“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by archons or by demons, by celestia or by hell.”
– Samaran Scripture: The Path of Eternal Truth
Konstantin peeked around the tree trunk to observe the two figures just a few dozen paces before him. Due to their Camouflage spells, they were little more than blurry outlines and color distortions against the forest’s vegetation and leaf-strewn floor. One of them laid prone against a ridge and simply rolled over his body to reload. The other changed positions after every shot and moved in Konstantin’s direction without any awareness of his presence.
The young baron’s breathing was erratic as he withdrew his head and leaned back against the tree. It was a stroke of luck that the assassins hadn’t noticed him yet. Better hired killers should have, would have. But it was clear that he had been underestimated.
Konstantin knew that his reputation as a coward and wastrel likely saved his life yet again. But that cover would not last once he charged at these men. His skill with a sword weren’t impressive by any standard of measurement. He had kept up his secret practices in the depth of the night, but years of maintaining his facade meant he had no one to spar against.
In other words, he was a trained neophyte.
The element of surprise would give him one opening. However after that, he would be in close-quarters with the remaining professional killers. Furthermore, he was sure there was at least one other in the distance whom he could only spot as a blur. Konstantin knew he had to act, but he also wasn’t suicidal.
With the back of his head pressed against the tree trunk, Konstantin thought once again of the military treatise that he must have studied a dozen times:
If your enemy is secure, prepare for him. If he is superior, evade him. If he is temperamental, irritate him. If his forces are united, divide them. Attack where he is unprepared, appear where you are least expected.
Konstantin had already achieved the first two and last. He was prepared, unexpected, and has evaded their notice. Anton’s actions had drawn both their ire and their bolts. Now, the ambushers were in the process of dividing themselves to outflank the wagon wreck, and that means…
The young lord’s eyes swelled into saucers as one of the assassins stepped past his tree from just three paces away. Konstantin hadn’t even noticed prior given the man’s silent footsteps. In his moment of peril, he remembered the teachings of his once mentor Vladislav Tuchkov, son of the old Marshal and father of his best friend.
If your opponent has reached inside your safety, you are on death ground. You cannot evade. You cannot parry. Your only recourse is to counterattack.
Konstantin might not be in a duel, but the same principles applied.
His training kicked in and he rushed forward towards the man. The assassin’s focus was in the wrong direction as Konstantin wrapped an elbow around his chest and drove a sword into him from behind. Blood flowed from the mercenary’s lips in a gurgle that stifled his dying cry. Meanwhile the young killer with fresh blood on his hands looked north and met — his instincts felt it — the gaze of the still-prone crossbowman.
So much for plans, Konstantin thought. His chest was pounding as he pulled out his blade and let his first kill slump to the ground.
All his tactics, all his planning, not a strand of it survived contact with the enemy.
…Or did it?
As the crossbow assassin scrambled to stand from the muddy ground, Konstantin charged at him from three dozen paces out.
I’m not going to make it, I’m not going to make it. His mind kept repeating the warning shout.
But he was invested. There was no withdraw. The moment he turned his back he would sign his own death.
His mind had forgotten about the coin-sized runestone set into his sword pommel. However his muscle memory did not as a thumb rubbed the smooth slate by habit. The faint, emerald-green glow that came from the etched rune matched Konstantin’s eyes. His body felt light as a feather as the Shift Impulse spell he had infused months ago discharged for a rush of acceleration and speed.
With its magic spent, the runic pebble ejected from its pommel slot. Now removed from Konstantin’s repertoire of prepared spells, the stone would no longer burden his body with its daily need of mana replenishment.
The assassin barely stood up in time. He was a short man, well over a head below Konstantin’s stature. With no time to draw another weapon, he raised the arbalest — a heavy crossbow with steel limbs — into the air to parry Konstantin’s slash. The young lord had cut too predictably, and the assassin transformed his parry into a stabbing motion before releasing the loaded bolt.
