Muse and Music – vision and inspiration

This link is to a YouTube video from 2 Steps From Hell. I do not own this, and if this is not permitted I will remove the link immediately.

2 Steps From Hell – Rise Above

Music is inextricably linked in my mind to writing. In fact, to every aspect of my creative endeavors. This piece has embedded itself in my mind, because in every part it mirrors Damien’s desperate ride back to Bonne Terre to warn his Queen of the impending attack. The images came of themselves; when I heard the piece for the first time I was just listening to 2 Steps From Hell, not even thinking of Spymaster.

It begins with Damien riding down out of the Breiche mountains, wearing a sheepskin coat and hat, then crossing the plains. The music changes, and he is making his way through the crowded streets of Brekkestad. He meets with his friend and contact, Marczyn, who hands him a pack of papers. Damien leafs through them, and stops on one.

Damien took the handful of papers from his contact and scanned through them. His hands froze on one, and he read it again, his breath caught in his throat. “You’re sure this is genuine, Marczyn?” he asked hoarsely.

The other man looked, and nodded. “I copied it myself. Is it important?”

“Yes—desperately…” Damien said in a fading whisper, then took a sharp breath. “I need a fresh horse.”

“Take mine,” Marczyn said, and gestured across the way to where a horse was tethered.

Damien was already crossing the allée, shoving the papers into his scrip. He mounted up and turned the horse, then tossed a purse to his friend, speaking urgently. “Marczyn, don’t go back there. Take your family and go somewhere safe.”


Damien reined back, and Marczyn saw his eyes were wide and dark with horror. Then he put heels to the horse, and it leaped away. But his answer burned in Marczyn’s mind long after— “They are going to start a war!”

You hear the slash of the reins as Damien charges away, and then his mad race across the plains and into the mountains, Gloriane’s voice and memory foremost in his mind.

He reaches the Palais du Monde at Bonne Terre, throws the horse’s reins to the groom standing there, and dashes for the stairs, scrambling desperate and breathless up level after level to get to his Queen.

He arrives at the Grande Concours and calls to her; she turns, sees the desperate horror on his face, and turns back for an instant and realizes what is about to happen. She turns back, points down the stairs, and screams her daughter’s name—and the Brekken ships fire.

It’s all there. All of it. It fits. And it gives me chills every time I hear it, because I SEE it, clear and vivid.

Contretemps and Change of Heart

A long piece this time, to make up for the long break between. A little more of each character, as well.

Damien is returning from foraging for food for the travelers, to find the ladies under attack by a Brekken patrol. Cécile has killed one soldier, but Ysaut, the disguised young Queen, lies unconscious on the ground. Damien charges in and kills the other three soldiers in a whirlwind fight, where he himself is injured.

Eadmond, instead of guarding the ladies as ordered, had followed Damien instead, mistrusting him. That mistrust appeared to be justified when another patrol met Damien and spoke in friendly fashion. Damien handed over some papers, which the patrol’s sergeant looks over. Eadmond, distracted, does not see them handed back, and assumes Damien has betrayed them all.


He spent the next quarter hour cleaning up after the fight; first searching the soldiers’ bodies, then dragging them off away from the camp, and finally throwing dirt over the spilled blood. Next he belatedly caught his horse and unloaded the provisions they so sorely needed. By that time, Cécile had led Melina back and settled her between Ysaut and herself. Melina’s storm of emotion had passed, and when Damien had finished, she called to him.

Damien came over and knelt before her, bowing his head in profound respect and abject apology. “M’sera, m’selles, I am so sorry this has happened to you all. I—”

M’ser Damien, no!” Melina’s voice was soft, but steady. “You have nothing for which you should apologize. You could not have known Eadmond would desert us. You were away seeing to our needs before your own.” She reached out and took his hand in hers. “I wanted to thank you. Without your intervention our case would have been so much worse. I am grateful.”

He had no words to reply to this, and in the end simply bowed his head over their joined hands in acknowledgement. And then his head came up sharply as he heard hoofbeats approaching. He was rising and turning, his knife already in his hand when Eadmond thundered into the camp.

“You bastard!” Eadmond shouted as he flung himself off the horse and onto Damien. They hit the ground together, rolling, entangled like two cats fighting in the streets. Eadmond struck at Damien with no finesse, no sense of how to fight; his blows full of rage but with no skill behind them.

Damien, in contrast, knew how and where to place his fists for the most effect. The moment he realized who he was fighting, he flipped the blade in his hand, only using the hilt to give his blows more weight. But when one of Eadmond’s blows caught the wound in his side, something snapped in Damien’s mind like a flash of white-hot lightning. He brought his knee up hard between the younger man’s legs, buried his fingers in Eadmond’s hair and slammed his head against the ground. Eadmond went limp, stunned, as Damien brought his knife up for a killing blow.

Damien!” Gilliane’s shout froze him in place. Gilliane, not Ysaut; the snap of command in her voice the unmistakable twin of her Mother’s. For an eternal moment he held there, still and breathless—and then he breathed, and let Eadmond go. The knife was gone again, the moment’s madness past.

For another long moment Damien knelt straddling Eadmond, chest heaving with hard breaths as he fought for calm, and then he climbed to his feet and stood staring down at the younger man. One more hard breath, and he turned and crossed the clearing to kneel before Ysaut, head bowed. “My apologies, your Majesty,” he said. “I—”

“No, Damien,” Ysaut said, her words cutting across his. “No more apologies. Never apologize for protecting us, even if it is only against misguided young fools.”

Damien dropped his head lower, and then nodded acknowledgement. “Your pardon, m’sera,” he said, “I should see to him.”


Damien rose and crossed the clearing again, stopping to pull rope from his gear. Then he went to Eadmond, who was still lying on the ground, groggy from the blow. Damien wound his hand in the man’s collar and dragged him over to a tree, where he tied Eadmond’s hands behind his back, wound the rest of the rope around his chest and the tree, and then tied it off.

Halfway through, Eadmond began to struggle, and Damien put his hand to the man’s throat. “Be still,” he hissed, “Or I’ll put the rope around your neck! Where did you go?” But he ignored Eadmond’s struggles and finished tying him to the tree, and then simply stood and walked away.

Cécile was there as Damien rose, staring down at Eadmond, shaking in fury. She flung out her hand, pointing to where Ysaut still held Melina to her side. “Look at them,” she said, her voice hard with anger. “Look at us! This was your doing. We were attacked because you left us unguarded! What if those men hadn’t been here for their own pleasure? What if they had recognized Gilliane and were taking her captive? What then? You are endangering your Queen at every turn with your insistence that Damien is an enemy, when it is you, you, every time!”

Eadmond stared up at her, gaping. “Men?” he said, “What men?”

