Quaos was surprised by the sudden appearance of an elderly woman in the middle of Malexandra‘s room, but only for a moment. “Good disguise,” she said when she realized the toothless old woman smelling of sewage was, in fact, Malexandra.
“Alas, the smell’s real,” Malexandra said. She removed the spell and returned to her normal appearance.
“Are you alright? You look… drained.”
“Nothing a few day’s sleep won’t cure. Unfortunately, that’s a luxury we can’t afford right now.”
“You found what you were looking for?”
“And then some. Get Anonymous.” Malexandra hesitated. “And tell him to bring the king.”
King Skyler had been in the Magiary once before, and even in that dire emergency, he had not exactly been made welcome. So when Anonymous told him of Malexandra’s summons, he knew it was serious.
A tall girl with cropped black hair met the two men at the door of the Magiary. She introduced herself as Quaos, and led them up into the tower.
The room stank. Malexandra was sitting at her desk, scribbling furiously and looking exhausted. Anonymous went up to her, waved his hands around, and the smell disappeared.
“Wow, I wasn’t aware you could do anything practical,” Skyler told him. Malexandra stifled a laugh.
“I’m sorry about that; I just got back from Balirmind and I spent most of the day in the sewers, and I’ve had more important things to worry about.” She looked at Skyler. “They’re preparing for war.”
There was silence.
“Can Majardea survive another war against them?” Quaos asked. “I didn’t live here yet, during the last war, but I heard it was… close.”
“No,” Skyler admitted. “That was only three years ago, we’re still recovering. If we were attacked now--it’s not quite a sure thing that we’d be defeated, but even if not… another war would take its toll.”
“Is there a reason they’re attacking?”
“It’s because of what happened with your crown. The thieves that stole it used it to destroy a Balirmindian plantation. That wouldn’t be enough to start a war, except that it was owned by King Codroy’s nephew, and he was killed.”
“Could we give them the thieves?” Skyler suggested.
Malexandra shook her head. “Even if you could find them, and capture them, there’s no guarantee it would work. They blame you; it was your crown, and a Majardean subject who used it.” She looked at the paper she’d been writing on, “I’ve been trying to think of some way to stop it, but there’s not much. We could kill him, maybe.”
“Killing kings isn’t easy,” said Quaos. Skyler looked at her.
“You might not want to talk about that,” Malexandra warned her.
“What, it’s not like Majardea was on the best of terms with Sarca under their old king.”
“That was you?” Anonymous asked incredulously.
“The point is,” Malexandra tried to bring them back to the subject at hand, “Having Codroy assassinated might prevent the war. Except that, as Quaos said, it’s difficult, and his son is the cousin of the plantation-owner who was killed and might feel the same way, especially if he got an inkling that Majardea was behind the assassination. So that’s pretty much out.”
“We could try to treat with Balirmindian,” said Anonymous.
“No,” said Malexandra. “If Codroy would even agree, his terms would be too high a price--from what I gather, he wants to rule the country, or at least have control over it, get revenge on you, Skyler, bring slavery to Majardea…. We’re not that desperate.”
“Aren’t we?” Skyler said quietly.
“No! I don’t believe kings should have the absolute authority to rule over everyone else, but since you do, you should at least take responsibility to protect your people from that tyrant!”
“So you agree that not all rulers are tyrants,” said Skyler.
“I never said otherwise. I just don’t think that anyone should have that kind of authority.”
“Is this really the time to be having a political discussion?” Anonymous asked. They ignored him.
“What’s wrong with having power, if you do the right thing with it?” Skyler demanded of Malexandra.
She hesitated before answering. “It wasn‘t a tyrant that made me realize how oppressive power is. There was once a king, a decent enough king, who thought he might not like me very much. He sent soldiers to bring me to the palace, to decide what to do about me. I stood before his throne, in chains, a trembling rabbit in the hands of a hunter. We both knew he had complete, absolute control over my fate. It was his whim whether I lived or died. He let me live, obviously.”
“I don‘t understand,” said Skyler, “If he let you go…?”
“It shouldn’t have been up to him,” said Malexandra.
There was silence for a moment, then Anonymous said acidly, “We were discussing how to prevent a war.”
