Azal looked at the army that was now prepared to set out for his cause.
Melthar’s excursion into Sagnir had helped, no doubt about that. Like the old Baron had had his own men to defend his city, independent of the Council’s army, many of the landed nobility in the human nations had their own forces to call on – and Melthar had… “convinced”… many of them to use those forces for the rebellion’s good. In fact, the result was better than what Azal had dared expect… though, unfortunately, still less than he would’ve hoped for. Religious fervor drove the common folk to do many seemingly insane things, but when it came to the nobility, with their politics and their own interests, the notion of religion suddenly seemed much less important. Even with Melthar’s entrance, which had, by all accounts (granted, the only account Azal had heard was Melthar’s own), been dazzling, far from all who had heard him had decided to actually do as he’d told them… and of those who had, precious few had the sort of power at their disposal to truly make a difference.
It didn’t help, either, that Sagnir was the country that Melthar had gone to. Azal had had his reasons for picking it, of course – from the things he’d heard from Ian and the Sagnirian troops under his command, and from the letters that had occasionally been exchanged between him and Queen Lily, he felt that he had a picture of Sagnir as a nation that, while not complete, was still far greater than his understanding of any other mortal nation, which meant that he could at least be reasonably certain such a stunt would work there to at least some degree. That wasn’t something he’d have any guarantee of if he’d picked one of the other nations of Verta.
But Queen Lily was not a ruler who was particularly comfortable with the thought of her nobles having the means to rise up against her, and it showed in her policy. Of course, she hadn’t prevented them from having their own men altogether – that would’ve stirred up more than enough dissent to start a rebellion then and there. But she’d sharply limited how many troops they could have, so that many of the nobles had barely enough men to even be noticeable among the Bloodhorns’ own soldiers – and those few that were allowed more troops than the rest were the people Queen Lily particularly trusted, and those were a sort of people who would never be swayed by Melthar’s speech.
Still, it had gone decently. Even if each of the individual nobles had had rather little to contribute, it wasn’t as if the Bloodhorns’ army was enormous, so even a relatively small contribution was good – and Melthar had managed to get quite a few of them to agree to help. Were the Bloodhorns still outnumbered? Certainly, and Azal saw no way that that would change… but at the very least, they weren’t outnumbered by such a large margin anymore. The chirean still saw no reason to give the Council a fair fight, but if he was forced into one, his men would at least be able to give them a challenge.
Of course, if he were to have his way, that wouldn’t happen. Though, as of yet, Azal had no military victories to truly attribute to himself – the first few clashes of the rebellion could hardly be called “military” operations, and the two true battles they’d faced so far had been won by, respectively, Ian’s reinforcements and Janus’ duel with Ihab – there was still one thing he knew for sure: this next battle would not be one he would win by fighting fairly.
And he had no intention of doing so. Nor, like when Katherine had first come to the city, did he have any intention of simply trying to defend himself against the Council’s assault. And neither did he plan on using a single, easily-beatable trick like the one he’d tried at the start of the second battle, when Ian had tried – and spectacularly failed – to lure the Council’s forces to the mountains.
This time, he wasn’t going to have another near-defeat, another battle won only by the skin of his teeth. This time, he would take the fight to the Council. This time, as he’d told Alexander before, he had a plan.
And he was intent on making it work.
“Then we are prepared,” General Katherine said grimly, a cold flame burning in her eyes. “It is time.”
“Yes,” Leonid nodded. It was time. It was time for them to march forwards, to pit demon against demon, to force kin to fight kin. It was time to throw away his men’s lives once more at the Council’s behest – and to litter the ground with the corpses of fellow demons who happened to think differently from them.
And the worst part was, Leonid couldn’t disagree with the course of action. It wasn’t like usual, when he could tell himself that he was only following the Council’s orders – that he was only doing this because, if it were someone else, he’d have no guarantee they would try to save as many lives as possible as he would. This time, even he knew it was necessary.
And that thought stung more than any of the others. He would force fellow demons to kill each other, make people who might have otherwise been friends murder each other in cold blood. And he approved. Because if he didn’t – if the rebels were allowed to have their way – he knew it could so, so easily be worse.
But… General Katherine didn’t need to hear any of that. She was… different from him, fundamentally so. Leonid had always been loyal to the Council – but that was all he had ever been. Loyal to them. Nothing more than that. He had never claimed to approve of all they did, never believed that they were the greatest rulers he could hope for. He merely felt grateful that they had defeated the old king… and afraid that any other ruler would be worse. Katherine… Katherine was different.
Leonid thought her a fool, in most circumstances. He had never liked how she nearly worshipped the Council, how she refused to believe that anything they did could ever be wrong. But in this case, he couldn’t help but envy her. He knew that right now, she wasn’t asking herself any of the same painful questions he was. There was just one thought in her mind – that she would destroy the rebels and eliminate the greatest threat to her lords in all of history. Leonid wished it could be that simple for him.
But it wasn’t. It was for Katherine, but it wasn’t for him. And there was no changing that. So there was no point telling Katherine about any of the questions that tormented his mind. It would only reduce morale… and knowing what the rebels had already done, Leonid had a feeling that they would need every advantage that they could get.
