Chapter 63
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Marcus stared at Shrykul’s weary face, totally lost against the rat-monarch’s candor.

“I am making decision on this,” he said with a heavy wave of his hand. “Any Kobolds conscripted into army are to be no more than 500 Yips strong. The rest are to be kept behind, without weapons.”

Marcus pushed. “Sire, you are depriving us of a war asset that we could use to crush your enemy faste-“

“There is being more at stake here than crushing our enemy,” the King interrupted. “From reports you are making, it is seeming that our enemy is already beaten. We will not be letting his old followers get any ideas. Our equipment will be staying with our people, not his.”

The King knew he was stepping on his First-Talon’s toes. But he didn’t care. Something had happened between their last victory and now that had him rattled. What that was, Marcus could only guess at…

“Sire,” Skeever broke in. “Perhaps a good compromise would be putting the remaining Kobolds to work? There are many repairs our forts are needing. There are many more tunnels that can be fixed in the wake of Gutmulcher threats and Skegga’s incursions.”

Both Marcus and Shrykul looked at the King with surprise.

Skeever…out of all of us…that’s actually the best idea that’s ever been brought up at this table.

The King stroked his chin, considering the notion.

“This is being a fair notion,” he said. “We could be using Kobold labor force to rebuild what they themselves destroyed. It would be punishment and make them useful at the same time, and could be done without giving them access to our weapons.”

The King glanced at Marcus, visibly impressed.

With one of your own, Marcus noted. Not with me.

He could read the temperature of the room. There was nothing more for him to say except,

“Yes,” he said. “If they cannot fight, they can work for the Empire. But this will require a surplus of rats to act as enforcers. It’s hard for a force of deserters to think they’ve been saved if they’re immediately put to work by the side they joined. They’re more likely to see themselves as slaves.”

The King laughed drily. “Sire Marcus, that is what the Gloomraava of He-Who-Festers are for. The Kobolds are seeing what our God can do. They should be honored to be tilling our soil in His name. If we can count on the Gloomraava of Deekius to continue their appointed duties, then that shall be enough to keep this labor force in line.”

Marcus was about to respond – to say something more about the tangible threat of revolt that even a zealous workforce might present – when Deekius suddenly rose from the table and began to speak.

“You are speaking for the Unclean as though he has made you His anointed one,” he screeched, spittle flying from his mouth. “But he has not.”

The King narrowed his eyes. Skeever and Marcus, meanwhile, flew to try and calm the rat’s sudden heretical words.

“Do not be touching me!” he railed at them, throwing up his staff and almost cracking their hands. “I am sitting and listening to you being insulted, Shai-Alud, by a rat that is thinking he is above our God. But none are greater than the Unclean One. None may speak for Him but his champion, King Shrykul. And that champion sits here before us!”

Marcus’ eyes found the King’s on the other side of the dimly lit table and saw the flaring of fury engulf them – his pupils dilating with every exhortation the rat-priest threw his way.

“Deekius!” Marcus shouted. “Stop this!”

But the ratman was not to be deterred. Like a rabid beast, he cracked his neck and cast an accusatory finger at the King of Fleapit.

“You are not the one, Shrykul!” he cried. “No matter how much you are wishing to be! The exploits of the Shai-Alud are what brought us here, not you! Not – n – not y – EUGH!”

The entire table shook as Deekius hunched over and belched a torrent of blood on its surface.

“Deekius!”

The ratman lurched, eyes bulging as though he were about to go into shock.

“I…I…I see…I see…you…at…the end…”

He collapsed in a heap below the table as both Skeever and Marcus jumped from their seats to catch him.

“Be bringing the guards!” Shrykul yelled. “We are having a wounded soldier among us!”

Marcus heard him speak those words – words garbed in the guise of concern – but his eyes beheld something very different. As he bent low to pick up the twitching form of the fallen priest, he saw something else that had been approaching him from underneath the table. Something that had been waiting, slowly crawling towards them for maybe the entire meeting.

Something with teeth as sharp as silver thickets, with an emaciated frame that showed it was starving.

“Hugin!” Shrykul shouted. “Be heeling, now.”

The King’s dog huffed and moved away, coming to rest under the palm of its owner, leaving Marcus to stare on in total befuddlement.

“I am being sorry, Shai-Alud,” Shrykul said. “With the recent deaths of my cousins, I am taking precautions against assassination. My hounds are being well trained and best bodyguards in all of Fleapit. Unlike mortal men,” he added. “Their loyalty is being unquestionable.”

Marcus stood with Deekius in his arms, staring blankly ahead as two guards came to take the priest off to his chambers.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m sure it is.”

He did not know exactly what kind of face he was making as he stared down the once-pliant King. In truth, only Skeever knew how both rat and man looked in the room at that moment, and the tension that surged through his bones was greater than even they felt in the heat of the hour.

“Should we be continuing, Sires?” he asked, keeping his voice steady.

King Shrykul replied with a flash of his glittering teeth. “No, Brother. It is time for us all to be getting some rest. I am understanding that the army is moving out tomorrow, Sire Marcus? If so, you will be needing plenty of rest before you lead us in our final victory.”

Marcus said nothing more. He bowed and left the room with Skeever in toe, hands crossed behind his back, trying to keep his expression as neutral as possible.

“The Queen is looking favorably upon your efforts,” Shrykul added as he pet his demon-hound’s onyx forehead. “When you are returning to Fleapit, she shall be thanking you personally.”

Marcus accepted the compliment with another gracious bow, turning away and not even bidding Skeever a proper goodbye before he made for his chamber and packed his things for the trip to Gulchnavel.

He threw his notes down on his bedside table and began scribbling frantically while he packed, looking over his shoulder every now and then to ensure no surveillance was upon him.

His mind started working overtime, producing scrawlings that were barely comprehensible even to himself.

He needs me to win this war, he told himself. While I’m here, he can’t touch me. Deekius is the High Priest – he can’t touch him, either. Solutions? An assassination of a Clan leader is one thing, but a King? No, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t trust anyone to do it, either. Not Skeever – he’s a loyal rat. Not even Ix – it could be traced back to me too easily. Deekius? Same issue, plus he’s practically on death’s door by the looks of things.

What’s happening here? What’s going on? We’re an inch from victory and Shrykul eyes me as though he’s desperate to take the head from my shoulders…he’s angling for an end to the power I’ve gained. I know it. But why now? What…

He stopped writing, his quill leaving his fingers and clattering against the ground. It had been so obvious, and yet he hadn’t seen it. So simple, and yet he hadn’t thought of it. Maybe it had been the plan from the start…

At the time, his frantic, almost erratic speed was not born of any logical thought. It was not indicative of any thought at all, save for the persistent knocking against his head of a notion that had suddenly become all too clear to him:

When this war was won, they would be done with him. He would never make it back to Fleapit alive.

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