Three months of war was taking its toll on Agalia and no end was in sight. Ludrig's predictions of deflections to the West had been quite accurate, both among the civilians and the military. Still, Zarsan's troops held off from a full scale pushover assault. The option of getting Lafi to call off the army was becoming more remote with every day as the Emperor and his Advisor simply couldn't be contacted. Rumours circulated that they were in Jullit, Hecia, Lombat and even Luh. Other rumours circulated that they'd both gone mad or that they were both dead. Nothing could be verified.
"Why don't they just give up?" Keegan, who was Leon once again, said to Perrin. The two men could hear the shouts from yet another raid by the Eastern army on the Western divisions. "All they're doing is prolonging the standoff."
"The same could be said about the West. It depends on your view. All the West are doing is fending them off. Why don't they just take them?" Perrin countered.
"Zarsan's bound to be close to making that decision. How are the talks with his Administrator?" Keegan asked.
"Not much past the introductions I'm afraid. He's an exceptional Administrator as well as a close personal friend of Emperor Zarsan's. This means he's constantly with him just now. As far as I can tell, no mention of King Ludrig has ever been made, which suggests that no one sees him as a threat, enemy or collaborator. That's a good thing, by the way." Perrin said.
"We're getting nowhere and neither is Agalia." Keegan said in frustration. "I'm distributing food to the homeless tonight. I'll leave you to close shop." He left his warehouse and headed for the grain store near the government halls. It was the only store left intact due to its proximity to an official building.
"Hey! You sir!" Someone shouted and Keegan turned to peer along the darkened street. "Hold up, man. I need your help." Keegan was very surprised to see Emperor Zarsan himself, hurrying towards him and quite out of breath. "Thank you, sir."
"Leon Feron, sir." Keegan bobbed his head. "You need the help of a humble pottery merchant?"
"Urgently. I need you to go and bring Physician Tallow to Advisor Kerrin's home." Zarsan handed Keegan a note. "Do it in under five minutes and I'll double this." He also handed over a purse of coins. Keegan nodded and ran in the direction of the city centre. Zarsan ran back to Kerrin's villa.
"Not too good." Mistress Olga shook her head. Zarsan nodded his thanks and entered Kerrin's bed chamber. The former Emperor lay still on his bed, his skin a dull grey colour. The man's heart was collapsing.
"Kerrin. Tallow is on his way." Zarsan clutched the Advisor's hand.
"Waylon ... " Kerrin whispered.
"Shh. It's under control." Zarsan said gently.
"Emperor Zarsan." Physician Tallow had arrived with the merchant in a carriage. Zarsan gave Keegan another purse of coins then hurried back to Kerrin's side, next to Tallow. Tallow shook his head slightly and Zarsan swallowed hard.
"Zarsan." Kerrin croaked weakly. "Fix it. Fix it all."
"I will, Kerrin. Rest." Zarsan let the tears come.
"Now, Zarsan. Go to Ludrig and end this madness. We both know what Waylon and Lafi did and it's time we stopped edging round it. Go to Ludrig."
"Kerrin, Ludrig can't join in the war." Zarsan looked at Kerrin's ashen face.
"Oh to buggery with the war. I don't mean the war." Kerrin's breathing became laboured. "Straight away. Too long."
"I'll go as soon ... "
"Now, Zarsan. Swear."
"I swear. Sleep now, Kerrin, you've earned it." Zarsan held the hand of one of the finest men he'd ever known and watched him draw his last breath. Keegan had witnessed the whole event. Zarsan barely paid him any attention as he fled from the villa and Keegan promptly followed him. Keegan managed to stay out of sight while Zarsan spoke to Florian outside of the Imperial Villa.
"No soldiers, as we discussed? Are you sure Zarsan? Things have changed since then." Florian asked in concern.
"No soldiers. We don't want to draw attention to any change here, Florian. I'm the only one who can offer the people explanations for my absence and I don't have time to do that now. Also, we need Ludrig to know we're there in good faith. Gather up the Scouts that we agreed on and assemble by the south gate." Zarsan said.
