They met in the middle of the valley, as they had since time began. All around, tens of thousands lay dead and dying, their bodies heaped, their limbs entwined, their wings severed and scattered across the bloody grass. Prince Ribeag ignored the screams and groans, as he ignored his sister's crows. He was long used to it. He poked at something bloody on the ground, an ear perhaps, poked with his spear then flicked it away. He looked around. His armor, and that of his family and people, was brilliant white. A thousand paces away, walking nearer, the Tn'trith were the black of night, their helms and capes billowing in the breeze. The ground was red underfoot. It surprised Ribeag that the grass did not simply die from all the blood that was spilled in this place, year after year.
"Why is it always here?" he said.
His cousin, Bahn, looked at him. Bahn the fair, the golden, commander of the left wing. "Cousin?"
"Why here? Why do we always fight here? It is a terrible place for it. There is no value in the terrain."
"It is Caer Trador, the Field of Blood."
"And why, my royal cousin, is that so? Why must we fight here?"
Bahn shrugged. His wings flexed with his shoulders. His mount, a grey mouse, stirred beneath him. "You may as well ask why Tr'nah and Tn'trith fight at all."
"Why do we fight at all?"
"Cousin. . . " Bahn sounded uncomfortable.
Ribeag held up his hand, "Never mind."
He looked around, at blood and death and scorched dirt where the sky-fire hurlers had tried and failed, explosively, as they always did.
"How many did we lose this day?" he asked.
"Our uncle G'nahe, our cousins Treyn and Torou, a few among the household."
Ribeag looked at a thousand dying men and a thousand dying women and wondered how his cousin could be such a fool. "And how many of those who do not matter gave their lives as well?"
Bahn shrugged, and flexed his wings again. He did it with an arrogant ease which had always annoyed Ribeag, who was of the less ancient, noble, and elegant -- yet more powerful -- branch of the family.
"Do not shrug, royal cousin," Ribeag said sharply. "Go and find out."
Bahn looked at him for a moment, surprised at Ribeag's tone, then nodded, and slapped his palm to his chest gravely, and rode across to the nearest group of officers.
Ribeag watched Bahn speak. The dark Tn'trith were closer now, their ravens with them, flocking, pecking and cawing at the dead. And some of the not-so-dead.
"You," Ribeag called to one of their heralds, waiting nearby. "Go tell your masters to dismiss their birds. Leave the dead in peace."
The herald looked at Ribeag, puzzled. Traditions weighed heavily on all of them, Ribeag thought. It made even the thought of something new bemusing.
"Or shall I use your tongue as a quill and your wings as a parchment and tell them myself?" Ribeag said. "Go."
The herald mounted his rat and went.
"Make haste," Ribeag shouted, and watched the herald ride. To one of the guard, nearby, he said, "Find an archer and kill that man if his steed drops below a run between here and there."
"Sire," Bahn said at his side. "I have our casualties."
Bahn sensed his mood and waited, and it amused Ribeag to remind Bahn of his place. One did not tell a Prince of the Tr'nah a piece of news he had not expressly asked to hear, for it implied he did not have his own ways of finding out.
"Do you ever find it odd," Ribeag said, "that I stand here and you stand there and for all that you resent me, it could never have been any other way?"
"It could have," Bahn said. "Once."
Bahn spoke softly, gently, and Ribeag almost decided to pretend not to hear. Then he said, "What was that?"
Bahn was brave. A fool, an arrogant clot, but brave. "I said that it could have been different once, sire."
Ribeag looked at him and smiled and saw the hate in Bahn's eyes. Ribeag wanted that hate. It was a fire that kept Bahn alive. So many of their kind became plump and satisfied and shriveled to husks in their beds.
Bahn could not raise a hand against Ribeag, could not even indirectly plot, once his oath was given. That was an endless frustration to him. Since nothing angered Bahn more than Ribeag's obliviousness to his hatred, Ribeag took some care to make his obliviousness clear. And his contempt for the old ways and old customs that Bahn lived by and which Ribeag alone could alter at will.
"Why is it we fight on our feet when we have perfectly good wings?" Ribeag said. "I wonder if I ought to change that. We ride butterflies and sparrows to joyous celebrations, and rats and mice to war. Why is that?"
"It is how it has always been done."
"And perhaps it is time that changed. We have wings, after all."
"And so do the dark Tn'trith."
"But they are fat and lazy and no doubt fail to exercise. Or so my advisors tell me."
"So no doubt we could out-fly them should we wish."
"What think you, cousin? Should I make this change? I have the Tn'trith princeling almost here, I could tell him of my decision right now."
"That would be unwise, sire."
Ribeag looked up. That was a careful insult. A Tr'nah prince was never unwise. He may be misinformed by underlings, or knowledgeable in a manner that was unclear to those beneath him, but he was never unwise. And Bahn knew it too.
"I should have you beheaded," Ribeag said. "Or dewinged."
"If my prince wishes it."
Ribeag stood there, thinking, and after a moment Bahn drew a slow breath. That was enough.
"There are times when I wish it," Ribeag said. "So I wonder why I do not?"
"What would a battle be, sire, without our wit afterwards?"
"Yes," Ribeag said. "That must be it."
He looked at Bahn and smiled, letting Bahn know he would keep his wings another day. Bahn nodded and bowed, but stayed close. He must stay close. He was still waiting to deliver the report of casualties he had been sent to collect like a common errand boy. It was unthinkable to speak without permission, but it was equally impossible to walk away without having fulfilled his task.
Ribeag waited, amused to make Bahn suffer.
He looked out toward the Tn'trith. The herald he had sent had reached their main body. He was dismounting a dozen paces from his masters in order to crawl forward, prostate. A nearby guardsman nodded. An archer, further off, began to draw his bow. Ribeag remembered his order. The herald had dropped below a run before he accomplished his errand.
It was this kind of literalism that held all of then back. Not that Ribeag didn't encourage it, at times requiring obedience to the letter on a whim.
"Leave him," Ribeag said to the archer, and watched the herald lie, face down, in the blood and dead, until the Tn'trith general chose to notice him. He noticed quickly, by Tn'trith standards. He must assume the message carried weight. In a few minutes the ravens croaked and flapped into the air and went back towards the Tn'trith camp.
"Tell me of the dead, cousin," Ribeag said.