“Let us go,” Katherine said, and Leonid nodded back at her in agreement. The army continued its march, and Leonid knew that there would be no more rest until the rebels were annihilated.
Though, even then… could there truly be any rest after that?
They’d killed Councillor Ihab.
They’d killed him, they’d murdered him in cold blood because he stood in their way, they’d murdered him as repayment for his courage, his bravery. They’d killed him, and now Katherine would never see him again. She’d never hear his encouragements again, never fight by his side again, never encounter that twisted sense of humor of his again. (She’d always thought she’d hated it before, but now… now that she’d never hear it again…) She’d never talk to him again. Never so much as hear his voice again. Never hear him say that she was doing great, and that he was so grateful for her loyalty, and that he thought she was an excellent commander, and that he knew she was one of the Council’s greatest servants, and, and… and…
Never. Never, never, never, never, never. Never again. Never again would she see him. Never again would the Council be whole. The people she had worked for her entire life, the people whose dream was their only chance of one day being free… they had suffered a loss. And never would they recover from it. Never, never, never would Councillor Ihab be there again, never would he give them that perspective that was so unique, that they so needed. Never would he lead his armies into battle once more, never would he experience life’s joys and sorrows and surprises again. Never.
That was right. It went beyond her, didn’t it? It went beyond her. She hadn’t just failed. The price for her failure wasn’t just that she’d never see Councillor Ihab again. She’d failed him, he was dead because of her, because she’d failed to destroy the rebels, because she’d run away like a coward – no, not like a coward; after that, she was a coward, she couldn’t call herself anything else – because she hadn’t been strong enough, hadn’t been brave enough, hadn’t made the right choices, and if only, if only she could go back and change things, she wouldn’t leave him, she’d stay with him to the bitter end, and she’d save him if it meant she’d have to fight alone against a horde of rebels, even if it meant she’d have to throw her own life away…
But that was impossible.
She couldn’t change things. It couldn’t be done. What had happened had happened. And it had been her fault. And now… and now, if the Council was overthrown, if the rebels replaced them and demonkind had to live in misery for all eternity… it would all be her fault. Because she’d been so stupid, so, so stupid…
It would be her fault. It already was her fault. All of the things that had happened up to now, Councillor Ihab’s death, the territories to the north falling to the rebels – they were all her fault. But… but it was someone else’s fault, too.
The rebels. It was their fault just as much as hers, wasn’t it?
She could never change what she’d done, she knew. But at the very least… even if she could never absolve herself of her sin… at least she could make the other people responsible pay for it.
…that had been then.
Now, it was a bit different. That deadly specter tearing apart Katherine’s heart from inside, that crushing, unbearable guilt at having failed them all so badly… she’d felt like it would never leave her. But it had. In a way, that was the worst thing. She knew she should’ve still been feeling guilty, she knew it should’ve still been tearing her to shreds inside, but… but… it wasn’t. It was as if her heart had forgotten them, as if she just didn’t care about the Council or Ihab anymore. That… that wasn’t true, though, was it? How… how could it be true…?
But perhaps, she thought… perhaps it wasn’t that. Perhaps it wasn’t that her scars had faded because she’d stopped caring, or because her heart had grown dark and too weary to think about all of that anymore. Perhaps… perhaps it had simply been time. After all… time could heal even the gravest of wounds, could it not? So she hadn’t stopped caring. She still cared. They still lived on in her heart, all of them. Councillor Ihab… and all the others, the others who had given their lives to stop the rebels. She would never forget them, never dishonor their memory.
It was simply that time had given her a clearer perspective. She… she still blamed herself for what had happened to them. She still didn’t know how, exactly, Ihab had died (the army, when it had come back, had been strangely silent on that subject – as well as why they had withdrawn), but… she was certain that if she’d been here for him, she could’ve saved him. But that didn’t matter anymore. She couldn’t change the past… but she could still change the future. Sitting and moping about all that had happened wouldn’t do anyone any good. But there was still much to be done – still much she could do.
Ihab had given his life fighting the rebels. And she would carry on his fight.
Ian sat alone in the manor he’d been given for his stay in Aead – a house that had originally belonged to a wealthy nobleman before he had tried to start his own revolution to overthrow the Bloodhorns and bring the Council’s rule back to Redgate. The noble had been planning to assassinate Azal, the leader of the Bloodhorns, before Aya had discovered his plans (Ian was one of the few who actually knew that part – Aya’s very existence was still being kept a secret from most, presumably to keep the Council from realizing the Bloodhorns had a shadow on their side). At that point, he’d been caught, arrested, tried, and… well, what had happened to him after that, Azal had never told anyone. But Ian felt he had a rather good idea. After all, Azal wasn’t one to be merciful when he didn’t have to be.
On that, at least, he felt he could agree with the demon. Ian had never considered himself a cruel person, but he had always been of the opinion that mercy was a pointless concept. If one had decided to retaliate against someone, it meant that person had done something. So why would their pleas have any influence on the outcome? And if one had already decided to harm another, what would be the reason for holding back how much harm was inflicted?
