Sleep. That's what Maxthane needed and had been steadily running out of. He found it easily enough, when the opportunity arose, but the opportunities came few and far between. Had his father been this busy all the time? Maxthane doubted it, reasoning that his extra duties stemmed more from the transfer of power than from having the power itself.
But he did what he could to be effective within his grueling schedule. He spent his mornings in council with Captain Rega and Commander Krythe, delegating tasks to the soldiers and the indentured servants alike. Though Maxthane himself had freed the gladiators from their pen at the lowest levels of the complex, there remained a sizable group of indentured people whom Maxthane didn't know what to do about. He considered freeing them, hiring them, or simply letting them work off their sentence, additionally reducing the harsh penalties the soldiers had grown accustomed to inflicting upon them.
It was one of many things that weighed upon his mind, though there were even more important matters. Neither Rega nor Krythe had helped much in that decision or any other, so far. Rega had offered the final solution, after seeing that Maxthane's talk of freeing the servants had set Krythe on edge. Maxthane had noticed Krythe's annoyance as well, not that he had cared. Krythe wasn't King, Maxthane was, and the sooner the soldier learned it, the better off everyone would be.
However, Krythe's attitude reflected the opinion of a large percentage of the soldiers serving the thulu'Khant family. They were not the majority but hovered just out of range of becoming it. They wanted to return to the way things were under Salidar and didn't appreciate the changes that Maxthane had already made to the operating procedures of The Shade.
Maxthane understood. He didn't want to rule any more than Krythe and his supporters wanted him to. But that didn't matter; Maxthane was King by blood and by oath and had been recognized by the guilds of The Shade. Abdicating would only throw the world into chaos, and he refused to see the world his ancestors had built destroyed because he wasn't willing to assume responsibility.
And so he attended those morning meetings, trying to think of a way to appease Krythe while appeasing his own heart. This was what weighed on his shoulders the heaviest. No, weighing was the wrong word. . . Pulling on him, like two horses eager to gallop away in opposite directions while tied to opposite arms. If he didn't find some way to free himself from one, he would be pulled apart before he ever had to worry about being dragged along in the dust.
He sighed as he made his way toward the mess hall, where his medics had hastily erected an infirmary. So many soldiers had sustained injuries in Pentalus four days earlier that the small chamber usually used only for medicinal purposes couldn't accommodate them. Many of the soldiers had since moved out of the mess hall and resumed their duties—or chose to rest elsewhere now that they were out of immediate danger—but at least half the makeshift beds were still occupied.
Maxthane didn't know if his father would have visited the soldiers every day, but it seemed like the right thing to do. He came, without fail, immediately after his meetings, and spent hours walking from bed to bed, speaking with each man and woman who had sacrificed on behalf of Salidar's failed invasion of Pentalus. He wished he could say he did it from concern alone, but it served a dual purpose. His time had bought the loyalty of these soldiers.
He spent extra time at a large bed in the corner, occupied by an Elrok female named Kubriss. Maxthane spoke very little of her language; he'd always assumed he could pick it up later. Now, he sought to remedy that mistake, and picked up as many words as he could from Kubriss every time they spoke. He went over what he learned at the end of each day, practicing so he could use those words again next time he spoke with her.
As soon as he reached the mess hall, he made his way straight to her bed. He planned to ask her more about her tribe, and Elrok culture in general. He now found it fascinating and wondered why he never bothered learning about it before. Kubriss turned out to be an eager teacher, using what knowledge she had of the common tongue to fill in gaps in his understanding where she could.
"Porak, varna duchlo fraeg?" Maxthane said as he approached. From his understanding, it meant something along the lines of 'hello, how are you?', Though Kubriss had tried to explain the difference. There were different ways to say it, and not all of them were appropriate, though this was an appropriate way to say it to her.
"Maxthane, see you good," Kubriss replied, turning as well as she could to face him. One of her giant legs was braced to keep it from moving too much, and thick bandages wrapped around her torso to reinforce her ribs. Fighting the Ibrix demon in Pentalus had taken its toll on her, but she had survived, albeit barely.
Due to the nature of her injuries, Kubriss was naked, which was the only way Maxthane could've possibly determined her sex. Elrok females did not have pronounced breasts like females of the other races did. Maxthane didn't know how they fed their young and didn't yet have a great enough command of the language to ask.