And then behind her, Damien staggered and went to one knee, at last yielding to the wound in his side and the strain and grief of the past days as the adrenaline and determination that had sustained him this far finally ran out. He lost consciousness to the sound of all three women calling his name.

He came to propped against a tree as Cécile stitched up the wound. It was a long cut, but not deep; fortunately, the soldier’s knife had hit his rib and slid along it instead of going in. But it had bled more badly than he had realized.

“Ah, you’re awake again,” Cécile said, glancing up at him and then looking back at what she was doing. “I’m afraid your shirt may be ruined. I’m a fair hand with needle, thread, and flesh,” she said with a slight smile. “With linen, not as much. Serviceable patches only. But a fine seam? For that you want Melina. She could run her own atelier and make a fine living. There,” she said finally, cutting the thread and cleaning up.

Damien inspected her handiwork as she wrapped a bandage about his ribs. “How did you come to learn all this?” he asked, gesturing at the medical kit and her pack of ‘necessities.’

She laughed softly, putting it all away neatly. “Seven rowdy older brothers,” she said, “and a pressing need to hunt to keep them fed.”

“And the wit to think of it all, and plan for future need?” he asked. “The henna was especially inspired.”

Cécile laughed again, “The wit I got from my Mother, and her training to think ahead. The henna, well, that comes of helping her keep her youthful looks by hiding the silver in her hair. My father loves to play his fingers in it, and has no clue what she does to keep him happy.” A merry laugh bubbled out of her. “I think!” Then she sobered, and met his eyes, holding his gaze steadily. “And now, m’ser, you will rest.” She raised her hand against his protest, and her voice went stern. “M’ser, you will rest! How long did you ride from Brekke? You said yourself, one hour only, to rest your horse. And another three days from the Capitol to here, and kept watch on us through all the nights, and when have you slept? It’s a wonder you’re not hallucinating! You need rest, you cannot function like this.”

“How can I dare rest?” There was such pain in his voice that Cécile wanted to weep. “I rested one hour, and look what happened! Think what would happen if I rested a day!

Now her voice went sharp, to break his thought. “Damien, stop that!” Then she went on quietly, but none the less intent. “That is your exhaustion speaking, you cannot think like that. Had you not rested your horse, you would have killed it under you, and then what? You would have had to walk from Brekke, and then you would not have reached Martagne until everything was over. We would all be dead, because you would not have been there to rescue us.

“Your body is not a horse you can kill under you, and you walk off and find another! If you die of a bullet, or a knife, or exhaustion, you are just as dead, and what if Gilliane dies because you are too exhausted to make good decisions?” She reached out and laid her hands over his. “Damien, you are overwrought, you are grieving. Your judgment is suffering, and those words are the proof of it. Rest. You are not alone anymore! I will keep watch for you. I will keep watch for us all.”

There was a long pause as Damien sat there, his hands knotted together under hers, and then at last the tension went out of him all at once, and he bowed his head. Then, very quietly, he said, “M’sera Cécile, I am very glad you are here to show me my folly. You are wise beyond your years.” He took a great breath and held it long, then let it out slowly. “You are right, of course. I am a man obsessed, and that is no good thing. Obsession, and exhaustion…”

“And care, and perhaps too great a heart.” She gave him a gentle smile, and patted his hands. “Come, give over. Rest. Sleep.” And then she added with a hint of mischief, “Or need I tell Ysaut on you?”

Damien threw his hands up in mock defeat. “Touché, m’selle, I surrender! I shall rest.” But then he took her hand in his, and bowed his head over it, then looked up and met her eyes. “But it is you who have too great a heart, m’selle. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.”

* * *

Damien slept fitfully for a few hours, but then woke again, restless from the pain of his wound. He rose and built up the fire, then set up a meal from the dead soldiers’ packs and the supplies he had bought earlier. Then, when it was ready he served the ladies and himself. Only when they were all finished did he even look over to where Eadmond slept, bound near the horses.

At last he rose and went over to him and reached down, shaking him awake before standing up and backing away. “Are you really a soldier?” he asked, his voice harsh with scorn. “Or merely a dressed-up toy? Whoever trained you should be shot.” He turned away for a moment, holding hard to his temper. “I told you to stay here on guard. You abandoned helpless women for no good reason, you ignored the direct orders of your Queen! What were you thinking? Where did you go?”

Eadmond spat at him, his face twisting with hate. “I take no orders from a spy!”

“Don’t be a fool, Eadmond!” Cécile called out from where she sat across the clearing. “Damien Ring has been the Queen’s man since before you were born! He is no Brekken spy!”

“You call me a spy, then, toy soldier?” Damien spoke at the same time. “Well, so I am! Nor have I ever said otherwise. I was spymaster to Queen Gloriane until her death, and by default now I am spymaster to Queen Gilliane. Unless she releases me, in which case I shall yet be her faithful hound and follow at her heels, and fly at the throats of all her enemies. Even you, d’Almena. Even you.

“But wait—you think I am a spy for the Brekken. What do you think I would do for them? What, exactly, do you imagine a spy is good at? What would you say?” He started ticking them off on his fingers, one by one, in savage mockery. “Lies, treachery, deception. Secrets. Intrigue.” He paused a moment, then, quietly, closing those fingers into a fist. “Murder.”

Damien nodded at that, and took a breath that went down to his toes before letting it out and going on more moderately. “Yes, that, too. I am good at all those things and more. And all of those skills I lay at the foot of my Queen, for her and her alone. I play whatever part I must to do what needs to be done.” He looked down at Eadmond and shook his head and then went on bitterly. “As for what I would do for the Brekken? Had I a fast horse and a thousand knives I would cut the throats of every Brekken ever born for what they did to Gloriane. And I would butcher any man who dares lay a hand on her daughter.”

And then he leaned down toward the man at his feet and spoke in whispered tones so cold and deadly that Eadmond winced away. “And you, little toy soldier? You live at her sufferance only. If ever again you desert your Queen for any reason, I will hunt you down and flay you alive, and stake your bleeding body at the crossroads, and weep not a tear at your demise.”

“Brave little man, threatening someone bound at your feet,” Eadmond snarled back. “You weren’t so brave on the Concours!”

Damien straightened abruptly, and behind him Cécile and Ysaut shot to their feet. “What did you say?

“I said you’re a coward! Your Queen was under attack by the Brekken, and you ran!

I followed orders,” Damien snapped back savagely. “Something you seem utterly unable to do.”

“You just left her there!”

Damien took one step back, white and shaking, barely holding his control. “I saw her die!” he said, his voice in rags. “I saw her cut in two by the Brekken bullets. I saw her b—” He cut himself off before he said it, before the image came up in his eyes again, before he spoke the unspeakable in front of her daughter. “No.” he said, deep and harsh in his throat, then in deadly calm, “No. I need not justify myself to you, m’ser. You have not the right to question my actions. I answer only to the Queen.”

