Valentine was not an old and wise king.
He tried his best, starting his reign strong with the creation of a public health system based on research and education.
He’d then worked hard on the Union. He didn’t want his kingdom limited, he wanted it to be grand. So he made a system that worked, he increased efficiency.
He made a kingdom worth being a part of.
He drew the attention of neighbouring kingdoms.
Before now, the existence of a monarchy, of a system, hadn’t been anything to worry about. A couple of mages, humans and vampires, working together. Now, they were humans, mages, vampires, elves, Pixies and even centaurs.
How did other kingdoms react to the new neighbouring kingdom? Most, reacted well.
They improved trading deals, increased relations. They didn’t want a fight.
Except for one.
To the far east, sharing only a tiny bit of border by the shore, a vampire ruled over a kingdom twice their size.
A young vampire, only a couple of centuries old.
King Denzel was not into etiquette. Like Valentine’s kingdom, Corevire was self-sufficient. Unlike Valentine’s kingdom, it had no desire to get along with it’s neighbours.
So, when Valentine tried to be civil, Denzel spat in his face. He told Valentine «no».
To what exactly did Denzel say no to?
Well, it all started before Valentine was even born. Three monarchs prior, Maria reigned, she wasn’t a bad person, but she made mistakes. Big mistakes.
She attempted, in no small manner, to silence the press, she limited freedom of speech. And several journalists acted out against her.
One particularly was Holly Kellom, she did a lot in her life, but one of the last things she did was speak up against Denzel. She moved to the towns nearest the border with Corevire. There she welcomed the refugees who would tell her their stories. She would publish these stories, outing horrifying acts.
Denzel did not like this. He sent soldiers into the town and took Holly by force.
Bystanders said she did not struggle, she was not a soldier and knew she couldn’t win. She left peacefully with her head held high.
At the time, despite Holly ruining Maria’s reign, Maria demanded there be justice. Denzel responded that the body had been burnt and that he had delivered justice.
Maria tried to threaten him. But she’d lost her people’s respect and had little power. She stepped down soon after.
Her sucessor, Peter, intended to go to war, but they didn’t have the funds. He created the tax reform, increasing public funds through further efficiency.
The next king, Joseph, had other plans, a war meant deaths. And he was a pacifist. He put those funds to good use: abolished slavery, created the first public orphanages, opened public schools and started a system that would later lead to public health.
Valentine though, found out that Holly’s body had not been burnt. e Though the chance for justice had long passed, he wanted the body buried in her home kingdom like she deserved.
This, this is what Denzel said no to.
Valentine was in an important meeting when his spies returned to the palace.
He didn’t know they were back yet, although he was expecting them shortly. His right-hand man was looking out the window. Valentine planned to scold him for once the older looking advisers left.
“Okay,” Valentine nodded, taking in the information, “so, in conclusion we need more workers in the fields?”
“Pretty much, yes Sire.”
Valentine tapped the pads of his fingers on the wooden table before running them through his beard, “how much of an incentive would we need to offer?”
“Too much Sire.”
“Could we place a minimum price on crops?”
“We could,” the adviser considered, “but the amount would have to be high, and that would cause a whole other issue with food supply.”
“What about a state incentive plus minimum price? We could also reduce taxes on crops.”
The adviser looked thoughtful, “I can run the numbers and get back to you.”
Valentine nodded, “please do.”
“I’ll try and have the numbers by tomorrow, is three a good time for you?”
Valentine looked to his general adviser, he raised one of his eyebrows, “Clement?”
Clement stood up taller, rubbing his arm, “three in the afternoon?”
“Well, I should hope we’re not thinking three in the morning.”
“Of course, not Sire. Yes, three in the afternoon is fine,” he said staring down at the clipboard.
“What about that meeting with the education adviser?”
“That’s at three thirty Sire.”
“Will we be able to run the numbers in half an hour?”
The adviser looked uncertain but nodded, “I’ll make sure to prepare an efficient rundown.”
Valentine nodded, “thank you very much. I will see you tomorrow.”
The man bowed as he stood up before leaving in a rush to start his work.
Valentine sighed, looking at Clement. The man, if you could even call him that with his kid like appearance, was staring out the window once more. His hair had grown out and was close to covering his green eyes, black except for his roots that were a dark brown.
Valentine opened his mouth intending to scold him for his inability to pay attention.
But then the door to the throne room opened and Valentine’s other general adviser came forward. Noa was tall with long black hair that was neatly braided at the back, decorative flower pins all the way down.
“Your Majesty, Clement,” she smiled before bowing, “your men have returned from Corevire.”
“Good, good, are they all well? Well-rested? Available for a quick rundown?”
