So Kantal has survived…
…his scrape with death, and wasn’t that exciting! For those of you who are asking where the good ol’ fight scene was, I may be keeping that up my sleeve (or indeed I haven’t written it yet). I think I will write it and I’ll put it into a special version of Mandestroy that is only available from my website – for avid fans to enjoy. But we’ll have to wait for that I’m afraid.
But where can we go from here? Well, if you remember from the second blog, our general was involved in some heated discussions about a plan to leverage out those perpetually infuriating invaders – the Mandai. He was being challenged rather sternly, and he ended up looking to his own story for confidence. Well we’ve heard his story, so what now? Let’s find out.
A recap on the schedule
Here’s a recap on the dates that the blogs are going to get published:
- 26th May: Prologue (The Moment)
- 2nd June: Chapter 1 (The Now)
- 9th June: Chapter 2 (The Then | 20yrs ago)
- 16th June: Chapter 3 (The Then | 15yrs ago)
- 30th June: Chapter 4 (The Then | 13yrs ago)
- 7th July: Chapter 5 (The Then | 12yrs ago)
- 14th July: Chapter 6 (The Now)
- 21st July: Epilogue (The Future | 1yr later)
And please remember: feedback is encouraged and spread the word.
6. The Now
“Tell me, general. What makes you think that you have earned the right to gamble with my Lord’s property?” Kantal fingered the pommel of his beloved sword. This was not his arena.
Tension filled the space, refusing to leak out of the wide window at the far end of the room. If he spoke wrong, they would be out of here, and he didn’t believe that Gorfinian hospitality could be relied upon either; there was genuine danger in this room. As he rose from his seat, he looked to the open end of the room, considering the height of the tower and thinking back to all the fools who’d been thrown out; many of them for declaring things of far more substance than this. A king of Gorfinia ruled with fear, so when he was irked, the retribution could be steep. Kantal gulped.
And the aide pressed. “Come, general. Stop wasting our time. Why should we trust you?”
It was time to speak. It was time to believe in his feats. It was time to be his reputation.
“Because I am the man they call Mandestroy.”
Silence prevailed; compounding the tension; filling the room with suffocating pressure. When the King of Gorfinia raised his hand, Kantal feared he’d drop it in anger. But he didn’t. Instead, the aide spoke.
“We will hear your plans.”
The pressure evaporated, and it was as if the moons suddenly illuminated the sky; he’d barely noticed the depth of the night. Kantal found he was holding his breath, and he exhaled deeply as he returned to his seat. His king squeezed his shoulder as he walked past.
After a hearty draught of water, a bit tepid for his liking, he inhaled and pulled his lips over his teeth. He had to be confident with the telling, even if that same assurance wasn’t coursing through him; at least not at that moment anyway. It had been when he’d conjured the idea, and it was well considered; it should work. He would be the one to break the cycle.
“We will attack all three gates at once. We will attack in unison, stretching the Mandari resistance thin. And when their line is thinnest, we will strike. We will jump at their soft underbelly with a sharp knife in our hands. They will bleed from within.”
The more he said it, the more he liked it. It was a good plan. Damn, but he might just have it.
It was the jealous Emperor who spoke; unashamed confusion and… What was that? Was that disappointment on his face?
“There is nothing new there, general. That is a plan that has failed a hundred times before.”
Was it? Then why hadn’t he read about it? He had devoured the military journals in the library, so why didn’t he know this? Heat coloured his cheeks.
Fortunately, it was his king who dragged proceedings back.
“Forgive us, Excellency, but you have not heard the detail.”
The wobbly dictator rose, his chair tipping and crashing to the ground. By the time the Mikaetan superior was verbally attacking the King of Delfinia, a servant whipped out of the shadows and righted the fallen furniture.
“I don’t need the bloody detail! The union at its height could not crack those gates, so what do you expect our current splintered faction to achieve? If anything, the locks are now tighter, so what do you think has changed that you can come here and claim elevation above the greatest in history? What?”
Kantal’s king looked affronted. The Mikaetan Empire may be waning, but it was still the largest of the three neighbours; the Emperor held a certain weight. Kantal recognised the subtle movement in the man opposite him – his guest – and he knew it was time. He scowled with the introduction.
