Chapter 13

The War Council


Ahmet took lunch in the dining room. Always. He and his wife, Calliope, preferred it that way. And as king and queen, they were entitled to their proclivities, benign as they might be at times.

Before his tenure, the modest setting had been designated the servant’s dining quarters. They’d since had it refurbished, and insisted on eating every meal henceforth in the quaint accommodations. The couple was of a like mind in this decision, wholeheartedly supporting the prospect. In turn, the servants were relegated to eating in the dining hall proper, a concession they were more than willing to make given the opulence to which they had been upgraded.

Boasting room for a hundred or more, laid with the finest furnishings and china in the realm, the dining hall was befit for a king, which had been its intended purpose before construction commenced. In comparison, the servant’s dining accommodations had been far less grandiose, almost as if having been considered an afterthought. Likely, they were.

The rumor amongst the staff had been that the room once served as the palatial meat locker, wherein slabs of beef were dehydrated into sweet jerky, a favorite of the royals as it had been and was still considered a delicacy; at least, if the lingering smell of aged meat that used to haunt the room were of any indication. It had since been converted into its penultimate incarnation, that of a dining amenity, as the monarchy grew more benevolent over the generations, from the hardened warriors which founded the realm to the empathic scholars which now governed it. Until more recent memory, the sparse room with its four walls dyed a pastel brunet, were iconically suited for those meals of a pauper or pauper’s son, of whom many of the staff could be billed as having descended. It had been a breath of fresh air for all to see the room remade and, with it, the memory of it washed away.

A sparse twenty-odd seats lavished the pitted, aged, walnut tabletop taking residence, and most of the available surface area, in the smaller antechamber. But it exuded a comely charm born of homebrewed comfort that reminded Ahmet of his childhood, when he would frequent the kitchens and interact with the staff to the annoyance of his caretaker, the irascible Mrs. Toreador. He much preferred to keep the company of the head chef, Mrs. Avignon. who would always spare time for him and insisted on spoiling him rotten with a secreted supply of ever-changing sweets. That the two women were sisters, and how they could possibly be related yet remain so different, remained a mystery that plagued him to this day.

So, in the vein of the selfishly unselfish—or unselfishly selfish, if you will—Ahmet decided to upgrade the staff to more luxurious accommodations. Thereby, he would be made to suffer in homely comfort, feeling that as king, it was both his burden and obligation to carry. And he would deny any accusation to the contrary. The broad, unctuous smiles he often wore while dining at the table did wonders for silencing any lingering dissent from those less inclined towards smarminess. A disinclination which he typically encouraged… just not at dinnertime.

Ahmet was eating, as he was oft to do once or four times a day, joined by Calliope. They were enjoying the second course of their five course bruncheon when disturbed by the appearance of a harried officiate; an imperiously dressed man who seemed overdressed for brunch. However, the dour look on the newcomer’s face belied the underlying reason for such abrupt and unorthodox entry; there was trouble afoot. Ahmet looked down at the sweet potato stew he had only just begun to savor with regret, and sighed forlornly, putting down his spoon.

“Highness, please pardon the intrusion. But there’s an urgent matter that requires your attention.”

“Go ahead.” Ahmet said while pushing his plate away. He removed the napkin from his lap, setting it on the tabletop, and waved the man on.

The officiate eyed the room, namely its other occupants, the queen and a pair of hovering waitstaff. “With all due apologies, Your Grace, it’s a sensitive matter. Perhaps you should come with me instead?” he said, offering no further explanation.

Across the table, Calliope bristled at having been so summarily dismissed by the pompous man; mildly surprised, but mostly put off by the arrogance. Narrowing her eyes, she bit back a retort, though her tongue remained one of the famed weapons of the kingdom, and conceded to her husband while meeting his gaze evenly.

Ahmet weighed his choices. True enough, few matters were sensitive enough to warrant secrecy from even his own wife. The staff, yes ; he understood. Though, he objected on principle, nonetheless. But he held nothing back from his wife, if it could be helped. As king, he was privy to the greater intricacies of the realm which warranted such secrecy, but that was both rare and pertained solely to his most trusted subjects. This man was a stranger.

