Raja Sudhamra considered the map again and looked back upon the messenger. The boy was young, but his markings indicated he was one to be watched. Dahr was his name, a slum child of the lower city who scrabbled his way into the corps, just like Sudharma had. Dahr’s uniform was perfect, but missing one thing: the red rubies that marked battlefield victories. He was all too eager to earn them.
The boy was likely to be dead within the next moon.
“Is there word from the Sublime Court?”
“Just the ‘All Forward’ message.”
“And what does this make you feel?” Sudhamra was fully uniformed himself, dressed as a soldier several steps below his actual station. They called him the Beggar King, but he looked more like a military captain on leave, lost in some grand palace, not the ruler of the Lower Durani Empire and vassal of the great Emperor Hamazi. As he and the boy walked, their voices and footsteps echoed in the rooms of worked metal and stone.
Dahr’s face betrayed no fear, only caution. This boy was one to watch, though he couldn’t know how close the Empire once came to breaking upon the rock that was the Khan. Fifteen years ago, at Rue, the Gudanna armies nearly encircled all four arms of the Durani’s ponderous defense, all four winds.
“I…This soldier’s will is the will of the Empire.”
“A very careful answer for one so young,” Raja Sudhamra said. He crossed the room, away from the map that was his one demanded extravagance, a perfect representation of the frontier, of the Khan’s fortresses. His mines. His roads. There was no supposition on Sudhamra’s part. These things would belong to the Khan, alive or dead, until his last heir was in the ground and the Durani flag flew over the golden Saddle Throne.
“Why do you suppose that of all the indulgences I might demand as Raja, I have requested only this map? It is known I am frugal, yes?”
“Yes sir; it is known. I believe you have the map to plan strategy, sir. Yet you gaze upon it like one treasures a lock of a lover’s hair. The map conjures memories—perhaps, a lesson that must never be forgotten?”
The emerald marking Rue on Sudhamra’s map would forever remind the Raja of his two thousand men of the Western Wind turned inside out and scattered on the field of battle. At the end of every one of their last moments on this world, was the Khan on his Sand Lion—the terror of Eretsu, banner flapping in the wind, rich with the smell of blood. Sudharma was Raja now only because he had survived that day.
War was not coming, it was already here. Even now, it rushed to fill in the empty spaces, a poison of the mind that undid everything in its wake, a thread once pulled which unravelled the world. War—the thing he fought so hard to end, an idea that was repugnant to him; empty of honor and meaning. He had seen too many things in his time to have any illusions. He must teach this; his people must learn and understand it, before he himself waded into the fire. He was not likely to return.
“Precisely,” Sudharma answered. They boy still did not see. The Raja scanned the map again, his mind running the calculations. Two dozen army groups would have crossed the frontier by now on the Emperor’s order. Yalo, that idiot, will have marched his huge force right past the raiders at Metis. Luja and her moronic brother must have already seized Two Rock, as if anything in the world could keep it once the Gudanna regrouped. One may as well try to hold on to the sun.
The mantle of protector and general would again fall to him. The Durani Empire would challenge the world with its might, and wait for its response. It will fall upon him to make up the difference between Durani might, and Durani self-confidence, a gap only the Raja could fill. With his mind’s eye he saw a thousand Gudanna Golems on a hill, flying the banners of the Khan—dead, revered. He saw the Durani Empire burning, each city a charnel house filled with a hundred thousand dead. He saw his civilization in its tomb.
“And why do we fight?”
“The Empire fights for the glory of—,” the boy began.
“No, No, No!” Sudharma roared, his voice echoing like a thunderclap. The boy kept his ground but disappeared into himself as the Raja grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to the balcony window and flung open its shutters. The city below leapt in. A thousand sounds. Someone selling food. Someone yelling. A distant song. Children laughing, just below, nearby.
“Not for glory. We fight for our People!”
The boy, Dahr, trembled, looking out the window upon the stone towers of the city, and the clear blue sky. The Raja stepped past him back to the map, anger instantly gone.
“Say it,” the Raja said.
“We fight for our people, sir,” Dahr said, and something in his voice changed. Lesson learned.
“The Emperor fights for glory, but you and I must fight for our people. They are the only thing worth fighting for,” Raja Sudhamra said.
Outside the window, a Western wind was rising.