“May I introduce to you, the Lord of Chance.”
The hooded guest moved ever so slightly; just enough to suggest that he was looking upon the others in the room. No-one could tell of course, because the damned cloak covered most of the face. Unfortunately, the jaw was still visible. It made Kantal shudder.
Half of the chin was covered by heavy iron; a mask of some sort. Not a full mask but a semi-concealing piece. The right hemisphere of his face was open to the elements, and what a shame that was. The skin was brown and mottled, as if scarred, but worse than that; it was as if it had always been that way. There was something lizard-like about the man’s appearance, and Kantal might believe that this was a lizard if it wasn’t for the disappointingly human hands. The scaly flesh of the face must be some abnormality, and unfortunately the facial disfigurement had soured the man’s personality.
Yet he was here at Kantal’s bidding. How the world worked was truly mysterious.
The Gorfinian aide gazed with piercing blankness; his deep hood betraying nothing of his facial features. All these abstract monsters were really getting to Kantal, and he rolled his shoulders involuntarily. Their host broke the silence.
“Gorfinia greets you, Lord of Chance. And may we compliment you on your excellent choice of attire.”
Freaks stick with freaks.
The man that Kantal hated and feared in equal measures spoke with an irritating and soul grating tone – he lisped where the facial deformity restricted his ability of speech. The voice was almost serpentine, and disturbingly it complimented the warped skin of his face.
“I am honoured to be here, Lord.”
The aide nodded acceptingly, but there was not the slightest hint of recognition on the blank canvas of the king. Further, it was the aide who darkened the room with aggression, not even pausing to consult with his master. That was curious.
“And who, ‘Lord of Chance’, do you think you are to adorn yourself with that title?”
He spat the words, and Kantal was bowled by the disdain. He knew it was there – he had felt it himself after all – but the king’s non-involvement in the verbal assault was stark. It spoke of either remarkable cohesion between the two men, or it sang of a balance that was entirely at odds with the perception. Gorfinia was feared, but from where did that fear originate?
Lord Chance straightened himself like a snake readying to bite – or throw poison. His words were measured, and confident. And they were venomous.
“I am to fortune what this man is to the Mandahoi.” With his open palm, he gestured to Kantal. The Delfinian general froze in response.
He had to speak; after all he felt like he was being mocked, and his pulse peaked. It was the same emotional crest that he touched before a fight – the crazy before the calm; the madness that he coiled within and released to invaluable effect. Only here, now, he was around a table; and he was confronted by the bastard he’d invited along. This was not his territory. Kantal spoke through gritted teeth.
“And what am I to the Mandahoi?”
The hooded face turned, and the visible jaw cracked up in a wicked smile.
“Why, you are the scourge.”
“Hear the man! Yes, indeed.” It was his king, attempting to diffuse the tension. Kantal knew that he had the look of a cobra when his blood was up. It must be plainly obvious he was about to erupt. If only he’d worn a deep hood like these others.
The aide pushed on, and for that Kantal was grateful. His emotions were beyond constraint.
“So, scourge of fortune – why are you here?”
Each moment ticked jarringly into the next; the rhythmic scraping of his jaw infecting his mind. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, take his eyes off of the man – his damned guest. He was idly fingering the pommel of his magnificent blade, and he was dimly aware that he had levered her subtly from her sheath. Don’t be such a fool – spilling blood in this place was guaranteed to lead to a swift exit; through that window most likely. He ground his teeth and growled.
And the Lord of Chance ignored his threat, turned to the congregation, and pulled a smile onto his puckered lips. Kantal hated the man. But he was useful; very useful.
“I come before you to offer a fourth way. I hold the key to the fourth gate of Ahan.”
A gasp escaped from the Emperor and even the aide gave weight to the suggestion. It was frustrating that the freak held such power in his words, but this had never been Kantal’s arena. The Emperor stated the obvious challenge.
“There is no fourth way.”
The hooded guest – who also called himself the Enabler – leaned forward, clasping his hands together; two index fingers pointed to the ceiling. He was going to enjoy his moment.
