An Act of Betrayal
“Are you ready?”
I nodded, trying to forget how his voice had echoed in my dreams. I straightened my uniform, and eyed Malik sidelong as he held my sword out for me to accept. His unfathomable, deep-set dark eyes studied me as I hesitated, wiping my damp palms on my tunic.
“It’s yours,” he rumbled softly. “Cleaned and oiled once a week, sharpened monthly. Go on.”
I took it heavy weight onto my palms, and curled my fingers about its plain leather sheath. “Malik –“
“Can it, soldier,” he snapped, wheeling away from the gratitude he saw in my eyes, heard in my voice. His hooves echoed off the slate tile flooring as his broad hands crossed over his immense chest, his black hair cascading down his bare shoulders. “Put that bloody thing on, and be ready,” he said to the twin doors that led into his command center.
I obeyed him, sliding my sword’s sheath onto my belt and rebuckling it about my hips. Its heavy weight, both familiar and comforting, granted me much needed courage. Are you ready? I bloody hope so, for all our sakes.
Clean, shaven, and sober for the first time in months, I stood at his right shoulder – my former position as his second in command. Three hours in Malik’s private chambers and attended by his mute Centaur servant, Innes, gave me the appearance of the man, the soldier, I once was. Inwardly, however, I quaked. Three hours of sobriety left me nauseous, shaky and craving drink as I never had before.
“I dare not give you more time to recover,” Malik said as his magic dumped me in a hot bath upon our arrival. “Every minute wasted was another hour on the chase. Sober up, fast.”
As I soaked in hot water and suds to my chin, Malik’s hand on my brow purged much of the ale and wine from my blood. As though I’d gone a week without a drink, not a few hours. Yet, my queasiness and shaking hands informed me that was not – quite – enough.
Cleaned up and wearing my Atani uniform with its insignia of rank on my shoulders, I felt the creeping weakness of the unhealthy lifestyle I’d been living. Sweat dewed my brow and my tunic beneath its leather harness crossing my chest grew damp. My usually tight-fitting black breeches hung on me, for I’d lost much weight and muscle tone over the last two years. My knee high black boots still fit and my spurs jingled when I walked, but my fitness to ride my horse was at best laughable and at worst dangerous.
“You’re an Atan,” Malik murmured, raising his head as Innes strode sedately into view, ready to open the doors at Malik’s signal. “The King’s chosen.”
I nodded sharply, and sucked in my breath. My spine stiffened. “My Lord Captain Commander.”
Yes, I was an Atan, First Captain Vanyar, and Malik’s right hand. Outside Malik’s authority, I answered only to the King himself. I’ve fought the enemy, shed my blood, witnessed enough death and horror to last a lifetime. I earned my place at Malik’s right hand, and I’d kill to maintain it.
I breathed in a slow shuddering breath to quell my belly, I stared straight ahead at the gilded double oak doors, waiting for them to open upon my destiny. Yet, I pondered the chambers I stood in, and knew so well. I knew this place upside down and backwards. How many days did Malik and I spend in here, receiving reports, conferring with patrol leaders and ferreting out Atholian terrorists? How many nights did we share company, laughing over ale and comparing notes on the delightful secrets of mates and girl-chasing? As handsome as he was, females tended to ignore Malik and gather around me. I still don’t know why. Yet, we spent endless nights laughing over it, brothers, companions – the best of friends.
Beyond the massive double doors of heavy teak and inlaid with silver and gold waited his Atani sub-commanders in the huge conference room slash conference center adjacent to his private suite. Called by Malik to organize the hunt for our missing Princess, they waited with reports, intel, idle gossip, speculations and questions that held no answer.
Ready or not, sober or not, the moment had come. By standing with him, I silently accepted his mission: retrieve our royal Princess whatever the cost. I will finish this task or die trying. I will, I must, conquer the effects of the last two years of indulgence. Or slink back to the gutter and slit my throat. This chance would never come knocking again.