The seeker-enchanted bolt left a grazing mark on Konstantin’s coat as it missed by a hair. The blur of his Camouflage made it hard for the shooter to tell exact position and distance. Worse yet, the heavy arbalest was poorly balanced for melee, and the man’s footing was still unsteady after his rush to stand.
Konstantin did not miss this as he slashed downwards next. He narrowly missed the assassin’s leg due to the blurry visage, but the target almost tripped himself in his efforts to dodge.
Now! His mind cried out as he raised the tip of his downward blade and thrust it into center of his opponent’s blurry outline. It was a dangerous maneuver that left no room for defense, but his foe was unarmed with only an unloaded crossbow in hand. He felt the resistance as the blade tip pierced leather and chest. The assassin spewed blood from his lips as the arming sword stabbed deep through the heart’s arteries.
Konstantin felt a wave of tingling across his body as the Camouflage veil lifted. The blood had sprayed all over him and overwhelmed the illusion’s ability to adapt. Worse of all, he was now in the open with his cover completely blown. He had lost track of the third foe in the action, but he could almost imagine his opponent raising a weapon against him.
A cry came from the western direction as a surge of lightning flashed. Konstantin’s gaze swung over just in time to catch a web of electricity shock his blurry, Camouflage-veiled opponent. The illusion dropped and a clear image of the assassin emerged. His clothes trailed smoke as he dropped his raised crossbow and fell to the ground amidst spasms.
“GET DOWN!” Konstantin heard Anton’s cry from the distance.
His body’s preservation instincts took charge and immediately dropped to the muddy ground. He heard the rustling of leaves through his own heavy breathes as the senior druzhina slowly advanced. Konstantin stole a glance through the shrubs to see Anton’s bow raised and drawn at full. The veteran slowly made his way forward with a steady footing and slow, half-crouched steps.
“That seems to have been the last one,” Anton finally lowered his bow as he reached Konstantin’s side. The druzhina offered his large hand for the young lord to stand.
“Couldn’t you have scanned to make sure?” Konstantin huffed as he allowed himself to be pulled up. “I know there’s a spell for use in foliage. I just never learned it.”
“I did,” Anton sneered. “But as long as there is a way to discern information, you can bet that there is a counter to foil it. Never rely upon a spell or instrument. Always judge the situation for yourself.”
Konstantin hardly had the time to nod before the druzhina added:
“And what is it with you youngsters and making targets of yourselves? Get behind cover after you attack. Take shelter using a shield or shrubs. Don’t just stand there and ogle at your foe. It’s a battle, not a duel!”
Konstantin’s lips twitched in annoyance but he swallowed his pride. The battle seemed to have stripped all sense of courtesy from Anton, yet the veteran was also right. Had the druzhina not shot the final assassin, Konstantin would certainly be dead now. He might still be had he ducked, but at least there was a chance of dodging the shot.
In the end, all he could do was retort in a sheepish tone:
“It’s a skirmish at best.”
The senior druzhina made a lopsided smirk that looked downright frightening under his perpetual frown.
“As long as Your Lordship knows that.” His shoulder-pat was so heavy it almost unbalanced Konstantin. “Still a battle-virgin.”
The young lord rolled his eyes. Great, now I’m the ‘virgin’.
He never quite understood while the term was always derogatory towards men, yet treated as a treasure for women.
“Is he dead too?” Konstantin asked.
“No, this one’s just unconscious.” Anton prodded the body with the tip of his boot.
The knocked out man was the last assassin to be downed. The surrounding air still smelled faintly of burnt wool and leather. The other three were all dead, two by Konstantin’s blade and one having bled out after being stunned.
“Bloodthirsty though, aren’t you, Your Lordship?” Anton smirked at the young baron. “Straight through the chests of two men. All that’s missing is to pull out their beating heart and bite into it.”
“What kind of barbarian do you think I am?” Konstantin raised an eyebrow.
“Funny how the Imperials call us that, and we pass it on to the nomads,” Anton gave a light snort. “I’ve actually seen a Northman mercenary do that once. Carved out a heart and gave it to his youngest recruit. Said the heart of another warrior would boost bravery.”