"Fourscore thousand of ours dead, an even hundred thousand of theirs. Twice that injured among either side." Bahn hesitated, and Ribeag knew what was coming. Traditionalists such as Bahn, the new, young traditionalists, always hesitated before they spoke of such things. It was an affectation, a horror they had only decided to feel a year or two ago when that had become the fashion. "And ten thousand of ours who will never fly again."
"At least they live," Ribeag said.
"After a manner. And sire," Bahn looked past Ribeag. "Your sister comes."
The women of his family were warriors before queens, and always had been, but Aluese was the worst any could remember. She eschewed the glinting, shimmering, moonlight armor he and Bahn and all the others wore. She had no need of it. She had a living armor, her companions. A hundred would die before she suffered a scratch. She wandered the battlefield in her robes, her skin glinting, her hair flowing free like starlit milk, her limbs and wings gloriously textured with death. She was covered in blood, from head to wingtip to toe. Not just splattered pink, as Ribeag and Bahn and most around them were, the pink of carelessly cutting a man's throat in battle. Aluese was dripping crimson red. It dried in her hair and set thick between her breasts, it stained her lips and her hands and splashed up her legs to the knee. The gossamer of her wings dripped thickly, so clotted she would have been unable to fly, should she have wished to, but like Bahn she disdained such things.
She walked forward and bowed elaborately, then kissed Ribeag's mouth, kissed and writhed and moaned. Her passion was already aroused. In an hour or two the survivors of her set would begin an orgy that would last until the next dawn. Her clothes were torn and the blood on her body hot and Ribeag had lain with her enough to know how very, very good she was. But those were the old ways, and they no longer did things like that so obviously in front of the commoners. The new gods disapproved, apparently.
Ribeag accepted her kiss, though. It was expedient to, right now. And her companions looked on, approvingly. Aluese kissed and writhed and smeared Tn'trith blood on Ribeag, then licked it from his face and laughed and said, "So, brother, again we are alive."
"Although many of my companions are not."
"For that I thank you."
"I do it for you, my brother prince, to spare you the effort of raising your royal arm against your dark enemies."
"And for that I thank you also." Ribeag said, "However. . . " And he looked towards the approaching Tn'trith.
Aluese laughed. Her companions laughed. She attracted others like herself, the reckless bloody few who seemed to deplore life. Every battle day she lost four-fifths of her circle, most slain without purpose by a stray arrow or unheeded blow. And those who survived were lean and ferocious and dangerous, among the most lethal troops the Tr'nah had to field. Even Ribeag feared them a little, and Bahn and the Tn'trith most certainly did.
"Their blood tastes richer than our own, brother dear. Did you know that?"
"You have told me this before," Ribeag said. "Now is not the time to discuss it."
Aluese looked towards the approach group of Tn'trith. "Those over there, they cannot hear me."
"They hear as well as we do."
"Exactly my point. I cannot hear them."
Her companions laughed. They were drinking already, Ribeag noticed. Some were drunk. On surviving, and on mead. Some were beginning to fondle others. One of the women, one Ribeag recognized from other battles, other days -- she had a scar down her cheek and was missing the tip of one wing -- smiled at him. She had one of her hands on herself and the other on a youth next to her.
Ribeag sighed. He looked downwards. He found another piece of someone on the ground, and prodded at it too. A finger. He hadn't seen it earlier, and wondered if it had dropped from Aluese somehow. There was nowhere in her clothing it could have fallen from, but it might have stuck to her skin. That had been known to happen.
"Do you know how I know I cannot hear them, royal brother?" Aluese asked. "How I know they are simply not speaking?" "I imagine you will tell me."
"Because upon seeing me here, they will whisper and squeak about how unhappy they are."
"Indeed," Ribeag said. "I imagine they will do so very soon. I imagine they are planning it even now."
Aluese smiled. There were times when there was almost affection between them.
"I don't suppose you would consider standing somewhere else?" Ribeag said. Aluese was right. Her presence would make speaking with the Tn'trith more difficult.
"I stand where I wish. It is my field as much as yours, brother. I won it also."
"Yes," Ribeag said. "You did."
"My kingdom, too."
She looked at him and licked the blood from her lips. "Would you care to exercise your rights over me, brother? I feel a certain tingling of the blood."
"Not now, thank you, sister."
"It was the way of it in olden days."
"And they are called old for a reason."
"And yet you and cousin Bahn and all else around are admiring my attire."
"Yes," Ribeag said. "Of that, dear sister. You should wear armor."
"'Twas done this way in the olden days."
"And now we have armor," Ribeag said, and prodded the stray finger on the ground a little more. "So perhaps it should be used."
"I prefer to be free."
"Indeed then. Never mind."
"But you had to ask."
Aluese looked around. Looked at the Tn'trith, closer, but still a ways away.
"Do you know," she said, in the voice she used at parties, to reveal something both odd and thrilling. "That in this world they find us fetching and adorable."
"We are smaller than they."
"But still. They tell stories of us to their children."
"So I am told."
"Their children. I would not speak of Tn'trith to my own children, had I any. That's disgusting."
"It is fortunate the matter has yet to arise."
"Pixies, they call us. Fairies."
"Sometimes gods and angels."
She laughed, made a span with her fingers, close together. "But only when they think we are large. When they see us very, very close."
Ribeag nodded, becoming bored. It did not matter. The people of this world could not see this battlefield, nor know of the deeds done here. Ribeag looked around. The landscape near the field of blood had been built upon over the centuries. The inhabitants of this world were nearby, and had been wandering past, even as they fought. Figures loomed, like giants, nearby, lumbering about their tasks. These people had lost their magic centuries ago. They had given it up, for reasons he didn't understand. Now they were enslaved, and saw nothing real, and did not know that Tn'trith and Tr'nah fought amongst their feet for their world, or that Ribeag had saved them from the slavery of the Tn'trith, once again, as the Tr'nah always did.
"Sometimes we capture one and eat his dreams and then he becomes mad," Aluese said, watching the giants pass.
Ribeag nodded, distracted. The subject was distasteful, but he knew her companions did this, and was powerless to prevent it. "Indeed," he said.
Aluese was becoming bored. She looked at Bahn, and smiled, which meant he was about to suffer. "Cousin Bahn," she said. "Have you counted for my brother? The dead commoners?"