“You, answer to the Queen?” Eadmond shot back angrily. “Then who is Charles Banford?”

Damien lost his breath in shock for a moment. “Where did you hear that name?

“I heard it from your own lips! I saw you when you handed your report to those Brekken soldiers!” Eadmond fought against his bonds, his face filled with anger and hatred. “What did you give him? A letter telling where you were taking the Princess Gilliane?” He spat at Damien in revulsion. “Who better to spy for them than a half-Brekken bastard!”

Ysaut had moved up behind Damien throughout this, and now she stepped up and past him to stare coldly down at Eadmond, every inch the Queen she would need to become. “Charles Banford is the name m’ser Damien uses on his missions to Brekke. Missions undertaken solely on my Mother’s orders these past seventeen years, to seek intelligence to protect Martagne. And like my Mother, I have full faith and confidence in Damien—as I have not yet in you. Will you remain the willful, foolish boy-child you have been acting until now? Or will you rise and become the Queen’s Guardsman whose uniform you wore?” She lifted a hand when he made to speak. “Think very hard on this tonight, Eadmond d’Almena. I will have your answer in the morning.” She turned on her heel and stalked off , pausing a moment to touch Damien’s sleeve. “Attend me, m’ser,” she said. Damien turned on the instant and followed her away.

Behind them, Melina stood breathless in shock, while Cécile gazed after Ysaut and nodded thoughtfully.

* * *

Change Of Heart

In the morning Gilliane sent Damien to let Eadmond out of his bonds and bring him to her. Once freed, Eadmond went and knelt before Gilliane, head bowed. He spoke in a low voice, quite different from the haughty tones he had used before. “Your Majesty, I have no right to ask, but I beg you to hear me.”

Gilliane considered him for a moment. “Go on,” she murmured.

“I am sorry for the trouble I caused for you, and for everyone. I, I am,” He shook his head and began again, still not daring to look up at her. “I am Piedmontése, from the south provinces. This was my first time in the Capitol. I was just promoted, and I was so, so proud to be assigned to be your escort for the celebration. I was, I was full of myself, and it made me foolish. And then things—happened, things went so horribly wrong. And that man, Damien, came, a nameless wretch covered in sweat and road dust, and you turned to him for protection instead of to me. I was angry, and I was, I was—”

“You were jealous.”

Eadmond nodded. “Jealous, aye. That. And then he started giving orders, and you all obeyed without question, and who was this man that could command a royal Princess? And his orders made no sense, I didn’t understand.” Finally Eadmond raised his head, and gestured helplessly. “And then he killed that man, for no reason, just because he was in the hallway—”

Gilliane answered the implied question. “That man was a known Brekken spy. One whom we tolerated, because he could be used in return. But in that place, at that time? He was there looking for me. To kill me.”

Eadmond looked up, shocked, seeing the absolute knowledge in her eyes. Behind her Damien and the others moved in closer.

“The papers he had on his person were orders from his Brekken masters.” Damien’s voice was quiet and precise. “Orders to make sure that Gilliane was on the dais with her parents for the airship review. Or failing that, to find her and kill her himself. Proof of the Brekken’s treachery, detailing the date and time of the attack, and how it would be accomplished.” Damien’s slender knife appeared, spun once, glittering, and disappeared again, all in the flicker of a moment. Then his voice went cold and deadly, “I regret that his death had to be quick.

“Damien,” Gilliane chided softly, and Damien bowed his head and stepped back.

Eadmond nodded, acknowledging the new information, then shook his head. “You should have been able to rely on me. But I was ignorant of so much. My pride and my ignorance made me foolish, and my folly endangered you, the one person I was honor bound to protect.” He looked up at Gilliane again. “I accused Baron Damien of treason, but it was I who betrayed you.” He took a deep breath, then met her eyes steadily. “I will abide whatever punishment you decide.”

“Punishment…” Gilliane said quietly, gazing back just as steadily. “So be it, Eadmond d’Almena. Hear, then, your doom.” Then she took a deep breath and raised her head. “Do better. Watch those around you. Listen to those who know. Learn what they can teach you. Carry your weight, and be the Guardsman you should be. Let there be no more of this foolishness and mistrust. We must have one goal only—to take back Martagne from the invaders. Nothing else matters. Are we agreed?”

Eadmond stared up at her, his eyes almost glazed over in shock. And then he bowed his head and whispered, “I agree.”

Behind her, Damien’s eyes were locked on her as a drowning man locks his hands on a floating branch. His breath came harsh in his chest as if from a hard run as he thought, ‘This, this is the Queen Martagne needs now!’ And never realized that in that moment his loyalty left his doomed Golden Queen, Gloriane, and settled forever on her daughter.

* * *

Arantxa Fallen

At one point Brekke’s Directors order the bombing of Dorre Arantxa, the mountain stronghold where Damien, his Queen, and the others have sought refuge. Forewarned, they and the keep’s residents flee to other shelter. But the Brekken airships bomb the tower in a destructive rage. Now Damien and Eadmond are headed down the switchback road to the southern province of the Piedmont on the Queen’s business. But their way is unexpectedly barred…

* * *

They rounded a turn on the road and stopped short, appalled. A large section of the main Dorre had come down whole onto the road and shattered, leaving a pile of stone and rubble as tall as Eadmond. They dismounted and tethered the horses to some larger rocks, leaving them happy with handfuls of grain while they went on to inspect the rockfall. With a heavy sigh Damien took off his coat, laying it across his saddle, and rolled up his sleeves before going to the road’s verge and looking down. Eadmond joined him a few moments later.

“Well, at least it won’t matter if we shove all this over the edge,” Damien said. “There’s nothing down there to be hurt or blocked.”

“Aye,” Eadmond replied, backing off from the edge. “Nothing but down all the way to the bottom.”

The topmost layer of the pile was mainly larger blocks from the outer wall of the Dorre; settled but not immovable. After wrestling the first one loose, both went back to the horses and dug out leather gloves from their kits; no sense courting cuts and broken nails for no reason. And then back to the pile to clear the road.

After an hour or so the largest blocks had gone over the side, and then it was smaller stones and debris from the inner walls and floors of the Dorre. And then Eadmond came upon some small items and clothing, calling up to Damien to show them to him.

“Just set them aside for now,” Damien answered. “We can make up a pack and set it somewhere safe—in the—wreckage…”

Eadmond looked up as Damien’s voice trailed off. He watched as Damien bent and picked up a child’s doll. He dusted it off and gently smoothed the doll’s hair, his face ineffably sad. Then Damien sighed and looked up the cliff face to where the Dorre had stood.