Anton’s smirk grew more twisted. “Can’t deny that it takes guts to eat still-beating flesh.”
If this is a subtle jab at my missing presence at the start of the engagement… Konstantin thought in sarcasm before he sighed.
“Sorry if I took a while to arrive. I had to wait for the right moment to sneak up on them.”
“Of course,” Anton’s casual brush-aside made it clear that while he didn’t believe the excuse, he also didn’t care. “What matters is that Your Lordship arrived in time to catch the excitement.
“Any guesses on who sent these third-rate assassins?” The druzhina then asked.
“I know exactly who,” Konstantin declared. “Prince Kirill Vladimirovich Sheremetev-Naryshkin, leader of the conservative-wing isolationists.” The young lord then met Anton’s gaze. “Remember this morning, when I said that my death could rally a coalition of old scheming families against the Dolgorukovs? He’s the forerunner in that leadership contest.”
Anton’s lips twisted.
“Kirill ‘the Miser’? I guess his reputation is well-deserved.”
Konstantin merely nodded in response. He tapped the unconscious assassin’s ribs several time with his mud-caked boots. It didn’t work, and Anton pulled a rune to conjure a splash of cold water onto the man’s face.
The younger man raised an eyebrow at the older as their disarmed assailant coughed. Utility spells like Conjure Water were rarely stored as fast-activation runestones. Usually mages simply drew the rune into the ground and cast it fresh.
“Never know when a water burst might come in handy,” Anton shrugged back, but the amused glint in his eyes spoke a different story.
This is a *prank* spell to him. Konstantin exhaled a suppressed snort while the druzhina focused his attention on the prone man.
“Rise and shine, little maiden. The sun is setting, and the witch has arrived. Be honest, and she’ll aid you in journeys ahead. Be naughty, and she’ll cook you in her cauldron alive.”
You sure have one strange sense of humor. Konstantin stared at the veteran for a second longer. What was the purpose of mocking an assassin with a tale used to frighten little children?
The man in the mud was young and thin, likely no older than twenty years of age. His stubby nose and flat cheeks highlighted a mixed ancestry — he was likely the offspring between Polisian and nomadic parentage.
He also groaned as he turned to the side. His entire body was still in pain.
“We’ve sent your teammates off to meet their Gods,” Anton crouched down and spoke. “Unless you share the same wish, I suggest you cooperate.”
“B-but I d-don’t know anything!” The captive said in between coughs.
Anton twisted his lips with a disappointed look. “Shame. I guess we’ll be sending you off then.”
“W-wai-wait! I do know the middleman who gave us the job, but I don’t know whom his master is!”
“That’s perfectly fine,” Konstantin crossed his arms to accentuate his tall, imposing figure. “Because I do know who employed you.”
The captive then looked up, his voice falling to a whisper as life seemed to depart from his very lips:
“Then… what do you want from me?”
“I want you to deliver a message back to Prince Kirill, or whomever this middleman is…”
The surviving assassin’s eyes bulged with surprise, a sign that Konstantin was most likely correct. He then nodded eagerly, as though beckoning for Konstantin to continue.
“Tell him that I, Konstantin Radomirovich Apraksin, the last scion of House Apraksin, would like to form an alliance. And if he agrees, I’ll help him spread rumors across the Federation that the Dolgurukovs had killed me.”
A cold, calculating smile spread across Konstantin’s lips as he gazed into the assassin’s shocked eyes, knowing fully well that he had just raised the stakes of this game.
It wasn’t until much later when Anton finally remarked to Konstantin:
“Your Lordship does realize that you’re gambling with your life by proposing that alliance?”
The young aristocrat merely shrugged. Though a corner of his mind did wonder why he felt perfectly at ease in a political life-or-death scheme, whereas he could not do the same on the battlefield.
“I’ve been gambling with my life for the last four-and-half years. I already know that my days remaining in that estate are numbered. It’s only a matter of time before the Dolgorukovs grow suspicious and decide to eliminate me. But until then, I intend to relocate as much of my family wealth as I can…
“And I’ll do it right under the Dolgorukovs’ collective noses,” Konstantin grinned.