Noa smiled and nodded, “yes, Your Majesty, they’re as eager to see you as you them.”
Valentine grinned, “oh I do love when my men come with news.”
Clement sighed, “I am more of the opinion no news is good news… especially from that kingdom.”
“I must agree with Clement.» Noa nodded. «I’ll go get them, mind if I join you for the run down?”
“You’re always welcome,” he smiled as she left, before his expression turned darker and he turned to Clement, “do you plan to stay?”
Clement blinked, “um… if you want me here?”
“And if I don’t?”
Clement paled, “I’m sorry Valentine—”
“You’re letting yourself go again, Clement, you’re the right-hand man on the king now, you can’t be careless.”
“I’ll be better Sire.”
Valentine sighed, “can you take notes during this rundown? There may be something important.”
“Of course, Valentine.”
Noa returned with two woman and one man. Of similar height, skinny wearing casual street clothes. They didn’t look like high-ranking well-trained spies. But that was the point.
They all got down on one knee, nodded their heads and awaited permission to speak as Noa moved to place herself on Valentine’s left.
“Congratulation on another mission well done.” Valentine didn’t even know what they’d done yet as he stood with a smile. “Welcome home.”
They nodded and stood, the woman in the middle stepped forward and offered her report. First a list of taxes, numbers. Clement took notes while Valentine and Noa paid attention for anything unusual. Next the reports would be trasnfered to the financial adviser, to work out the approximate income of the neighbouring kingdom.
She then went onto to talk about some recent meetings the king had, general news, some new agricultural techniques they would happily steal, and last, the opening of a new museum.
“I take it you had fun?” Valentine joked, knowing the love one of them had for museums.
The girl on the left blushed, “yes Sire. There were many interesting displays, including one about Holly Kellom.”
“Holly?” Noa looked surprised, she looked to Valentine.
“Oh, yes, but it was decently respectful despite everything,” the girl shrugged, “her body was dressed and well preserved.”
“Her body?” Noa shook her head, “you must be confused,” although the spies had perfect memory, “Holly’s body was cremated.”
The spy shook her head, “nope.”
Valentine turned to Noa, “organise a meeting.”
She nodded and left.
The three spies awaited orders.
“Is there anything else of note?”
They shook their head.
“Have a copy of your reports sent to me, as well as all advisers.”
“Yes Sire,” they bowed and left.
Valentine turned to Clement, “you know what this means?”
Clement shook his head.
“We’ve been lied to. We’ve been denied our own culture.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Mrs. Kellom’s family always wanted her body buried in her birth town. They were denied that under false pretences, they will give us the body back and she will receive her just burial.”
“Do you really want to start tension over someone who died almost a century ago?”
“You dare question me?”
Clement blinked before shaking his head, “no Sire.”
Noa entered the throne room with a couple more advisers on her toes. The adviser of foreign affairs and the war councillor.
“We’ve already written out a letter,” she handed it to Valentine.
Clement frowned at the paper, Valentine read it over and nodded, “perfect. Give me a royal stamp and a pen and I’ll sign it, how long do we expect for a response?”
“Knowing Denzel, by tomorrow you’ll know what he thinks.”
“We expect a fight?”
“Of course, Sire, we wouldn’t be dealing with Corevire without one.”
“What is our limit? Where do we stand Your Majesty?”
“We want her body returned; the monarchy will pay for everything including the burial as her parents wished. She’ll be buried in her hometown beneath her statue.»
“Yes, but what are we willing to give for the body?”
Noa smiled, “I don’t think they’ll comply.”
“Then we’ll march in there and take it.”
Noa nodded, “yes Sire.”
Clement pursed his lips, “permission to speak Sire?”
Valentine frowned, “granted.”
“If we march in there it’s as good as a declaration of war,” the war councillor nodded in agreement. “People could die. Can we justify that?”
“Can they justify fighting back when they are in the wrong?”
“They won’t accept they’re in the wrong,” the foreign affairs adviser pointed out.
“Well, we’ll show them they’re in the wrong.”
“This will not end well,” Clement groaned.
“I have spoken.”
Noa nodded in approval a thin smile, “I’ll fetch the royal stamp and a pen.”
As expected, they had a reply by the next morning. An affirming no.
“Dearest Valentine, my neighbour, my dearest neighbour.
It’s nice to hear from you. Unforuntatley through I can’t comply with your requests. You understand of course, what’s mine is mine. This is a part of our history.
The same way you accept those who trespass on your territory, not returning them to me despite their birth in my kingdom. I shall do the same. She may have been born in your kingdom, lived there even. But she died in mine, as such, she’s mine. Her body and all that entails belongs to Corevire.