“What a waste!” Damien said with a sudden, savage anger Eadmond had not heard before unless it touched on his Queen. And then a moment later Damien let his anger go with a hard sigh. He reached across the debris to Eadmond to pass the doll over. Eadmond took it, and where a few moments ago he might have tossed it aside to the growing pile of belongings now he stepped over and laid it down gently. He stood staring at it for a moment and felt that same helpless rage at the pettiness of it all.

Then, as Damien had done, he turned and grimly put that anger to use shifting the fallen stones.

* * *

This could be the start of a beautiful friendship…

Another of those scenes that demanded to be written. This time, the first meeting of two characters from the middle of Damien’s story. Thirty years ago, in the midst of the Brekken war.

* * *

Jan Silber was last in a line of about twenty Brekken who had been sent to augment the staff of their field hospital when their little convoy was taken by the Martagnards. Now they were being marched under guard to a camp north of the battlefield.

As they went Jan realized they were passing a Martagnése camp, one of their field hospitals, and he noted in somewhat desultory fashion the similarities and differences between theirs and his own Brekken hospital laagers.

He watched as two men carried a stretcher up to the main tent. The stretcher held a very young soldier, at most 17 years of age, with a blood-soaked bandage around his mid-section. The two men set the stretcher down, and one of the bearers called into the tent. In a moment, a man in medical white came out, crouched down beside the soldier and checked the wound, sadly shook his head, and rose to go back inside.

At this, Jan stopped in the road and called across to the men. “Zehr,” he called, “M’ser—you do not help him? He will die if you do not!”

One of the soldiers escorting his group came up and tried to move him on, but Jan shrugged him off and took a step across the road toward the tent. The medico turned at his call and answered without thinking. “He will die because we have no one here qualified to do the surgery.” And then he realized who he was talking to, and shook his head angrily. “You’re a Brekken, what do you care if he dies? It was your kind put him here!” Behind him another man stepped out of the tent, a man dressed in Martagnése blue, gold rank insignia catching the light.

Jan again shrugged off the guard’s restraining arm and took another step forward. “I am a surgeon! I can help him!” And then, seeing the second man, “Zehr General! Let me help!

General Ellery Shepherd put one hand on the medico’s shoulder, quieting the man, and stepped forward. He gestured to the soldier who was trying to shove the young Brekken back into line. “You are a Brekken, an officer,” he said mildly. “Why would you want to help us?”

“Before I am a Brekken,” Jan said earnestly, “I am a man. Before I am an officer, I am a surgeon.” Suddenly his face twisted in anger. “All dis—” he flung a hand out, indicating the young soldier on the stretcher and the battlefield beyond, “—is a waste! Dis boy, he has his whole life before him! Why he must die because I wear a different uniform?”

Ellery met his eyes and the Brekken looked back with neither challenge nor fear, just a level, steady gaze. Ellery glanced over the man’s uniform, noting the Brekken rank insignia of a Capitan in the Medical corps. He looked up and met the man’s eyes again, and nodded once, then glanced back at the medico. “Get him a surgical table,” he said. “Let him work.” The man began a protest, but then faltered to a halt as Ellery’s gaze sharpened on him.

“Yes, General…” the medico said faintly, and ducked back into the tent.

“I need my kit,” Jan said, and Ellery cocked his head in question. “My surgical kit.” Jan gestured back behind himself. “Dese men took from me, and put on de cart. I may get?”

The General caught the guard’s eye and gestured, and the guard stepped back out of the way. Jan quickly dug through the objects on the cart and found his leather case. He pointed to his name where it was embossed on the leather, and the guard nodded and let him take it away.

He carried it back and passed the General, setting the kit down and kneeling next to the young soldier, checking the boy’s pulse and breathing. He looked up and signaled the stretcher bearers to bring the boy inside, but they stood there and stared at him with hostile eyes.

The General snapped his fingers at them twice. “Do as he says,” he growled, and they moved at his orders. He held back the tent flap as Jan took up his case and went inside, and then found the medico. “Get him what he needs—anything he needs. And tell your staff to take his orders the same as any other medico, is that understood?”

“Yes, General!”

“You watch him, and as long as it looks like he knows what he’s doing, let him work.” He nodded at the man. “Keep me informed.”


Ellery watched for a while as the Brekken scrubbed up for surgery, with one pause only when the man turned to him with a serious face.

“I make agreement wit’ you, zehr General. I do surgery for you, for your Martagnése wounded, all. But if dere be Brekken wounded where yours cannot help, dey bring dem here to me, too. We agree?”

“That’s fair,” Ellery said. “Agreed.”

Hours later, Ellery came back through the medical tent to check on his wounded men, and spotted the Brekken sitting backwards on a chair, arms across the back and head pillowed on them, asleep. He recognized exhaustion when he saw it, and called over the medico in charge, a different man than before. “Why is this man not in a proper bed?”

The man gave him a half shrug. “He said beds were for the wounded. That he could sleep on the ground if need be, but a chair was better.” Another half shrug. “He’s worked straight through, whatever we brought him.” He looked at the General. “He’s a wonder, sir. Their methods differ from ours. Their training is better, their results more consistent, we always knew that. Our medicos have been spelling in to help during his surgeries, they’re learning things every moment. He explains what he’s doing and why as he works, so they understand.”

“So he is teaching, as well as saving lives…” Ellery mused on that for a moment, then nodded. “See he’s not disturbed unless it’s for something none of you can do. Or if it gets busy. Let him rest as long as he can, I can see he needs it. When he wakes, send him to me unless something requires his attention.”

“Yes, General.”

* * *


This is another of those scenes that wouldn’t let go, that had to be written. Something about how Damien was trained, and how he thinks. He is about age 12 here.


Bellarmée was there when Damien came back from retrieving his knives from the target. “What happened with those last five?” he asked. “I’ve never seen you that far off your mark.”

“I wasn’t off my mark, m’ser,” Damien replied. “I added those points.”

“You added them? Why?”

Damien laid out the knives, ready to practice again. “They are additional points of vulnerability that are lacking on the target,” he explained. “So I added them.”

“Points… of vulnerability?” Bellarmée frowned. “What do you mean?”

Damien pointed to the target, indicating each as he spoke. “Brachial arteries, femoral arteries, groin.” He looked back at Bellarmée, pointing again. “Shoulder joints, hip joints, to incapacitate. The others, to kill. That was the point of this exercise, wasn’t it?”

“When…” Bellarmée cleared his throat. “When did you realize these were points on the human body?”

“The first time you placed the target, m’ser.” Damien looked back at him, and pointed once again. “The center line isn’t straight, from throat to diaphragm, because the heart is offset somewhat to the left. Nothing else made sense.”