Assuredly, Ramses, himself, would’ve delivered the news if it were pertaining to such secrecy, mystical or otherwise, for he would be needed to cast the spells required which ensured said confidentiality. Still, one did not seek an impromptu audience with the king on a whim, not if they knew better, at least. Eying the man over, Ahmet deduced that the officiate was not only aware of the unspoken rules governing decorum in the palace, but reveled in order they warranted. So be it…

“Clear the room.” He said, inflecting a regal bearing to his timbre, which Calliope referred to as his king’s voice. The staff quickly made themselves scarce. He clasped Calliope’s hand to still her from rising herself, had she been so inclined. He would not turn away his wife on the preamble of a man he didn’t recognize, heralding a message he hadn’t yet received.

Her eyes widened marginally before a soft smile overcame her features. She squeezed his hand.

“Now, tell us…” In that moment, Ahmet was reminded that he didn’t know the man’s name. He coughed into his hand. “What is this news you bring to our table that cannot be discussed openly?” There was insinuation there, the undertones of why have you disturbed your betters and a reminder that monarchy lived on in two parts, halves of a whole.

There was always insinuation in the language used around the palace, because the monarchy was held as hostage to the blight of politics as any other form of governance, whichever incarnation, and politics itself was inherently rife with inlaid and latent wordplay. In fact, some wizardly scholars were of the mindset that government existed around politics, not the other way around; the latter being the conventionally accepted ideal.

The officiate faltered, suddenly unsure of himself, but the moment quickly passed. Solemnly, he nodded his understanding. “Your Highness, forgiveness, but I’m told that your presence is being urgently requested in the War Room, and I didn’t wish to alarm…” He innocuously glanced at the queen. “… the staff.”

Ahmet groaned, immediately regretting his hasty decision. And yet, it had seemed so noble only a moment ago. Calliope, with her delicate disposition and condition, was in no state to bear the burden of hearing such distressing news. He knew it, and the officiate had as well. Were he a humbler man, he’d have offered the nameless man an apology.

“This is indeed a sensitive matter.” he said measuredly. Mechanically turning to his wife, he squeezed her hand in his, which was a difficult feat to achieve considering the boa constrictor like grasp she held on his own. He smiled placidly. “My love, perhaps you should—”

“Don’t.” She warned, inflecting a hard timbre to the command, which he had grown to patent as her queen’s voice. There lay a fever in her eyes, behind the glassy moisture she tried so hard to blink away.

Calliope could match wills with the best of them at the worst of times. She wanted to stay or maybe she felt compelled; maybe she needed to for some odd reason. Ahmet scoured her visage for revelation. Her face, usually an open book, told the story of a plucky lass, a firebrand that would go on to grow and shape the world around her, and in that moment, was choosing to obstinately hold her ground. He rued that it would take a stronger will than his to match hers; tradition had taught him that she would not be easily dissuaded in such a worked-up state and, if she could be, he would likely never live it down.

He sighed heavily, cursing internally. “Very well…” After sparing an appraising glance at her pregnant belly, he returned his attention to the officiate. “What else do you know? Be sensitive about it.” He added the last bit as an afterthought, seemingly radiating accusation at the nameless, gormless, man. That the officiate was both, helped ease his conscious in so doing.

Calliope narrowed her eyes at her husband while the officiate floundered for a second, but they both recovered, moving past the utterance per their own reasoning.

“A fleet has been suspected of entering our territory through means yet unknown. This comes from the High Wizard, Ramses, himself.” Though that wasn’t exactly what he had been told, the officiate didn’t feel the need to exacerbate the situation by including frivolous details, such as that the High Wizard’s nephew had been involved in the sighting. At best, it would prove benign, save for the boy, who might receive a momentarily pail of praise. But at worst, it would unnecessarily sow doubt in the king’s head. “The fleet sizable, but of numbers yet unknown. Their unorthodox appearance lends credence to the theory that it may be an invasionary force bent on reaching the capital. Preliminary estimates gauge their route to be approximately four leagues away.”