Bahn stirred, and stretched his wings. He glanced at Ribeag and awaited Ribeag's nod before answering. "Indeed I have, cousin."
"Like a clerk. Like a counting creature. Something grey."
"As you say, cousin."
There was an edge to Bahn's voice that made Aluese's companions stir. Some looked over, and stepped a little closer. They had killed before, like a pack, upon perceiving an insult to her. And killed nobles as well as commoners, too. They were dangerous, Ribeag thought, and especially so now. They were likely to kill again, right now, right after battle, when lusts were high and Ribeag, or whoever he selected to attend to the family honor, would be unlikely to hunt down the culprits.
"How many did we lose today, cousin?" Aluese said. "And how many did they?"
Bahn looked at Ribeag, and smiled, and took his little jab at brother as well as sister. "I forget, cousin," he said. "‘Twas merely commoners, after all."
"And so not even a very good counting creature, after all," Aluese said.
Her companions laughed, watching.
"Perhaps being forgetful runs in your blood," Aluese said.
Bahn looked at her, and didn't answer.
"And being bad at doing as you are told," Aluese said. Perhaps that does, too."
"I do not know, cousin."
"Perhaps it is no wonder your father was fed to the Tn'trith," Aluese said. "And that mine became emperor."
Ribeag looked up, interested again. Aluese and Bahn prodded at each other often, and Ribeag had never quite decided whether their jibes hid hatred or affection. Not that Aluese's affection would help Bahn if her companions chose to take offense on her behalf, and not that she would probably care if they did.
Ribeag waited. He was curious to see how Bahn would respond. The Tn'trith were still walking towards them, but would be a little while yet. There was still time to be amused.
Ribeag watched as Bahn decided how to react. Bahn was a political enough creature to actually decide, and not simply to become angry, and also to know that he needed to take a little care here, too. He was away from his own forces, all but a captain or two, and although he ought to be safe among Ribeag's royal guard, he would not necessarily be so. Or rather, he would be safe, in the sense that his murder would be punished instantly, but the threat of punishment would not always deter Aluese's companions, not where her honor was concerned, and by the time they were punished, it would be too late for Bahn. Should he wish to lower himself to caring about mere safety, which he might not wish to do.
Ribeag watched as Bahn thought, wondering what he would do. After a moment, Bahn smiled tightly. He had decided to stay calm.
Ribeag was a little disappointed.
"As you say, royal cousin," Bahn said to Aluese.
She looked at him a little quizzically. "Oh, whatever is wrong, cousin," she said. "You sound all glum."
"Nothing is wrong."
"Something is," she said, and went over to Bahn. She stood close in front of him, breathing on his cheek as she had done to Ribeag. Her companions shifted a little too, staying with her as she moved.
Now Bahn was uncomfortable, with them all so close. He stared at Aluese, and flexed his wings, slightly agitated, which Aluese noticed.
She smiled. "You seem nervous," she said. "Are you. . . "
"Stop," Ribeag said suddenly. "Stop now."
Aluese's words were about to become an accusation of cowardice, and such an accusation could start a civil war.
Everyone looked to Ribeag.
Ribeag had meant only Aluese to stop, but as soon as he had spoken he realized it had the sound of an instruction to all not to move. And as all now had taken stillness as Ribeag's intent, that was what his command had to be. Those who were obeying, they made it so.
Most had stopped. A few did not. Some forgot who Ribeag was, and why he was here, and what the ancients sworn to his office could do.
One black-haired youth kept moving. He smiled at Ribeag, an offence for which his eyes would be put out if he remained alive a few moments more. He smiled, and Ribeag understood why. The black-haired youth smiled because with hair like that he would have been called a half-bred Tn'trith bastard all his life and asked if his mother was a whore. And it was a shame, that for that he would die, but all had to die for something.
Most others were obeying. A few, especially the black-haired youth, were not.
"Captain," Ribeag said. "Kill them all. Except the one who is missing the tip of her wing. Spare her."
Aluese's companions looked up, some seeming horrified, but some, especially the black-haired youth, seeming happy. Ribeag was still watching that one, and saw joy on his face. As if he really thought he could fight the royal houseguard and live.
"Brother," Aluese said. "Please." But by then all but one of her companions were dead.
Those who had never seen the houseguard fight forgot what it was they were. In battle, when they fought, they were not, strictly speaking, alive. They were given orders, which they carried out, and matters of time and substance and impossibility were immaterial. Shadows flitted among Aluese's companions, and flesh was rent, and a few dozens more were added to the dead on the field.
The girl with the missing wingtip was dragged to Ribeag by her hair. Aluese called her name, but Ribeag did not catch it.
"Strip her," Ribeag said. "Flog her. She may keep her eyes and wings and tongue."
"Brother," Aluese said, sounding petulant. "She is a noblewoman."
"Your men may have her," Ribeag said to the guard captain, ignoring Aluese. "All of them, and when they are done you may return her to my sister."
That part would be unpleasant, even for one accustomed to Aluese's orgies. Ribeag suspected many of the guard would not have her, would find others in the army to do their raping for them. The guard's reputation for cruelty was necessary and useful, and needed to be displayed on occasion, even if the guard had a certain distaste for actually earning it. It did not matter, though. The girl would be would be returned to Aluese broken and used, and Aluese's punishment would be seen to have happened.
"Brother," Aluese said, uncertainly.
"Bahn is my flag captain, sister, and my cousin. Play games with him and you will be punished."
Bahn stirred, about to speak, but then saw Ribeag's mood and wisely held his tongue.
"Well done," Ribeag told him coldly. "Had you used it, you would have lost it."
Because Bahn should not think he had been favored here in some way.
"Brother," Aluese said. "Please. Flog her if you must, but not the rest. She is special to me."
"And you must learn to be civil when matters of the realm are afoot." He glanced pointedly at the Tn'trith, now close, now watching.
"Then have your monsters punish me," Aluese said.
Ribeag glanced at her and decided she was serious. He laughed, because it was an impossible thing to suggest, and then decided a further lesson was needed if Aluese did not fear to have done to her what she had suggested.
"Captain," Ribeag said. "Wait. When you are done chain the girl before my tent. My court shall look upon your efforts. My sister may claim her back from me there."
Aluese looked angry, and miserable, too. She watched as the guard dragged the girl with the missing wingtip away. The girl tried to look defiant, but really just looked scared and young and sick with worry at what was to be done to her.