Innes stood by, patiently awaiting Malik’s request to open them. Innes, his silent, aging and only Centaur servant, kept his private chambers neat and organized. I’d known him for years, yet never inquired as to his history, or conferred with him directly. Rumor had it that Innes was a not-so distant relation whose tongue had been cut out by Atholian mercenaries. True or not, Innes never spoke. Nor did he ever smile.
Malik glanced down at me, his expression soft, even mildly affectionate. His long shaggy hair cascaded across his shoulders, his brow-band with its many-rayed star of his rank holding the mass from his face. The many hard angles and planes of his face didn’t smile easily, yet he found a small one somewhere. “For what it’s worth,” he said. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“I wish I could answer I’m glad to be back,” I said, my tone low.
Lifting my face, I met his eyes squarely. “Bringing me here might be a costly mistake, Malik.”
He tilted his face slightly, considering. “I think not,” he replied slowly. “What do you fear, Atan?”
I stiffened. “I fear to fail in my duty, my Lord Captain Commander.”
“You fear – what?”
“I fear to die without honor, my Lord Captain Commander.”
“I fear to live without honor, my Lord Captain Commander.”
“You need a haircut, First Captain Vanyar,” Malik said, his heavy lips lifting slightly. “But, as ever, your King and I both need you. Come. It’s time.”
Waiting for his signal, with the patience of a saint, Innes placed his hands on the gold handles. His dark, hooded eyes never left his master. Malik dropped his chin, once, in a nod.
Innes’ strong dark hands swung wide the doors. As Malik’s personal servant, he’d not cross the boundary into the vast conference room. He left the military life behind him, in another age. We strode forward, in marching step, our heads high, hands on our swords, into the vast vaulted and buttressed conference chamber.
Like a spirit, Innes bowed us through the solid oak before silently shutting their expanse behind us. With a hollow boom, the comforts of a simple life closed hard behind me. For me, I could no longer turn back.
In the Old Tongue, Atan meant ‘loyal’. Only the best of the best were invited to join the King’s royal Weksan’Atan. Those humans, Clan, Centaurs, Minotaurs, and Griffins competed every year to be among those tested. Only those individuals, the rare few with the deadly skills, the high intelligence and the proven loyalty were accepted into His Majesty’s Weksan’Atan.
His Majesty’s Royal Secret Police.
The royal army protected the realm, the royal navy her shores. Liveried guards shielded the city and the palace at the same time the City Watch protected the city from thieves, miscreants, common murderers, rapists, whores, cutthroats and dishonest innkeepers. Highwaymen, as they were named, roamed the nation’s road system and protected the vulnerable travelers, merchants, pilgrims, peasant class and the occasional foreigner. Local aristocrats governed their own territories with their soldiers and knights, maintaining the King’s peace on their estates.
However, the Weksan’Atan protected His Majesty, his family and sniffed out the machinations of our enemy to the south, the Atholians. Some likened us to the realm’s Home Defense Ministry. We did indeed defend our King and our home with our blood and our lives. We were the King’s sword, his justice, and his mercy. Although we often neglected that last portion, we fiercely considered ourselves his royal right hand. As obligated to one another as we were toward our liege lord and King, our blood oaths included protecting and serving our own. No other military arm claimed that privilege. Our savage loyalty to each other bordered on the fanatic.
We’d kill – or die – for one another.
Like a jealous step-brother, the Atholians connived unceasingly to overthrow or undermine our nation’s roots. They raided across our common border stealing horses, cattle, women and a pig or ten. Their suicidal raids constantly blew up villages, roadways, civilians, or the passing patrol. They died while believing in their country’s superiority, yet they simply died. Would they didn’t take ours with them.
Patriots, they called themselves. Terrorists, we called them. We ferreted them out, killed or executed them, comforted the victims of their plots. Yet, until now, no member of the royal family ever came in contact with these rats. Our spilled blood ensured it.
As I stalked forward at Malik’s right hand, I stiffened my spine into severe military precision, and pondered what it means to be Atani. Loyal to none save the King and the order. Willing to kill or be killed for the same. Finding no wife or mate fit enough to withstand the rigors of life with an Atan. Never regretting the offspring we’d never see.