"The rough scouts who are all capable of beating folk up. Yes." Florian rolled his eyes.
"And the two Administrators. I'm sure they'll keep them all in check." Zarsan smiled.
"One was suspended for a drunken brawl involving the blacksmith and a cudgel and the other one suspected of arranging illegal fist fights." Florian reminded him. "It's good to know people in low places at times. South gate." He disappeared into the night and Zarsan went indoors. Ten minutes later, Keegan followed Zarsan to the barracks stables.
"I really don't have time for you. You were paid well." Zarsan didn't even turn round as he entered the stables.
"Sir, I'd like to volunteer to come with you, me and my assistant." Keegan said decisively.
"I'm sorry. You can't." Zarsan said flatly, then sighed as he turned round. "I appreciate your offer. You don't even know where I'm going. Or do you?"
"South, sir. I didn't mean to eavesdrop but I heard Advisor Kerrin. Agalia is a mess, sir. I want to help." Keegan said. "I'm experienced with horses, sir and everyone needs grooms."
"I suppose you better had come with us. You weren't meant to know of any of this." Zarsan said in irritation.
"My silence is yours, sir." Keegan went to collect Perrin, and their horses.
Dusk was falling when the small party of twelve men set off from Agalia's south gate. Keegan noticed that Perrin and Florian struck up a conversation almost immediately and wondered why. Ludrig and Zarsan were going to get their meeting. In fact, Perrin's position had become redundant once Zarsan had made the decision himself.
"Leon." Zarsan rode up beside him and spoke quietly. "I see you're armed with daggers."
"So is Perrin. Do you expect trouble?" Perrin asked.
"Yes and quite soon. We've been followed by at least twelve men for the last mile or so. They're Agalian so I'm presuming I'm the target."
"Can we outrun them? Scouts may be faster than soldiers." Keegan pointed out.
"Ah so you noticed them too." Zarsan looked at Leon the merchant and frowned. "I doubt we'd outrun them before we got to Gilby, let alone Luh and definitely not before Ludrigshires. Most of the scouts are ... "
"Ex thugs with daggers. I heard. Can they keep these soldiers distracted? Daggers are no match for swords but as a distraction?" Keegan asked.
"You're suggesting that I tackle them with my sword while everyone else pokes them with daggers?" Zarsan asked suspiciously. "I doubt you're that foolish, Leon. On the other hand, you could be about to tell my why your cloak isn't sitting right on your shoulders. Quickly, merchant."
"Bow and arrows. Perrin is similarily armed. I told you sir, I want to help." Keegan held Zarsan's eye.
"Right. Florian!" Zarson motioned for the Administrator. "Florian, get our two Administrators, and yourself together. Get the scouts to dismount and order their horses into a circular wall. Got that? Good. Make sure the Administrators stay within that circle. We're expecting an ambush."
"Administrator Perrin?" Florian asked as calmly as he could.
"Leon needs him here." Zarsan nodded and Florian left to speak with the men. "I'll stay mounted. My sword is designed for horseback combat, their's aren't."
"Good luck, sir. If this starts to go wrong, make a break for it and head straight for Luh. They're sure to recognise you." Keegan and Perrin steered their horses noiselessly into the woodland at the roadside.
The attack happened as soon as the soldiers realised that Zarsan's scouts were forming a defence. Zarsan had to blink a few times when four of the solders simply slid from their horses in rapid succession. He knew archers were fast, but these two were exceptional. The scouts divided themselves into two groups. One group ringed the horses and the other stood with Zarsan.
"Just taunt them lads!" One of the scouts shouted. "Let the General get a chance. He has a sword, same as they do. Sacred shit! More arrows took out another two soldiers and Zarsan went into action. The archers threw the mounted men into a state of confusion and panic, making the scouts' 'taunting' even more effective. Zarsan unseated two soldiers as the scouts chopped at their knee joints with daggers. Three more soldiers were thrown from their horses and it took Zarsan a few seconds to discover why. The three Administrators were using slingshots and pelting the horses with pebbles! Zarsan laughed loudly as the remaining handful of men fled in the direction of Agalia.