“You never said anything.”

Damien looked up at him, his pale eyes sober and sad. “What was there to say, m’ser?” he said. “I know what you are training me for.”

There was a long silence, and then Bellarmée sighed, his head tipped back as if looking at his stars. “For what it’s worth, boy,” he said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Damien answered, his voice equally quiet. “It’s for what she’s worth.”

After a moment, Bellarmée nodded. “Aye.”

* * *

Interlude: B.A.S. Hellebarde

And now, back to writing. Some new players on the board: just a reminder that not all Brekken are bad guys.

* * *

Interlude: the Brekken garrison at Sal’zahar

“Commandant?” The Air Captain of the B.A.S. Hellebarde had waited until the others had left the wardroom, stepping back out of their way as they passed.

“Yes, Captain Wraithfield?” The Commandant barely turned back to look at her.

“Are they to be given a warning, sir?”

Now the Commandant turned back and gazed at her coldly. “You have your orders, Captain.”

“Yes, sir—but there are hundreds of people in those towers, sir! Women, children—”

The Commandant straightened and looked down at her. “Are you questioning your orders, Captain?” There was danger in the soft tone of his voice now, and she realized she had to make a hard choice.

“No, sir,” she answered, her voice thin.


Harouen saluted smoothly, and the Commandant responded with a negligent wave of his hand. She turned and exited the wardroom, heading out to the airfield with her mind in turmoil. She knew what her decision was for herself, but she could not choose for her crew. That had to be for each one to decide.

Once on the Hellebarde, she went straight to the bridge and took up the microphone for the airship’s address. “Attention, Hellebarde. Attention, Hellebarde, this is Captain Wraithfield. All crew report to the central airframe immediately, repeat, immediately. Lift crew: bring all ground crew aboard now and report to the central airframe immediately. This is not a drill. All crew check in with your sector chiefs as you enter the central airframe. Sector chiefs, be ready to log your crews. Wraithfield out.”

Ten minutes later Harouen strode through the hatch and entered the airframe. Fifty-four pairs of eyes watched her as she stood at the top of the steps, and she waited until all the mutters and shuffling stopped. Until there was no other sound but the creak of the airbags and the singing of the wind through the tie-down lines.

Until all she could hear was the beat of her aching heart.

She looked out over her crew, meeting those eyes one by one, and at last she took a deep breath and spoke.

“We have our orders,” she said, and waited until their reaction settled. “You may guess from all this that they are orders I disagree with, and that guess would be right. I’ll tell you those orders now, and why I disagree, and then you each have a choice to make.

“We are to board a payload of explosive ordnance and prepare for lift and engagement.” She paused, and then took a deep, hard breath. “In three hours time we are to lift and proceed to our target, Dorre Arantxa, the seat and residence for clan Arantxa and the surrounding area. There we are to discharge our armed payload and return to base.”

A third time she paused and waited for that return to uneasy silence. “To be absolutely clear: we are to bomb a civilian target with the intent to destroy it utterly.” Her voice went harsh and stark. “And we are to do it with no warning.” She raised her voice over their shocked reaction. “We are to give no warning and no chance to evacuate. We are ordered to bombard a target filled with hundreds of non-combatants. Men, women, and children.”

She waited for silence once more; a long time, this, several minutes, and once more took a deep, shuddering breath. “I cannot comply with these orders. They go against all the rules of engagement of honorable warfare.” This time, the silence held, and she went on. “I am giving you each a choice for your own actions. If I am alone in this, I will walk off Hellebarde and submit myself for court-martial. If enough of you are with me, we will arm and lift last, and once airborne we will turn out to sea with all speed until we are out of range of the flight. What follows then will be a separate decision. In that case, any of you who are willing to support those orders will be detained until just before lift, and will be put ashore peacefully.” She looked out onto fifty-four sober faces, and nodded once. “I would like to see a show of hands, please. Any who will follow those orders, please raise your hands?”

Not a single hand was raised; not a single crewman moved save to look around to see.

Harouen nodded once. “A show of hands for those who oppose those orders?”

Every single hand shot skyward without an instant’s hesitation. After a long moment she cleared her throat and gestured for them to put their hands down. She looked out over her crew, all standing in silence before her, and cleared her throat again. “You do understand that this is mutiny, mutiny and treason.”

The answer came back to her in a rolling growl of “Aye,” falling back into silence.

She looked down for a few moments before raising her eyes again. “You must know that if we do this, we can never go home again.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Captain,” one of the senior ground crew shouldered forward, “but how can it be home when they can do the likes o’ that?”

Harouen met the older man’s troubled eyes for a long moment, and nodded. “Aye. And speaking of home—another thing to consider. If we do this, our families back home may pay a price as well.” She shook her head and went on. “A last thought. Once the flight is finished with Dorre Arantxa—we will be the next target. They will hunt us down like a rabid wolf. There will be no quarter, just blood and fire and wreckage.”

Beside her, her first officer stirred. “Better that than roll over like a whipped cur or do their bidding like a savage dog.” She looked over at him for a moment, and then nodded soberly, and once again cleared her throat.

“So be it, then.” She clapped her hands once and gestured to the sector chiefs. “We go on as ordered until lift. Load the ordnance and take on any ammunition or supplies we need to top up our stores. Ground and lift crews, to your stations. Bridge and department crews, same. Let’s to it like the top crew we are. Dismissed.”

But instead of leaving, each and every crew member snapped to attention as if ordered and gave her a brisk salute, holding it until she gave the answer of a full, formal salute in return.

* * *

Back in the (writing) saddle again

My last post was in January of this year. The last post when I still had a brain. Not long after that post I came down with shingles. NOT FUN. Before I go any further, let me just say this: if you have had chicken pox and are now of an age where you are possibly susceptible to shingles, GET THE SHOT.

Seriously, get the shot. Get The Shot. GET THE SHOT

I can NOT stress this enough! The rash and lesions are gross, and the pain is astounding. It will take your breath away. It will take away your concentration, because you can’t think about anything other than wanting it to stop. It will take away your energy, and you will sleep half your life away just to escape the pain.


That said, now this:

I love writing, and I love that I am writing again now that most of the shingles and attendant medication are gone. I love that my brain seems to be back online!

I love my cats beyond words, and that the young tuxedo boy I rescued that bolted out the door yesterday morning came back and cried to come in last night.

I love that I have friends who supported me in the worst years of my life, and I love that I am now in a position to help my friends when they need it.

I love music, and I love having found sources such as the HALO soundtracks and Two Steps From Hell to be the soundtracks for my writing.

Did I mention I love that I am writing again?