Ribeag stood where he was for a time, looking up at the sky, until the Tn'trith general cleared his throat. Ribeag could have taken offence at that, since the Tn'trith was a general and not a prince, but he was tired of war for the day. He pretended not to hear.
He saw these Tn'trith so often they were almost friends. They drank together after battles. He stared upwards, thinking, and when he had decided he was ready to speak, and greeted the Tn'trith, and spoke to them by name, and was aware of both Bahn's and Aluese's disapproval as he did. He did not care. War was done with for the day. He and the Tn'trith began speaking the words, enacting the necessary ceremonies to end the battle without acknowledging that either side had won or lost. *
The girl with the missing wingtip was brought to Ribeag halfway through the banquet. The crowd watched, a little quieter. Some were sympathetic, perhaps, as she was carried into the throng and chained before Ribeag. She was cut and bruised and battered, and while some of that may have been the battle, not all was. She had fought the guards. There was fresh blood on her mouth and wrists and ankles, where she had tugged at her chains.
That was done with now, though. Her defiance was gone. She looked at the floor, watching her own feet, quietly. For the time being, at least, she was no longer a warrior. Aluese rushed over, and brought watered mead to wash the girl's cuts, and tore a strip from her own gown to bathe the wounds. The girl looked at her, and bit her lip, and started to slowly sob and Ribeag wondered what there was between the two of them to make Aluese care so much. "Sister," he called, "This is undignified."
Aluese ignored him.
Aluese spat, and the room went still. Ribeag knew why. This was an insult, and they expected him to respond. Many probably hoped to see a princess of the royal blood raped before them. Ribeag was tempted, had been tempted before, but it would be a disaster. The attempt would cause a slaughter. Fools would rush to defend Aluese, and rush to join in, and once news of it was out, it would doubtless cause a war. Aluese was a princess, and a lord in her own right with equal standing to Ribeag, and her people would not stand to see her treated so.
"Sister," Ribeag said again, his voice grim, and reluctantly, very slowly, Aluese stood and came over.
"You need but ask," Ribeag said. "To have her back."
Aluese did not speak.
"So ask," Ribeag said, expecting Aluese to walk away.
Aluese did not. She stood before Ribeag, thinking.
She was considering asking, he realized, and that was interesting in itself. Aluese cared for nothing and no-one in the world except herself. She encouraged mortal men to worship her as a goddess, and led her companions to their deaths without a concern, protected by her rank. She cared for no-one, but yet she considered doing this, considered accepting the little humiliation Ribeag demanded.
She considered, and then slowly, she nodded.
"Very well," she said. "May I have her, please, royal brother?"
"Of course," Ribeag said. "Take her." And watched as Aluese had the girl unshackled, and carried away.
He was curious, and deeply puzzled, and almost troubled by this new side to his sister. Inconsistency in Aluese was a worrying turn. It could lead anywhere.
Ribeag noticed the Tn'trith general watching, equally puzzled himself. Ribeag wondered what the general made of this, whether the dark court would see a weakness in Ribeag, and there would be another battle sooner than Ribeag expected. Probably, he decided. The dark court had their habits too, and misunderstanding Ribeag was one of them. The old ways, the peace they had between them through the field of blood, was useful, but there were times when it was trying.
"I shall retire," Ribeag said, and stood up. The court scurried and the nobles stood and the greatest of the Tr'nah leapt to Ribeag's whim. He considered companionship, taking a few of the greater nobles' wives or husbands with him, but he refrained. He was not in the mood, was never in the mood any more, and he worried that rumors would start if he was forever demanding his royal privileges and never actually using them.
Ribeag did not think of his sister and her dishonored companion for several weeks. He saw them once, some time later, out of a window of the Acorn Palace, in a courtyard garden. Aluese was leading the torn-winged girl towards a bench near a fountain in the sun. Ribeag paused and watched and reminded himself that he had wondered how close they really were, but had made no effort to find out. That was a mistake, he decided, and not the kind he usually made, dealing as it did with information. His sister's weaknesses were really something he ought to know. He watched Aluese sit the girl in the warm sun, and considered for a moment, and then a clerk brought news of more Tn'trith misdeeds and the matter slipped his mind.
A few days after that, returning from a hunt, he saw the two of them again. The hunt had gone wrong, and all were a little flustered. It had not been the great moonlit hunt, but a small daytime one, for crickets. A mortal's cat had seen the Tr'nah and been about to pounce, and the household guard had slain it only just in time. Then a mortal child had began to wail that the fairies had killed its pet, for some mortal children retained the sight, even though their elders did not, and on this occasion, rather than slapping the child and naming it a liar, the parents had looked around, and there was a very dead cat to make the child's words a convincing half-truth. The Tr'nah party had made an undignified retreat, and had not found a cricket, and Ribeag, although not overly dismayed, had been wondering to himself if the power of a small mortal child could be harnessed and directed toward the Tn'trith in some troublesome way. He had been quiet as they returned to the Oak Gate, considering the matter, and Aluese had been standing waiting as he dismounted.
"What is it, sister?" Ribeag snapped, handing his mouse's reins to a page. "I am not in the mood."
"It is Dilee."
He looked at her and truly did not know. "Who is Dilee?"
"The woman you had raped and nearly murdered."
"I have thousands raped and entirely murdered, sister. You will have to be specific."
She looked at him, cold and furious.
"Tens of thousands," Ribeag said. "Even though I gather I ought to, I truly do not know."
"My companion. From the day of the battle."
Ribeag stood there.
"The most recent battle. The companion you had flogged."
"Oh," Ribeag said, remembering. "What of her?"
"I will not forgive you, that is all."
"Of course not," Ribeag said, becoming bored, and a little impatient.
"I just wished you to know."
"And now I do."
"Well then," Ribeag said. "Farewell."
Aluese nodded and made her bow. "Farewell, royal brother."
"Indeed," Ribeag said, and watched Aluese go. He was curious now. He really ought to find out more. He was known as the prince of secrets and cleverness, and it was unforgivable this matter eluded him, right under his own nose.