I hope you understand, but if you want me to explain in simpler words, we can always meet on neutral land.
Your favourite neighbour, Denzel.”
“I hate him,” Valentine stared at the letter.
Noa smiled softly, “don’t we all? Your orders?”
“Organise a meeting on neutral waters, as per usual.”
Clement frowned, “is this wise?”
“It’s protocol. We can’t start a war—”
“We’re starting a war?”
“Your Majesty,” Clement stared, “over a body? How can we justify what will lead to more bodies to—”
“It’s a matter of principles.”
Clement shut his mouth and nodded.
Valentine wore comfortable clothes made of flexible material when he got onto the boat with his two advisers and best soldiers. His hands comfortably resting behind his back and his expression unreadable. It had been a mere week since the news of Holly Kellom. Already Noa had prepared an explanation for the press. A story to publish in the royal bulletin. And a motivating speech for the guards.
Clement had instructed the head of security to prepare for a war.
Valentine had prepared himself for today. Prepared himself to maintain his calm while still intending to remain a threat.
It would have been a good day for sailing. The sun was high, the waves were calm. Unfortunately, this was not for pleasure.
Valentine spot Corevire’s boat, it was a red and black boat. At it’s tip Denzel stood with several men holding sun umbrellas above him.
Valentine wished for them to slip up in their duty and the sun to burn the man. Then he thought about the brutal punishment they would receive and held back from hoping too hard.
The boats slowed down, both Corevire’s and his own. Valentine slowly walked over to the tip.
“It’s been too long since we’ve had a nice neighbourly chat,” Denzel smiled, showing of his fangs.
Valentine just frowned, “I do not believe we’ve ever had one.”
“No? Must have been one of your ancestors,” he looked past Valentine at Clement and Noa, “you humans all look the same.”
“Ah, I missed the part of Vampire culture where you recognised each other by your fangs,” he raised his brows. “Or is it the identical red eyes?”
“At least this one has a sense of humour.”
“You know why we’re here Denzenl, let’s get to the point.”
“I’m not giving you what you want. She’s been in my kingdom longer than she was alive.”
“Had you not cut her life short perhaps that wouldn’t be the case.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you’re still upset about that? It was generations ago.” He waved in a dismissive manner.
“Hand over the body, allow us to bury her in her home and offer the descendants closure. Then perhaps we’ll consider putting it behind us.”
“Tempting, tempting,” Denzel pretended to think about it, “what do I get?”
“To do the right thing for once.”
“Oh, you’re selling this offer amazingly well. Honestly, King Valentine, I though you’d be better at this.”
“I will not pay for stolen goods.”
“You have plenty of stolen goods of mine.”
“People are not goods.”
“Not in your kingdom, but in mine—”
“I will not be discussing the morality of slavery with the likes of you.”
Denzel grinned once more, “you know you’d lose the debate.”
Valentine stepped forward his fists clenched his mouth open.
Clement grabbed onto his arm, “Sire.”
Valentine restrained himself, straightening.
“What would you want for the body?” Noa inquired, despite the lack of intention to negotiate.
Valentine glared back at both of his advisers.
“I want what’s mine back.”
“Then we have nothing to negotiate.”
Valentine raised his chin, “is that so?”
“I believe it is, old—young friend. Ah, humans,” he laughed.
Valentine nodded. “Then may it be known here and now; my kingdom will not forget this.”
“I can’t wait to see how the Union does against the forces of Corevire.”
“Please tell me you’re not going to act,” Clement whispered as the boat returned to port.
“Of course I’m going to act, I cannot deliver an empty threat, I’m the king.”
“Of course, you can, you just don’t act on it.” Clement raised his hands in exasperation.
“Valentine’s right,” Noa was going through the notes she’d taken of the encounter. “Empty threats make easy targets. It’s better to go on the offense than defence.”
“Who ever said that?” Clement groaned.
“We taking her advice now? We are the advisers.”
“My advice is we attack,” Noa looked at Valentine.
“I like that advice,” Valentine stepped off the boat with a determined expression. “Clement, organise a war meeting tonight.”
Clement took a deep breath, “yes Sire.”
“I’ll lead the battle.”
“What?” Noa stopped. “Are you insane?”
“I’m trained to lead.”
“You’re the king, not a soldier, not a general, the king,” Noa shook her head. “You can’t go on the battlefield.”
“I can, and I will. Clement is right, I’m risking my people’s lives, it’s only right I risk my own while I’m at it.”
Noa looked at Clement for support.
“I actually agree with that,” he shrugged.
“No, no, no, you’re not—“
“It’s up to me.”
Noa took a deep breath, “then I expect you to take the head of security.”
