Chapter 21 (King Valen)

The country of Meronne was industrious and well-populated. It was old – one of the first empires to rise from the ashes of the old gods’ last battle. This meant that it had a rich history of technological advancement in agriculture, architecture, and weaponry. All the same features that made it a beloved homeland to its people were what made it dangerous to King Valen. Meronne was pressed immediately against the southern border of his own land of Allomoria.

Allomoria was slightly larger than Meronne, but it was less densely populated. Allomoria was also younger, although it had quickly expanded after a series of military conquests over neighboring tribes a few centuries ago. Now, it was powerful enough that Meronne considered it a threat. For the past several decades, the rulers of the two countries had allowed small raids and skirmishes at the border to occur with little retaliation. Neither country knew exactly how strong the other was, so they’d refrained from declaring all-out war on the other. Instead, they’d carefully studied each other, like two dogs circling each other in a ring, waiting for that moment when border skirmishes finally boiled over into full-on conflict.

And it had. Much to the dismay of the citizens of Allomoria, King Valen had decided that the time was right to bring an end to the tensions with Meronne. By striking first, he planned to begin the fighting on his terms, rather than waiting for them to attack when they were ready. Queen Rispara, the current ruler of Meronne, still didn’t have much information on his angels, and she wouldn’t have any answer for Everin once the boy was under his control. Now, the only obstacle that remained in front of King Valen was getting his citizens and advisors to trust in his plan.

“My king, with all due respect, we’re your royal advisors. We’re supposed to advise you, but we can’t do that if you keep us in the dark. Can’t you tell us why you’ve decided to pull the angels from their royal processions? They’re crucial in our recruiting efforts and in presenting a strong image to the public.”

King Valen looked up from his seat at the head of the table. The man who had spoken was named Acheson. He was nearly bald and had a thin, white goatee. The only reason King Valen kept him around was because Acheson had served as the advisor to the previous two rulers of Allomoria. While his experience was sometimes useful, the man was also resistant to nearly every decision Valen tried to make.

The king shook his head. “Kyzella is summoning the other two angels to help her complete a task that’s critical to our efforts. They should be back to their posts within a week.”

Acheson frowned. “This ‘task’ that you mention, I assume it has to do with your angel project? The one that will supposedly give us an advantage over Meronne, but that you won’t provide any details on?”

King Valen nodded. “It’s relevant to the angels.” He didn’t say anything more, challenging the old advisor to make another demand of him. He didn’t. This was good. The man was learning that he would have to trust his king.

Valen leaned back in his chair and examined the interior of the war room. A large oak table dominated the middle of the room. A map of Allomoria was laid out, with blocks on it to represent groups of soldiers. The room was dry and dusty. Rays of sunlight shone directly through the window, making the space uncomfortably warm. The king sighed. He’d been spending far more time than he would have liked cramped up in here. He knew the patterns of the grains on every single wooden block resting on the map – a byproduct of spending the past months pushing them all around Allomoria, tracking their progress. He knew that he only had a few weeks left in the comfort of his castle, and he disliked spending it cooped up in the war room. Soon, he would need to travel south to the front lines in order to lead his army. He’d avoided fighting in front of witnesses before, but he knew that his part in the bloodshed on the Meronne border was unavoidable. After that, it would be impossible to hide his true nature. His plan would have to be ready to move forward by then.

Another one of his advisors spoke up. It was Lovett. She was the second-most senior of the advisors behind Acheson. “My king, if we can trust that the angels will be back at their posts within the next ten days, we can be ready to begin gathering at the border in around two weeks.”

King Valen stroked his chin. “And how long do you believe it will take for the soldiers to arrive at the border so that we can launch our campaign?”

Lovett consulted a sheet of paper on the table before her. “The majority of our troops will have to cross the Elderwood Forest in order to reach Meronne. Some can ferry down the Belingua River, and the rest can march down the paths. That’ll probably be another week before the first of those soldiers join our forces already gathered in the southern half of Allomoria.”

“So, you’re telling me that we have three weeks at the very least before enough troops will be available to begin any sort of strike against Meronne?” King Valen let a hint of annoyance creep into his voice.

“If we went ahead without waiting for the angels, we could cut that time in half,” the woman proposed.

King Valen shook his head. The thin gold crown on his head glinted in the sunlight that shone through the window. “We can’t begin fighting until the angels are ready. Meronne keeps a standing army full of veteran soldiers. Our forces consist of a bunch of kids who’ve never held a sword until a few weeks ago. The angels are our great equalizer. They’re our key to victory.”

Acheson spoke up again. “My king, perhaps if you could share more information with us, we could give you more options. Is there nothing you can tell us about what Kyzella and the others are doing? Are you having them create a new angel?”

King Valen scanned the table. There were six other people seated around it. Most of them looked fairly nervous at the boldness of Acheson’s request. Nobody knew how the angels were created, and nobody dared to ask King Valen where his mystical soldiers appeared from. Nobody dared ask, that is, until Acheson had just done so.

