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Through a spyglass, General Uhr-Tao peered at a row of lookout towers whose sentries surely were looking back at him. The spires of the palace they protected glowed like newly forged spearheads in the glare of two suns. Four full cycles had passed since he'd last ridden inside those massive fortified walls to attend the wedding of his sister to the man who was now king. Then, he'd been in the company of only a few horsemen. Today, it was the thousands he'd earned the right to lead.
Though well defended, the eastern walls were not as thick or tall as the other three. He'd plan his breech there. Once inside, his army would overwhelm the home guard. The gates would open, and the city would fall.
But of course, none of that would be necessary. Tao lowered the spyglass, holding it to his chest. Satisfaction filled him knowing he'd never have to fight such a battle, and he reveled in it, realizing he could finally put away the mental trappings of war.
The spyglass went back in his saddlebag, perhaps for good. Even at this distance he could smell the city. Scents of incense and roasting meat mixed with the dust churned up by the men and beasts surrounding him. He breathed deep, remembering. Then, faintly, above the grinding and clanking of his army, shrill horns of welcome pierced the air, signaling the opening of the gates.
All told, he'd spent more than half his life away in the Hinterlands, battling the Gorr, going out on his first campaign before he'd shaved his first whisker. He'd never dreamed he'd see this day, his triumphant return home for good; he'd never allowed the fantasy of it to tempt him for fear it would have distracted him with hope in the face of impossible odds. But here he was, in one piece, all his limbs attached and working, a fate he owed as much to being in the right place at the right time as he did to blood and sweat. Or, he well knew, to not being in the wrong place as so many others were.
Thank you, Tao thought as the moment hit him, for sparing my life when so many others perished. Uhrth rest their souls.
Then, a slow smile as he lifted his head. "Gentlemen!" he belted out. Blinding sunlight struck his helmet and leather armor as he raised a gloved fist high. "Today, we will bask in glory. Our victory, our peace. Final, decisive, hard-won. This is the last march of the last war, and we are the last warriors!"
The men's whoops and howls made his heart pump with joy. Their grins blazed beneath the shadows of countless helmets. Tao laughed out loud as Chiron pranced and blew, sensing the fever of celebration, long overdue. It had been a grueling slog from the blood-soaked killing fields of the Hinterlands, the days dusty and monotonous and the nights interrupted by tortured dreams. Not all battle scars were visible. Survival, however sweet, came with a cost.
Along the way, the army's depleted state had left them vulnerable to not only roving bands of Gorr stragglers but to the Sea Scourge as well. Burned in his mind was the memory of the Scourge's shadowy ships mirroring the progress of his army across the southernmost land-bridge. Part human, part Gorr, the treacherous pirates were the offspring of humans who'd mated with the "Furs"by choice or by force, no one knew. Human at first glance, they were said to have inherited Gorish eyes capable of charming a man's soul right out of his body, if he was careless enough to stare.
Sea Scourge pirates kept the waters off-limits. This time, however, they'd stood down and let the Tassagons pass. Did they fear him, or did they approve of what he'd done to the Gorr? Perhaps it was a little of both.
Even after entering human territory, Tao had been forced to keep up his guard. The Riders of the sweeping central plains considered the grasslands theirs. They saw nothing wrong with stealing horses and leaving a careless Tassagon without boots or a mount on the open plains.
And then, there were the Kurel. The people living in self-imposed exile in the Barrier Peaks had allowed his army to use the passes through their mountainous home, saving many weeks of travel, yet they'd never once lifted a handand certainly never a weaponto help stave off the Gorr. Not since their scientist ancestors in the days of the Old Colony had caused the near extinction of human civilization.
Not scientists. Sorcerers. Dabblers in the banned dark arts of science and technology. Many emigrated to the capital to live, serving his countrymen through teaching, tallying figures and writing, the tedious chores Tassagons either didn't want to do or couldn't do for themselves. But, they wouldn't join the army. Conscientious objectors? More like cowardly freeloaders. The Kurel accepted the benefits of the peace Tassagons won without being willing to pay. What did they want for that sham? A halo, claiming they were Uhrth's favored children.
Privately, Tao wondered if it were true. After all, the fever that had killed so many in the capital had spared everyone in K-Town, even those who'd sickened. Uhrth rest their souls. He made the circular sign of Uhrth over his armored chest plate in memory of his parents, victims of the plague. It would soon be ten years since they had passed on to the other side.
He lifted his gaze to the brutal glare of morning once more. No matter the differences between the Tassagon, Riders and Kurel, they shared the most fundamental bond of all: they were of Uhrth. They were human. Any discord between them could cause their own downfall. The complete extermination of the human race had always been the goal of the Gorr. The furred muscular bodies, rows of needle-sharp teeth, the strange pale slitted eyes, designed to "charm" and then kill Tao braced himself against an onslaught of unwelcome images. How many nights had he heard the Furs' eerie caterwauls upon their taste of first blood? How much sleep had he lost, wondering how many of his men would be killed in the attack? The idea of the Furs emerging from hiding to strike at the heartland chilled him to the core.
Tao set his jaw. They will not. I have defeated them.
Pounding hooves dragged his attention to a group of horsemen galloping to meet them. The leader brought his horse to a graceful and expert stop, raising his visor to reveal a relieved, if disbelieving, smile. It was as if Tao's very presence and the circumstances surrounding it were a wish that not even the most optimistic of Tassagons had expected.
