Chapter 42:

39 - Never Fight Again

The Fallen Diadem

“Stop right there,” Virgil commanded the moment we set foot down the path to the center of Vichtstein.Bookmark here

I had left Xon and Neeka behind to find Charlie. At the very least, they might be able to bail me out of trouble so long as Amaranth’s gaze wasn’t directly on them. As such, I was alone when the conniving merchant threw his arm around my shoulder. I looked down when he clapped his hand into mine and shook it. When his hand left, a gold coin was in my palm.Bookmark here

“What do you think you’re doing with my bodyguard here?” Virgil asked.Bookmark here

The guard escorting me down looked him up and down, and I could see his brow knit together as his brain pieced together Virgil’s identity. “Under orders of Lord Amaranth, Holy Lance of Throne, he is to present himself at the lake encampment for questioning.”Bookmark here

“And you do that without consulting me? His employer?”Bookmark here

The soldier gulped and straightened up. “This man was in the employ of Lady West, captain in the Order of the Broken Concordant. He has no such relation with you.”Bookmark here

“Well that’s not true. He’s not a slave and he has no contract with Amaranth. Look he’s got my pay right there, see? I hired him after his duel,” Virgil said, pointing to the gold coin in my hand. Bookmark here

The soldier’s lips pressed into a frown. “Sir, I saw you put that coin in his hand just now. You barely even tried to hide it.”Bookmark here

“Oh? What’s this then? His signing bonus is what,” Virgil said, thumping the leather pouch at my side. The coins inside clinked.Bookmark here

With that, the soldier was at a loss for words as to the deception and resolved to say, “Then you too are required to join Lord Amaranth, post haste.”Bookmark here

“Certainly!” Virgil said with a grin as the three of us began walking.Bookmark here

“What are you doing?” I hissed.Bookmark here

The merchant smirked at me. “You could start by thanking me. I’m about to be your lawyer. From what I learned, this whole thing with Brekhart started because you didn’t have proper legal defense. Were you going to blunder through it all over again? Or are you going to accept a peace offering? Favors are the first step to alliance, and I believe you are well worth the investment. From what I’ve seen anyways,” he said, giving a pointed glance at my hand.Bookmark here

“Hell of a way to start talks.”Bookmark here

Virgil grinned and grabbed hold of his lapel as we descended into Vichtstein. “You’ll have to forgive me for that; habit from the early days. You never get a deal quite like when your partner is desperate. Give a man too much time and he’s likely to sit on it forever. Life needs pressure.”Bookmark here

“You nearly got me killed. Why should I trust you in the slightest?”Bookmark here

He frowned and shrugged. “Obviously because the situation has changed. You’re not just some angry kid, you’re much more than that. The hero of my arena to name just one. I may not seem like it, but I am very, very offended by what was done to my employees.” His voice took on a darker tone. I could see the lines of tension through his jaw as he spoke. “I didn’t know them personally, but my friends are the ones who hired them and they were slaughtered to make a spectacle. If you think I’m going to let something like that slide, you’re sorely mistaken and a much too gullible fool to believe a smile.”Bookmark here

I let out my breath and nodded. “Even if I believed you right now, you’re expecting me to believe you want to pick a fight with a one man army. A man able to best gods?”Bookmark here

Virgil proceded down the road a good while, staring ahead as he thought on that. We passed the temple where Sister Evey worked, and had nearly reached the wine cellar when he quietly said, “Gods aren’t too hard to best. They are creations of mankind. They’re nothing beyond our understanding. They just seem like it because very great people made them very long ago. It would be another matter if he had stolen power from the throne. Magic or no, that chimerist is just a man. He can be killed.”Bookmark here

I took a look at the tattoo across his neck and cheek as he spoke. I wanted to ask why and how he had gotten it. It was related to Necrotis, another god, but he hadn’t even told Claire about it. “Frankly, I think you’d be better off getting Amaranth’s help than mine.”Bookmark here

“The quality of character matters as much as the capability. If I’m to work with a man who makes snap judgements, they need be of a more reasonable measure than ordering executions. I much prefer someone who, injured and almost unarmed, would still put himself between a threat and a kid like Sammy,” he said, and gave me a gentle smile.Bookmark here

I was thankful I had my helm on. It obscured my face as I turned away to hide the heat in my cheeks. The silence between us didn’t drag on long, the soldier marched us up to the gates of the encampment. It looked almost the same as when I had left it. No sign of packing it up. The pontoon bridge out to the castle hadn’t even been changed or reinforced.Bookmark here

“Reporting; I’ve brought the boy Mark as requested by Lord Amaranth. His employer has requested to accompany,” the soldier explained to the guards.Bookmark here

They looked us over. I recognized both of them and they me, but they glared at Virgil. He gave a slight bow, “Owner of the Ten Swords Arena, and your primary supply contractor. Have you boys been enjoying the pork? I sourced the spices from a Dalvurnian trading group. I find them to be spicy and delectable, don’t you?”Bookmark here