“The fourth way is by sea.”
“It is guarded; it always has been. That archipelago makes it near impossible to gain meaningful access. It is useless.”
Kantal let the odd-ball weave his magic, calming himself as he watched on. He could not afford to bear anger in this place where he was inferior; he would be punished like the common stock he was.
But as he looked around, he realised that he disliked every one of his allies. How curious that was. But they had a common purpose, and that was what bound them. He hoped it was sufficient. The Enabler continued to wave his wand.
“But what if you could coerce a Mandari cell to your cause? A suitably positioned ally in the Mandari ranks could open that gate.”
“Pah. The Mandari are no more likely to sell-out than I am to offer my assistance in this madness. Tell me; who do you think you can worry over to our side?” It was the Emperor who offered the protest. The Gorfinian symbiosis of king and aide appeared to listen intently, and Kantal’s own king knew the details already. This was the crux of it, and Kantal held his breath.
“The Nadari have been desperate to defect for generations. They believe in one currency and one currency alone.”
“And what currency is that?” The Emperor sneered, though it was pathetic when witnessed with the wobbling jowls. Kantal’s mood picked up, and he even smiled at the Enabler’s taunting suggestions.
“Why gold of course. Is there another currency?”
That actually got a snort from the aide, and he had to slide a hand over the gaping space of his hood. The Emperor nestled back into his chair. The mocking suggestion had flushed his cheeks, and he stayed silent – jowls wobbling gently. Kantal needed this done, if only for his sanity, so he sucked up his discomfort and summarised.
“And that is the plan. We harry the three gates, drawing resources to the borders and exposing the soft belly of Ahan. I, meanwhile, will lead a Delfinian force through the back door, and we will strike right at the heart of the enemy. Altunia will fall.”
The Emperor immediately attacked, “and why is it that Delfinia places the stake through the heart? Why is it not a unified force?”
The flabby face was angry again, and Kantal grew nervous. There was so much tension and yet the fight had not even begun!
“Forgive my terse observation, but we hardly feel like a unified force.” The Emperor offered that flabby sneer once more. “And besides – it is Delfinia’s plan, and it is only right that Delfinia takes the lead.”
That was a victory for the briefest moment, but then it was only a source of friction. So much friction. This was the pivot of discussion, and the aide to the King of Gorfinia led them smoothly to the point
“And who is it that is paying for this passage to the fourth gate?”
It was Kantal’s king’s turn.
“The price demanded by the Nadari for their treachery is high indeed. I accept the price of this as reflecting the plans that have been drawn up, but seek support from my allies in meeting this cost. We would be putting Delfinia under great financial duress were we to meet this cost in isolation, and so I ask you, friends; what share of the notoriety would you be willing to invest?”
If ever there was a time to leave a room, then this was it.
“How dare you! You mock me, sir, to come here and ask me, the Emperor of the Great Mikaetan Empire, for money. Pah. Soldiers I may spare, but not money. How dare you. Your coffers are heaving with stolen Mikaetan stallions – you will have nothing from me.”
A disappointing start – Kantal was sweating. His plans to take the chance were wilting, but he still needed to earn the chance. Without forthcoming financial assistance, he would have a very awkward discussion with his king in the near future.
The King of Delfinia exhaled and reclined. Gorfinia had not made a move, which Kantal couldn’t decipher, but it didn’t appear to be forthcoming. This was where his king needed to throw in his weight. Kantal was at a loss – he hoped his king wasn’t.
“Then share of notoriety, and indeed the spoils, resides with us. You will be compensated for any military contribution in some small way, but the prize of Ahan sits exclusively with Delfinia. These will be the terms of our engagement, unless anyone wants to reconsider.”
He had never seen such greed in a man. The Emperor was moist where his wicked little mind was teasing him with the wealth that he forwent by his refusal to contribute. Ahan was the jewel of the near world – of the world as far as Kantal could see – and to forgo that prize was expensive indeed. But Kantal could see doubt in the eyes of the man. He was no risk-taker; he was barely a taker at all. Kantal laughed, and the jowls turned upon him.
“You mock me?”