Valentine frowned, “he’s too young.”
“Then stop hiring head of securities a quarter of your age.” Noa shot back.
“You limit my options,” Valentine chuckled, “I will take a personal bodyguard chosen by him.”
“You take him. He’s the best, that’s why you assigned him the job. He will protect you.”
“With his life.”
“That’s his job.”
Valentine frowned, “we will discuss this at the palace.”
“Yes, we will.”
They did not.
Back at the palace there was many things to sort out. The meeting went smoothly. It would seem there were few who were not ready to rage war against Corevire.
Yet, this was not war. This was a mission. A simple battle. Show of power. A reminder, Corevire had no right to touch that which did not belong to them.
They chose a date, a little further off than what Valentine would have liked, yet it was sensible. Attacking once the leaves began to fall from the trees meant they would have an advantage. The brown of the leaves would allow the big group of brown horses and now brown uniformed guards to make it further before being spot.
Despite the choice to take an army into the enemy territory. The plan was not to march straight up to the museum and grab what was there’s. Several of Valentine’s trusty spies would have the body ready to go days prior to the actual battle.
Valentine knew there was no need for a fight. His spies could and would retrieve the body for him without hesitation.
But Valentine wanted to make a declaration.
He planned for there to be no deaths and minimal wounded.
He would march in there, be seen. Be talked about. Hopefully, this would help more refugees find the bravery to escape their situation. An added extra Clement didn’t seem to be seeing.
Noa came to Valentine a week after the plans were finalised. He was in the stable taking care of his current horse, a beautiful tall stallion who could run at impressive speeds.
“It is not typical of a king to lead an army on the field.”
“Perhaps it should be. We make decisions of great consequence yet don’t stand close enough to see it?”
“What will seeing it do? If things go South you will either die or worse, survive. What do you gain from being there? Seeing it first-hand?”
“I get to say I was there. That I know of the horrors and learnt from them.”
“You get to live with those images forever ingrained in your head and a self-loathing of which you are undeserving, trust me.”
“I know you mean well, but I have to do this.”
“I know,” she nodded, “we all do at some point.”
He smiled, “have you met my stallion?”
“Isn’t he lovely, I am more worried about him than I am myself.”
Noa shook her head, “you are something else, Your Majesty.”
Valentine laughed, “as long as that something is nothing but positive.”
“Well, I can’t speak against my king, now can I?”
“Of course not, can you imagine?”
They both grinned at each other.
“Clement is not happy with you.”
“He’ll get over it. He always does.”
“This time it seems a bit more serious. I’ve tried to explain it to him, but perhaps you could try instead, you know him better than I.”
“No, you do not know him better than I? Or, no you will not talk to him?”
“The second, although the first isn’t too farfetched either.”
“Why not, Sire?”
“Clement is not king. I have supported him in the past, and I expect him to do the same for me now.”
“You’re as angry with him as he with you, is what you’re saying.”
Noa nodded, “well. Try and get over yourselves soon.”
“That does not sound positive.”
Noa rolled her eyes, “well, you should get you’re hearing checked then, Sire.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he handed her some apples, gesturing to the horses. After that they remained together for a while taking care of the horses in silence.
Despite Noa’s comments and Valentine’s expectations, Clement was not happy and would not soon get over his best friend starting a war.
Valentine though, did not care. He had been eager to show Denzel his kingdom, his Union was not weak. That Corevire was not as strong as they believed themselves to be.
Noa was still trying to talk Valentine out of going himself.
His head of security found the action to be brave, and as a plus, he saw it as a show of confidence. Having such an important figure on the front line, it would be telling.
Valentine was eager to sit upon his horse among his soldiers.
He didn’t want to give orders from a distance. He wanted to be there when it went down.
When the most recent meeting ended, Clement disappeared as soon as he was excused. Noa stuck around.
“The time is nearing, are you ready?”
“Of course,” Valentine rolled his eyes, “I’ve been training for this moment longer than most.”
“Well, few train to go to war, even fewer in your position.”
“A good point as always Noa, but you know what I mean.”
“Of course, Sire,” she walked with him out of the throne room, taking the offered crown that was weighing him down.
“I trust the kingdom will be in good hands during my absence?”
“If you consider mine and Clements’ good, then of course.”
He smiled back at her, “I also trust if I were not to return everything would stay under control.”
“I’d rather not consider that situation. But yes, there is a next in line ready to go. Dalayla I was thinking.”
“Hm, not too sure about that one.”
“I think it’s sweet.”
“Well, it’s your call. Weather I make it back or not.”
“Of course, Sire. But you will make it back.”
“Thank you Noa,” he smiled, “I’ll see you tomorrow for a final meeting?”