Fireside Chat

Some definitions, since I’m dropping you in the middle here: 

a zhaun is the head of a clan in the Mendei, the mountain range in the south of Martagne.

a jaraun is the person designated as official heir to a zhaun.

a zhaun-jaraun is the acclaimed but unconfirmed heir to a zhaun. Ysaut-Gilliane would be considered the Queen-jaraun.

a talde is the group of close followers of a leader of some sort.

the Service, more formally the Information Service, is a branch of Martagne’s government that gathers information in many forms and for many uses and reasons. It is also responsible for gathering information to help protect Martagne against those who may be enemies of the Realm, such as the Brekken. As “Spymaster,” Damien Ring is the official head of the Information Service.

The Brekken are the invaders, and under orders from their governing body, the Directors, have twice broken all laws of honorable combat, attacking non-combatant targets without warning, slaughtering innocents in a heinous war crime. Her mother, Queen Gloriane, having been killed in the first attack, the new young Queen Ysaut-Gilliane has fled to the Mendei for shelter, only to narrowly escape a second cowardly attack on another non-combatant target. She and her talde are now sheltering in a new location.

* * *

Over time, Damien found himself in several conversations with the zhaun of Peyre, often late at night, over brandy and firelight. It seemed as if the man was deliberately seeking him out, and at first he wondered why. Then he realized that the conversation often turned in some way to Ysaut—but not in a way as if seeking information from Damien about her; but more as Isarn giving him information about himself. Almost as if… as if assuring Damien that his intentions were honorable…

In one conversation, Isarn told him, “My clan has served the Queens of Martagne for more than two hundred years. Queen Aurélie’s father was a Jenico of Peyre, as Gloriane’s was of Argider. It was through the Mendi that the Crowns of Martagne came to count their heritance through the female line. Gilliane’s father, Olivier d’Alvers, is the first in generations not of the Mendei.” He waved that away with a quirk of his sardonic smile. “No matter,” he said, the smile broadening, “by our laws she is Mendi. A Piedmontése father is no bar.” But the joke, once made, lost its humor as Isarn shook his head. “There was a loss,” he said ruefully. “He was a good man, and he loved Gloriane well.” He stared down into his drink, then abruptly tossed it back and set the glass aside.

“We spoke of spies, before,” he said, changing the subject. “Much of the information your Service receives from the Mendei comes from us. You’ve likely seen some of my folk in the offices of your Service. So we knew who you were—a smallish man with black hair and eyes pale as water, and a reputation for as deadly a hand with a blade as any have known.

“There were many Mendi in the Palais du Monde on that day. That is why we know what happened was no accident. The zhaun of Sal’zahar and his jaraun never came home. Others did.” He shook his head and looked at Damien under his brows. “You were seen with the young Queen, and then you disappeared. We found where you’d been, but not where you’d gone. We would have aided you in your flight had we known, given you shelter and protection.

“I knew who you were when we met on the hillside, you and your brown-haired Queen.” He shook his head again. “You came far too close to disaster that day. Leaving you, my talde met a Brekken patrol coming up through the northern pass as you left by the southern. They nearly had to come to blows to keep them from crossing further into Peyre.” Isarn bared his teeth at the memory, and Damien saw for the first time why the man held his clan at such a young age. “They thought us hunters, straying out of our holding. I showed them what it meant to face a clan with its zhaun still in rule.” He bared his teeth again, briefly, and the firelight caught the dark amber of his eyes and turned them lambent gold. “We disarmed them and walked them all the way back to their garrison commander. I told him who I was, and warned him to make sure his men knew how to read maps. The borders of Peyre are clearly marked, and they had strayed nearly half a league past them.” He bared his teeth again, not briefly, and his eyes narrowed. “I reminded him that they had agreed to honor the border, and that if his men encroached on my land again, they would be returned disarmed, barefoot, and naked.

“But if it happened a third time, they would not be returned, and he could seek them at the foot of the Mendei.” He stared into the flames for a few moments, the firelight picking out the lines of his face in sharp planes and angles, and then he looked down and the lines softened. He nodded to Damien and rose. “I’ll leave you to your peace, m’ser,” he said, and left.

Damien gazed into the flames for some time after, thinking of many things. Of the zhaun-jaraun of Sal’zahar, the one they called the Snow Leopard, and thought that here he had met the Wolf of Peyre—and found him far more deadly.

And felt far better about leaving his Queen in the man’s care when he left to take up his proper duties.

* * *


No real drama this time, only more of the relationship between Damien and Cécile.


That evening, after the conference, Cécile came out onto the balcony where Damian leaned on the parapet looking out over the valley below. The glow of hearth and cooking fires lay scattered across the land, showing a peaceful, close-knit community. She rested her arms on it as well, content to watch with him in companionable silence, but after a while she spoke without turning her head.

“I meant what I said.”

The silence afterward held so long that she thought he might not have heard, but then, “I know,” he said. “So did I.” It was that simple; a settling-in of friendship that picks up on a conversation as if only moments had passed between instead of months, and miles, and pain. Then again, after a while, “Why?”

“I see in her the future of Martagne,” Cécile said quietly. “Kindness. Gentleness. Compassion. Strength.” Again a pause, then, “It won’t be like you.”

Damien laughed once, softly, and said, fervently, “Oh, I hope not.” He shook his head once, and the torchlight slid across the slight smile on his lips.

Cécile laughed once as well, turning her face toward him. “I just don’t see myself riding desperately across the countryside—” She broke off and laughed again in gentle self-mockery, “Yet did we not just do that?” She shook her head and went on. “What I mean is that I don’t see myself crossing borders and spying so much as being her confidante and bodyguard.”

Again his smile flashed in the night. “One needn’t be a spy to be in the Intelligence Service. I’m sure you are aware how much information you can gather just going about your daily duties. People let fall the most amazing things if you just pay attention.” He tilted his head, watching her. “Did you know that just this morning the cook’s second assistant was found fast asleep in the chicken coop, curled around all the eggs like a broody hen? Stark naked.”

Cécile couldn’t help it, she laughed outright in shocked amusement.

“It’s true,” he said, straight-faced, and turned to her, leaning one elbow on the parapet. “The hardest thing to learn is how to appear to not be listening.” His smile faded after a moment. “Bodyguard,” he murmured. “That’s a different set of skills entirely.” He looked straight into her eyes, and his expression was solemn and more than a little sad. “Are you willing to kill to protect her?”

She returned his gaze as directly. “You may recall I have already done so.”

“True enough,” he murmured, gazing down at the ground somewhere between them.

“Teach me,” she said.

He looked up at her from under his brows. “You are sure?”

“I am,” she said.

He nodded once. “So be it.”

