she had to pay for her victory.
The Story so Far
Marilia, bastard daughter of a prostitute and a deceased war hero, fled her mother’s brothel in the kingdom of Tyrace, along with her twin brother, Annuweth, in order to escape a life of slavery. She made her way to Karthtag-Kal Sandaros, Prefect of the Order of Jade, the elite knights who serve the Emperor of Navessea, Moroweth Vergana. Due to his friendship with Marilia’s father, Karthtag-Kal adopted the twin children as his own and brought them to his home, where he raised them and trained them; under his care, Marilia studied his books of history and warfare and impressed her father with her skill at Sharavayn, a strategy game that young Navessea noblemen play. Karthtag-Kal’s growing affection for Marilia created a rift between her and Annuweth, as her brother became jealous of her abilities.
While living in the capitol, Marilia became friends with the emperor’s daughter, Petrea Vergana, and learned of her animosity towards the emperor’s adopted son, Prince Ilruyn Ikaryn-Vergana.
After she turned sixteen, Marilia was married to Kanediel Paetos, a lord of an island province of Navessea named Svartennos. Annuweth, meanwhile, joined the Order of Jade and eventually became Captain of the Dragonknights, the Emperor’s personal guards.
Marilia lived with him and his sister, Camilline (for whom she began to develop strong feelings) until the island was invaded by the army of Tyrace. Svartennos’ leader, Ben Espeleos, was taken prisoner in a surprise attack, leaving the island’s army under Kanediel’s command. After Kanediel was killed in a duel, Marilia convinced Svartennos’ Elders that she was the answer to an ancient prophecy that stated that the spirit of a long-deceased warrior queen would return in the form of another young woman when the island stood in danger. The Elders put Marilia in command of the defense of Svartennos, and she achieved an incredible victory against overwhelming odds, crushing the Tyracian army.
Marilia and the army of Svartennos joined with the rest of the Navessean army (including her brother, Annuweth) and sailed south to attack the capitol city of Tyrace, hoping to end the war. Though the attack was a success, many soldiers in Marilia’s army—encouraged by the Graver, commander of the legion of a nearby imperial province and the man who killed Marilia’s father, long ago—pillaged the city and slaughtered many civilians before Marilia could restrain them, including most of Marilia’s childhood friends from her mother’s brothel. In order to save one of those friends from murder at the Graver’s hands, Marilia and Annuweth engaged the Graver in a duel. Marilia was victorious, leaving the Graver badly wounded, but Annuweth was also sorely wounded in the exchange.
With its capitol city conquered, Tyrace surrendered. Impressed by Marilia’s victories and her role in ending the war, Karthtag-Kal offered to ask the Emperor of Navessea to name her the new Prefect of the Order of Jade upon his retirement. However, Marilia declined, sick of war and the empire’s habit of venerating conquerors and warriors. Plagued with guilt for her brother’s suffering, she also lied to Karthtag-Kal and to the Chronicler who had come to write the story of the war, telling them that Annuweth had helped her create the strategy that led to Tyrace’s defeat…
Marilia, the Warlord
“Please, help me. I don’t know what to do.”
Marilia knelt on the floor of the tent, staring into the candle-flame. It was a blue candle, for clarity and wisdom. She needed some now, more than she ever had.
“Father,” she begged. “I need your help now. Anything you can give. The Tyracian army is here, and if we don’t stop them…” her voice faded into silence. She couldn’t bring herself to speak the words out loud.
Come on, she urged herself. All those games of strategy you used to play…all those war-books you used to read…what good was any of it if it can’t save you now?
But the spirits and gods felt far away. Though she stared into the light until her eyes watered, though she breathed in the smoke until it tickled her lungs and scratched the back of her throat raw, no clarity came. No wisdom. There was only fear. A dread that burned inside her with a heat far greater than any candle’s flame.
You’re going to die. You’re all going to die.
She rose and made her way outside the tent. She listened to the sounds of the army—the rattle of armor, the cries of horses, the faint buzz of nearby voices. Considering she was surrounded by almost ten thousand men, it was remarkably quiet. The soldiers of Svartennos were subdued; they huddled close to their campfires, casting anxious gazes towards the south, where a smear of red like a bloodstain scarred the ashen face of the sky. The wind carried the smell of charred wood; a gray river of smoke rose from somewhere behind the southern hills and flowed upwards to join with the sea of gray clouds.
Svartennos City was burning.
Once it was gone, the Tyracian army would come for them.
Her husband was dead. Her home was turning to ashes before her eyes.
What’s next? What will the Tyracians take? Maybe tomorrow they’ll march up this hill and kill your friends. Then they’ll sail to the rest of Navessea. Who knows how far they’ll get? How many they’ll kill? Your father? Your brother? The empire itself? At least you won’t be around to see it, except as a spirit. Because if they make it that far, you’ll probably already be dead.
In the valley around her was an army of weary, heartsick, outnumbered men. If the great Emperor Urian was right, and hope was worth a thousand swords, then they were even more outnumbered than they looked, because after the sudden loss of their prince and their greatest city, the soldiers of Svartennos had run short of hope.
In the command tent was a general who was no match for the enemy he faced. A man too proud to listen to reason, who had sent away his strategoi so that he could pace and fret alone, doing his best to convince himself—wrongly—that his strength, bluster and courage would be enough to save the day.
There was a chance—a slim chance, but still there—that he might listen to her.
But only if she had an idea worth listening to.
In truth, she needed more than one idea—there was no way to know exactly what the Tyracians would do, so she had to be ready for several contingencies. And she had to be ready now—for all she knew, she might have only one chance to make herself heard.
“Marilia.” She turned to see Camilline standing next to her. Her friend—her sister-by-marriage—put her hand on Marilia’s shoulder. “You look like you’re about to rip out your hair.”
“I feel like I am. Camilline…I don’t know what to do. I can’t think.”
“Just take a moment.” Camilline drew close, close enough that Marilia could feel her warmth. It was a greater comfort than the warmth of the candle had been. “Just breathe.”
Marilia took a deep breath.
She pictured herself standing in her father’s shrine, listening to the deep, soothing rumble of his voice as he ran her through the Stoics’ trance. Empty your mind. Find your center.
She took another breath in and out.
This is just another game of Capture-the-Emperor, she told herself.
It’s not. These aren’t some pieces on a game board. They’re men’s lives. It’s not the same.
Then pretend it is. If it was, what would you do? Just sit back and let yourself lose?
No. Your father always called you stubborn, because you are. You’d fight to the last piece. You’d make sure that if you lost, you could sit back and comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one could have done any better.
You have to do this. You were meant to do this.
“I thought there would be more time,” she muttered under her breath. The Tyracians would be there before the sun set again.
Well, there isn’t. Make do with the time you have.
In a way, she had been preparing for this moment all her life. She thought back to all those little moments that had led her here, a long and dizzying path to this cliff’s edge. From those first, innocent games in her mother’s pillow house to those years in her father’s villa, to her marriage to Kanediel, lord of Svartennos—a union which had been so suddenly cut short.
She’d watched him fall. She’d been helpless then. She wasn’t now.
She closed her eyes, let the world around her fall away, let the noise of the camp fade to a distant murmur like a river. She forgot the taste of the smoke, the bite of fear in her chest.
It was just her and the Tyracians, trapped in their game—the only game that mattered.
Life or death.
Winner take all.
Somewhere far—but not too far—to the south, a war-horn echoed through the hills.
They were coming.
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