He pulled up a stool next to her and sat down. "Varnus charg?" He asked. This meant something like 'how are you feeling?', though Kubriss had taught him that 'varnus' and 'varna' both had something to do with stone. As he understood it, the literal translation of the question was, 'is the stone still cracked?'.
"Yes," Kubriss replied. "Varnus bradik ful charg."
Maxthane didn't know that one, but he smiled all the same. "I don't think you've told me what either 'bradik' or 'ful' mean yet."
Kubriss nodded thoughtfully. "Bradik is when water is cold."
"Ice?" Maxthane asked.
"Yes, ice," Kubriss replied. "But every place."
Maxthane thought for a moment. "Frost, maybe? No, not if it's referring to your injury . . ."
"Yes, frost!" Kubriss said, latching onto the word. "Like frost on stone, my leg . . ."
Maxthane closed his eyes and repeated the description in his thoughts. "You mean, they gave you a numbing agent, so you can't feel your leg?"
Kubriss listened intently, analyzing the words before she nodded slowly. "'Ful' is . . . like a spear."
"Like a small mouse, with spears for skin," Kubriss tried to explain.
Maxthane shook his head, unable to piece together her metaphor. "I guess we'll have to come back to that, sorry."
Kubriss smiled appreciatively and said, "I could draw."
Maxthane grinned. He'd had the fortune of seeing Kubriss' drawing ability already, and it far outdid his own. She sported a tattoo of a lion on her left shoulder and had managed to communicate that she had designed it herself. They had also exchanged pictures earlier on to facilitate communication. If she wanted to draw him a picture, Maxthane was happy to oblige.
"One moment, I'll go fetch some paper," he said, patting her arm before walking to the store of medical supplies at the other side of the room. It didn't take him long to find the paper, but the writing implement took longer. He couldn't easily hand her and inkwell and quill, which would be awkward to use in her bed, but he eventually found a marking pencil and returned to her side.
Within moments of Kubriss receiving the art supplies, she had a picture of a porcupine on the paper. She pointed to one of the many quills and said, "ful."
Maxthane's eyes lit up with understanding. "Oh, they gave you an injection of a numbing agent! A shot, a needle."
"Yes, needle!" Kubriss replied enthusiastically. "That is name."
"So now you're feeling better?" Maxthane asked.
Kubriss shrugged. "Some. Better soon."
He was about to press for more details when a soldier entered the mess hall, panting. As soon as the soldier laid eyes on Maxthane, he ran towards the King and saluted. "Prince, er . . . King Maxthane, you have a visitor. Styx, of the Inkblades."
Maxthane tried to keep the confusion from spreading across his features. "Then why didn't you let him in? There is a standing order that Styx can roam freely here."
"He appeared to be sneaking in, your Majesty," the soldier replied, bowing in apology. "Commander Krythe demanded that he be detained until the matter could be sorted out."
Maxthane growled his displeasure and turned back to Kubriss. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave early, but I'll return when I can. Tozak Lima."
"Tozakhi Limunas," Kubriss replied, bowing her head as low as she could in her position.
"Now, lead me to where they're holding Styx," Maxthane said as he stood. The soldier nodded, and they left the room. Maxthane felt the mantle of responsibility slide snugly onto his shoulders again. Just one more thing to deal with before he could sleep.
Styx hated being confined more than anything in the world, especially when he wasn't expecting it. He knew he bore part of the blame for his current detention, but the fierce-eyed glare of the soldier standing over him told him there was more to the situation. They would've detained him even if he'd come straight through the gates.
He tried to explain himself several times, but all the soldier—Commander Krythe— had said was that they would wait until he heard what King Maxthane had to say about this. So Styx sat in the offered chair, fingers idly drumming on the top of the table separating him from Krythe, waiting for Maxthane to arrive.
"You know you're just going to get reprimanded for delaying me, don't you?" Styx asked, pausing in his fidgeting.
Krythe merely glared more intensely and refused to answer. Styx shrugged and resumed drumming his fingers. He waited nearly a full minute before he opened his mouth again. "Are you sure you really want to go down this road?"
This time Krythe answered. "My orders are clear, boy. You would do well to exercise some patience."
"Orders?" Styx scoffed. "Your orders are to let me in. We were both present when Maxthane said so."