He thought to inquire further, but then a clerk brought a message that the Sunrise Emperor wished to see him and the generals of the Tn'trith, both, and although the Sunrise Emperor was the sort of formality Ribeag wished they could do without, the doing without was not practical, so he made his preparations and put on his formal attire and gathered his guard again and departed. And predictably, the Emperor wished to settle some matter of policy dispute, which would have no doubt eventually led to another battle and another hundred thousand dead, but which Ribeag had not even begun to plan for, so he was outmaneuvered in a way he did not especially like. He glared at the Tn'trith, and wondered to himself whether it was the same general who had fought that day at the battle. He wasn't sure, and many of the dark ones were outwardly the same -- and inwardly too, for that matter -- and so he could not be sure. He wondered though, and if it was, whether it was all some play to make use of his perceived distraction.
He decided it probably was.
It was not a battle though, at least, so he supposed that was a favorable outcome.
"Call my cousin Bahn," he shouted, to no-one particular, and after a while there was a knock at the door.
"I am corrupt, cousin," Ribeag said. "I am stained."
"I have run out of things to sample."
"I have heard tell of this complaint, sire."
"I have done everything imaginable just to see if it amused me."
"And did it, sire?"
"No. Eventually, no."
"The burden of rule, sire."
"I should have you gutted, Bahn. I would be curious to see if you squealed."
"I would think not, sire."
"I think not too, which I why I haven't done it. I cannot imagine anything more dull than having you tortured and you, throughout, grinning at me with that inane grin."
"My prince would honor me with his presence."
"I thought I might go out into the world," Ribeag said.
"The world, cousin. The mortal world."
Bahn considered. "That seems. . . unwise."
"But yet, I think I shall. . . "
"What of the emperor. . . ?" Bahn said.
"I shall have someone tell it after I am gone."
"And the kingdom?"
"This is what I wished to speak to you of. Would you care to wed my sister?"
"I beg pardon, my prince?"
"Oh don't act the fool, Bahn. Surely it has occurred to you. Marry her, make her regent, and rule in effect while she is endlessly distracted. And be done with me and my whims and trying ways. At least until my sister becomes even more unbearable."
"Sire, I do not think your sister would wed me. And it is not something you can force her into, after all."
"Indeed," Ribeag said, noticing Bahn hadn't actually denied his interest in being rid of Ribeag. "I cannot order her," he said, thoughtfully. Any other noble he could, but not the only one of equal rank to himself. "We could reason with her, I suppose."
"I do not think. . . "
"We could ask."
"I still do not think. . . "
"Perhaps we shall try all the same," Ribeag said, deciding. He raised his voice again. "Fetch my sister."
"Sire. . . ?" Bahn said.
Aluese arrived, swept into the room. "Would you marry Bahn if I asked it?" he said.
Aluese considered for moment. She was thinking through the consequences, and wondering at the reasons why Ribeag had asked. She was clever. She had Ribeag's mind, although she usually chose not to use it.
She thought, and then said, "Why?"
"Because I asked it," Ribeag said.
"To make him regent."
"I can be regent, should you wish."
"You are. . . troubled. Handing you the throne would cause a civil war."
"As would, no doubt, deposing me."
"Indeed. So will you marry Bahn? If I asked?"
"No," Aluese said. "I think not. He may woo me if he wishes, but I think it unlikely I would accept him."
Ribeag shook his head and waved her away.
Aluese smiled and left.
Bahn watched her go. "A concession, my prince. More than I had thought."
Aluese's consent to Bahn's courtship put matters on the slightest part of a formal footing. It meant Bahn committed neither treason nor impropriety with his advances, should he make them, and so Ribeag could order him to proceed.
"May I suggest," Bahn said. "My prince. That if you are bored we attempt to defeat the dark ones. Rather than that you flee out into the world."
"I could," Ribeag said. "But if I were to defeat them, then life would be even more dull."
"But you could do it. If you wished."
"Indeed I could."
"They say you have the cleverest mind in a thousand years."
"So clever, cousin, that idle flattery will not coerce me into winning this pitiful war for you."
Ribeag sighed. "I could defeat them, cousin. I worked out how long ago. But where is the interest in it, now that I know how it will go in my imagination?"
"How, sire. . . Just for curiosity?"
"Don't be a fool cousin. If I tell you, and then you will go off and do it."
"I am curious, is all. I wish to learn."
Ribeag simply looked at Bahn, scornfully.
"I swear I would not use the secret," Bahn said, almost hungrily.
Ribeag sighed. "Or you would tell someone who is not sworn, so that they may carry out the plan."
"I will speak of it to no-one."
"Or write it down," Ribeag said. "Or some other such trick. Stop nagging."
Bahn fell silent, and appeared to be thinking. Most of the nobility were stupid. Bahn had perhaps half Aluese's cunning.
"If you wish to try, cousin," Ribeag said. "All you need to do is engage with the magic women. Have them create a spell that strikes the dark ones whenever a particular condition is met, say when someone speaks a particular phrase, and then have some someone say it. Over and over."
"But. . . how?"
"That is the clever bit, cousin. And if is for you to work out. I already know."
"It would work?"
"I think it would."
Bahn continued brooding.
"Think, cousin," Ribeag said. "What a magnificent courting gift for my dear sister. The final defeat of our age-old enemies."
"It seems dishonorable, though. Winning through trickery and magic."
"Indeed. And yet, I am still bored."
"You could. . . ."
Ribeag threw a goblet at him, and Bahn fell silent.
"Do you not understand, you fool?" Ribeag said. "I can know what will happen before it does. Simply by thinking about it, by thinking it through. Any time I think about it. And apparently I am the only one who can. The only way I can remain interested is to avoiding thinking, and then all these schemes and plots these pitiful fools concoct surprise me. Momentarily."
Bahn seemed unsure what to say. In the end he said, "I am sorry, my prince."
"Indeed." Ribeag said. "My boredom is not your concern. Go woo my sister, and tell me how it goes."
And then he sat, and stared out the window, and brooded.
Ribeag was bored. In desperation, he decided to go on a quest. He had no idea what to quest for, but as a child, like all children, he had heard tales of returning lost swords to their owners and mighty deeds. He went down to the treasury and rummaged around, finding rings, and spears, and swords. He held one up, and said to a clerk, "What does this do?"
The clerk was hesitant, understandably so. The prince acting strangely, and in the mood he was in, was a terrible danger to those nearby. "Cuts things, sire?" he said, uncertainly.