“Your Lordship,” Father Mikhail emphasized Konstantin’s aristocratic style as Anton and the young baron made it back to the wagon wreck. “You’re not ‘Kostadin the merchant’, are you?”
Konstantin hid his nerves beneath a relaxed chuckle.
“By birth? No. Though I’ve become far more comfortable with that name than what ‘Konstantin’ has become,” he shrugged. “My real name has become the topic of jokes and mockery, a spineless lordling who lives in extravagance by wasting the heirloom wealth of his murdered family. Tell me, Father, would you even take me seriously if I announced myself with that name?”
“Probably not,” Mikhail admitted as the surprise in his eyes passed. “Nevertheless, it begs the question: just how much of what Your Lordship has told us is real?”
Konstantin’s humor vanished as his countenance grew austere.
“My speech? Apart from my introduction — all of it.”
The Father and his senior apprentice both looked skeptical. The two younger boys looked more concerned by immediate problems like the shameful aftermath of soiling one’s pants.
“I am an adventurer seeking a raise a mercenary force in the present crisis,” Konstantin declared. “I do intend to promote villagers as officers and give them their fair share of pay and glory. My stated goals are not deception, Father Mikhail,” he stated with a most sincere look. “Do you seriously believe that Luna, who is a friend of the town by birth, would have simply stood there had I blatantly lied to you?”
If there was one positive, well-known reputation about the Samarans, it was that they generally didn’t lie. They might conceal, mislead, or speak in vague. But the Samaran religion, the moral values their ‘reincarnation’ depended upon, forbid speaking untruth under any circumstance.
Father Mikhail’s countenance softened as he gazed upon the young Samaran girl. She stood against the wagon with her waterskin in hand. Her other palm laid on her chest as her nerves struggled to calm, while her innocent eyes blinked against his gaze.
“Did you really mean it?” The priest and carpenter asked next. “What you said about her?”
“She has become an essential person in my life,” Konstantin smiled at Luna even as he repeated his exact words from earlier. “That part is no lie. I apologize if I deliberately mislead people into thinking that we were courting.”
He then paused and expelled a deep sigh.
“At any rate, a noble in my present circumstances has no business establishing a family. I have no wish to bind others to me and my… political uncertainty. At least no more than I already have.”
There wasn’t a single word of falsehood in his statement. His grim expression made it clear that this was a serious concern that worried him.
It, more than anything, convinced Mikhail that Konstantin was not lying.
The priest nodded in response before adding:
“In that case, Your Lordship, I have only one question. Can you promise us that the real target of our mercenary band will be the Eastlings, and not some other Lord within Polisia? You have convinced the village that the invasion concerns us all. But the politics in the capital are of little interest to our lives.”
Konstantin stared back, eye to eye. This was it. This was last final hurdle, one which would make or break his attempt at establishing a new army. If he could attain Mikhail’s support, even with the truth, then Mikhail will surely use his considerable local influence to persuade the nearby villages. It would forge the foundation of trust necessary to establish a battle formation — a true warband who fought because they believed in their leader’s vision, and not just because they were following orders.
“I’ll do better than that,” Konstantin declared in a solemn voice as he drew his sheathed blade again. He stretched out his left arm to pull back the sleeves and expose the underside.
“I swear, in the name of Dievas the Supreme Father and the Stormlord Perun,” He felt a stinging pain as the sharp edge cut into his own flesh. “I will not plunge Polisia into further turmoil while the Eastlings besiege our lands. I will not start a fight against my own neighbors while outsiders seek to ransack us like brigands. I will prove to the Federated Principalities that my family’s honor lies not in internal squabbles, but in besting the usurpers in meeting the challenges of our realm. My personal vendetta is nothing before the needs of our nation.”
Konstantin felt the warm blood drip down his arm. In hindsight, perhaps he shouldn’t have chosen such a method before a Trinitian priest. Nevertheless, if Father Mikhail held any doubts towards the validity of Konstantin’s ‘Heathen blood oath’, the older man did not show it. The priest-carpenter grasped Konstantin on the forearm — his palm in smearing contact with the younger man’s blood — and shook as if they were equals, followers and disciples of the same omnipotent deity.