The plan was simple. Noa read it out to Valentine, Clement, the head of security, the war adviser and a couple of generals. They did some very small last-minute tweaks and began to print copies for every soldier to report for duty tomorrow at dawn.
To make it on time Valentine would begin travelling by horse as soon as the meeting ended. Accompanied by three bodyguards and four spies tailing them.
Noa insisted security be a priority, despite Valentine’s own training.
Upon his arrival at the small fishing village that bordered Corevire, Kirosum, Valentine was offered one of the best rooms in one of the only inns. The mayor greeted and shook his hand, offering some of his strongest fishing men up as soldiers.
Valentine declined; they were not recruiting. They came with more than enough men, well trained and well prepared.
“Thank you,” he said all the same.
The plan was to enter as the sun rose.
Yet Valentine did not go to bed early.
He stood at the border of one of the many docks, having been able to dodge his bodyguards for some alone time. He figured if he bothered to look closely, he would spot his spies, they were not so easily lost.
But he chose not to look, pretend he had this time to himself.
Tomorrow, they would enter Corevire by force, head straight to the museum and take what was theirs. They would not harm a single civilian. But they eould have to fight soldiers. They may harm soldiers. May even kill soldiers.
His own soldiers may get hurt.
Was this a price worth paying?
Clement thought not. And usually, Valentine found his pacific view to be respectful. Not here though. Valentine knew Denzel had no personal interest in the body. He took it to agitate Valentine, and Valentine took the bait.
But what other option did he have? He couldn’t let Denzel act to harm his kingdom without taking some action. Because otherwise what else would Denzel do? What else would other neighbouring kingdoms do?
It had taken too many years, no, too many generations to earn the amount of respect they had today. Valentine would not throw that away. Valentine accepted the bait, but he would not get caught on a hook. He would take the bait and make it his own, a prize.
That’s what the body was.
It was a part of their history and their politics and their culture. But more importantly, it was bait and it was a prize. Burying it would prove to Corevire that they were not to be messed with. That they were to be respected.
And if Valentine had to rage a war to get that. That’s exactly what he would do. Sacrifices get made when running a kingdom, Clement didn’t understand that. Valentine and Noa did.
The sun was just showing itself above the mountains of Corevire to the east.
Valentine was just finishing preparation. His horse was saddled and his knifes sharp. His soldiers all wore matching uniforms, stern expressions and had weapons ready.
“When you give the order, Your Majesty,” one of the generals nodded respectfully.
“Now,” he said, climbing upon his horse, “we march. Slow and clear.” And he led the army, first in line.
To everyone’s surprise, there was no border control, other than the Union’s own. The centaurs on duty bowed at the sight of their king.
They entered Corevire and it felt no different. There was a small stretch of forest between the small army and the town with the museum. However, they did not plan to traverse it. They did not plan to hide in the trees and ambush the town.
Instead, they took the longer route, circling the forest.
They would arrive at the town before one, the streets would be full of people, they would march through the town and be seen by all. That was the plan.
The town came into view. Still there was no sign of opposition nor resistance. A good sign.
Valentine’s horse neighed and slowed down as they made their way closer and closer.
“What’s up Token?” he whispered.
Then the horse stopped altogether.
Valentine realised something was up. An instant too late.
Enemy soldiers flooded out of the forest in a cascade of blood and clanging noises. Swords hit swords, swords hit flesh, swords hit bone and the soft grass as they fell from limp hands to the ground bellow.
The horses panicked, they got up on two feet throwing their riders to the ground. The enemy soldiers who were on foot didn’t hesitate to attack not only the men but their animals.
Despite the plan being to kill as few enemies as possible, the horses weren’t cooperating, and more enemies died trampled beneath scared animals’ hoofs than those who bled out on the wrong side of a sword.
Valentine’s own horse was well trained and loyal, despite the chaos he stood tall and still awaiting orders.
Valentine pulled out his own sword, knifes at the ready.
“Move back, form a line, calm your horses!” Valentine ordered, his voice loud and clear.
His men immediately tried their best. His bodyguards circled him. But Valentine had no time to be angry about that.
“Defend those who have fallen!”
The men formed an organised line, those who’s horses had fled behind those who still had a mount. Swords clashed and keeping the horses calm was easier said than done with the enemies attacking the poor animals head on.
“We need to retreat Sire,” one of the higher ups approached, “they expected us, this is an ambush.”
Valentine frowned. They had taken the bait.
“We will not give up. We are stronger and better trained then them. We fight.”
Many more men were yet to fall.
The enemy was unforgiving, they weren’t aiming to win, but to kill.
“Requesting permission to kill Sire, if we continue to fight in this manor, we will lose more men.”