"You do not properly understand the chain of command," Krythe replied darkly. "You do not properly understand anything at all. I remember seeing you in the ring, facing against that demon . . . You are nothing but a petty thief, playing at importance like the world owes you respect. But you have done nothing to earn it, something you and your lover have in common." He leaned forward for the last bit, his lips curled in a snarl. In a fluid motion, he drew a dagger from somewhere and impaled the wooden table top within a hair's breadth of Styx's fingers. "Now stop fidgeting."
Styx maintained Krythe's gaze, unflinching. Seconds later, he resumed drumming, a roguish smirk spreading across his face. He said nothing, just stared at Krythe, daring him to do something else.
The door opened and Maxthane strode into the room, his eyes narrowed and back arched as if ready to fight. Krythe made no move to challenge him, simply standing stoically as he waited for Maxthane to speak.
"Commander Krythe, what is the meaning of this?" Maxthane asked.
Krythe's mouth twitched as if suppressing a smile, but his eyes took on a mischievous glint. "I am only following your orders, your Majesty," he said plainly.
"My orders on this matter are perfectly clear," Maxthane replied.
"With all due respect, your Majesty," Krythe said, drawing out the word 'due' with a sneer, "I had two conflicting orders in this matter, and I chose the one I deemed most appropriate for the situation."
Maxthane's body tensed as if ready to spring on Krythe at any moment. "Your order is to allow Styx entry into these grounds at all times. No exceptions."
"My apologies, your Majesty," Krythe said, bowing far lower than was necessary. "You also ordered us to handle any perceived threats in the manner that your father would've wanted us to. Styx arrived in a most unusual fashion. He glided over the walls, rather than coming through the front door. If he had followed proper protocol, we would not be having this conversation."
"Be that as it may, in the future, there will be no exception until I say otherwise," Maxthane said firmly. "Is that understood, Commander?"
"Perfectly, your Majesty," Krythe replied with another unnecessarily low bow. When he straightened again, he said with false sweetness, "if that is all, I have other duties to attend to."
Maxthane glared at him for several seconds before answering, "you may take your leave." Before Krythe could take two steps, Maxthane added, "also, please see to it that all servants received an extra portion at mealtime today. They've been working hard and deserve a reward for such strict adherence to their duties."
Krythe's body went rigid. Instead of turning, he simply nodded once and replied, "as you wish, your Majesty." When he left the room, he slammed the door behind him, leaving the sound ringing in Styx's ears.
"You have a problem with that one," Styx said after a moment. "Why didn't you reprimand him?"
"Are you so prideful that you need me to?" Maxthane snapped, rounding on Styx. His eyes widened as he realized what he just said, and he hastened to add, "I'm so sorry, Styx, I don't know what just got into me. I've had such a stressful day, and I guess my anger is closer to the surface than usual."
Styx chuckled, momentary surprise gone. The laughter startled Maxthane, and Styx explained quickly, "it seems I'm just getting snapped at today for caring about people. Kirra did the same earlier today. For the record, me suggesting you reprimand Krythe has absolutely nothing to do with my pride. I'm merely saying, that if you don't discipline him, then you're going to have a much bigger problem on your hands. He's going to think he can get away with treating you that way."
Maxthane nodded, sighing as he leaned into the table for support. Only then did Styx realize how exhausted Maxthane appeared, and he stood, wrapping his arms around Maxthane's bare shoulders and saying gently, "are you all right? Come on, sit down." He guided Maxthane to the recently vacated chair and stood behind him, massaging the knots out of his neck and shoulders. "Isn't that Fedain blood of yours supposed to make it so your muscles are always in peak condition? You look like you've run yourself ragged."
Maxthane grunted in agreement. "I knew my father did a lot, but I never realized ruling was this much work. I think both he and I assumed it would be many years before I would need to take on this much responsibility. As for why I'm not healing properly, it's because I'm spending too much energy on everything else. I don't have enough left to take care of myself."
"I would think resting would be in order," Styx said gently before digging his elbow into Maxthane's muscles to get deep into the tissue. Maxthane groaned sharply as Styx continued. "Wouldn't you handle things better if you had more rest?"
Maxthane nodded, but then immediately shook his head afterward. "Yes, but I just don't have time. Between dealing with every single time Krythe seeks to sabotage me, taking care of the injured, and handling the bureaucratic nonsense laid at my feet every day, it seems like I barely have two hours to myself to get a bit of sleep."