The guards mumbled to each other, and I thought I heard one of their stomachs growl; but, they let us pass nonetheless. In just three days, it seemed like the attitude of the camp had grown sullen. The men in the pit were the ones trapped there with Amaranth; trapped digging through a castle with no diadem in it and no hope of moving on. A familiar scent was in the air though. When we walked past the mess hall, I recognized it at once; roast dragon.Bookmark here

At least one of the great beasts that Amaranth had slain on the day of the attack was being cooked up and distributed to all the men. Seemed that he had elected to put the food in their stomachs instead of their packs, and yet the men were still glaring and whispering. It felt like the moment I looked away, a fight might break out over bumping into one another wrong.Bookmark here

The soldier marched us past all of that, and to the dirt clearing before Amaranth’s tent; the one where he had freed me from the bondage he had put me in. Charlie was there. I saw him tilt up dark glass bottle and chug out of it before shouting, “Lord Amaranth Arnstein! I would like to request an audience with you!”Bookmark here

My jaw dropped. I stepped forward to go grab the idiot; but, Virgil grabbed me. “That’s my friend. I have to stop him.”Bookmark here

“Where’s your friend? The cat? Get her to stop him. Do not mingle your intent with a drunk’s,” Virgil hissed back.Bookmark here

I glanced around. No sign of Neeka nor Xon. They probably wouldn’t have made it past the guards even if they had caught up with him. He must have snuck in or something. And yet, his shout did get Amaranth to step out of his tent. In full armor and carrying Ascalon in one hand, he emerged into the evening light and stared at Charlie. I think he had been expecting me, and saw my injured friend instead. “The druscan boy?” he asked.Bookmark here

Charlie dropped the bottle and pointed his finger at Amaranth. “My name isn’t Druscan Boy, even if your friend Fulvous called me that too. I am Charles, son of Pepin, the blade master of Drusca. Wrongly executed because of your stupid wars and I have sworn to get my revenge against Fulvous Red of the Bow. I swore I would do it with my father's own blade. Just one problem,” he said. He theatrically looked around him as soldiers turned their attention to him. Men who had been eating, or marching, or carrying supplies, stopped to listen.Bookmark here

Ascalon glowed as Amaranth stamped the butt into the dirt beside him. “I don’t have time for your anger, boy. The fate of the world is twisting from hand to hand and your revenge is immaterial.” I could only image what the spirit was saying to him. Bookmark here

I saw the knight commander turn his gaze to look for me, but Charlie didn’t let him take his attention away. “You stole it from me! With no justification, you robbed me of my father’s sword, my honor and inheritance, for a crime I did not commit. You stole it for your own pleasure and I demand it’s return.”Bookmark here

That roused Amaranth’s ire, and Virgil tugged me a step over. It put the guard between me and Amaranth. “That you did not commit? I seem to recall you confessing to the theft of one thousand silver. For that alone I could have had your head cut off, but I mercifully allowed you to return what had been stolen. The matter of Sir Brekhart does not matter. You are nothing but a thief and a drunk. Your actions here today spit on your father’s grave. You want it back? Here.”Bookmark here

Charlie had been on the verge of screaming back at him, but Amaranth spun on his heels and marched back into his tent. A moment later, he stepped out not with Ascalon in his hand; but Charlie’s blade. “Give that back!”Bookmark here

“Come and take it then. Let me teach you the difference between you and a blade master. Come on boy, draw your steel. Now’s your best chance. I’ve set down the mighty Ascalon. Come on!” Amaranth shouted as he marched at Charlie. He didn’t even have the blade raised to a guard, it was low at his side and held in one hand..Bookmark here

Charlie was just drunk enough to do it. He still had my old sword strapped to his hip, it was more effective than my dagger at least. He tore it free from the scabbard and a dozen soldiers jerked forward to intervene.Bookmark here

“Men! Stand down. This is an order,” Amaranth bellowed out. “You; one good blow and I will give this back. But if you can’t so much as scratch me, then you don’t deserve it.”Bookmark here

Virgil shook his head. “He doesn’t stand a chance, does he?”Bookmark here

“No, probably not. It’s too late though,” I said, watching as Charlie charged in screaming. The fight was hard to watch. Not because he was sloppy in his fighting though. Despite the inebriation, his body still knew everything he had drilled into his muscles. Every step, parry, and cut he made had the same sharpness and force as ever. With no regard for his own safety, he threw himself into the fight, driving Amaranth back in circles through the yard. The steel of their blades clashed again and again till sparks flew between them.Bookmark here

Amaranth wasn’t fighting back. He gave ground but never at a hurried pace. Each of his movements was fast and barbaric, slashing away Charlie’s attacks but never capitalizing on the openings. He let Charlie attack and tire himself out till his shirt clung with sweat and his hair dripped. Only when the attack slowed, and his chest heaved, while Amaranth was unaffected, did he finally strike back. With one slice, I saw red spray across the ground. A sheet of blood sprayed out of his forearm as Amaranth cut him down to the bone and snapped the tendons to his fingers. Bookmark here

With no strength to them, his hand couldn’t hold onto his sword anymore. It fell from his grasp and hit the ground. The tip stuck there, handle standing up before him like a grave as the pain set in and he began to scream.Bookmark here

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