War Wounds

Mendaran awoke to find himself in a sunlit bedroom. At first he thought he was in Sarekordia, but then the memory of the battle returned to him. He blinked groggily, trying to make sense of his surroundings. Light streamed through a window, illuminating blue floor tiles and beaded wall-hangings. A breeze fluttered the thin curtains, carrying the scent of the sea.

Mendaran tried to sit up, then sank back with a groan as pain shot across his wounds. His chest was tightly bandaged. It hurt to breathe. When he turned his head, his gaze alighted on familiar medicine-chest and several bottles of sparkling liquid arranged beside the bed.

“Drink this,” said Carashanza, offering him a cup.

“What…?” mumbled Mendaran. “Where am I?”

“This was a merchant’s house, I believe. We’re in Jorazo.”

“What are you doing here?”

Carashanza propped Mendaran up against the pillows and placed the cup in his hand. “Thankfully our army was able to secure the town and arrange a portal anchor for me, otherwise you’d be in a bad way now. You’ve exhausted your magic. Your body has suffered grievous injuries. Foolish boy – what were you thinking, forging ahead of the army like that?”

“I barely remember.” Mendaran shut his eyes. He had felt invincible when he sprang from the ship, but the Tuyaz-Oans kept coming, no matter how many he slew. His sense of triumph was soon overtaken by anger at their stupidity, then weary numbness, yet still they tried to fight.

“Mendaran…” Carashanza placed a hand on his forehead. “It hurts to say this, but you’re not immortal. You could have been killed. You must not be so reckless with your power.”

“The Sovereign wanted a swift victory. We took Jorazo, didn’t we?”

“It’s not worth your life.”

“But it’s worth the lives of countless others?”

Carashanza turned away without replying. Mendaran heard the bottles clink as she began to mix another potion. “You’re different,” she said finally. “You’re the son of an Ankaykari. Because of you, we lost very few of our soldiers. You broke the rebels’ strength. You’re valuable.”

“Valuable,” muttered Mendaran. He angrily opened his eyes, then swallowed back his words when he saw Carashanza wiping a tear from her cheek. She must have been terrified when she heard how he had been shot down in the street.

“Drink this,” she said, giving him another cup.

Mendaran took the drink with shaking hands. Whatever it was, it made him feel better than the enasaru had, but his heart was still leaden. “Cara,” he said in a muted voice, feeling tears dampen his own face. “I think I killed some of our own men.”

“That can happen in war.”

Disturbing images crowded Mendaran’s mind. He remembered men screaming and burning as he pounded them to lifeless pulps. He had not wanted them to suffer, but he was so tired. It had been impossible to weave true combat-spells. All he had known was that he must keep killing until the defenders gave up. “Those rebels – I – I didn’t kill them quickly – I –”

Carashanza sat by the bed. “It’s not your fault.”

“You said I must always give my enemies a clean death.”

“Sometimes it’s not possible. You were in the thick of battle. You were exhausted.”

“I conquered Jorazo,” Mendaran murmured. “The Sovereign must be pleased…” A thought suddenly struck him. “Why haven’t you taken me back to Askamar to recover?”

“The Sovereign wants you to learn from your folly.”

“What?” Mendaran drew in a sharp breath.

“She’s furious that you almost got yourself killed.” Carashanza folded her hands together. “To me, it doesn’t seem reasonable that she’s angry – you’re inexperienced, and it will take time for you to learn your strengths and limitations. Still. There must be no more mistakes.”

“How is my father?”

“Your father has shut himself away deep inside his Citadel.”

Mendaran’s throat tightened. “He’s… upset, then.”

“He ought to be proud of you, as I am,” said Carashanza quietly. Her gaze drifted to the blue sky beyond the window. “Apparently Lady Liralian fled weeping from the Sovereign’s scrying chamber when she saw what you’d done. She hates you now. She calls you a butcher.”

“Why should I care what she thinks?”

“Everyone is upset about the sinking of The Defender of the Waves.”

“What?” Mendaran sat up, the remnants of his power crackling though his blood. “I slaughtered hundreds of soldiers on the streets of Jorazo, hundreds of sailors on the Jahanzan Sea, and the Esu are upset about the sinking of some stupid ship?”

“You defied their wishes. Why?”

“I… I don’t know. I just thought it seemed more fitting for Eraquan to fall in battle. He was a brave man, even if he was misguided. It did not seem right for him to be dragged before the Royal Court and humiliated before the Esu. I thought it was more merciful to kill him.”

“Oh, you fool. You’re just like your father.” Carashanza closed her eyes, looking weary. “Lord Daskesurul is furious with you.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“He wants you scourged.”

“Scourged?” Mendaran choked out a laugh. “I defeat the rebel fleet for him, and he wants me scourged? His gratitude is overwhelming.”