Ian had never seen the point of mercy.
Still, he had to admit it was useful. Sometimes, displaying it could do more for your popularity than years of propaganda or speeches or generosity or anything else. People were… curious creatures, and Ian did not claim to understand them. But he was perfectly willing to use them.
And that led him to what was his true concern at the moment.
The battle was fast approaching – the battle that, if everyone was right, would be the last major one of this war. The Council was bringing all its forces to bear, and whoever won, it would be unlikely the losing side would be able to escape having the vast majority of its manpower destroyed. This battle would be the last obstacle they would have to overcome – the last challenge they would have to face. If they won, the war was as good as won.
And that meant it was the last point of chaos that the Bloodhorns would encounter before they reached their goal.
Ian had played the game carefully. He hadn’t intended to be quite so cautious about it, not at the beginning. But as he’d observed Azal, he’d seen that the demon was far from the inexperienced, foolish novice Ian had imagined he would be. Inexperienced, perhaps – but certainly far from foolish. It had not been long before Ian had realized that it was more likely than not that Azal knew exactly what he was plotting.
That was troublesome. Ian had seen what Azal was like. The chirean was not a man to give up power easily. He wouldn’t allow Ian to take the reins, not if he could help it. And Ian had realized that much – and he’d realized that, now that Azal knew what he was planning, all it would take would be a single wrong move to throw his entire plan into jeopardy.
That was why he’d been so careful, why he’d been as loyal as he possibly could until it was time to strike. Azal would interpret any odd behavior as an indication that he was about to make his move – and once that happened, Ian knew he would be in great danger. When he’d first come to Aead to aid the rebellion, he would never have imagined Azal to be someone who’d stand a chance of outmaneuvering him in the game of politics… but since then, his perspective had changed somewhat. He knew the chirean would not kill him for no reason – he knew the chirean could not kill him for no reason, not when his rebellion depended on him having the support of the people. But how hard would it really be for him to invent a reason…?
He had a suspicion Azal would, in fact, not find it difficult at all.
And that was why Ian hadn’t done anything suspicious until now. Because he knew that the moment he struck, he needed to win the game, then and there.
If he succeeded, he could end up the ruler of all of demonkind… but that was an if. And if he failed, he would be dead, whatever else happened.
He’d been in correspondence with Lily, of course. At first, he’d planned to try and convince her that the rebel leader was inexperienced, someone who couldn’t be trusted to lead the demons, someone who would have to be replaced – replaced by someone like him. If he could get the Queen’s support for his coup d’état, it would all be effectively over. The rebels did not have the manpower to stand up to the forces of Sagnir – and neither did the Council. He would be able to win the war on his own and lead demonkind, just as he’d planned.
But as they’d spoken, he’d realized that the circumstances were somewhat… different than he had imagined. Namely, though he still didn’t know why Lily had chosen to support the rebellion in the first place, it was clear she didn’t really care about it. Whatever happened to it, she wouldn’t be particularly upset. And that made that plan obsolete.
Still, he’d kept talking to her. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get the men to just overthrow the rebel leader, but… perhaps he could still get something else.
Eventually, she’d clearly gotten fed up with him (and it was just as clear she was more observant than he’d given her credit for), because one day, he’d received the following letter:
Look, I get it. You want to overthrow the rebel leader and take control. Okay. Go on. I’m not going to help you. But I’m not going to stop you either. Do whatever you feel like.
Just stop pestering me with your bloody letters, okay?
…he had to admit, though his gut reaction at the… unrefined quality… of the letter had been a sort of distaste, there was a certain amount of appeal to it.
Still, that was good. He wouldn’t be getting his men… but at least he knew the Queen didn’t disapprove of his plan. Which meant he was free to act.
And that brought him back to what he’d been thinking about initially. When would he make his move?
Until now, he’d been playing the game carefully. But that had been up until now. He knew that, no matter what, one constant was always going to be true – his best chance to obtain what he wanted would be during times of chaos. And there was a time of chaos coming up – but it would be the last one. It would be his last good chance.
And that meant that he had to act, caution be damned.
One way or another, he would claim power for himself. And the easiest way to do so…
…would be by first removing the one who currently held power.
Azal stared out the window.
He knew the Council’s army was approaching. Since Melthar had returned, he’d had him check on their progress – and the news he’d received merely confirmed what he’d already suspected. They didn’t have any time left. The enemy would be here within the week.
This time, however… Azal’s plan was too important to trust to one of his underlings.
He had never liked the thought of heading out to lead his army on his own. It presented an unacceptable risk to himself. If one of his subordinates were to be captured or killed, the Bloodhorns could still survive – but if that were to happen to him, the rest of the rebellion would likely fall apart on the spot. He could not put himself at risk – it was far too much of a danger to the Bloodhorns.
But that was under normal circumstances. These circumstances were far from normal. This battle would decide everything, one way or another. That meant the risk of the army losing with him at the helm was no greater than the risk of the army losing with someone else at the helm. The Bloodhorns would collapse soon in either case.
And if that was true… then there was no reason not to do everything possible to win this fight, was there?
Yes… this time, Azal would go out to head his army himself.
And he would win.