"Is it magical?" Ribeag said.
"Not as far as I know, sire."
"What do we have that is?"
The clerk offered rings, cups, and a cloth that made things disappear. Ribeag put a ring in his palm, and bounced it.
"Is this powerful?"
They called an elderly man, a senior clerk, and asked him the question. "Very, sire," the older man said.
"What would happen if I threw it in a volcano?" Ribeag said.
"Why would you do that, sire?"
Ribeag looked at him for a moment, and the old clerk swallowed. Ribeag almost had him killed, then decided sages were useful and should be kept around. "To see what would happen next. Obviously."
"I imagine it would melt, sire."
"Oh. That's rather dull."
"I suppose it might explode, too, sire."
"Ah, now that is more interesting. How big an explosion?"
"Well. . . rather larger than the mountain, I would imagine, sire."
"That sounds more like it," Ribeag said and slipped the ring into his pocket. He went and called for Bahn.
"I think I will kill a dragon," Ribeag said.
"What for, sire?"
"Why not? Because it's there."
"What did the beast do?"
"What has anyone done?"
"A point, sire. But a dragon?"
"They're a nuisance, are they not? Causing fires and so on. And it's what one does, is it not? Slaughtering dragons."
"Still. . . I ought to go tell the heralds. We need to tell the dark ones we will be moving the army, but not against them."
Ribeag waved that away. "Don't bother. I won't take the army. Just me."
"And my household, of course."
"Find me a dragon."
It took two days to locate the dragon, and another to round up enough magicians to transport the court there. Ribeag went and looked and saw the beast all strutting and roaring fire. It noticed him, and breathed in his direction, but that caused Ribeag no harm. It was evening, so Ribeag decided to wait until morning in order that the court might have a better view. The dragon prowled their perimeter all night and caused some of the mounts distress.
In the morning Ribeag went and looked at the dragon again, and decided the deed had best be done.
"Captain," he called. "See to that thing for me, would you."
Shadows flitted. The dragon was eviscerated, and fell on its side, and croaked out a little smoke.
The court clapped politely.
"That was rather dull," Ribeag said. "All right, pack up and let us go home. Bahn, that was rather dull. Why did you not warn me it was not worth the trouble?"
"I believe one usually does the slaying in person, sire." Bahn said.
"One does, cousin, but be very careful what the next words out your mouth are, or you may find yourself without a face to smile from."
Bahn considered. "Well done, sire," he said. "It was a noble deed."
"Thank you, cousin, I rather thought so. How are things with my royal sister?"
"I will let you know when there is something to tell, sire."
"Very good then."
Ribeag remained bored. He decided all there was for it was to go out into the world of mortals, as he had planned. He wished to simply leave, was longing to leave, but matters of court kept getting in the way. He decided to push Bahn and Aluese along.
He summoned Aluese and demanded to know why she would not marry Bahn.
"Because I will not," Aluese said, petulant and bored herself.
"Captain," he said, "Bring me my sister's companion, the one we had flogged, the one with the damaged wing."
Aluese looked at him, dismayed.
"Let us see how much you truly care for this woman, sister."
"I care for her."
The led the girl with the damaged wing in. She was scared, and was looking around nervously. She saw Aluese and her gaze settled there, apparently relieved. Ribeag thought that was interesting.
"Chain her, flog her," Ribeag said to the room. "You know what to do."
"Brother, please," Aluese said. "Will not you reconsider?"
"Will not you?"
Aluese looked away, at her companion. She did not answer. The girl was chained to a torch sconce, and beaten. She flinched when the rope struck her, but remained silent.
"Why do you make her suffer?" Ribeag said to Aluese, watching the rope strike.
"You are cruel, brother," Aluese said, sadly.
"What is she to you?"
"She is my friend, brother. That is all."
"Only that. Friendship may be something you do not understand."
"I imagine not. You have no care if she suffers more?"
"I care a lot, but not for the reason you think."
"Marry Bahn or I will have worse done."
"After what you did to her last time she will never lie with a man again in peace. Is that not enough?"
"Her mind is troubled?"
"Her body is broken. Your guards are not kind."
"No, I suppose not. And still you call her friend."
"She is deformed."
"If you care about things such as that, she already was. I say she is a warrior."
Ribeag smiled coldly. "She was."
"She is. And as to what you did. . . Scars on her back and breakages within her, those are nothing new."
"I suppose not." Ribeag walked closer, and peered at the girl. She did seem to have a lattice of old scars, beneath the blood of the new.
He turned and looked back at Aluese. "Marry Bahn."
"I will not."
"This girl will suffer."
Aluese stood there for a while, thinking. Ribeag had never seen her as thoughtful as she was where this girl was concerned. "Please brother, spare her."
"Marry Bahn and I will."
Aluese sighed. "If you wish me to," she said. "Then answer my question."
"As I asked when you first spoke of this. Why?"
"Ah. I am bored. Ruling displeases me. I seek a change."
"Make me regent."
"If I make you regent, our world becomes a bloodbath."
"Perhaps. But not through my will."
"No, but still it does. You will force me to do this, sister?"
She said nothing.
Ribeag peered at the girl. Her arms were above her head, her wings pinned back by their angle. Her back and legs were heavy with blood, rich and red against pale skin. The gossamer of her wings was clotted with splashes, as Aluese's had been on the day of the battle. She was breathing hard, but nothing more, no tears, no sobs, no whimpers. She was a warrior still, he supposed, and accustomed to a little pain. She turned her head, as he stood there, and met his gaze, looking back at him now past her own wing. She seemed defiant, rather than afraid. He supposed pain was merely pain, after all, once those you feared inflicted it upon you.
"You are strong," he said to her.
"I am, sire," she whispered.
"And wise to answer."
Behind him, Aluese moved. She took a step or two towards them. Drawing closer to hear what was being said, Ribeag assumed.
"If my sister takes another step," he said. "Restrain her."
The captain flitted closer, and hissed in Ribeag's ear, "We cannot, sire, she is of the blood royal also. We must protect her as much as we do you."
"Of course," Ribeag said. "Very well. Let her do as she wills."
Aluese had heard the exchange. She would be smiling to herself, Ribeag knew without looking, thinking she had won something which mattered. He looked at the chained girl, looked at her, thinking, until Aluese became nervous again.
"Brother. . . " she said.