As a child, I ever challenged my Shifting talents, and grew high in my Clan’s estimation. I practiced my art, studying the anatomy of all creatures, using my imagination when I had no other recourse. Most Shifters needed time to focus on the object or creature they wished to change into, and the change emerged over a period of several seconds. Unlike my Clan, I could change forms in an instant and constantly learned how to mold my body into anything at all. Many tried to imitate me, and their attempts never failed to make me laugh.
At the ripe old age of ten, I killed my first Atholian, a wild fanatic with a hand-held bomb who threatened to blow up the five children he’d roped to himself. He’d lit the fuse and it grew shorter by the second. The parents of the children screamed in panic as army soldiers and Atani sought to convince him that his demands would be met should he merely pinch the tiny flame.
I don’t recall his ultimatum, only his leering, fish-belly white face and drooling, gaping mouth. I changed myself into a black adder and slithered, unseen, behind him. My fangs in his foot forced him to drop his bomb. It fell from his fingers amid the legs of the crying, frightened children. Before it struck the ground and exploded, I changed, instantaneously, into a hawk. Catching the bomb on the fly, I lifted it, winging hard, wheeling, over the heads of the soldiers and watching crowd, the spark hissing balefully as the flame burned the fuse. I had perhaps ten, maybe twelve seconds, if I was lucky.
Fortunately, I knew the vicinity. I beat hard for a nearby lake, banking over it just as the flame sputtered toward the bomb. Flinging it as hard as I could toward the water, I folded my wings. Dropping like a stone, I banked hard left and swooped into a nearby thicket of oak trees. With a stout trunk between me and the shattering explosion and cascade of lake water climbing high, I weathered the bomb with only ringing ears and a ruffling of my feathers.
The Atholian died under my venom, his skin turning blacker than his soul before his final convulsions killed him. He collapsed in his ropes with the furious parents kicking his corpse and the soldiers cutting free the frightened children. The King, our current monarch’s aged sire, rewarded me with a pouch of gold and a pat on the head. The children grew up and are, to this day, my friends.
At the elderly age of fifteen, I passed all the tests and won my right to wear the Death’s Head ring, the Atani symbol. All Atani wore them on their left hands: the toothily grinning human skull with its huge empty eye sockets. The Atani loved symbols: the Death’s Head signified both death for our enemies and life for those we loved.
Even in exile, mine never left my finger.
The years passed as they tended to do. I rose high under Malik’s new command, killed or imprisoned the enemy, proved my worth and stepped up in rank and his friendship. I proved worthy of both. My talents killed or captured the fanatical Atholian idiots, listened to the right gossip and uncovered the feral plots, changed myself into the most innocuous creatures and disclosed the vicious spies who sought to gain information for their nefarious masters back home.
Ever the exception to the rule, I rose swifter than most and fell harder than anyone. No one in the Atan ever screwed up. Such incompetency was forbidden. Yet, I cost a dozen Atani their lives through sheer stupidity and my own arrogance. In killing the men under my command, I succeeded in turning every Atani brother against me, all in one swift act. I should be memorialized in a statue somewhere, I thought. The inscription should read: Do as you are told and absolutely do not do as he did.
My thoughts jangled to a halt as Malik stalked toward the head of the table. As though roped like that long ago fanatic to the children, I strode at his shoulder in perfect lock step. The inhabitants of his command center snapped instantly to attention. Faces front as though they stared straight ahead, I felt their eyes slid sideways toward me. I heard their thoughts, their surprise, their condemnation: What the bloody hell is he doing here?