Valentine hesitated for a second, before he nodded, “retreat.”
“Yes, starting with the injured, we retreat back into our territory.”
The bodyguards approached Valentine, “if we are retreating Sire—”
“I said starting with the injured.”
Surprisingly, the enemy did not seem fussed over impeding the retreat. Thankfully. That is until Valentine moved to leave. Then the remaining enemies swarmed him.
The horse finally began to panic.
Valentine leaned down and patted him, “calm down boy, calm down,” he whispered and wished.
His bodyguards did not leave his side.
“Continue with the retreat!” the king shouted over the enemy soldiers when he saw his own men pausing or even returning to assist the king.
There was hesitance.
“Your King orders you to return to the Kingdom!” the words were loud, clear and stern. They were final.
As many men as possible were to return to the kingdom. With or without their king.
The enemies took down Valentines bodyguards, corpses fell to the ground.
Valentine expected a similar treatment, but instead he found swords surrounding him.
“Drop your weapons.”
Valentine dropped his sword.
One of the men moved forward, grabbing his arms and roughly pulling them behind hid back, heavy metal manacles restraining his movement.
“Today, we take the Union’s king as a prisoner!” he shouted.
Cheering came from the enemy soldiers. Yet Valentine held his head high, refusing to show any sign of fear.
He was not surprised to find Denzel awaiting him in the town, in front of the museum as if to rub it in his face.
“Valentine,” his tone was that of an old friend, of greeting.
Valentine had to hold back a snarl, a hiss or a swear word.
“You came to visit, just like you promised. Took you long enough.”
“And you were waiting.”
“Of course. Did you expect anything less?”
Valentine didn’t answer.
“I’m surprised. I expected more from you.” And he sounded genuinely disappointed.
It stung. Valentine expected more from himself. But he’d let his anger get the best of him. He’d been blinded of common sense.
“It was very brave of you to come here, Valentine.” Denzel smiled, “a nice surprise for me. A nice prize.” He stepped forward, and grabbed Valentine’s face with one hand, Denzel was taller than Valentine and forced his head, so he was looking up at him.
Valentine managed to stay expressionless, he wouldn’t give Denzel what he wanted, be it fear, anger, sadness. He would get nothing from Valentine.
“I can’t wait to see how a king rots away in my dungeon.” He let go and turned around. “I’ll be sure to visit. Take him away.”
Valentine was dragged through the town. He could see civilians moving out of the way of the soldiers. They looked scared. And that was what finally got Valentine’s head to fall, knowing every plan he’d made had failed. He’d had the polar opposite affect to his desires. He was being used as an example to those who could want to seek refugee!
And that failure was accentuated by the cold stone floor of the cell he was tossed into.
Less than a quarter of the men who had left arrived back to the kingdom.
It was nightitme when the news finally arrived at the palace. Clement stood on the left of the throne, Noa on the right.
“The battle was a failure. There was an ambush waiting, hundreds died.”
“Where’s the king?” Noa managed to stand tall, her voice sounded clear, yet there was a shine to her eyes, as she held back tears.
Clement didn’t say a word.
“I don’t know Mam. Just that he didn’t come back. There’s a chance he was taken prisoner, we are awaiting further intel. There were several spies tailing him who should be able to confirm or deny his possible demise.”
Noa nodded, “thank you.”
The man left.
Noa’s posture dropped, her breathing hitched. “He shouldn’t have gone.”
“We should have never attacked,” Clement corrected, yet his tone was soft and regretful as a pose to defensive like it had been for the past few months. “The King is alive, I’m sure of it.”
Noa nodded, hopeful. “I-I… I’m going to take over for the time being. Are you going to be okay?” she looked concerned.
“Don’t worry about me.”
“I worry about you. The only thing I worry about more is the king. Don’t—” she hesitated, “take a couple of days off, okay?”
Clement nodded, “thank you.”
Valentine sat in the corner of his cell. The cell was nothing like those of his own kingdom, it was dark, damp, there was no bed, or desk.
His manacles had been replaced with an antimagic manacle around his right wrist.
“These do nothing to humans,” he’d pointes out at the time.
“Better safe than sorry, not that your kingdom knows anything about that.”
Valentine didn’t have a comeback to that.
It had been several days, he hadn’t had any food, just a couple of glasses of water a day. It was clear Denzel had no intent of making his stay here comfortable.
It was on the third day Denzel finally came to visit.
“To what do I owe the honour?” Valentine asked with venom in his voice.
A soft chuckle, “oh, the mere sight of you at such a low point is rewarding enough.”