Styx frowned at that. "I suppose that means me coming here is more hassle than not. I guess, if you have so much going on, you don't want to worry about me as well. Especially not when I'm simply causing problems for you with Krythe."
"It's not that I don't want to see you," Maxthane said, "I just don't have time. I appreciate you being here, however. And this massage feels wonderful."
Styx sighed. "It appears all I can offer anyone is momentary distraction from other issues."
Styx dropped his hands when Maxthane turned toward him. "Are things going badly with Kirra?" He asked.
"Kirra left for the Everbright City this morning," Styx explained. "He says all he wants to do is report to Alsha, and then he'll be back, but I can't say that I fully believe him."
"It makes sense though," Maxthane replied. He thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. "I mean, he has responsibilities, and you can only ignore those for so long until they start to pile up. It's the same reason why I can't take a break."
Before Styx could reply, a knock sounded at the door. Maxthane sighed and rose to his feet, opening the door to see who had disturbed them. A lone soldier stood on the other side, his hand raised in salute. "King Maxthane, I'm sorry to disturb you, but Captain Rega believed you would want to know that Dogo just arrived."
Styx and Maxthane shared a look of trepidation, both sensing something off in the soldier's voice. "Take us to him," Maxthane said urgently.
The soldier nodded and led them through the complex toward the front gates. A small crowd had already gathered there, and more soldiers and servants arrived along with Maxthane and Styx. Dogo stood next to the wall, leaning into it for support as he drank from a waterskin, looking haggard. Rega stood next to him, asking questions as Dogo nodded intermittently.
Styx and Maxthane headed straight for Dogo, ignoring the rest of the crowd. Out of deference to Maxthane's station, Styx let him speak first. "Dogo, it's great to see you. We were worried when we didn't see you after the battle in Pentalus."
Dogo nodded, gasping as he pulled the waterskin away from his mouth. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and forced a smile before responding. "I wish I'd returned with better news," he said dryly. "Four of the gladiators and I tracked a demon out of Pentalus. The beast can burrow like nothing I've ever seen. We followed the tunnel it made for a while, then realized it had outdistanced us, but when we turned back, the tunnel had collapsed after us. Our only choice was to keep following it down."
"Down?" Styx asked. "As in, down here?" His whole body tensed at the thought. He'd had enough of demons already, but the thought of one invading The Shade gave him complicated emotions. On the one hand, he wanted to run away with everyone that he ever cared about. On the other hand, the new honor Prism had instilled in him urged him to find this threat and dispose of it.
Dogo nodded grimly. "It's not the main chamber, obviously, or other people would've known about it by now. There's a small set of chambers to the north. I barely managed to make it back here through the tunnels that connect. Most of them are very narrow, only allowing a small trickle of water through. But with a bit of magic and a lot of luck, I managed to make it back. My companions were not so lucky."
"You were just about to tell me," Rega said, "how the others fell. Did they die to the demon, or did they die to the cave?"
"One to the cave, three to the demon," Dogo replied. "Ammon died when the tunnel collapsed behind us a second time. The other three . . . Something in that demon's bite, it kills wickedly fast. Venom, worse than any adder or viper. Killed in seconds. I think there's something in his blood, too. I've been feeling a bit off ever since I cut the bastard. Some of its blood splashed on me, burns like hot coals."
"We can have some of the medics look that over for you, if you'd like," Maxthane offered. "Or I can try, if you'd like."
"I remember your conversation with Grim," Dogo said, but then gave Maxthane a level look. "Is what he told you now common knowledge?"
"Common enough," Maxthane confirmed. He reached out his hand as if to touch Dogo's arm. "May I?"
Dogo nodded, and Maxthane proceeded to touch his flesh. He closed his eyes, concentrated for several moments, and then opened them again. "There's definitely something wrong," Maxthane said darkly. "I tried to fix it, but . . ." He shook his head.
"It's beyond your ability, is it?" Dogo said, surprising everyone with a grin. "Well then, I suppose I'll just have to find the master himself. Where is Grim? The old bastard owes me a bit. I think it's time I called in on those favors."
Styx interjected, "no one knows what happened to him. At least, no one down here knows what happened to him. Prism—that monk I escaped with last week?" Styx waited for Dogo to nod in recognition before he continued. "Prism said something about me needing to free Grim, but he didn't tell me where I needed to free him from."