"General, Tassagonia welcomes you. I welcome you." Field-Colonel Markam seemed to hunt for the exact words he wanted, then finally shook his head, laughing. "It's good to see you, my friend."
Tao chuckled at the man's wondering expression. "Back from the dead, I am."
"And to a welcome worthy of your miraculous return. Wait until you see, Tao. It's completely spontaneous."
"That's the best kind of celebration."
"Most of the time." Markam turned his horse to head back toward the city with Tao. "Xim wanted to declare a national holidayfor next weekcentered on him. Him giving speeches, him handing out a medal or two to you and your officers, him granting awards of land for your men, out in the countryside, where they can be put out to pasture with wives but the citizens made their own plans, as you'll soon see. Xim's been stewing about it all morning."
When their beloved monarch, King Orion, had died unexpectedly three years earlier, leaving control of the realm to Crown-Prince Xim, Tao hadn't hesitated to give his fealty to the new ruler, his brother-in-law, despite his inner doubts about the man. It was his duty, his calling as an Uhr-warrior, to do no less. Still, it wasn't much of a stretch to imagine the king's petulant expression at not getting his way. Tao had seen it many times before on the younger, smallish boy he and Markam had known as children. But they were men now, the leaders of their people. Above such childish reactions. Or so they ought to be.
"I won him a war, Markam. The war. If he finds no pleasure in that, I can't help him." Tao shook his head, muttering, "Already I miss the no-nonsense laws of the battlefield, where a man says what he means, and there is no time for hurt feelings."
Markam's dark eyes twinkled as he rode at his side. "You haven't changed a bit. You still have no patience for politics."
"Never will!" Tao turned his focus toward the city. "Politics is the pastime for men who can't fight."
The rumble emanating from behind the walls became a wild roar of cheering as his army's point guard preceded him through the gates. Tao sat taller in the saddle. Pride swelled in his chest as he marched his army into their beloved capital city to the boisterous love of the crowdsand soon, he was certain, despite everything Markam had said, the thanks of the king himself.
"Uhr-Tao, Uhr-Tao "
The incessant chanting. It had been going on since before sunrise. Elsabeth had dressed for her job as royal tutor while listening to it, the distant sound carrying into her parent's tidy row house next to their old clinic in the center of Kurel Town. The chanting had persisted like distant thunder all through her solitary breakfast, keeping her from concentrating on the book she'd intended to read with her morning tea.
At her front door, she stopped to sling a messenger bag over her shoulder and fill it with storybooks she'd purchased for the prince and princess: Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales; Green Eggs and Ham; The Starry Ark. As soon as she arrived in the nursery classroom, she'd lock them away as always. Having such things in the palace was her secret, and the queen's. Queen Aza had been adamant that Elsabeth not breathe a word of it to anyone.
Anyone meant Xim. In the capital, adopting Kurel ways could get a person killed by order of the king. No one was safe anymore. Not even his wife.
"Uhr-Tao Uhr-Tao Uhr-Tao "
Before leaving, Elsabeth reached for a chunk of charred wood she'd kept on a shelf since saving it from her parent's funeral. Worn smooth over the years, the piece sat clutched in her hand for longer than usual. Today, especially, on General Uhr-Tao's homecoming, it paid to remind herself of her vow. Now that the general had spent himself slaughtering Gorr, would he cast about in search of new prey? What if Xim unleashed Tao to finish what he'd begunthe violence, the raids, the Kurel arrested and never seen again?
I will not fear. I will never give up.
She replaced the piece of wood and left.
"Uhr-Tao Uhr-Tao Uhr-Tao " The chanting grew louder the closer she got to the ghetto exit, where her usual morning routine would intersect quite inconveniently with the general's long-awaited arrival. The streets outside Kurel Town were packed. Never had she seen so many people gathered at once. The army kept pouring in from beyond the walls, thousands of soldiers. The city seemed too small to hold them all. Leading their slow, measured advance was General Uhr-Tao himself.
She slowed to see. For all his alleged exploits, he looked far younger than she'd expected, and storybook handsome. She had to agree with the Tassagons that the man fulfilled every expectation of what a legend should look like: his bare, golden arms corded with sinew and muscle, his thighs thick as tree trunks as they gripped the sides of his mount. Even the armor he wore across his shoulders and torso somehow fit him better than it did other, mere mortal men.
Look at him, so high and mighty on his horse, a man celebrated for the lives he's taken. Elsabeth wrenched her attention away. She'd been fully prepared to not like Uhr-Tao. Nothing about his flashy return changed her mind.
With the bag of books snug against her hip, she walked briskly out the ghetto gates and into the crowded streets of the capital.
Adoring citizens lined the road as far as Tao could see. The faces and voices extended in all directions, filling and overflowing the main square. A band of minstrels cavorted alongside him, singing ballads in his honor. Tao waved, soaking in the moment: the spontaneous celebrations, the music, the flowers and confetti flying, all under a sky empty of burning arrows and smoke.
A world finally without war.
A flower sailed up to him, thrown from a group of pretty women. He caught it and stuck the stem in his armor, causing them to shriek with glee. One tried to climb up to Tao's lap to kiss him. He laughed, making sure she landed safely back on the road. Her eyes were shining, her cheeks flushed, as if his mere touch were magic.
"It is safe to say you have reached god status, my friend," Markam said, grinning. Tao followed the sweep of his friend's hand across the throngs lining the road for the celebration of his victorious return. "Why, today even Uhrth himself would stand and offer you his chair."
Tao snorted. "Blasphemy!"
"The truth! Look at them. They worship you."