“You know what I mean Denzel. What’s your plan? Why am I alive? Do you plan to demand money, land or troops in exchange for my safe return? Do you plan to make an example of me through public execution? What’s your end game here?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“That’s why you’re here, to gloat.”
Denzel grinned, “no. I’m here to make you an offer.”
“You can talk now, no pain, not interrogation techniques, or you can talk to my men.”
Valentine smiled, “you know my answer.”
“Well, at least you can’t say I didn’t offer you mercy.”
“Tell me what you plan to do with me, after you realise I won’t speak.”
Denzel smiled. “How’s your mother doing?”
“What about your grandmother?”
“That’s nice, perhaps I’ll go visit her sometime.”
“You think she’ll let you in with me locked up down here?”
Denzel chuckled, “she keen on you?”
“Shame. Guess this will have lost me a couple of points. Oh well.”
What came next was one of the worst weeks of Valentine’s life. Still, he was not given a bite to eat and was tossed around like a ragdoll. The men tried to intimidate him, they threatened him. But Valentine didn’t speak. He glared and kept his mouth shut.
Yet, he’d be lying if he said the cold stone floor, lack of food and general abuse wasn’t getting to him. He lay in his cell, back against the wall taking deep breaths, holding back tears and clenching his fists at the though of the mess he’d got himself into.
He heard footsteps coming towards his cell and composed himself. Glaring at the door, expecting at best a glass of water and at worst further questioning.
A bright light filled the cell , two men plopped down onto the ground. The door opened slowly.
The silhouette of a young man. A sigh of relief.
“Got the right cell.” Valentine recognised Clement’s voice.
“Clement,” he smiled as the man entered, kneeling down to check over his king.
“How did you… what was that?”
“I’ve been training with your spies for some time now,” he smiled, “you’re not the only one who can fend for himself I’ll let you know.”
Valentine grinned, “and, the flash of light?”
He pulled a vial of purple liquid of his belt and shook it, “bottled magic.”
“You mean like the spells people sell at the market for heating up water and stuff?”
“Yes, just a bit more destructive,” he put it back in place on his belt. “I was inspired, commissioned some magicians.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
Clement held out a hand that Valentine accepted, letting Clement pull him up, “thought I’d surprise you. Wasn’t planning on it being quite so,” he waved his hand around as if that explained everything.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“I should hope so, armed?”
Valentine pulled a knife from beneath his clothes, “they checked me but… they weren’t too throughout.”
“Then let’s go.”
Clement led the way, there were several guards either unconscious or sleeping.
“How many of those vials did you bring?”
“A dozen or so, got about four left.”
“Not bad. How we getting out of here?”
“Follow me, I’ll explain once we’re safe.”
Valentine nodded, trusting his adviser.
They took out a couple more guards on their way out. Valentine threw his knifes from the opposite side of the hallways at his tormentors. Hit them square in the throat and watched them fall to the ground. Picking up his knifes on the way out.
They made it out of the dungeon and onto the street. They made their way through the unfamiliar town, heads lowered, and mouths shut.
They made it to a dark alley and Clement pulled out a key, opening one of the doors and pulling Valentine in behind him.
“Here you’ll be safe, Your Majesty.”
Then there was light. He recognised two of his spies, they bowed, “Your Majesty.”
Valentine understood. “This is one of the safe houses.”
Clement nodded, “I couldn’t have broken you out without their help, of course. They scouted out the place first. They were about to break you out when I arrived, but we decided it’d be best if I went in so they didn’t blow their cover and could stay in position.”
“Very smart. All of you. Amazing job.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” one of the spies smiled. “It’s an honour.”
“How long will we stay here, Clement?”
“Well, they have probably already realised you’re gone. They’ll be searching for you all over town. But they’ll suspect you headed straight back to the Kingdom. I would recommend we stay here at least a couple of days before we head back by horse. I bought a carriage for you to hide in. I’ll drive.”
Valentine nodded. “Does Noa know you’re here?”
Clement laughed. “You think Noa would have let me come?”
Valentine smirked, “you’re in big trouble.”
“Not as much as you.” Clement’s expression became more serious, “how did they treat you?”
“I’ve been treated better,” he chuckled, “but I’m fine. Hungry. Tired.”
“Good, we’ll rest up here for now. Be home soon.”
Valentine ate more than he knew possible that first meal after the dungeon. He then slept in a proper bed that felt like the comfiest he’d ever had.
Once well-rested and before leaving, Valentine questioned Clement on the outcome of the battle, he wanted numbers.
Clement dodged the questions and excused himself by saying he hadn’t spared much time before coming.
Valentine didn’t quite believe him. But also realised he didn’t want to know the answer. Noa would tell him upon arrival home. She was not one to soften blows.