“No, Excellency, of course not.” He could not keep the smile off the edge of his lips, and his king shot him a threatening look. Jowls was obviously trying to leverage a beneficial compromise in his head, but he couldn’t think fast enough. He had to say something.
“Mikaeta will commit her men, but I am unsure what more we can offer. The terms of settlement would need to be prearranged before we confirm – and the terms will need to be generous to balance the risk.” Kantal’s king nodded. He too was sweating, but Kantal knew it was a consequence of financial insecurity. He would be committing a lot here, and Kantal was glad his king trusted him. His king would have to commit a whole lot more before the fighting began.
“Does Gorfinia commit troops?” The hooded king nodded solemnly. Kantal had to ask; “and what about funds?” The shake of the head was not surprising – Gorfinia barely dealt in currency anyway. His king’s burden of coin was going to be heavy indeed.
Especially when they still needed to earn the chance. That too would be expensive.
But this was a moment of victory! Of sorts. Kantal had his plan, and he had his somewhat reluctant players. His dream was marching to reality, and he finally allowed himself to take alcohol. He may have even smiled as his king offered a friendly hand to the Emperor.
And then the freak spoke.
“General; I have some residual concerns with your theory.” Surely not now? Kantal suspected that the freak was doing this to wind him up, and he felt the heat rise once more. The goblet in his hand shook as his grip tightened. “Your manoeuvre will certainly draw the heavy forces, but you forget the finer barbs.”
They still needed to earn the chance, but he didn’t want to talk about this now. Because you couldn’t beat a…
“And what barbs are those?”
The Enabler’s words slivered, like the snake that spoke them. “Why the Mandahoi, of course. The Academy is bloated with competency, and forgive my interjection, but you are no more capable of felling a troop of Mandahoi than I am of absolute foresight. A single Mandahoi; perhaps, yes. But a troop? I fear you could be foiled.”
Kantal hated the bastard even more in that moment; but this time it was different. This time he hated him because he was right.
He had thought about it; of course he had. What sort of military tactician would he be if he hadn’t? It had niggled in the back of his thoughts; intoxicated his confidence; drained him. As he ran his hand over his unruly stubble, appreciating the coarseness, he narrowed his eyes. Was this to be his undoing?
“Did you know this?”
His king looked most displeased.
“It had crossed my mind.” Only Kantal coiuld get away with being so flippant. Now may not be the best time, though.
They were riding south, signed agreements in their hands subject to some bartering on the proceeds of victory. If victory was coming at all. Nerves fluttered in Kantal. Damn it; nerves never fluttered in him.
“So this plan we have may not even work.”
He exhaled, which hardly exuded confidence.
The day was bright; another scorching afternoon on the baked plains of Mikaeta. The journey back to the heart of Delfinia would be several days, mainly because the pace needed to be so sedate. No-one could ride full pace in this heat. Kantal was sweating badly already, his back drenched and uncomfortable. The peacocks didn’t seem to care, and as he flicked his eyes at the manicured tail, he found himself envying the preposterous sun shades they had at their disposal. He would not be seen dead with such luxury, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t appealing.
He ignored his discomfort and sought to appease his king. “It will work.” The confidence was not forthcoming enough and his voice wavered. He shifted uncomfortably in the saddle, revealing a pocket of sticky sweat that had been lodged between his testicles and his leg. Now he was even less comfortable. Bugger this.
Of course, he knew exactly what needed to be done – remove the Mandahoi and you have a chance; a chance. What Kantal had designed was a way to exploit the chance, but he had not yet created that chance. That was the flaw in his plan. It was quite a big one.
“You do realise that we are not proceeding unless I am entirely convinced, and you’re not exactly selling at the moment. This is going to clean Delfinia out.”
And this was the problem. This was the absolute crux of the problem. He gulped.
So much of his plan – now that he thought about it – relied on money. Bloody money. His political insights were short of necessity, and where he’d set out for Maegwyn with hopes of securing substantial funds, his plans now appeared to be in danger.
Because he did know how to foil the damned Mandahoi. The only problem: he needed more money.
Damn the cheap Mikaetans, and damn the strange hand of Gorfinia. He did not know how to tell his master.