* * *

Twelve Years Ago

12 years ago


Damien was headed back to his rented rooms after meeting with his contact. The papers were safe in his scrip, and tomorrow he would head back to Martagne. But for tonight, he was weary and just wanted to rest. It had been a very long ride… He turned down the allée that led to the street where his rooms were, thinking about what he would need to do when he got back home.

Three young men turned into the allée, coming toward him. Always vigilant, he noted what he saw: all three about his age, early to mid twenties or thereabouts, decently dressed but not expensively, lower middle-class. Students, perhaps. Calm, relaxed, confident; speaking among themselves as friends, with no particular attention paid to him. No evident threat.

Until suddenly they spread out across the allée in front of him.

Damien stopped, head up, and took his hands out of his pockets, spread them. “I don’t want trouble, zehrs. I’m tired, I’m just heading home, if you’ll let me pass.”

“Don’t want trouble, ey, my boys?” the middle one said, and flicked out a hand, tapping his neighbor on the arm.

“Won’t be no trouble, then,” said the other, “ye just give us what ye got in that baggage, ey?”

“It’s only papers from the University, zehrs,” Damien said, “valuable only to me for my studies. But I’ll give you my purse if you just let me pass.”

“Give us your purse, ye will, pichon,” said the third, “and the bag as well.” Suddenly all pretense at friendliness was gone. “Give it now,” he growled.

The middle one stepped forward, reaching for the strap across Damien’s chest. But Damien unexpectedly stepped in to meet him, grasping his forearm and pulling him forward off balance into the third man’s way. Damien kicked out and caught the one on his left in the chest, throwing him back off his feet, whooping and gasping for breath. On the rebound, Damien hopped and kicked back with his other foot, squarely into the crotch of the man on his right. The man folded to his knees with an agonized groan.

Too late, Damien realized a fourth man had come up behind him. That one clubbed him across the head with a backfist like a sledgehammer; the blow lifted Damien off his feet and across the allée. He hit the wall from skull to hip and dropped like a stone.

* * *


Marczyn Rettig was headed home from the University library when he heard a scuffle in the allée ahead. He ran forward and peered around the corner, and saw three, no, four thugs all setting on another, smaller man. That one put down two of the thugs and turned on the third, only to be put down himself from behind by the fourth with a punch so hard it tossed him across the allée like a rag. The two still standing laid into the prone man, kicking him in the ribs, the back, the belly, wherever their feet could reach.

Marczyn spun and ran for the Guard call box that stood on nearly every corner, yanking down the pull switch that would send a signal to the nearest Guard Station. Then he ran back to the head of the allée. “HOI! Leave off, you roughies,” he shouted in his deepest, gruffest voice, to sound older and more imposing. “I called the Guard, so clear off if you don’t want to spend your days in gaol!”

The downed thugs growled in response but they climbed to their feet to go, one of them snatching the scrip from the fallen man as he went. But as the fourth ruffian turned to leave he kicked the man viciously, twice more—once in the belly and once in the head. The man only slumped further, limp and unconscious. Enraged, Marczyn stooped and snatched up a rock from the ground, and threw it as hard as he could. It hit square in the back of the big man’s skull, dropping him in his tracks. His fellows picked him up and hurriedly dragged him off as the Guard’s whistles sounded down the street.

Marczyn gave the Guard his report of what had happened in the allée. They were kind enough to call a cab for him, and saw them off to the Hospital. Now he regarded the poor fellow being treated in the hospital wardroom. His face was bruised near as black as his hair, his pale blue irises shining out of sclera red with blood. The doctor had stabilized his broken ribs, and now an attendant was wrapping them with bandages to support them.

“How do they feel?” Marczyn gestured toward his ribs.

“Rather like a badger is trying to claw its way out from inside,” the man replied with a wry smile. His voice was breathy, not wanting to put too much pressure against the broken bits. “Thank you for helping me,” he said after a moment. “I wouldn’t give much for my chances if you had not.”

Marczyn waved it away. “No need,” he answered, “I hope someone would do the like for me.” He put his wallet back in his vest. Marczyn’s family was solid middle-class, able to support him while he studied at the University of Brekke, and he also held a mid-level position as a clerk in one of the ministerial offices when he was not at his lectures, so he was able to pay for the man’s treatment once they realized he had also been robbed. At least the thugs had not had time to steal his travel papers! Marczyn had found them in the inside pocket of the man’s coat; the orderly had handed it to him to hold while they cared for the man.

And then they had learned the extent of this disaster—the blows to his head had knocked the memory quite out of him. He could speak, quite clearly, though his jaw was swollen; he could think, asking good questions of the doctor about his course of treatment. He remembered somewhat of the scuffle, but his name and his home, his self—all those were gone from him.

Dear God, Marczyn thought, the look in the man’s eyes, the utterly hollow, bereft look as he realized what had been taken from him! A look like a heartbroken child, to have lost all he had known, his family, his friends, his home, everything in one moment. That look tore at him, hurt his heart and lodged in the pit of his stomach…

On impulse, he blurted out, “You will come home with me, friend!” And in response to the near-reflexive headshake, Marczyn said, “I do not take no for an answer. The doctor says that you will regain what you have lost, but until that time, where and how shall you live? You have no place to stay, that you know of, no employment, no funds.” He raised his hands palm up. “Zo,” he said, “It is settled. Your papers have your name, Charles Banford. And now you have a place.” He held out his hand, gesturing, “ Come. Come home with me.”

* * *


Two weeks before he could move without pain from his ribs. Another two before he could think of lifting anything much heavier than Marczyn’s cat—not that the creature was anything of a lightweight. But by then Charles was able to take a position at the Ministry where Marczyn worked, doing bookkeeping and filing. That at least gave him something to do besides brood over his lost memory. When he was alone it was like worrying at a lost tooth, an insistent presence—or rather, absence—that was a constant pain in the back of his mind. It shadowed everything.

Once they both were finished for the day, though, the two were constantly together, and his mood was so much brighter. Marczyn was a true scholar, avid to learn everything he could, with an infectious enthusiasm for it all that Charles could not help but share. They became like brothers, both of an age, two University students in the best part of their lives. Charles’ different perspective, his shrewd reading of others and ability to put himself in their place, his startlingly wide trove of knowledge, and his facility with languages helped Marczyn with his studies, and the two spent hours at home or in the pubs discussing politics, ideals, ideas, the state of Brekke, the Directors, and how they would run the nation if they were in charge. It was a young man’s dream—except when the nightmares came for Charles.

In the night, it was different; images of horror haunted him. Fights, where he seemed to flit between opponents like changing partners in a dance, save that the partners fell and never rose again and red hung in the air in his wake. Screams and groans sounded in his ears, snarls and curses and gasps. But always it was not anger or malice that filled the dreams, but sorrow; a regret great enough to fill an ocean. And a gruff voice sounding in his brain, “Do what has to be done, boy. Just do what has to be done.”