Well, there is the theory that the Allfather and the Trinitian Holy Father are just two names, two interpretations for the same divine entity, the young lord thought to himself.
Meanwhile, Mikhail pulled his arm back and returned a bow with his head, before his countenance formed a toothy, yet humble grin beneath his bushy mustache.
Five minutes later, the earlier mood had all but vanished when Konstantin screamed out.
“Are you blind, old man!? I asked you to shoot me in the back, not in my butt!”
“Wouldn’t it be more convincing?” Anton grinned as the young lord narrowed his eyes. The druzhina looked like he was enjoying it.
“Besides,” the veteran almost chuckled. “You now have an even better excuse to avoid seeing your steward in the coming days.”
—— * * * ——
It was almost midnight by the time Konstantin made it back to his estate. The Steward Vitomir and two guards had stood by the front door for hours, waiting for their master to return. However, as their lordling’s silhouette approached from the depth of the night, their concerned faces soon bore twitches of annoyance and anger.
“A-assassins,” Konstantin huffed as he limped past Vitomir and revealed the broken shaft still buried in his buttocks. Then, almost as soon as he made it over the safety of the door’s threshold, he collapsed sideways onto the carpeted floor.
“And you escaped?” The pot-bellied steward stood in awe.
“I get what I paid for, and I had bought the best horse money could buy,” Konstantin replied. “I rode until it collapsed and died from its injuries, then I just ran from there.”
Vitomir knelt down to examine the severed arrow. He knew at glance that the wound was obviously not going to kill the young baron, but it had been aggravated from a long trek home. Konstantin clearly didn’t know the right spells for treatment, and removing it haphazardly might dislodge the steel tip inside. That could lead to far more dangerous infections until surgery could remove it.
“And Luna?” Vitomir asked next. The girl with her medical knowledge was a clear candidate for removing the arrow.
“I don’t know!” Konstantin retorted with petulance. “She survived in the wild during the Iskar War didn’t she? I’m sure she’ll be fine! Now help get this thing out of my butt!”
Vitomir’s brows twitched as he stood back up and looked upon his master with the utmost of contempt. He might not like the maid Luna, who repeatedly turned down his requests to spy on her master. But even he could appreciate the maid’s loyalty and devotion. There was nothing more despicable than a gutless noble, who abandoned his followers in a time of crisis and ran away with the tail between his legs. Shot in the posterior while fleeing? As though there were any greater mark of cowardice.
It’s what you get for abandoning those who trusted you, Vitomir was almost tempted to say. But there were limits to how much he could antagonize his lord, even if in name only. The Steward held back at the last moment, and went with a simple remark to the guards instead:
“Help His Lordship to his bed.”
There was no healer in the local village, which meant it fell upon him — the only other person on this estate who can cast healing spells — to extract the broken shaft. He did not relish having to work with a coward’s posterior, but at least he could ensure that the procedure was painful for the young lord.
It would not be until the morning after when Luna returned, with her clothes tattered and her entire body stained by mud. She claimed that she fell off the horse while Konstantin was galloping away. Thankfully, she rolled into a muddy ditch that hid her, and the assassins either did not notice, or were too busy giving chase to bother with a lowly maid.
Vitomir did find the story a bit suspicious, but that soon grew to alarm when he reported it to his true master — Count Nikola Kulczycki, the ‘Prince Elect’ of Boh. The Count informed him that a rumor had began to circulate in the capital. The story claimed that the last heir of House Apraksin was dead, murdered in the woods on the secret orders of the Grand Prince.
For the next few weeks, Vitomir would try to entice Konstantin into journeying to the city and making a public appearance. But the spooked and injured young baron wouldn’t even leave his room, let alone the estate. Even as the town cheered while fresh regiments marched off to war, the spineless lordling would complain about lingering pains in his posterior and refused to participate.
—— * * * ——
Meanwhile, three days after the assassination attempt, in the far northern Principality of Dwina…
“What did you say? An alliance?”