Calliope gasped. “So close?” She asked bewildered.

Ramses eyes widened. A league was the universally accepted distance for the breadth of sea a ship could sail within the hour. But an invader would aim to strike with speed, not bothering with sailing so casually. A naval ketch could soar at thrice the speed of a merchant galleon. “You bring terrible news to my table.” The king said gravely while shaking his head.

“My apologies, Sire.” The officiate said.

Ahmet waved away the very idea. Calliope was shaking now, and he moved to comfort her.

“But that’s not all…”

Instantly, their attention was back on the officiate.

“There’s more?” Ahmet asked incredulously.

“Aye, Sire. While the consensus seems to be that capital is likely their ultimate destination, they are currently set to sail on a route which would steer them precariously close to Istan.” The man snapped to attention and said no more.

Ahmet’s heart leapt into his throat, and he slumped in his seat. This news was far worse than anything he could’ve imagined when he first awoke next to his sleeping wife this very morning. He remembered that the shades had been drawn by the maids, and the songbirds were flittering about the newly blossomed hydrangeas. The scent of peonies and tangerine’s wafted from Calliope’s loose braids, and he savored the fleeting moment of domestic bliss.

He looked over at the officiate. It seemed that the man was well and truly finished, if his silence portended as much.

Cleared his throat, Ahmet gingerly rose of the table while gently picking his wife up into in his arms. They embraced, and he felt her warm body wrack beneath his own as she attempted to stem the tide of tears wrought by fear and worry. He should’ve made her leave, but he’d always had trouble saying no to the enchanting woman. She had him well and truly spelled.

After Calliope recollected herself, they separated. He stroked her soft cheek, skin pale but flush, while her stare bore into his own with all the intensity of a thousand moons. Calliope had always been more like the moon in temperament than the sun. And her moonbeams shone beatifically under the glassy veneer of her bright irises. Those hypnotic eyes welled with moisture that so far remained unshed. Pregnancy had taken its toll on his wife, and Ahmet marveled at her enduring resilience. He kissed her briefly; it was brief, but poignant.

“I must go.” he said, voice colored by remorse.

“You must go.” she agreed solemnly. But they made no move to extricate themselves from the other, too lost in one another’s eyes to remember how or why. Despite their years together and so many vocative conversations cultivated between them, it seemed that so much yet remained unsaid.

The officiate did his best to feign invisibility, ruing that he hadn’t been blessed by that particular gift. He shifted awkwardly. There was no hurrying the royals after all, for theirs was the highest authority in the land. After a few more moments, he allowed a sigh, relieved when they finally broke apart.

The queen left beyond the parlor door after summoning her handmaidens from the threshold.

Ahmet rounded on the officiate, blinking away the confusing, having seemingly having forgotten his presence.

The officiate swept his arm, clearly motioning for the parlor, the same exit the queen had departed through. “Shall we, then, Your Highness?”

“We shall.” Ahmet said, striding in the opposite direction.

Flabbergasted, the other man watched him leave. When the officiate realized that the king intended not to return, he squawked and hurried to follow afterwards. Ahmet managed to reach the entrance to the kitchens before his guide caught on and up to his whereabouts. They entered through massive double doors, whereupon silence befell the cooking staff at their arrival.

Ahmet strode in with both grace and familiarity, moving jauntily about the isles as if the kingdom weren’t on the brink of invasion. The surrealism of such a juxtaposition was not lost on the straggling officiate. The quiet was disquieting, but experience taught him that he was not the cause, only trailed by the culprit; the staff was wary around a noble they didn’t recognize, deferring to decorum in the presence of the unknown.

“Carry on.” Ahmet said genially. “I haven’t come for sweets this time around. I promise.” He chuckled, eliciting a round of knowing laughter from the cook staff, which seemed to bleed some of the tension from the room. “But don’t tell my wife I said that.” The king’s eyes twinkled conspiratorially.

