General Titus Melamed made his way down the busy streets of the little village near his home. Cobblestones and dirt combined to make a mess of the roads during the wet, cold winter that had settled in northern Midvar. He passed by the apothecary he had visited frequently in the last few weeks, procuring tonics for his wife’s aches and pains. All part of a normal pregnancy, she had promised.
He prayed to the gods every day that it was true.
But today was not for a trek to the apothecary. Today, he had a very different but no less important mission.
The mist stung his eyes as he rode his steed through the mud and muck, the passersby hunched over, blocking their faces from the biting wind and cold, icy rain. They seemed rather in a hurry today, bustling to and from shop to shop as if they couldn’t move fast enough. Considering the biting rain, Titus understood the sentiment. He pulled his cloak tighter over his chest and rode on.
He reached his destination soon: the bank, a formidable building of tall stone pillars and veined green marble, a stark contrast to the simplicity of the rest of the village. Just how King Derrick liked it. Money. The pillar of a thriving society. Every financial institution from here to Goleath Palace was a testament to that end: money and power and little else mattered in this kingdom.
Which was precisely why Titus hated every single bank in Midvar.
But his visit was a necessity today, so he lobbed himself off of his mount, tied it to a post, and went inside the colossal building.
This was no simple visit to withdraw a few bekas or invest a few talents. No, this was a visit that required speaking with his banker face-to-face, in his office, doors closed. Which is where he found himself rather quickly—being the king’s dog had a few perks, after all.
“Ah! General Titus!” said Gidon, his banker for so many years. The man was tall—typical of most with Midvarish blood in their veins. But he was also gangly and spindly, his mantis-like limbs only accentuated by the tiny pinstripe of his trousers. He preferred clothing of the more flamboyant variety—vibrant colors, ruffled cuffs, gold-tipped walking canes. He looked more suited for a traveling carnival than a bank.
“How nice to see you, my friend. Come in, come in!” Gidon ushered him inside his ostentatious office, offering him a plush leather seat and a hot cup of tea, his mustache curling with his toothy smile. Titus took the seat but refused the tea.
“It’s rather busy today, wouldn’t you say?”
“I would,” said Titus. “Any reason?”
“Everyone is preparing to leave our little village, I suppose.”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Heard what?” Titus asked, annoyed at the small satisfaction Gidon took from his ignorance. The man always loved intrigues. Much like a woman. For some reason, it annoyed the Sheol out of Titus. But from the look on Gidon’s face, this was no trivial intrigue or gossip.
“The Navarian soldiers. They’re advancing farther into the kingdom every day. It seems Commander Derwin is not nearly as peace-loving as their former commander.”
Navah’s former commander. Titus wondered what blissfully ignorant Gidon would think if he knew that Titus was their former commander. The traitor in disguise.
“Does that really come as a surprise to you? Our diplomat killed their king. I hardly see why that’s a reason to leave. It’s not as if they’re going to attack civilians.”
“That’s just it. That’s exactly what they’re doing,” Gidon said.
Civilians? Titus knew the hot-headed Prince Derwin quite well. And while he was eager and perhaps a bit ill-tempered, the young commander was by no means a monster. Titus had trained him, for the gods’ sake! Why in Sheol would he order the attack of civilians? And what could they possibly be doing that would give people cause to abandon their homes? Their lives?
Gods, wasn’t that what Titus himself was here to do? But for such very different reasons.
“I didn’t mean to set off the meeting on such a dark note, my friend,” said Gidon with a flippant flick of his hand. “What can I help you with?”
Titus cleared his head and looked back at the banker across the desk. “I need to consolidate my assets.”
“So you’re leaving, too, then,” Gidon said, but it wasn’t a question.
Titus only shrugged. The less the man knew, the better. Of course he wasn’t leaving to run from Navarian monsters. He was leaving to run from the true monster of this war: his own king. And he intended to leave nothing behind. Today’s visit to the bank was the first step in the process of starting a new life with Penelope. Somewhere far, far away from Midvar. And Navah.
A new continent sounded like the right idea. And thank the gods, Penelope agreed.
“Isn’t consolidation of assets a bit drastic?” Gidon asked, in his typical intrusive style. “Perhaps just take out a few hundred talents to tide you over for a few months until all of this settles down.”
“I’m taking everything, Gidon. And I need it ready to leave in one week.”
“One week? So soon?” Gidon asked, a flash of abject horror on his face.
“I am counting on you to keep this as discreet as possible. No one can know.”
Gidon sighed, pulling out paperwork and a pen. “I can’t say I blame you. I’d probably want to leave if I had a wife as beautiful as yours.”
What in Sheol did that mean? “I’m sorry?”
“What with the soldiers,” Gidon said casually as he scribbled on the parchment before him. “I wouldn’t want my wife—if I had one—anywhere near them, either. Not with what they’re doing to the women.”
“Gidon, what are they doing to the women?” Titus asked, his heart hammering in his throat.
Gidon looked up, his face grave. “You really don’t know?”
Damn this man and his intrigues. “Just say it.”
“The Navarian soldiers, they’re taking all the women in Midvar. Well, at least all the women of childbearing age.”
“For what? What in Sheol would they need women of childbearing age for?”
“Slaves, Titus. They’re abducting women for their pleasure.”
Oh gods. Oh damn. Oh shit. This was much worse than he thought. What in Sheol had gotten into Derwin that he would allow his soldiers to behave so abominably? That was not the kind of training he had received. And no matter the sins he had committed over the years, Titus would have sooner been condemned straight to Sheol than approve of such brazen evil. Such atrocities. And against women, no less. They were innocent, damn it. What right had Derwin to give such an order? Sexual slavery? Gods above, the depravity in this world was reaching a new low.
He tried to clear his mind as he paced about his sitting room. The last thing he wanted was to give Penelope any more reason to worry. Not in her condition. His head shot up when she walked inside, her head tilting to one side at the sight of him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He strode to her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Do you think you can be ready to leave sooner than we had planned?”
She nodded quietly, her eyes colored with concern. “What’s happened, Titus?”
“Nothing yet. But we need to leave. And we need to do it quickly.”
“Why? What’s going on? I thought the plan was to leave in a week.”
He let go of her so that he might resume his pacing. “It’s going to need to be sooner than that.”
“Titus, what’s going on?”
“Gidon told me that he thinks he can have everything ready in as soon as three days. Let’s pray it doesn’t even take that long. I’ll have the servants pack our trunks. We’ll have to just take whatever we can fit, whatever we have time to—”
“Titus,” Penelope said, stopping him with a hand on his arm. He whirled to face her, and at the worry he saw on her beautiful face, he rushed to take her in his arms.
“Don’t fret, Lopee. It’s going to be all right, but we need to be ready to leave as soon as possible. Are you prepared? Prepared to leave everything behind, start over? I know it’s away from everyone we know. From your family, but—”
“Titus,” she said, placing her hands on his face and looking him deeply in the eyes. “I don’t care where we live. I don’t care if we leave everything behind and start over. All I care about is our family,” she said, taking a moment to place one of his hands on her rounded belly. “Because where you go, I go. Where you live, I live. We’re a family. And we’re going to stay that way.”
He kissed her brow. Then he kissed her lips. And then he pulled her into his arms and held her as tightly as he could. And he prayed to every god he could name that she was right.
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