The tall, lanky man with a thin face leaned forward as his deep-blue eyes widened. His elbows propped themselves atop his orderly desk as his surprise soon dissipated into deep thought.
His name was Prince Kirill Vladimirovich Sheremetev-Naryshkin of Dwina. And despite celebrating his centennial birthday just two months prior, he looked barely past his adult prime thanks to the mage’s long youth.
“Yes, Your Serenity,” the spymaster reported, a thinner but also shorter man with prematurely graying hair. “Three of the four assassins we hired were killed in the attempt. But the one who survived returned to pass this… unusual offer.”
“Unusual doesn’t begin to describe it,” the Prince raised his eyebrows. “The young Apraksin hadn’t shown any interest in politics all these years. Why now? And why with us, when we were hardly one of his father’s allies and just tried to murder him?”
Refusing to take nonsense for an answer, Kirill clasped his hands and crossed his fingers as a hundred thoughts ran behind his deeply-wrinkled head. His analysis ran the full circle of possibilities, before returning to a less likely scenario that he had discarded at first.
The more he thought about it, the more it made sense. His golden-blond eyebrows soon vanished into his bangs before his thin lips curled into a smirk.
“Unless he has been playing us all along.” The Prince released an incredulous chuckle. “The entire political body of the Federated Principalities, hoodwinked by a mere boy!” He shook his head again, his eyes in disbelief but his voice filled with praise.
“Relay word to him that I agree,” Kirill readily declared as he leaned back into his chair. Just like his writing desk and the many bookshelves in the room, it was oaken and simple of construction, far too frugal by the standards of his rank.
“Father,” a younger voice spoke out from within the library room. It came from a tall, handsome young man who looked to be in his early twenties. He had the same golden hair and deep-blue gaze as his senior, but was also of stockier build beneath the chain mail and segmented cuirass that covered his torso.
“Is that wise?” The younger man asked.
“What have I taught you about the ‘Rule of Three’ in politics, Borya?” Kirill’s eyes turned to his son. The dashing young man was a natural with both the horse and sword, but had a long way to go before understanding the intricacies of the court.
“Befriend the weaker, oppose the stronger,” Boris — Borya was its diminutive — replied at an instant.
“Exactly,” Kirill nodded. “The Imperial faction has been greatly weakened, but they are far from dead. They seek a leader, a real leader — not that thoughtless half-wit Shuvalov — to resurrect their political power. However, after the Streltsy Revolt diminished their ranks and stripped them of their best captains, they are no longer our biggest rival or even a peer competitor. Instead, their vendetta against the Dolgorukovs and the Populists makes them our greatest ally.”
“An ally of convenience, and a weak one at that,” the son answered.
“There are no permanent enemies. There are no permanent allies,” Prince Kirill stressed. “There are only permanent interests, and for the moment we share the same goals.
“Besides,” he added as his son nodded to absorb the new lesson. “Don’t underestimate this boy. If he can already endure humiliation while bidding his patience for over seven years, then he might truly become a visionary to be feared. Perhaps in the future, we might contemplate hiring better assassins to try again. But for the moment, we need every ally we can gain to break the Grand Prince’s stranglehold in Ilmen.”
“Yes, Father,” the young Boris answered. “I will see to it that the Grand Prince’s campaign shall go anything but smoothly.”
Kirill nodded approvingly, before giving his departing son one last line of advice:
“Remember, Borya: win, but do not win easily. Force the Grand Prince to bleed his supporters first, then ride in and claim the field as your victory.”
- Stormlord Perun: Perun is the highest diety of Slavic mythology, god of the sky, thunder, and lightning, among other things. He is closely associated with the Baltic high god Perkunas and the Norse god Thor, a good example of how the various Pagan religions shared ideas and exchanged religious beliefs.
- Dievas: Dievas is the high god of Baltic mythology, god of the sky and creator of the universe. He is closely associated with the Slavic primordial/supreme god Rod and plays a similar role to the Germanic/Norse god Odin.
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