Ahmet navigated the immense kitchens with a practiced ease that lent credence to his claim of frequent culinary nicking, that of the confectionary sort. The kitchens had to be large in order to produce enough food to feed a full house, though the palace remained empty most of the year and the fulltime staff lean as a result, relying on borrowed hands during times of grandiose celebration.

The pair came upon a shodden doorway at the far side of the room. Dust accentuated the timber frame, and the paint was peeling. It was not an area visitors were ever likely to see, thus neglected as an afterthought. Ahmet hesitated none at all in entering; though, the officiate, who might’ve presumed himself above such substandard accommodations, turned his nose up in distaste as if the doorway had personally affronted his sensibilities. Nevertheless, he dutifully followed after the king, taking care not to allow his finery to come into contact with the environs.

They strode off into the servant’s corridor, a connecting passageway which later intersected a greater hallway. From there, they would continue until bisecting an atrium into a further adjoining hallway leading to the restricted sections of the palace. The War Room inhabited the furthest wing.

While they walked on in silence, neither spoke of the looming threat, too humbled by the imposing specter it cast. The shadow of war loomed over Atreia as the perfect storm brewed on the horizon and, as if yielding to a greater omen, the light of day grew fainter in the corridor.

Ramses knew better than to think it a trick of the light, for the illumination throughout the palace remained constant as a generator periodically pulsed waves of magic throughout the building, illuminating the very air itself in a rich glow. As result, nothing was cast in shadow, because everything was evenly and superbly lit, but the manna sconces adorning the wall, repeaters which helped to ferry the generator’s energy across the palace’s wide expanse, did little to alleviate the pall, and Ahmet couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t all imagined.

The king had time to brood over those seemingly inconsequential days of peace that prophesied more of the same benignity. But that had been proven false, an idyllic subterfuge or hyperbole. Worse, his kingdom was no safer for the ignorance, only more vulnerable to the swift change of tide.

He wracked his brain, stymied by the plethora of thoughts invading his head space. Who was behind this? What was their goal? How had things gone so wrong beneath his noticing? Had he already failed? Could he be redeemed? These thoughts and more plagued his addled mind, but more than anything, he thought of Calliope and the burgeoning life growing in her belly, and of all the other mothers under his stewardship. The toll was heavy, and he felt crushed by its immense weight.

The hallways were lined with all manner of accoutrement, furnishing, and art. In the south annex, suits of armor worn by heroes and kings alike lined the halls. The west passages saw lavish paintings; depictions of man, beast, and nature, tallied from birth to death, from sunrise to moonset, interspersed those corridors. The east hallways saw the most guests, so were the most affluently furnished, laden with priceless fabergé eggs, masterful works of art, and one-of-a-kind antiquities with untold historic value. Furthermore, it was not uncommon to see a beautifully sculpted vase or chaise lounge poised elegantly for decoration in any of the hallways.

Ahmet and the nameless officiate headed elsewhere via a corridor to the north, near the main tower of the palace. These corridors were lined with portraits and bric-a-brac of kings past, a veritable mosaic of Ahmet’s own lineage told in descending chronological order. As he passed his dead relatives, he felt the scorn of their gazes, the feeling of being judged for all his worth, and found deficit; lacking.

The main tower of the palace was built at the dead center of the layout. It was often said that the tower contained the palace as an extension, instead of the latter housing the former. It was in this focal nexus that the greatest of Atreia’s treasures were stored, under the most extreme magical protections ever devised by man and mage. The War Room was located adjacent to, but not into, the tower itself, out of necessity more than proclivity as the wisdom of not keeping all of one’s eggs in the same basket had sprung to mind more often than not over the years. After all, time’s quill was quick to blot its ink onto an overly convoluted page.

The War Room was a large chamber constructed with the sole purpose of housing strategic concourse; it lacked nothing in the way of wards, uncontestably becoming the most secure place in the kingdom to speak aloud without fear of eavesdropping or recourse. Even the tower itself, with its lowest, most secure levels blocked off from sending or receiving magical signals of any kind, could not boast a higher caliber of vocal suppression arrays. But that was only where the protections started.