Dogo shook his head, unable to offer any theories as to what Prism could've meant. "Well, I'm not feeling so beaten yet. I've still got a bit of the bear in me. If you can spare the soldiers, I'd like to take a group in and finish off the beast." He looked between Maxthane and Rega for support.
"What say you, your Majesty?" Rega asked.
Maxthane pondered the question for a moment, and asked, " is there any immediate threat to The Shade?"
"Once we hit solid bedrock, it couldn't burrow quite as well," Dogo replied, "the chamber where it is, where I left it? The rocks there appear to be even harder still. At best it might be able to go up, but I don't think it's going any further down. We're not in danger of attack, but the beast was bleeding all over when I left it, and if I'm sick from the blood, then it might be poisoning our entire water supply."
Maxthane paled at the thought. "Then I suppose we have to act quickly, don't we?" He said. "Rega, I want you to work with Krythe to determine the best soldiers for the job and give Dogo all the support he needs. Dogo, I need you to also lead two of our mages to the water supply, for testing and hopefully solving the problem if the water is tainted. I'll assign Keldin and Frazh to the task. You know them, right?"
Dogo nodded. "Keldin specializes in blood, and Frazh in water. Excellent choices, Prince Maxthane."
Rega cleared his throat, and Dogo seemed to pick up on the message. "My apologies, King Maxthane. I'm afraid I missed your coronation."
"It's quite all right," Maxthane replied, smiling politely. He leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "I wish I could forget too."
It was low enough that only Dogo, Rega, and Styx could hear it. The first laughed openly, the second frowned, and the third—who felt completely out of place now—simply wished there was something he could do. He had listened intently and done nothing but offer a dead end to a man who desperately needed options.
Before Styx could spend too long worrying about how he could help, another soldier came running up to them. He saluted Maxthane, and said breathlessly, "King Maxthane, Commander Krythe sent me to inform you that we've had a second person attempt to sneak into the complex today. He asked me to inform you that per the precedent you established earlier today, he has allowed the interloper free access to the complex."
"He what!?" Maxthane hissed. "Stand over there and wait for me," He told the soldier and turned to Rega for support. "What am I supposed to do with him?"
Rega shrugged. "Whatever you wish, my King. Krythe is your soldier, but I advise you keep him under a very close watch at the least. If you are willing, I will leave two of my most trustworthy soldiers here and assign them to watch his every move. I would do it myself, but he will suspect me. At the moment, he has mostly been a nuisance, but he's a good officer once you earn his loyalty."
"Earn his loyalty?" Maxthane echoed. "I am the Shadow King. For better or worse, that should be all that matters, and he should learn to respect that."
"My King," Rega said cautiously, "did you not say just a moment ago that you wish you could forget being King? Perhaps this is a test of your resolve. Your father fought for the loyalty of every man under his command. You must do the same, and that battle cannot be fought for you. That is the essence of what shadow honor means."
"Hate to say it, boy, but Rega is right on this one," Dogo said. Rega shot daggers at him for the lack of the title, but considering his own admonishment of Maxthane, he couldn't say much else to defend the honor of the King. "The Shade isn't like some kingdom up above. No one followed Salidar because they believed he had some God-given right to rule, they followed him because they believed him effective. You may be his son, but becoming the King takes a lifetime."
Maxthane bristled at the admonishment and clenched his fists. "Fine," he spat icily, "if none of you intend to help me, then you can all get the hell out of my way. I don't need any of you to solve my problems for me, and may the demons take you for all I care."
"Max . . ." Styx said, earning the focus of Maxthane's glare.
"What, are you going to offer me some pointless advice, too?" Maxthane said.
Styx bit back a retort. He had planned on offering empathy. He would've done anything to lift the weight of responsibility from Maxthane's shoulders and help him bear it, but he could see that no words would reach him right now. The sweet and caring Maxthane Styx was used to had been buried under four days of exhaustion and strain.
And once again, Styx could do nothing. "Do you want me to go too?" He asked neutrally.
Maxthane paused, and for a moment a flicker of his usual genial self re-emerged. "I'm sorry, Styx, but maybe you should."
And then he turned and walked away, leaving Styx in his wake. But Styx was sick of doing nothing, and so he turned to Dogo and Rega and said, "I'm going with you to slay the demon. Just let me know when we leave."
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