There was a gleaming silver sword that lay over his body. His dead hands were knit around the copper-chained grip, ruby pommel snug against the meat of the hands as if it was the only thing keeping the sword from falling off.
He lay in state on a golden and copper altar in the middle of a cathedral once built in his honor. Silence slapped against the marble, amplifying the smallest noise into an interruption.
Jazmynde looked at the corpse of her leader. He was tall and gaunt. Age had already hollowed out his cheeks and eyes. You could clearly see the skull beneath the skin at the end. His long, blank white beard, once wiry, was combed out clean, voluminous, and civilized in a way that it never was when he was alive.
‘Funny,’ she thought, ‘how much we try to hide someone’s faults when they’re dead.‘ She shrugged. ‘We could never admit any faults of his when he was alive. Why would that change now?’
She heard someone approach. The footfalls were soft and deliberate. Jazmynde could tell it was Yumi so she didn’t bother turning around. Yumi walked up and stood next to Jazmynde. They looked at their leader.
Without a thought, Jazmynde’s hand strayed to the pommel of her dress sword, the handle narrow and cold gold, the midnight blue sheathe hanging down the side of her left leg. She looked at Yumi’s dress sword, much the same but a rapier. Jazmynde chuckled.
Yumi. delicate and bird-like, asked, “where are you finding humor in this?”
“Our swords,” Jazmynde said. “No matter how far humanity progresses – even into the stars – it all comes down to who has the pointy stick.”
Yumi nodded. “His was the pointiest of all. Sixty years of conquest.”
“Still unfinished, and no heir to ease the passing.”
Yumi nodded. “I was wondering if he ever would name one.”
Jazmynde sighed. “That would require him to admit that he was mortal. He was…” She trailed off into her thoughts.
“You’ve started saying it,” Yumi said, “You might as well finish it.”
Jazmynde nodded and thought might as well. “He was a man who would tolerate no rivals. And he was vain enough to not care if his whole system fell apart after he died.”
Yumi began to disagree, then stopped. “It is true. He would never have allowed a potential usurper. It will be asked later ‘where, oh where was an equal to pass this world onto.'”
Jazmynde turned to Yumi. “What does that say about us? He kept us around the longest – his ‘four horsemen’ as he called us. He certainly wasn’t afraid of killing anyone personally. Poor Martin, for instance. Killed him with his bare hands for disagreeing with him too strenuously. And that was his childhood friend.”
“He was drunk. He mourned his death ever after,” Yumi said.
Jazmynde dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “The regret was never as strong as his desire to do so.”
Yumi nodded. “He loved us in his way. We were useful. Brilliant.”
“And happy to live under his shadow. We were very rare creatures: brilliant and unambitious.”
“Our ambition was to serve a great person. His shadow is gone now. What do you suppose we will do now that he’s gone?”
Before Jazmynde could answer, a booming voice from the back called out, “we’ll make do.” Yumi grinned and turned around. Jazmynde didn’t swivel her head, looking at the sword on her leader’s body instead.
“Wilhelm!” Yumi cried. Jazmynde heard his stomping steps make their way through the Cathedral. She felt his heavy presence. “Wilhelm,” she whispered. She could feel his huge presence like the arrival of an unpredictable beast, jovial and murderous.
Yumi and Wilhelm hugged, Wilhelm towering over her. She thought, ‘they’ll be trying to kill each another before the end of a standard year.’
“Jazmynde,” Wilhelm said, nodding slightly as he stood on the other side of Yumi.
“Wilhelm,” she acknowledged.
“He looks so peaceful,” Wilhelm said, looking over their leader.
Jazmynde nodded. “It disturbs me too. He was a verb. Nothing but action. Seeing him rest… it’s odd.”
“He never let us see him rest,” Yumi affirmed.
Jazmynde smirked. “He never let us into his room while he was sleeping. There’s the real point.”
“Would you?” Wilhelm asked.
She laughed. “Not likely. Not unless I wanted to sleep forever.”
“Where’s the fourth?” Wilhelm asked.
“Mara?” Jazmynde asked. “She’ll be along presently. She’s always moved slow.”
“Our leader said ‘methodically’,” Yumi said.