“What?”

“That was sarcasm.”

“Mendaran, listen to me! Lord Daskesurul is not to be mocked. He has the Sovereign’s favor. He sent Canrasiul to watch you, because he does not trust you – and now you’ve proven him right with your rash actions!” Carashanza drew in a shaky breath. “Eraquan Ghaz Ahaya was the ruler of Tuyaz-Oa. His ancestors have governed as vassal-emperors since the empire’s founding. Do you think that the killing of an emperor is a matter of no consequence?”

“He was just a worthless human upstart.”

“Idiot! The Sovereign had hoped to break Eraquan’s will, then make him order his followers to yield. The rebels might not have heeded him, but it would have disheartened them to see their leader grovel. Instead, he’ll live on in their memories as a hero.”

Mendaran fell silent.

Carashanza began packing her bottles, herbs and utensils into their case. “I must return to Askamar. Do nothing to tire yourself, magically or physically, or you’ll be slow to heal.”

Mendaran tried to sleep after Carashanza had gone, but it was hard. His wounds hurt. The room was too bright. No matter how peaceful his surroundings seemed, he could not forget that he was in a house whose owner had either fled or been slain.

Mendaran had never even seen Eraquan’s face before he killed him, but he kept thinking about him. He wished he could have slain the rebel leader honorably, in equal combat. Other faces flashed through his mind – people who screamed their defiance at him before he blasted them with magic. Some had charged at him with nothing but rocks in their hands.

Night fell over Jorazo, but Mendaran kept tossing and turning, wincing at the pain of his injuries. When he finally slept, he dreamed of hands dragging him beneath the sea to join his victims. Unlike them, he could not drown. He just choked and struggled in the lightless depths. The Esu watched from their scrying chamber but did nothing.

Mendaran felt deeply unwell when he awoke.

It was still dark outside. Mendaran lit the oil lamp with a spell because he had never learned how to do it any other way. The use of magic sent a fresh wave of nausea through him.

He threw on a robe and hobbled over to the window, pulling open the shutters to let the fresh sea breeze into the room. Jorazo seemed peaceful at first glance. Its streets were illuminated with torches, but most of the houses were dark. The bulk of Daskesurul’s fleet lay out on the moon-lit waters. Tropical shrubs rustled in the garden below the window.

Suddenly a crash sounded in the distance, followed by shouts and the barking of dogs. People were running. It sounded like a fight had broken out. Mendaran winced, drawing back. After several long moments, the commotion died down.

Mendaran sighed shakily. Carashanza had told him to rest, but he did not want to be alone with his thoughts. When he wandered outside, he found four Ukuzechan guards stationed in the hall. He thought of the last men who had been assigned to protect him – men whose names he had never bothered to learn, and whom he had killed when he lashed out at his attackers.

“Where is Lord Canrasiul?” Mendaran asked one of the guards. He knew Daskesurul’s servant must still be hard at work somewhere, for the Ankaykari never slept.

“He’s in the study, my lord.”

Mendaran staggered into the chamber, startling the throng of advisors who clustered around the Nayusuru lord. Canrasiul was seated at a table, studying various documents. He glanced up at Mendaran, frowned, then waved a hand to dismiss the humans.

“I thought you were resting, Lord Mendaran,” he said.

Mendaran collapsed in the chair opposite him. “What are you doing?”

“These are lists of all the Tuyaz-Oan nobles whose bodies we have recovered, those whom we have captured, and those who are still unaccounted for. Prince Loraqual was slain, but his brother Prince Kanano was seen riding towards the city –”

“How many men did I kill?”

“I don’t know. Do you want someone to count the bodies?”

Mendaran leaned his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands, feeling like a great weight was pressing down on him. The memory of screaming faces was still burned in his mind. He was not like other men.

“Are you upset about slaying those mortals?” Canrasiul asked.

Mendaran nodded.

“They were traitors. They deserved to die.”

“Is that what you tell yourself?”

“I tell myself that I am obeying my ruler’s will.” Canrasiul gathered up his scrolls, arranging them in neat piles. “When we conquer Yhara-uza, I shall be signing a great many death warrants. The prisoners will be led from the dungeons, and we’ll watch them being beheaded.”

Mendaran stared at him in queasy silence.

“We’ll take their heads to the Sovereign’s court. There will be a victory celebration. Afterwards, we’ll return here to consolidate our position and plan the next stage of the campaign.”

“I see.” Mendaran stared at his hands.

“You look dreadful, Lord Mendaran. I think you should rest.”

Mendaran stumbled out. He told himself that it was his duty to crush the revolt, but he recalled his father’s expression when he left for the mundane world, and the words felt hollow.

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An epic fantasy saga