The man opened his eyes, realized that someone was standing over him, and squeezed them shut again. “Please don’t kill me!”
“I hadn’t planned on it.” The voice was calm and sensible, low pitched but definitely female. He didn’t recognize it, but then, if she had been someone he knew, her answer would have been different.
“Heh. That’s a nice change.”
“Who wants to kill you?”
“Everyone. Do you know who I am?”
“My name is Eemtir. They call me Eemtir the Evil. Cute alliteration, huh? Are you surprised that you’re harboring the most dangerous villain ever to set foot in Claurd, much less be a hair away from conquering it?”
“No. I knew.”
“Why did you ask, then?”
“I wanted to see what you’d say,” she said, as if the answer was obvious. “I’m Xahare.”
“Why don’t you want to kill me?”
“You lost, you know.”
“Oh, really? I thought my army was destroyed and I was lying half dead in some stranger’s hovel because I’d won.”
“What do you mean to do now?”
“I doubt I’ll have much choice in the matter,” said Eemtir.
“So you’re just going to wait for your death to find you? Give up?”
Eemtir was silent for a while. “I don’t give up. All I ever wanted was not to be powerless. I was nobody, and I raised an army and stormed the castle and conquered most of the country, and even when my army had been defeated I raised another, a…less human army, and when they were defeated in the end, and I was captured and tortured and about to be executed I managed to escape. Even when I was attacked by people who are no different than I once was except that they seized their power by becoming a mob, I survived. So, no, I’m not going to just lie down and die. But that probably only means I’ll die standing up.”
“But what will you do while you’re standing there waiting to be killed? Run away, or run back towards it?”
“I’m not suicidal. If there was any chance at all that I could still win, I’d take it, but….”
There was silence. Eemtir began to feel tired, but just before he began to drift off, Xahare said, “There is a chance.”
Eemtir would have sat bolt upright at the words, if he hadn’t known the movement would make him sit. But his eyes widened. “No, there’s not.”
“There is.” Her voice held no doubt.
Xahare shook her head. “I’m not going to tell you that easily. Nothing’s free.”
“What’s your price?”
“You said that all of this was because you didn’t want to be powerless. My price is that you swear that you won’t force that on everyone else.”
“Is that all? I promise.”
“If you don’t keep that promise, you’ll regret it. But yes, that’s all.”
“What you did was overkill. The whole army of demons and all.”
“That was my last resort. It wasn’t overkill, it wasn’t even enough.”
“You didn’t need all that. There are easier ways to power than conquering a country. If you can summon an army of demons--”
“I didn’t summon them. Everyone talks about the demons, but my first army, the ones that fought most of the war, was human. Most of them were as desperate as I was. They died. All of them. The last man summoned the demons in his dying breath.”
“That explains why you didn’t know how to use them better. You should have used them more subtly, for manipulation rather than battle. Doesn’t matter, though. There are other ways to manipulate.”
“Manipulate who, to do what?”
“The king, of course. He’s old, and he doesn’t have any children; he’ll have to name an heir. A little subtlety and patience is all you’d need.”
Eemtir’s renewed hope fled. “That might have worked once, but not now. He’d never do it, and nobody would accept it if he did.”
“That’s where the manipulation comes in, of course.” Xahare smiled. “I’ll take care of that part.”
“Your soldier wasn’t the only person in the world who could summon. I’m thinking… demons attack the capital, and you rescue it? That should be enough for the general population, if it’s quite clear you had nothing to do with it. You can even make it seem as if your previous… actions weren’t actually your doing.”
So the capital city was besieged by evil spirits, and the king sent a letter demanding that Eemtir the Evil be captured and killed. The king would have met the demand happily, if he could have. The siege lasted four days, and the people, their king among them, cowered in terror. Then a hero marched into the city and drove away the demons. He bowed humbly before the king and apologized profusely for the grave misunderstandings that had caused him to be labeled evil. He asked only to be allowed to serve the king.
The king, and his people, believed it just a bit more easily than they normally would have. Eemtir served faithfully for nearly a year, until the death of the king. At that point, no one was surprised to learn that he’d been named the heir.
And after he’d been ruling Claurd for a few years, it was generally agreed that he was a far better king than his predecessor ever had been, and it was a shame that he’d been misjudged for a while, but it’d turned out all right in the end, hadn’t it?