They neared the desired room, which was preceded by a high, arched entryway leading up to a vaultlike doorway. Sturdy in construction and made entirely of the strongest hardwood money could buy, it cast an imposing figure, instilling the promise of impenetrability to whomsoever dared to gaze upon its face, something the king knew had less to do with magic than with man’s penchant for prognosticating his own folly in the offing, a feat he rued was less developed in some and woefully lacking altogether in others. But he took solace in the fact that using brute force alone would require the aid of an inordinate amount of men to fell but a single door, with no small amount of pride.

Ahmet had all but forgotten about the officiate at his side until the moment the doors to the War Room were upon them. He was about to turn the man away when he received a surprise. As he stopped, the other man kept walking towards the doors, unfettered by thoughts of impropriety, incomprehension, or impossibility.

“Allow me, your majesty.” the officiate said, yielding at a few paces from the doors. Upturning his palm, he began to trace nondescript shapes on the flat of his hand.

Ahmet knew he was witnessing a summoning spell being cast, if an extraneous one, because he possessed the same spell array; in the same place. He brokered no doubt about what was to come next: the man would produce a key. As he did.

The officiate’s ghostly finger scrawl came to an abrupt end, whereupon his palm pulsed with a radiant, but subdued, yellow palette. As the luminance dimmed, from within, his flesh produced the butt of a key, which protruded out from the palm. There was no sound to highlight the event; it simply transpired. Gripping the key, the man helped pull it free the rest of way.

Ahmet knew from experience how uncomfortable the feeling of having something foreign magically take residence within one’s own body felt. Retrieving such a thing felt intimate, like birthing, he assumed, a horror he never wished to personally confirm. Though, Calliope usually paled when he made the comparison, knowing she eventually would be called upon to either confirm or deny such morbidity. He shuddered, still unnerved after all these years.

Extraneous magic was the external application of magical matrixes residing in the human body. That is to say, the magic happened internally, the spell casting forming quasi-naturally, an artificial workaround for plebes, the nonmagical. Fortifying a door magically, for example, was not considered extraneous magic; although, it was indeed magic which happened externally. However, it remained that way: external. And even if all manner of life indeed possessed manna, only the magically gifted were able to willfully manipulate it internally, namely wizards and demigods. It remained a hard rule of the universal applications of magic.

Yet, through the use of localized matrices alchemically coded insidethe human body, spurred into existence by wizards of a sufficient caliber, one could hope to bridge this fundamental gap in disparity—to an extent. And as wizards were notoriously secretive, such endowments were handed down only to a select few individuals every generation, chiefly the reigning families and the utmost acclaimed warriors amongst men.

Once the extraneous matrix had been applied, the magic could be fomented internally, tracing predetermined pathways, shaping and transmogrifying the manna inherently latent in the human body. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the officiate had just cast a spell; his own spell with his own magic, and by his own doing.

The spell casting had been easily achieved as living things could also use manna to an extent. Manipulating sufficient levels so as to cast a spell was beyond the means of most, but just about anyone and anything could focus the energy in one form or another. A man making a fist in preparation to lash out at an adversary subconsciously channeled manna to the fore of his hand, coating it in a protective layer as a means of self-preservation. In the same way, a runner subconsciously channeled manna to their legs, thus fortifying the bone and speeding the recovery of beleaguered muscles. Through this unwitting display of what has been coined passive magic, humans naturally evolved through hardship, becoming superior to basal animals in terms of speed, strength, and agility, with only a few exceptions.

Ahmet watched the officiate insert the key into the lock of the door, and twist. It clicked. He turned it the other way. It clicked again. Finally, he thrust the key inward, and it disappeared to where the king knew it would return from whence it had been summoned. One last click, and the door opened inward slowly, silently.