"Quiet," Ribeag said to Aluese, still concentrating on the girl.
"Brother. . . "
Ribeag ignored Aluese. "You do not mind the beating," he whispered to the girl. "But what of the other? If I give you back to my men to do as they will again, and this time I tell them not to be so gentle."
Suddenly the girl's defiance was gone. She shook her head and bit her lip. Bit it again, since it was already bloody, presumably from her biting down to stifle her cries as she was beaten.
"Indeed," Ribeag said, satisfied. "Captain, your men may use her until she begs you to stop. And begs, mind you, not just asks. Use her. Dewing her. Put out her eyes. In that order."
The girl made a strangled sob.
"Brother. . . " Aluese said, her voice soft. "I beg you."
Ribeag was surprised. Aluese's tone was angry, and did not match her words, but yet the words had been spoken. "Wait," he said, and looked at Aluese. "You beg me?"
"I beg you to reconsider. Do not force my hand over this."
"I am not forcing your hand."
"You do not realize it, but you are. I will make war on you over this."
"You will make war?" Ribeag smiled a little, and looked around, pleased. "Captain," he said. "Is that a sufficient threat. . . ?" There was no response, and no harm befell Aluese, so Ribeag supposed it was not. A shame.
"Make war, sister?" he said.
"You will challenge me for the throne? The throne I would give over freely if only you would marry Bahn?"
"A regency is not the crown. And I am not challenging you for that. I know how others see me, I know many would ally with the dark ones to overthrow me."
"Not to mention that raising a hand against me would see you dead."
"I will not raise a hand against your person, you fool. That is why your pets will not harm me. They know that, even if you do not."
"Oh. Indeed. But still, a war. . . ."
"Over this girl."
"Over my friend. Who I let you do terrible things to once, and will not again."
"This one is that important to you?"
"She is my friend."
"Your group do this kind of thing to each other all the time."
"We choose to. Some choose not. Either way, we choose. Not you."
"Oh," Ribeag said, actually surprised. He had been surprised more frequently here, by this conversation, than he had been for a year otherwise. "I had not realized," he said.
"There is a lot you assume, and a lot you do not realize, from high up upon your throne."
"It is hardly high. And I am hardly ever actually upon my throne. . . "
"Don't be a wit. Not now."
Ribeag nodded. "Very well."
"I would make war upon you," Aluese said. "Terrible war. But I do not want your crown."
"What would this war be, if not for the crown?"
"I would fight you to a standstill, to make everything else but the war between us impossible."
"Governing, politics, holding off the dark ones," Aluese said.
"Of course you would."
"And all your amusements, too. Those, most especially."
Ribeag thought. And Aluese stared at him as he did. Angry, defiant. She seem truly to mean what she said.
"I believe you would fight me for no reason," Ribeag said, finally entertained. Aluese's cleverness was there, when she chose to use it. Perhaps she could rule well.
"But have you thought what all this means?"
"Of course," Aluese said. "Eventually, the emperor, and the other races, they would grow sick of our squabbling and force you to stop."
"Indeed," Ribeag said, pleased. "Indeed they would."
"If they are sufficiently displeased, they might even depose you."
"I suspect they would."
"And then our family would fall. After thousands upon thousands of years."
Ribeag nodded slowly. "And you would really do this thing over this girl?"
"Thousands will die. Hundreds of thousands. Our wars amongst ourselves are always worse than those against the Tn'trith."
"You do not understand me, brother. You wander the battlefields all maudlin and morose pining for the lives of people you never knew. I savor death. I crave war. And I care nothing for the lost lives of strangers."
"Even strangers who put their lives in your hands, to command?"
"Not even they, no."
"You know what a war between us would be? All of our people, everyone. Not like when we fight the Tn'trith and half or more stay home."
"And you want this?"
Ribeag thought. He was not sure whether to believe her.
"Brother, listen to me," Aluese said. "I will tear this palace down in ruins and lay our forests to the sword. I will slaughter a hundred thousand children. I will kill and burn, I will destroy everything you have ever loved. And I will do to any who remain loyal to you what you did to my beloved friend. And I will do it without a thought because I care for nothing but her."
Ribeag was surprised. "You truly mean this?"
"You care not for the consequences?"
"Not consequences for palaces and forests, and not for people I have never met."
"But you care for this girl."
"So tens of thousands would die for her?"
"If you force them to."
"Then perhaps I should have her killed, and spare us both the difficulty."
Aluese smiled, and Ribeag was surprised to realize it was her cruel smile. The one that scared the nobles and the Tn'trith, the one she wore for politics and war. He had not noticed the way she was smiling until now, and his failure to notice may have been a mistake. She meant what she was saying, he decided, and wondered how grave a lapse it was to have only just realized this.
As Ribeag wondered, Aluese went to the door and opened it. A group of her companions waited there, those who always followed her around. "Summon my people," she called. "Summon all of them here, as quickly as you may. Tell them my brother threatens to do to me what he did to my beloved friend."
She closed the door.
Ribeag was a little taken aback that Aluese would resort to this. "Do you know what you have done?" he said.
"I showed you I am serious."
"This will inflame things somewhat. Your companions are hardly known for their. . . calm."
"They are wild, bloodthirsty savages who care more for archaic notions of honor than for breath and food and comfort."
"Exactly. And they think you are about to be dishonored."
Ribeag thought. "Are they likely to actually stop and check what is happening, or will they just rush in, assuming?"
"They are unlikely to think first."
"Then they will all die."
Ribeag sighed. Her companions' deaths might not be the point. Not by the time they actually reached this room, deep within the palace, and so were able to threaten him personally and then be slaughtered by the royal guard. By then their deaths probably wouldn't matter. The damage would already be done.
"If they tear the palace down," he said irritably. "You will be building another."
Aluese smiled, and bowed, as a courtier would. "Of course, brother," she said. "It would be my privilege."
Ribeag sighed again. There was danger here, for all of them, and his boredom was returning, too. "Very well," he said. "I will not kill your companion. Does that satisfy you?"
"There are other things I could do but kill her," he said, warningly, hoping Aluese would be reasonable.
"Many of which would lead to war," she said, coldly.
"I could have her maimed. . . "
"Have her raped every day."
"Give her to the Tn'trith, although I suppose that would be much the same thing as the others."
Ribeag sighed a third time. "I could set her free."