Then he would wake with tears on his face, and the regret filling his heart, but never enough of a memory to understand why. Was it his hand that held the knife? Or was he just a witness?

* * *

His memory was returning, as the doctor had promised, but far too slow for his wishes. Month after month, waiting, hoping. There was a desperation in him, a fear, as if he knew some disaster awaited if he did not once again take his proper place in the world.

Sometimes there would be a new memory; tantalizing, teasing, but without context they had no meaning. He was greedy for them, like a hoard of bright, shining coins doled out to him one at a time: beautiful to hold, but not enough to buy his freedom, and he would break down and weep again for his loss. At those times, Marczyn would hold onto him, brother to brother, until he could breathe again.

Save for that, those six months living with Marczyn while he recovered from his injuries and after were the happiest of his life, even though he knew that somewhere he had another life, an important one he urgently had to get back to, if only he could remember what it was.

Until one day he turned and tripped over the cat. Crockery flew everywhere, and he sprawled on the floor and hit his head again—and it triggered the flood of memories.

Marczyn came running in at the sound of the crash, in time to see Charles raise his head and scream in agony—scream out a name, one name, as if it meant everything in the world to him: “Gloriane!

And then he dropped his head into his arms and wept.

This time it was different, though. Where before the tears were only of grief and loss, these were also tears of—not joy, never that, but at last, of some kind of relief. Marczyn came and knelt amid the broken crockery, and laid his hand on Charles’ back, and knew the difference. Knew that the memories had returned, though what that would mean he had no idea.

They stayed like that for some time, Marczyn just being there, just a presence, letting Charles know he was not alone, whatever would come next.

After a while Charles raised his head again, his long hair hanging like a veil between them, hiding his face, and he nodded. Then the two rose and silently cleaned up the broken dishes. When they were done, Charles went into the sitting room and sank down on the sofa, arms loose across his knees, staring into the fire.

Marczyn came and sat down next to him. “Gloriane?” he asked quietly, “As in Gloriane, the Queen of Martagne?”

Charles simply nodded—but Marczyn knew it wasn’t Charles, not any longer. This was someone new.

“You’re not Brekken,” Marczyn said.

“Half,” Charles replied. “From over-mountain.” His voice was soft, with some emotion Marczyn couldn’t identify.

Marczyn nodded. “Same,” he said, “Brekke-side.” And then he waited, silent, for whatever Charles would tell him.

The pause was long, while Charles stared into the flames in the fireplace, his hair fallen about his face, hiding his expression. But at last he took a great breath and raised his head. He pushed back his hair with both hands, then let them fall in a helpless gesture as he sat back on the sofa and looked somewhat aside at Marczyn, not meeting his eyes. “I am in your hands,” he said quietly, “if I tell you anything.”

“With that one name, I think I might make a guess,” Marczyn said. “My hands are open, friend. After all this time, I think I know the truth of you. I would not hold you, even if I should.”

Charles looked aside at him again, this time meeting his eyes, and he nodded, then looked away. “My name is Damien Ring, and I am a spy for Queen Gloriane. For Martagne.” Now it was his turn to wait.

Marczyn nodded. Then he asked, simply, “Why?” Not a challenge; just clarification.

Damien shook his head with a wry smile. “Brekke—frightens us. You are—” He shook his head again, and corrected himself. “Your government, the Directors, they are angry, greedy, fearful men. They want. They want more and more. They want what they do not have, they want what others have.” He turned and looked at Marczyn, angling his body to face him more directly. “You and I, we have discussed this. Over and over, how their greed and anger is ruining Brekke, how their fear and distrust of their own people is bringing out the same in all of you. Already some of you have begun to denounce their neighbors, to gain but the smallest advantage. That will only continue, and grow. And if the Directors fear you, their own people, that they know, how much more do they fear and mistrust Martagne? There we are, hiding behind our mountains, what might we be plotting to their detriment?” Again he made that helpless gesture with his hands. “So we seek information, knowledge, to protect ourselves. Knowledge is power.” Again he shook his head. “Martagne is not aggressive. It is not in our nature to seek advantage over others, we are content with what we have and what we do. We make our gains with our own labor. And we want only peaceful relations with our neighbors. Profitable trade for both sides. Mutual assistance at need.

“We have not your technology. No airships. Wireless radio and trains, looms and farm machinery are the extent for our needs. Our weapons are the equal of yours, but for all the size of our kingdom, our army is smaller. Your army stands as much against your own citizens as against any outside enemy—which we are not, though your Directors would have you believe it so.

“Oh, make no mistake—we would fight fiercely against an attacker like you. But it would be a very short war, and we would lose—at first. And then a long, bloody train of skirmishes and sabotage that would last until you broke us or we made it too costly for you to stay.

“But we would far rather defend ourselves passively, by taking measures to protect ourselves before something becomes an issue and tips the balance. Having information in advance helps us to do that.” Again the wry smile. “Forewarned is forearmed.” And then again he waited.

Marczyn gusted a breath, frowning down at his hands. After a few moments he turned them over, and suddenly clenched them into fists, clenched them tight and frowned fiercely at them—and then let them loose and fall to his lap again. He took a breath, then turned to Damien. “I can help you with that,” he said.

Damien’s lips parted in surprise. Then, “How?”

Now it was Marczyn who gave a wry smile. “You know I work in the Ministry offices,” Damien nodded, waiting. “I can seek another position, perhaps even a promotion, to another office. To the Ministry of Defense, perhaps?”

Damien was stunned. “You would do that for Martagne?”

Marczyn laughed, he couldn’t help it. “For Martagne, not so much, I think. But for you, I would.” He shook his head at the look on Damien’s face. “I said it earlier, after all this time I think I know what kind of man you are. And that man would not twist that information to harm others. Nor would you give your loyalty to one who would.” And then his shoulders relaxed as it all fit together in his mind. “And your loyalty tells me a great deal about your Queen as well.” He took a deep breath, frowning. “And you are right. The Directors are bringing Brekke to ruin. How can I watch them bring down Martagne as well, if I can help prevent it?” Then he laughed, and shoved at Damien’s shoulder. “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe all those conversations weren’t just idealistic rhetoric. Maybe there are things we little folk can do after all. Who knows? Nothing will change if we never try.” Then he nodded decisively, and held out his hand. “Pact?”

Damien took his hand in both of his and clasped it hard. “Pact,” he said.

Marczyn sat back in the sofa. “You’ll be leaving in the morning, I suppose?”

Damien nodded. “I’ve been away far too long, they’ll have thought the worst.” He frowned, thinking. “I’ll have to buy a horse.”

“Take mine,” Marczyn said.

* * *