression you needed to move. What with how the army is behaving,” the old Blacksmith said as I looked myself over with the minuscule mirror the shop had.Bookmark here

I could see all the nicks and cuts and puncture marks from the sparing, and finally from how we had slain the fallen. I liked the look, even though I knew it was a risk of rust. It made me look like a veteran, and the helm would obscure my face. “You did great work. I don’t suppose you could fix this sword too?” I asked, showing him the bent longsword. I had to carry it in a blanket; no sheathe would fit it.Bookmark here

“Boy, what did you do to it?” Gerald asked, picking it up and looking at the impact site. “This is fractured straight through the core. It’ll never be as strong as when it was first made. Did you also find this in the pit?”Bookmark here

“I bought it from a traveller actually.”Bookmark here

Gerald pulled out his magnifying lens, setting it on his cheek like a jeweler and looked it over. Evidently, he found an inscription. “Looks like you bought this from Henry. Good guy. His smithy is in the Druscan capital but the guilds keep harassing him. He’s passed through Vichtstein maybe a dozen times? I think you’d want to track him back down to buy another sword from him. I can straighten this out but it won’t be the same.”Bookmark here

I dropped some silver on his counter and said, “Please do.”Bookmark here

“Certainly!” Gerald declared, sliding the money into a drawer with a grin.Bookmark here

“You look good,” Neeka said when I stepped outside.Bookmark here

Xon nodded. “Like a knight.”Bookmark here

A soldier came marching over to me as I shifted around showed how the segments could move. “Are you Mark? Lady West’s servant?” he asked, clutching his spear and staring at me. He was in the red color of Amaranth’s army.Bookmark here

I considered lying, but from the moment I had been spotted, escape had become impossible. “Yes?”Bookmark here

“Your presence has been ordered by Lord Amaranth, to explain the circumstances of Sir Brekhart’s death,” the soldier said. Bookmark here

So much for Claire taking care of that issue. It wasn’t even a request; it was an order. “I don’t work for your lord. He can’t order me.”Bookmark here

The soldier didn’t flinch. “As a Holy Lance of Throne, he in fact can order you to appear before him, on penalty of imprisonment.”Bookmark here

For a moment, I considered how amusing that would be; a diadem holder hiding in the dungeon under lock and key, no one the wiser as all the others killed each other off. “Okay then. I guess I don’t have much of a choice. I can explain myself.”Bookmark here

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