King Valen took his time, letting the advisors squirm, before he finally answered. “I can tell you that the angels are on an important mission – the outcome of which may determine the course of this war. However, I am not attempting to create a new angel.” His voice was cold. He placed special emphasis on every word of his last statement.

Meekly, Acheson nodded. “Understood, my king.”

Lovett interrupted the oppressive silence. “Might I propose an alternate option?”

King Valen nodded to her. “Go on.”

“I understand that it’s difficult to make masses of enlisted soldiers obey our commands without fear of desertion or revolt. Normally, we have the angels to strike fear and order into our troops. Without the angels to serve as enforcers, it’ll be difficult to make our subjects willingly march into battle. However, we can have them begin marching south without waiting for the angels to return. By the time they arrive at the border of Meronne and might be having more serious thoughts about desertion, the angels will have finished their assignment and returned. Once the angels rejoin the troops at the border, we can launch our assault in full. Once our soldiers have Meronne’s army in front of them and the angels behind them, they’ll choose to fight Meronne any day.”

King Valen mulled her proposal over. “It’s a bit of a risk to travel without the angels, as people might attempt to desert as we pass through the Elderwood Forest.”

Lovett nodded. “True, but no more than a hundred or so at most, if my estimations are correct.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. A hundred soldiers isn’t nothing, but our army is thousands of soldiers large. We’ll accept those losses.” King Valen nodded to another one of his advisors, who’d been taking notes of the conversation on a long scroll of paper.

“Tell both northern processions to begin moving south now that they’ve finished enlisting their forces. I want them on the southern side of the Elderwood Forest in the next ten days. Once there, they are to wait until the angels rejoin them.”

The advisor nodded and quickly began scribbling down King Valen’s latest decree.

The king looked around the table. “Leave me.” He commanded. “We’ll reconvene at this time tomorrow to begin making our own travel arrangements.”

There were squeaks of wooden chairs against the stone floor as the advisors rose. One of them opened the doors to the war room, revealing six burly men standing guard outside. These men were the advisors’ bodyguards, of course. Each advisor had been assigned one now that war was imminent. His advisors were valuable, and King Valen didn’t want any Meronne spies to attempt to take them out.

King Valen himself didn’t have any bodyguards. He didn’t need them. Every assassination attempt that had been made on his life had failed. And there had been many attempts, especially in the early years of his rule, after he’d mysteriously risen to the highest position in Allomoria. Nowadays, would-be assassins knew better than to go after the king. Those who attempted to slit his throat often found themselves dead before they could even finish drawing their knives. Poison always failed, too. Castle healers marveled at the king’s incredible constitution every time he fought off the influence of a lethal dose of poison. If they’d ever studied Ichoron’s physiology, they might’ve noticed some interesting parallels between the angel’s immense health and the king’s own fortitude. Fortunately, Ichoron’s durability meant that he almost never visited the healers, which meant there weren’t any witnesses to make the connection.

King Valen let his advisors finish filing out of the war room. Once the large wooden doors were sealed shut, he turned and looked outside one of the windows. He scanned the view of Doronhine outside. A few children scurried around the playground below, in blissful ignorance of the grim conflict approaching. Their figures gave off bright white auras. King Valen could sense the energy they produced as they ran around the grass and climbed up and down the small play structures he’d erected. He resisted the urge to reach out and siphon away some of the energy that glimmered around them. He could hold off the use of his power for now. He didn’t want to disturb the kids, and he still needed to keep his abilities secret until his people were ready to learn about what he was.

It was hard to fight the temptation to use his power. King Valen was a horribly unhappy person most of the time. However, he was committed to seeing his plan through, so he chose to suffer rather than relieve his pain. It was only after his worst flashbacks that he couldn’t resist the urge. In a state of panic, he would begin to absorb white light from the closest aura too him, clouding his dark memories with the happiness he siphoned away from his victim.

It was a cheap relief. Usually absorbing someone’s happiness only gave him a half-hour’s reprieve at most. It was as though his mind could sense that the joy was stolen. It was as though his mind wanted to be unhappy. So, King Valen tried to avoid using his powers. The risk that someone noticed their affect wasn’t worth the temporary relief they gave him.

King Valen turned his attention to the city beyond the castle walls. People still went about their business, briskly walking down the streets in groups of two or three. He studied the faint auras glowing from the men and women below. Even from this distance, he could make out the faint white light of the energy produced by every individual. His citizens seemed happier than he’d expected them to be. Somehow, their lives all went on. Even as their children, friends, siblings, parents, and spouses were all marched off to fight an ugly war, they still seemed to find something to smile about.

King Valen turned from the window. Perhaps his people would be able to forgive him after this war, especially if Everin and the angels helped him to end it quickly. He could show them that the brief conflict was worth the peace that came with erasing the threat of Meronne. He would need to work hard to convince them of that, the king thought to himself. He would need to earn the trust of all his people before he could set the next part of his plan into motion.

Next chapter:

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