“Any ideas?” She matched his tone.
The four of them tried to come up with plans, but they didn’t really get anywhere. Finally, Malexandra said, “Could we continue this tomorrow? I’m going to pass out if I don’t get some sleep.”
“We’ll all keep thinking about it,” said Skyler. And then, more quietly, “Unless we come up with something, we’ll have to start preparing for war.” On that somber note, they left.
Skyler told the news only to his advisors, who had no ideas on how to prevent a war, but started making plans on how to fight one. He had to leave the meeting to stop himself from screaming at them. They had to find a way to avoid war!
That night, Skyler dreamed he was very small, and something--a giant hand?-- was descending on him, about to crush him, and then suddenly it wasn’t and he was looking up into a giant smirking face.
The dream was still vivid when he woke, and he understood what Malexandra had meant the previous evening. And then he realized he had a plan.
When he returned to the Magiary, it was not Quaos but Aniya who let him in.
“I miss you,” Skyler said suddenly. She looked away.
“Have you heard?” he asked her.
“About Balirmind? Yes. If you’re going to tell me it’s my fault--”
Skyler cut her off. “I wasn’t. It isn’t. I just wanted to tell you I have a plan.” He told her his plan.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Skyler, holding his breath and telling himself he shouldn’t care so much what she thought.
“I’ve missed you too,” said Aniya.
They went up to the tower. Malexandra, Anonymous, and Quaos were already there. None of them looked any more hopeful than they had the night before.
“Skyler has a plan,” Aniya said.
“Codroy wants revenge on me,” Skyler said. “Not on Majardea, but on me. Instead of Majardea fighting Balirmind, I’ll fight Codroy.”
“And if you lose?”
“Then I die, not thousands of people fighting for their country.”
No one argued against it. Malexandra gave Skyler paper and a pen and wax for his seal, and he wrote a missive to the king of Balirmind.
To His Majesty, King Codroy of Balirmind,
It has come to my attention that there are unsettled differences between the two of us that could lead to war between our countries. If you are of this mind, I hope you will agree for the two of us to settle the matter like gentleman, in single combat. I do not feel it necessary to involve any innocent citizens of my country or yours in this matter, if matter there is.
King Skyler of Majardea
He folded the paper and sealed it. Malexandra touched it lightly, and it disappeared.
They waited tensely. For hours, there was no reply. Malexandra had food brought up. Skyler pushed his around his plate. It was nearly dusk when a letter appeared in the air in front of Skyler. It was sealed with the seal of Balirmind, and read simply,
When and where?
The details were arranged, and two weeks later, Codroy arrived in Majardea with an entourage.
Skyler had spent most of the intervening weeks practicing his swordplay. He was already good with a sword, and he was confident that he was in practice, but then, Codroy would be as well.
The fight took place in the square where executions were held. That was not, Skyler thought, a good omen, but practically, it made sense; there was plenty of room for the fight, and for an audience.
The crowd was far larger than that at executions. Skyler tried to ignore it and concentrate on fighting. He and Codroy were about evenly matched. The fight dragged on. They sweated and grew tired and blocked and dodged and hit and bled.
Finally, just when Skyler thought he couldn’t fight anymore, Codroy lowered his guard, and Skyler stabbed him in the chest.
The crowd cheered. Skyler tried to focus only on the fact that if there had been a war, the cheering people would be the ones killing and dying. He moved stiffly through the crowd, ignoring the cheering and congratulations and efforts to bandage his wounds, and went started home towards the castle.
Halfway there, he changed direction and went to the Magiary instead.
“You’re dripping blood,” Aniya told him. She had the beginnings of a black eye.
She gave him some bandages, and watched as he wrapped his wounds. None were major enough to require anything more.
“Were you there?” he asked.
“I went. I was too bust fending off people who recognized me to see much of it.” She gestured towards her eye.
“I’m sorry,” Skyler said. “You’d think people would have gotten over it by now.”
“I voided the warrant. You’re not wanted for treason.”
“Maybe not officially. And you didn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t know if it’s that I’ve gotten over it… but I think you were right to destroy the Talisman. Funny how little that matters, what I think about it.”
“It matters,” said Aniya.