The king’s palm itched; a phantom spurred on by what he had just witnessed. He considered that the officiate was no longer nameless, as only the highest-ranking members of the kingdom were bestowed with both extraneous matrices and a key to the War Room. Furthermore, there was only one person in the kingdom who fit the bill and whom the king wouldn’t recognize on sight. He was the king, after all. It was his job to know such individuals of import.

“You’re Charles Bathwain.” The king said pointedly, annoyed at the deception.

Charles turned and smiled. “That I am, My Liege.” he said proudly before sweeping his arm towards the awaiting room. “After you, Sire.”

Ahmet walked past the man with a scowl. As the head of the intelligence division, Charles had a penchant for breaking into the palace from time to time in order to test its defenses. It seemed he had found another vulnerability to exploit.

“Take that face off. It doesn’t suit a man like you.” Ahmet said, crossing the threshold into the chamber. He meant no offense, for Charles was anything but a pompous fool. Too smart and too quick witted for his own good. The man was also humble to a fault.

Ahmet felt the protective wards wash over him and acknowledge his presence. It was the room’s way of recognizing and permitting him entrance. He dared not think what would come upon the fool who dared enter uninvited.

The room had a sole purpose and, to those ends, remained spartan in design and furnishing. Being a relatively new allocation of palatial real-estate, of which every generation shared a penchant for remodeling; the current inheritors had their say, with the War Room being one of Ahmet’s invocations.

Upon the building, he determined that no part of war, neither from the scheming or killing, should ever be done from the lap of comfort. As a result, the centerpiece was a large table, surrounded on all sides by identical chairs, including his own. The placement of the occupants was haphazard and unassigned. In this room, there existed no kings or those of a higher station, only humans of equal standing seeking to mitigate the loss of life. At least, that had been the ideal, which had borne both success and failure over the years. And now, the time had come to put complete stock in those beliefs, lest they prove unfounded.

Charles frowned at the retreating back of the king. “My apologies, Sire. I get so into character sometimes that I forget myself.” He palmed a cheek and pulled the flesh taut while following after the monarch, then pulled harder.

The sounds of tearing and squelching resounded behind Ahmet, signaling a spectacle that he determined not to look at, knowing from experience that it wasn’t an easy thing to glance upon.

Judging by the looks of horrified revulsion filling the countenances of the men already in the room, he supposed that he’d both made the right decision to avoid looking and the wrong one in ordering Bathwain so prematurely to de-face himself.

He mentally shrugged. He was the king.

“For fucks sake, Charles.” General Maddox said. “That shit’s disgusting. Show some decorum, man.”

“Sorry, sorry.” Charles said with an easy smile while walking into the room, sounding not at all sorry. He now wore the face his mother had graced him with, that of a mousy eyed young boy with rich brunette hair and thin lips. His appearance seemed out of place on the frame of a lean adult male, but the way the man carried himself, with childlike aplomb, sold the illusion to the passing eye.

Charles flounced to his seat, sliding in casually with a grace that belied his youthful appearance. It was always interesting to watch the man when he wasn’t pretending to be someone else, and slightly disturbing if observed too keenly. He was an expert impersonator, of that there was no doubt. In fact, he might’ve been the best there ever was, but when he reverted to himself again, the body language, mannerisms, and quirks of speech he’d adopted from his previous incarnations greatly influenced his own personality, effectively burying the man’s identity under a mixed mash of every combination that has and could possibly ever exist. As a result, he never acted or reacted in quite the same way to a recurring situation, neither carrying himself or speaking predictably, as if his demeanor were a constantly shifting sea beneath the skies of flesh and bone. He was, and staunchly remained, a mystery.