"That you could."
"And give you my word never to harm her again."
"I know what your word is worth, brother, with all your tricks."
"But I would accept it for now," Aluese said.
"You would accept it, and have her guarded."
"Indeed I would."
"Summon Bahn," Ribeag said to the room. He gave orders to no-one in particular, but knew from a swirl of cloth and quiet footstep beyond a curtain that it was being done. "We have come to this, over this, sister," he said. "All because you will not accept my plans for regency."
"I will not marry Bahn to suit your convenience."
"I know. But perhaps you will for other reasons?"
"Good," Ribeag said, and then waited.
Bahn entered the room, looking worried. "Sire, there is a crowd. . . "
"My sister's friends.'
"So I was led to understand."
"Yes, it doesn't not matter. Not now."
Bahn nodded, uncertainly.
"Cousin," Ribeag said. "Be happy. I have found you a wife."
"Brother. . . " Aluese said, warningly.
"Not you, sister. Be quiet. Bahn, you will wed this woman here, the one chained to the wall."
"Brother," Aluese said sharply.
"I am within my rights," Ribeag said. "I may order anyone to marry except those of equal or higher rank. I am of the blood royal, and there is only one other of equal rank. You. But since it is not you I wish to marry off, anything else I may do."
"Brother, this will mean war."
"You know, I do not think it will. I think it may mean your mob tears the palace apart, and I don't like Bahn's chances of getting out of here unharmed, but I doubt it will mean any more than that. Me having your companions dishonored, that is a rallying call, something your people will fall behind. But this is something else. It is simply arranging a marriage, a legal dispute. It is all rather dry, I'm afraid. And she is only a minor noblewoman, of a small family. I do not think very many will actually care, do you?"
Aluese said nothing.
"Bahn will find a wife today, sister, in this room. You may chose who he is given."
"Sire. . . " Bahn said.
"Bahn, be silent. I like you well enough, and I prefer you as a regent, but I do not like you so much you may take liberties."
Bahn fell silent, and Ribeag stared at Aluese.
She thought, gravely, and Ribeag was entertained once more as she did. He was truly unsure what she would do now, and the not knowing pleased him.
"Why do you care this much, brother?" Aluese said.
"I keep saying it and no-one believes me. My life is dry. The pleasure has run out. I wish to go into the world, and see it, and the only way I can leave without causing a civil war is to find you a husband whose regency will offend no-one. And that husband is Bahn. He is a pompous fool, and fights well enough, and he will appeal to all factions. And he is honorable and lawful enough that he will give me back my throne if I ask for it."
"Probably," Aluese said.
Ribeag smiled. "I shall take the risk."
"But if I am to be his wife, I will have time to work on him, and make him change his ways."
"I shall warn him against that."
Aluese sighed. "Could you set my friend free while I think?"
"Stop trying to force me before I am ready, brother."
"I am trying to force you before your mob arrive."
"Give me a little longer to decide."
Aluese kept hesitating.
"Very well," Ribeag said. "Bahn, go over and greet your new wife."
"Stop," Aluese said. "Wait."
"Will you do as I ask?" Ribeag said.
"Very well," Aluese said, sounding annoyed. "Yes, I will marry Bahn. Set her free."
"Captain," Ribeag said, "A priest, if you please."
"Now?" Aluese said, surprised.
"You think I would give you an opportunity to go back on your word?"
Aluese smiled. "I do not go back on my word."
"Of course you do. We both do."
"Not on our word."
"No," Ribeag said. "On the legalities. On technicalities. By twisting new words into the spaces in between what was promised and what was said."
"Perhaps," Aluese said. "But I have no way to trick you here."
"I think I would manage, if I were you," Ribeag said. "I would visit a distant fortress, say. And then send clerks to argue law, to say you agreed to a yes, but not to a particular when. I would add conditions that become impossible, one after another, until the wedding is impossible, and while I did I would gather an army so nothing can be compelled. That is what I would do, and so I doubt you would not."
"Set her free."
"Once you are wed. Otherwise, she is raped and maimed and hung to die on the palace walls."
"Very well," Aluese said. "Bring a priest."
"It is not for you," Aluese said, and turned to Bahn. "And husband, this changes nothing between us. Touch me against my will, speak a word that implies you forget your place, and that my blood outranks yours, and I will have you slain under the Turan tyr'rahn, for an offence against the future honor of my unborn children."
"We still have those laws?" Ribeag said. "I should abolish them."
"We have all the laws, you fool," Aluese said, sharply. "You can abolish none. It is not in your power. It is how I do all I do and are never censured."
"Oh," Ribeag said. "Yes of course. I ought to have wondered about that."
Aluese smiled, victoriously. "You understand, husband?" she said to Bahn.
Bahn looked at Ribeag, and then said, "I do."
"Then we shall wed. Welcome husband, now I am yours and you are mine."
"And pity help you both," Ribeag muttered.
As it happened, it was done that simply. The priest arrived and the ceremony was held and then the girl with the damaged wing was set free. And then Aluese addressed her mob outside the door, and helped chase them out of the palace. Then she spent her wedding night nursing her injured companion, bathing the welts on her back, while Bahn sat in a chair and watched. As Ribeag heard the account afterwards, Aluese told Bahn he need not stay, and Bahn replied that if he must do this thing of marrying her, then he would pretend it as best he could, and that even if she were indisposed or otherwise engaged, he was determined to spend the first night of their marriage together. Ribeag found such traditionalism refreshing. They might actually make a fine couple, he decided, and in time learn to suit one another. And between each one's particular strengths and weaknesses, they might even rule well, and probably little harm would be done.
Not that it was his concern any more.
Once the marriage was done, he was free to go. Finally content, took a ring and a sword and the best steed in the stables and announced to the few who were still nearby that he would be gone a year or ten and not to seek him. Few heard, but that hardly mattered. The royal houseguard heard all, and the royal guard followed the law. When Ribeag returned, if Ribeag returned, he could be king again if he wished, and could displace his chosen regents, or their heirs.
For now, though, he was free.
He set off on his quest. Such as it was. He would search for meaning, or purpose, or entertainment which did not swiftly bore him. He could search for anything he liked, he supposed, without quite needing to care what it was.
He could search, and in searching he would not be bored, and that, he thought, as he rode away, that in itself was enough.