"Leave them!" Zarsan ordered as his scouts began to pursue. "Injuries?"
"Not to us." Florian emerged from the wall of horses. "Archers?"
"Very good ones." Zarsan said as Perrin dropped out of a tree and Keegan lead two horses from the woods. "Hey! Away from those corpses!" One of the scouts was rifling through the clothing of a soldier. "Take them over by the roadside and lay them properly. We don't have time to bury them."
"Bury them? They attacked us!" The scout shouted.
"They're Agalian, just like you. They're soldiers, just like me. If anyone wants to drop their standards to that of the Golan, then the swamp is that way." Zarsan began moving the bodies.
It made sense to head for the nearest point of civilisation, which was Gilby. The Innkeep almost burst into tears when he saw yet another Emperor riding into the village. To his relief, all this group wanted was stables and few kegs of ale. Zarsan left the men to their beer and went to sit in the stable yard. What would those returning soldiers report and to whom? That Zarsan was on his way for reinforcements from Ludrig? That would be enough to get all those deflectors to re-deflect and this violence would go on for months and months. He was starting to think he should never have left Agalia, especially with Kerrin gone. He'd ordered Brock not to release the news of his death incase the people in the West became incensed and the riots would inflame threefold. Instead, the army was to proclaim loudly and clearly that attacking fellow Agalians was not the way. Hopefully the few remaining resistors would concede before rumours were generated regarding Zarsan's absence. Keegan wandered by carrying a bucket of water and a soft hand brush.
"Leon." Zarsan got his attention and Keegan put down his bucket and went to join him. "If you're a pottery merchant then I'm a dancing girl. Also, if you're from Jullit then I'll eat that brush. Not many men would spend this long tending horses when they, themselves are exhausted. Not many men can wield a sword in the saddle, let alone use a bow in the saddle. In fact, the only elite archer division in the history of the realm was from Ludrigshires. After that, they were the only ones who could pass on such a skill to such a level. Now I know that King Ludrig doesn't adopt the divisional organisation for his army like his predecessors did, but his archers are still invaluable. Why would one, possibly two, Ludrigshires elite archers be posing as potters in Agalia? You're a spy."
"Of sorts." Keegan sat on a low wall. "Obviously I'm not out to facilitate any harm to Agalia otherwise King Ludrig would have acted."
"I worked that out myself." Zarsan said flatly. "So what are you out to do?"
"To get you to Luh for talks with Ludrig." Keegan shrugged and Zarsan just looked at him in disbelief. "I speak the truth, Zarsan. It's easily verified, this close to Ludrigshire. People in Luh will recognise me. I'm Prince Keegan Ludrig, heir to the crown of Ludrigshires."
"I don't believe for one second that Ludrig has any political or military plans regarding Agalia. He may be rough, but he's not stupid. What else would be so important that he'd send his son and heir on a spying mission? I don't believe you, Leon." Zarsan said warily.
"There are other things more important than politics, Zarsan." Keegan tried to formulate what he was going to say next.
"Harper." Zarsan looked at Keegan and his eyes opened wide. "Harper? You've seen Harper? My son?"
"They've both been living in the Castle, with all the security that entails, since they were rescued from Luh ten years ago. The King realised how unbelievable it would sound when he told you that we had no idea who she was. None at all. That's why he wanted you in Luh. He intends to bring Harper there and let her tell you herself. She's a remarkable woman and your boy is a credit to you." Keegan said truthfully.
"Start at the start, Leon. I want times and I want reasons for her silence. Make it good. I make no allowances when it comes to that subject." Zarsan said flatly. Keegan started with the sacking of Luh and left nothing out. All he knew, he told Zarsan. The man deserved the whole saga in it's entirety, to the best of Keegan's knowledge. Both men sat long into the night. Zarsan had no doubt that Leon was Prince Keegan and that Ludrig's heir had treated Harper and Zari like his own family. Despite the pangs of jealousy, Zarsan knew he owed the Prince a debt he'd struggle to pay.
Emperors And Kings