But though the man was enigmatic, but it was not of his own making. His blessing had been derived from Zephyr, the God of the Underworld. In the mythos, Zephyr had no face to glance upon. Atop his head lay a skull absent any features. Although, if he so chose, he could don the appearance and demeanor of anyone he so chose. Skinwalker, they called him. Likewise, when Charles came into his blessing, he had lost his face in the process, which had both scared and provoked aberration from his parents, the townsfolk, and everyone else he’d come into contact with, and rightly so, if the mythos were to be believed; Zephyr was not known for his kindness, being detested by some and feared by most. So, when the townsfolk eventually came for his hide, and Charles had found himself cast out by his own parents at the tender age of seven, he ran, finding salvation only in his ability to impersonate others and hide amongst the crowd. Having lived life on the fringes of society ever since, his identity of self eventually eroded away. Ahmet doubted that even Charles knew who he was anymore.

But that was neither here nor there. He shook his head to clear those thoughts, focusing on the room’s other occupants instead. He stood at a distance, observant and unwilling to risk being retched upon by those made queasy by Charles’s performance. The Admirals and Generals were mostly in attendance, save for those he remembered were currently out in the exercitation of duty. As king, he’d had to sign off on the requests. Atreia was an island nation and, as such, there were decidedly more Admirals than Generals, the sea-based division of their military far outweighing the land-based.

Looking closer, he was surprised not to see Ramses in attendance. But after a minute, when it looked like no one was going to lose their lunch, Ahmet sat in his own seat and cleared his throat in preparation to begin the proceedings, nonetheless.

“Gentleman, what news do you have? I want a complete report.” One by one, Ahmet received a retelling of Charles’s own appraisal as told by the upper echelons of the command structure, likely as a means of scoring political capital while reminding everyone of their importance by appearing to stay in the know. In reality, they knew no more than anyone else. There was frighteningly little new information, instilling a quickly souring atmosphere to the spacious room that threatened to turn somber.

“This is most distressing news. What can be done about this?”

As if on cue, nobody hurried to be the bearer of bad news. The silence only confirmed Ahmet’s thoughts on the sycophantic nature of the underlying political gambit at play in the room.

“We’re already in the process of recalling everyone from leave.” Fleet Admiral Longinus said, being the lone voice of dissent from the status quo. It was the first time he’d spoken, and nobody tried to talk over the man. He was the de facto commander of the realm’s entire military structure and needn’t score any political gains. “Unfortunately, most of our ranks are absent with Beltane approaching. At present, we’re severely understaffed. Estimates vary, but twenty percent in reserve would be a generous estimate. A conservative estimate would halve that.”

Ahmet’s eyes widened in disbelief. “That few?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“And what of Istan?” He looked around the table while the various admirals and generals looked over one another, refusing to meet his gaze while acquiescing to allow someone else to be the one to break the news first. Again, Longinus was the one to break the silence.

“A conservative estimate would be warranted.” he said flatly. The man sugar coated nothing.

Ahmet’s heart sank and the atmosphere did, indeed, turned a shade darker.

The door to the War Room never made a sound, despite a lack of maintenance, because the only persons authorized to inhabit the room would never stoop so low as to perform such menial tasks. As a result, the hinges had not seen a drop of oil since their installation, yet remained pristine and mute to a fault, nonetheless. So, when the door opened and Ramses stepped through, his arrival was heralded wordlessly. And due to the unique lighting of the palace, the door closed, having neither sapped nor infused any trace of illumination. Those facing the door, who should’ve noticed, were too engrossed with memorizing the grains in the wood of the table. Seemingly hypnotic in their swirls, they mesmerized their eyes.

“Am I interrupting your brooding? Or should I come back later when it’s time to strategize?” Ramses said, breaking the silent spell. The words had the immediate effect of drawing the room’s attention to the doorway, which framed the robed newcomer. All except Longinus, who studiously buried himself in the notes piled on the table. Ramses presumed the admiral had been the only one to truly notice his arrival because, from experience, the man was not shallow enough to entertain pretenses. The wizard was decidedly impressed.

Ramses earned his share of derisive looks. Nobody liked to be made a fool, especially in front their peers and betters.

“Ah, Ramses.” Ahmet smiled warmly. There was a trace of relief in the line of his shoulders. “Please tell me you bring good news.”