It had been four days when Valentine hid himself among barrels of rice and flour in the shadows of a carriage. Clement atop a horse that belonged to neither of them. Clement had all the correct paperwork and showed it to border control who promptly let him through, not bothering to check the barrels were what they should be.
Once back in the kingdom, Valentine crawled out from his hiding spot to sit on the wooden edge of the carriage. There he could see the trees, mountains, lakes go by as they headed back towards Oppida.
“Looking forward to getting home?”
“More than you could ever imagine.”
Upon arrival at the palace, one of the door guards ran inside to inform Noa who was acting queen until Valentine’s arrival. By the time they reached the front door and servants were taking care of the horses, Noa had reached them.
“You two!” her voice was accusatory on the border of tears.
As she reached them she pulled them both into a tight hug, and finally tears fell down her face.
“You could have been killed!” she scolded Valentine, before turning to Clement. “And you—” she didn’t seem to know where to even start.
Clement gave a sheepish smile, “oh come on Noa, everything was under control,” he pulled out one of the vials, “I learnt my own way of playing with magic.”
The woman shook her head disapprovingly, whipping away tears. “I thought I’d lost you both for a moment. I love you two. Don’t you ever do something like that again.”
Valentine smiled, “I’m sorry Noa. I promise. Next time I’ll be taking Clement’s advice.” He took a deep breath, “numbers?”
Noa paled, “we should get you inside, you look a mess.”
“We’ll do a proper debrief this afternoon and talk about a new course of action. Several plans have already been proposed and I have a favourite.”
He nodded, “I trust you.”
“Your mother is angrier than I am.”
Valentine snorted, “she would be. Would mess up all her plans if I went off and died on the battlefield, huh?”
Clement elbowed the king, glaring.
“I wouldn’t say that to her face,” he defended.
“You better not, you’d be regretting it for days.”
Noa guided the two inside, “go to your quarters, bathe, get some formal attire on. You’ll need to address your citizens and apologise.”
Valentine nodded, “the meeting will be beforehand?”
Noa nodded, “I’ve already prepared a speech, you can make any tweaks you want at the meeting.”
Valentine did not rest that day. The thought of the outcome of the battle was looming over him. He just wanted to get the meeting over with. Know how many lives were lost, how many families broken. How many injured.
“The good news,” Noa began at the meeting, “is your spies did bring back the body. The burial is planned for next week, you will be attending.”
Valentine sat up and nodded. Any good news was appreciated.
“Two hundred and four men died, another fifty-seven were injured. Most injuries are minor.”
Valentine took a deep breath, “far too many.”
“Public opinion is neutral right now. There are people who are angry, of course. Your men defend you did everything to minimize casualties on the field, sacrificing yourself in the process. Many see you as a hero. But public opinion can change at any moment.”
“I can’t blame anybody who’s upset.”
“Which is why tonight you will apologise. I have planned a care package for the families who lost members, including financial support and a medal. Another similar package for the injured. And another medal for everyone who took part in the battle.”
Valentine nodded, “add to that care package an optional meeting with myself. I would like to apologise personally to the families affected.”
Noa nodded, “yes Sire. But I recommend all financial compensation not be mentioned tonight. We don’t want it to see like it only exists to repair your public image. Instead, you thank your soldiers, apologise for your failures. After you, one of Holly Kellom’s descendants is going on stage, to thank the men for bringing the body home.”
“Do my spies agree with the soldiers taking credit?”
“I spoke to them and they are fine with it. They’re spies, they always see the big picture.”
Valentine nodded, “good men.”
The speech went smoothly. Public opinion became less neutral and more to the positive side. Many defended Valentine and the kingdom and the Union.
Despite this, that night, Valentine stood alone in the hallways staring out the window at the stars.
“Valentine,” Clement was on his way back to his own quarters, at the very end of the hall, right next to Valentine’s.
“Clement,” he took a deep breath, “how are you?”
He smiled, “of course. Come stand with me.”
Clement did so, looking at his best friend, his king. They were the same height, but usually Valentine looked taller because of how he held himself. Tonight, the opposite was true. Valentine was slightly slumped over.
“You were right. I should have never attacked.”
“Thank you, for rescuing me.”
“You’re my king, and more importantly, my friend. I would never let anybody harm you.”
Valentine turned, “usually it’s me protecting you from harm.”
“Well, I thought it’d be nice to mix things up a little.”
Valentine smiled, “you know I care about you deeply.”
“And I you.”
Valentine hugged Clement.
“Now, if Your Majesty will allow, I’m going to bed.”
“Yes, I think I will too.”
“May your next war be of better outcome.”
“May my next war be many, many years away.”