“For Ero’s sake, Kantal! Convince me.”
There was no option; not any more. His entire life had been leading to this point, and so he needed to craft the path. Everything he had done, even the exploits that named his notoriety, all of it was leading to this point. To maim a handful of the grey was ultimately meaningless. To dislodge the limpet-like Mandari from Ahan was his true calling. He would free the Motherland.
But he needed money, and he needed lots of it.
“You are right to be nervous,” the monarch threw his hands up in disgust, but Kantal sured himself and continued, “but there is a way. We spoke before Maegwyn about the need to disrupt the Mandahoi; to occupy them some way. Well, the alliance we have crafted will not do the trick. But there is something that will.”
The display of disdain ceased for a moment, and those piercing eyes took on a rather sceptical impression. “What will work?”
This was going to sound ridiculous. This was going to sound utterly ridiculous.
Scepticism morphed into outright mockery.
“What are you talking of? Dragons are just stories.”
“Well yes, err, not quite dragons.” Good showing, you idiot. Confidence damn it! “I have it on very fine intelligence that there are dragon-like creatures for sale.” His king did not seem to bite. “They may not offer all the gilt of the myth, but they are, by all accounts, very large and very vicious lizards. And they can fly.”
He wasn’t sure that he believed it now that he’d said it out loud, but then he remembered the man and knew that it was not a scam. How he came to meet the shady character was anyone’s guess – they just seemed to end up speaking in a tavern – but at the end of a night of intense discourse, they determined that Kantal needed something and that the other had access to it.
It was chance, utter chance, but every victory needs its touch from the Father, doesn’t it? He thought of the Lord of Chance and shuddered.
“Who on l’Unna has sold you this fanciful tale? And what’s more, why do you believe them?” His king was not convinced.
“Highness, I do believe him. He was very clear that he would evidence benefits tools before any deal is made. He was also very generous in his terms of credit, and if I were to be pushed, I would go further and suggest that he is of very old lineage.” Did old suggest honourable? Maybe the opposite in fact, but it would add weight.
That did indeed get his king’s attention.
“You mean ancient old?”
“I would say so, yes.” It was difficult to tell with the deep cloak, but there had been something distinctly alien about the man – as if he was from another time. It was known that they continued to haunt the shadows of the world – Maegwyn employed a small host for example – yet few were known to openly interact. But who else could harness control over the dragons? No! Not dragons. They were sendeté, apparently.
Kantal could see the shrewd ruler cooling, warming to this opportunity. Kantal knew that he could take the chance if he could earn it, and he knew that two sendeté could knot the Mandahoi for many days and moons. The confidence started to ooze once more. There was just one last stumbling block, and he knew his master would not miss it.
“How much for these services?”
Kantal licked his lips. “The overall cost of the exercise will, err, double.”
“Argh!” He was not happy, and rightly so. “I am already scraping the chest for those damned Nadari! Where do you expect me to find that sort of coin?”
He was hoping that Gorfinia would bend, but failing that he had no idea; absolutely no idea. It didn’t sit well with him. But he was not a treasurer; he was a soldier and a tactician. He had the tactics to do the impossible, but he needed others to play their part. It was up to his king.
“I am not endowed with that information, Highness.”
“You will bankrupt the crown at this rate!” He sensed the shock in the peacocks, and couldn’t help a little smile. “You think this funny?”
“On the contrary, Highness. I was hoping for more support from our, ah, allies.”
The look he was given wiped any smugness right up his gullet. He was incredibly uncomfortable, and yet this was not his part of the game.
“We will have to call it off.”
“Your Higness, I beg―”
“I cannot commit that sort of money! You have been a fool, Kantal; a fool. I cannot bankrupt the crown on a whim. And before you speak, despite its merits, this is a damned whim. A whim!” He had the agreements in his hand, the fruits of many years of Kantal’s scheming, and he was about to cast them aside. And yet he paused – waiting.
And Kantal took his chance.
“You remember that battlefield, Highness; the one where you were trapped beneath the dying horse.” The King’s sour mood instantly stalled and Kantal drove home. “That was a whim, Sire, and you know what happened that day.”
Kantal had played his last card.