“Our leader was a living thesaurus,” Jazmynde said, smirking. She looked over at Wilhelm. “I’ve never seen a dress claymore before,” she said, remarking on the huge sword strapped to Wilhelm’s back.
He shrugged. “A regular dress sword looks ridiculous on me. It’s like I’m carrying a toy or something. Besides, this is more like me.”
Jazmynde and Yumi nodded. “It suits you,” Jazmynde said.
They stood in silence looking over their dead leader. Jazmynde sighed. She felt her cohorts searching for words. Marshall Wilhelm, top tactician – able to find the path to victory in any battleground. Marshall Yumi – genius provisioner. She could get supplies anywhere they were needed in timeframes that were nothing short of miraculous. But neither of them were exactly poet warriors.
And then Marshall Jazmynde – the chief strategist.
She had a way to see clearly no matter how foggy a war got. She could see everything clearly now as if it were already in the past. In less than a standard year, they would all be at each other’s throats. Billions would die of their hubris.
The tallest tree prevents other trees around it from growing as high. Now that the tree was dead and cut down, who was to stop them from growing?
There would be treaties and truces, lulls in which they would each shore up their territory and prepare for war. Then they would claw at each other when they thought they had the advantage. They would pour platitudes over the corpses they pile up and hope that no one notices the smell.
It would get particularly nasty between Wilhelm and Yumi. They loved each other once. They were still close, even though they were no longer lovers. Their territories would be next to each other. They had volitile personalities and couldn’t separate their feelings from their goals. They would be the first person each would betray.
‘Odd how easily love slides into fury,’ she thought.
And Marshall Mara, the master of defensive strategy – the person you called when you had to retreat and wanted to a miracle. She would turtle up. She would try to make a hidden land that she could control, some impregnable territory where she could master legions of obsessively loyal bomb fodder. She would wait for everyone to destroy each other, then claim the remnants.
‘Each of us,’ Jazmynde thought, ‘with daddy gone, will go back to whatever we’re great at. And when battles are for entire civilizations, the only sure path to victory is to encourage betrayal in your enemy.’
After trying and failing to kill Jazmynde, they would each try to enlist her. She could see this all play out clearly as if it were already in her calendar.
‘I could kill them now,’ she thought. It is what her leader would have done. Strike them down. His oh-so-reasonable argument would have been, “isn’t it better to kill three people than three billion?”
She would have to kill Wilhelm by surprise. She could never survive an open fight with him. Yumi would be easy pickings. Mara wasn’t here, so that would be a loose end. But Mara was never comfortable on the attack. She would wait for Jazmynde to come. She would fail. Now was the time.
Jazmynde sighed. It was beyond her choice. It was what she should do, and she would regret for the rest of her life that she didn’t. But she already chose as the idea presented itself. They would not die by her hand today.
She hoped some guard would do it for her, killing all three of them in anticipation of the wars to come. There were many guards there, just at the outer edge of her senses, protecting them when they should be hewing them down. But these guards were chosen for their fanaticism as well as their strength. There was no chance of an assassination, no matter how well-deserved.
So it all came down to this quiet moment: three of them together, ancient swords by their side, looking at the corpse of a conqueror and thinking.
“What do we do now?” Yumi asked, and slid her arm into Wilhelm’s.
Jazmynde smirked. ‘It begins already,’ she thought. “She will raise Wilhelm up to make it all the easier to throw him down. And he won’t see it coming because he can only see what is directly in front of him. The only enemy he sees is the one pointed out to him.‘
She said, “We display him to the people, then we cremate him,” she said. “We scatter the ashes into the carbfibe materials that will form his mausoleum. Then…”
Yumi turned to Jazmynde. “Then?”
She nodded. “Then.”
“What do you see, oh prognosticator of prognosticators?” Wilhelm asked.
Blood. Too much blood too cheaply spent.
“We’ll formalize treaties, partition the conquered into equal and logical divisions, and form a confederation whereby we protect the empire our beloved leader carved out.”
Wilhelm and Yumi nodded in sage agreement. Jazmynde could already tell they were wondering how to take over the Leader’s position. The confederation wouldn’t last long enough for the ink to dry. That is how this new bloody age would begin.
It would begin with a lie.
THE CONQUEROR’S WITCH