At the head of Malik’s huge conference table, Padraig’al’amar’dar bowed his head over his clenched fist, thumping against his bare chest. Malik’s first lieutenant, first advisor and second in command, Padraig saluted his Lord Captain Commander. A Centaur of Malik’s high bloodline, Padraig’s equine body was the color of rich mahogany, his legs, tail and shaggy hair as black as night. Yet, four perfect white stockings rose halfway to his knees. He stepped into my boots the instant I departed with my brother’s enmity like hot breath on my neck. Of all, Padraig stood the most to lose upon my return. He’d dare not kill me, not openly at least. His dark eyes followed me as he withdrew from the reports he’d been perusing.
“My Lord Captain,” he said, his hooves echoing hollowly against the tile despite the crowded room. His fingers flicked parchment toward Malik. “These reports are the latest intel from our watchers. Something has happened.”
Malik arrived at the head of the table, with me still held tight to him by that invisible rope. He frowned down at the reports Padraig indicated. “Indeed,” he murmured.
He picked up a parchment and read, his dark eyes flicking back and forth. He chose to read for himself the latest news rather than be told by his subordinates. He dropped that particular report, only to pick up another. The skin over his tight cheeks darkened, informing me the news was anything but good. Malik kept his emotions in check, yet I read his face as easily as he read the reports. Malik wasn’t happy. And when Malik wasn’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
I waited, patient, my arms behind my back, at ease, waiting for him to finish. I surveyed the room without appearing to, my eyes slightly lowered. Most present watched me rather than their supreme commander, lips tightened. Those with beaks rather than lips parted them as watchful eyes regarded me with curiosity or resentment or a weird combination of both. I felt no welcome, no gratitude, yet I also felt little hostility.
I concentrated. Expanding what little magic talent I owned, I touched the room’s occupants. Most regarded me with a neutral curiosity, much as one might expect from visitors viewing a zoo exhibit. Many soldiers present I didn’t know, nor did they know me. They only heard of my exploits. And regarded me much as they might that selfsame zoo critter. Those who did know me – I felt much condemnation, yet no open animosity, no desire to flay me alive.
Before I could test further, Padraig eyed me sidelong and scowled, as though he knew I tested the room. Before I could lift my lip in a sneer, informing him of what I thought of his knowledge, Malik stirred. He sighed, and looked up, his dark face bland, devoid of expression.
“How inappropriate,” he murmured, yet I knew he didn’t speak of the reports.
Padraig stiffened and looked anywhere but at me. For myself, I breathed deep and released my magic. Finding interest in everything save Padraig, I found my military bearing and stared straight ahead.
His command center was just that. Half the size of the castle’s parade grounds, Malik’s oblong-shaped, high-walled audience chamber could easily fit twenty-plus Centaurs. High-pillared perches provided room for almost thirty griffins, and yet could also comfortably accommodate a troop of Minotaurs and humans. A special chair at the head of the grand conference table allowed the King to attend these meetings in comfort.
Two Minotaur guards flanked the huge doors onto the great central garden where serving girls laughed and filled their pitchers from the central fountain. Hemmed in by walls and guarded by all the kingdom’s species on its ramparts, the courtyard’s jungle garden hosted lush and towering plant-life, singing birds, an escaped monkey or three, and plenty of privacy for the commander who wished for the spying eavesdropper’s hearing and the lip-reader’s eyes to fail utterly.
Flanking the table stood a trio of Centaur sergeants, two commanders of human cavalry, and three griffin flight leaders. The Minotaur clan Chieftain himself, Ba’al’amawer, in his purple and white tunic, tan breeches, and twin swords belted to his broad hips stood at Padraig’s right hand. His emblem of the Eastern Sun rising in splendor marked each shoulder as cloak clasps, his dark scarlet mantle falling to his booted heels. He too, saluted formally as did the Minotaur guards at the huge teak doors inlaid with gold that led to the garden beyond.
I caught the eye of Lieutenant Cian, a member of my own Clan, a Shifter with close blood ties to our Clan Chief himself. He stood behind Ba’al’amawer and his Minotaur guard, his expression neutral, his eyes dark and hooded. He stared at me, his face in shadow, his hands clasped behind his back as he stood at military ease. Only the clasp at his cloak, the Tiger’s Eye emblem of the Clan gleamed under the light.