Ramses’ facial features consisted of hard edges rounded by the barest hints of skin and muscle. If there were ever any fat between either, there remained no trace of it in the man. His face was made wider than most would expect by the illusion of extra musculature that his intellectual station didn’t seem to warrant. His mouth was a thin slit, lips slender and straight. At the king’s query, their edges dipped ever so slightly. He was not, in fact, here to deliver good tidings.

“My apologies, Your Highness. No, I do not come bearing good news.” The occupants must’ve been expecting the blow, because no one appeared to be freshly disheartened. “The Wizarding Corps has managed to determine two things of our adversaries beyond that they, indeed, exist.”

“So, it’s been determined then?” General Maddox asked piqued.

Ramses inclined his head. “Aye. It has.”

“Well, shit.” Admiral Trafalgar said, having held on to his skepticism until the bitter end.

“Shit indeed.” Ahmet said, surprising the others, most of all Trafalgar who had been a moment away from apologizing for his outburst. It wasn’t often that the king cursed, but to hear him do so now, so openly, only drove home the surreal realism of their predicament.

“Indeed.” Ramses said, mildly amused.

“What else have you learned?” Longinus asked. It sounded more like a demand than a question. But the man wasn’t known for dithering, and Ramses didn’t take it personally.

“Their numbers: seventy-four ships in total.”

There was a brief stunned silence before the room exploded in a commotion of overlapping outbursts.

“How in the Hell did seventy-four ships make it past your sensors?” Brigadier General Kilgore asked the wizard bluntly. The question was laden with insinuation and more than a morsel blame. The connotations and the volume in which they were spoken were enough to drown out the clamor at the table as the others, attention roused, observed the outcome curiously.

Kilgore was the newest appointee, the lowest ranking member of the cabinet in the room. In theory, his station was equal to that of an admiral, hence his appearance at the table, but in practice, he was little more than a vice admiral and, on an island, only half as useful. Only Charles Bathwain, as the head of the intelligence division, a nonmilitary branch, boasted a lower rank, but the man’s usefulness contended with the fleet admiral’s. To Ramses, it seemed as if inexperience and a desire to prove oneself were clouding the man’s mind with vestiges of arrogance and self-interest. Well, he could correct that.

Ramses fixed the child, for that’s what he was in the eyes of the long-survived wizard, with a flat look. “Atreia’s sensors are the best in the world. Nothing escapes our notice, nor has it.” Kilgore opened his mouth to counter, but Ramses wasn’t done and refused to permit the opportunity. “As our enemies sail towards our cities unaware, here we all are, gathered before their arrival.”

Ramses turned to the king, refusing the dignify the whelp any longer. “I do apologize for the delayed warning, Your Highness, but we’ve never encountered a fleet of invisible ships before and, magic or not, it is surprisingly difficult to observe that which hides from one’s own senses.” Finishing that statement, the wizened old wizard smirked internally, and began counting down. Three… two… one…

“What?”

Succinct as always, Your Highness.

Another commotion, briefer this time, erupted. It was quickkly quelled by the raised hand of the king.

“What do you mean by invisible?” Ahmet asked, seemingly stupefied.

“As I was attempting to say before I was interrupted, My Lord.” Ramses didn’t need to see Kilgore’s face to feel the heat of his glare on the back of his head. He mentally shrugged. The fool had been the one to stuff his own foot in the muck, and without prompting. “The second discovery we’ve made is that the fleet cannot be seen. It cannot be heard. And it even hides from magic itself. It is as if it doesn’t exist.”

“Then how in the blazes can you know for sure that we’re being invaded in the first place?” Maddox asked loudly, and if Ramses didn’t know the man better, he would say petulantly.

However, the wizard, like many others, appreciated the general’s directness. He was the longest standing cabinet member and cared nothing for decorum. As a result, you always knew exactly where you stood with him. How Kilgore had swayed the man into promoting him remained a mystery to everyone, but Ramses harbored no doubt that the two would indulge in a private discussion after the meeting adjourned, likely a reprimand from senior to junior.

“Because a little bird told me.” Ramses smiled enigmatically.