Faustinus woke to find someone bathing his forehead with a perfumed handkerchief. This was hardly the first time that had happened, so at first he wasn’t quite sure where he was. He opened his eyes slowly and saw a slim blonde girl holding the cloth and smiling down at him. Her name was…was…was Brigit. Yes, that was it. Rawdonian by birth. And he’d met her in Vinopolis on leave.
That brought a host of other memories flooding back, just about the time the wind shifted, bringing the scent of an open forge wafting into the tent. It was a strong, assertive smell, like red-hot steel and charcoal. And there was something else there, too, like charred meat.
“You’re in the army camp,” said the lovely Brigit. “The battle is over.”
“Oh? And how did it go?” Faustinus rubbed his forehead and sat up slowly. Through the far side of the tent, he could see a strange glow, like the sun was setting, even though it couldn’t have been later than midday.
“We’ve won!” she cried. “Or rather, you’ve won. You did it all! Paradelphia has fallen.”
He remembered going up to the top of Krinos Hill with the army commanders just after dawn. He remembered blowing down the gates. But from there…he had only a vague sense of having started the spell chain. Presumably it had made him pass out. He’d warned everyone that it might. That had been a good idea, in retrospect.
“I suppose everyone else is in the city now,” he said.
She coughed slightly. “Well, yes…insofar as they can be, of course.”
There was something in the way she said it that made him want to go take a look for himself. She tried to help him, fussing over him and trying to get him to wear a cloak. But he gently pushed past her and out of the tent.
“Shall I draw you a bath?” she called after him.
“Sure, why not?” he said, his voice faltering as he turned to the north.
An orange light hung in the air, stretching from horizon to horizon, filling a quarter of the sky with a weird glowing fog. The rest of the sky, to the west, south, and east, was completely normal—light blue with a handful of wispy clouds.
The orange glow seemed to be reflecting off the earth, too. As if there were a lake on top of the low ridgeline. Which made no sense, obviously. Faustinus could see little jagged, blackened shapes here and there, silhouetted against the sky or the water. And he could see people walking back and forth—some of them marching in tight ranks, others staggering almost blindly.
At first his mind almost wouldn’t allow him to recognize what he was seeing. It was simply impossible. But then he turned slowly several times, looking at the shape of the surrounding hills, making out landmarks. And he had to admit the obvious. He was looking at Paradelphia—Chrysi Poli, the golden city. Or at least what was left of it.
The soaring, gilded temples were gone. The famous Agora was gone. The Acropolis was…well, there was something that looked like a low rocky hill, scorched black and wiped clean of any sign of human habitation. That might have been the Acropolis, now that he looked at it.
From off to his left, a group of horsemen approached. The fellow in the lead was a Signifer, but instead of carrying the red banner of a legion, he carried a purple and white banner with a gold laurel. And right behind him came a small, hawk-faced man in gilded armor. Megadux Cesseron. The youngest man to hold that rank since Horatius himself.
“Count Faustinus,” said the Megadux, giving a half-bow from the saddle. “Good to see you up and about.”
“Thank you, your excellency,” said Faustinus. He was only a count because of his temporary military posting, but the niceties had to be observed. “Have you been to inspect the…city?”
“Yes!” Cesseron beamed. “I don’t know how you did it, my dear fellow, but it’s everything I could have asked for. To do all that with one spell….” He turned and looked at his staff officers, who had just caught up to him. “It’s completely astonishing. Truly, you are worth whatever the emperor pays you.”
Faustinus opened his mouth to tell them it hadn’t actually been a single spell. He could have explained the careful way he had planted spells across the city, day after day, so that they all came down at once, like a house of cards, with a single triggering spell cast from the gatehouse. It was a really clever bit of magy, if he said so himself, but he was pretty sure Cesseron and the other officers would have no idea what he was talking about. And in any case, even if it hadn’t been a single spell, he had still done more magy at once than any single person had done since the death of Kuhlbert two and a half centuries ago. If his skills and power were slightly exaggerated when people remembered this day, then, well…that was just a burden he would have to bear.
He bowed and smiled. “I do my best to serve, your excellency.”
“You really do,” laughed Cesseron. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to go clean up a bit. But maybe you can come to my tent for supper, and we’ll drink to our victory.”
“I would be delighted,” Faustinus said. He didn’t particularly mind the first person plural. Cesseron could go around telling people it had been “our” victory if he liked. That was how you knew you’d done something really special and impressive—when powerful people like Cesseron started wanting to share the credit.
When the Megadux and his staff officers were gone, Faustinus wandered down the hill and across the little bridge toward the ruin of Paradelphia. Down near the stream, he passed a group of people in singed Thessalian togas, with their faces and hands scorched and bleeding. A prefectus medicus was there with his assistants, trying to care for them. When the prefect asked them questions, though, the people just stared straight ahead. Faustinus considered going over to help, but he honestly didn’t know if he could manage even the tiniest medical spell at the moment without passing out again, so he left them to the army doctors and continued up the ridge.
Parts of the city walls were still intact. He could see the places where his spells had ripped the stonework apart, though. Those were supposed to have been breaches for the army to enter, but it seemed that hadn’t been necessary. Soldiers stood there now, on guard, but they weren’t really guarding anything.
He reached the gatehouse, where he’d released the spell, and found the city gates lying bent and crumpled on the ground. The Paradelphians had been justifiably proud of those gates, cast in solid brass. Now they looked half-molten. And indeed, there were still parts that glowed slightly, as if they had only just come from a furnace.
Beyond the gate, he found himself in what had once been the Agora. The orangish glow seemed to float in the air here, like smoke or mist. The air tasted like copper. All around him, the buildings were smashed to bits. Scorched remnants of columns and statuary lay half-buried now. More than half-buried, in fact. They looked like the remnants of a long-forgotten civilization, like the city had fallen a century ago, and not just this morning.
The oddest thing, however, was the ground itself. When Faustinus stepped forward, it crackled and tinkled, like he was stepping on thin ice. He bent down and picked up a sliver of greenish glass. And he realized that was what he had seen from the army camp. He had seen the light reflecting off glass and had thought it was a lake.
He tossed the glass shard back to the ground, but nearby, he saw some legionnaires, no longer on duty, who were picking up bits and putting them in their packs, carefully wrapped in handkerchiefs or socks. He wondered if they were going to try to make jewelry of it or just take it home as a keepsake. Perhaps he should get a piece and turn it into something pretty for Brigit. Or perhaps not. When he looked again at the glass nearest to him, he saw something trapped in it, and he was pretty sure it was a fingerbone.
From the Agora he tried to walk a circuit around the city. He had known Paradelphia well at one time, but in many places it was hard to determine where the streets had been. Somewhere east of the Acropolis had been the Odos Apothikon, the street of apothecaries. He’d spent a couple very happy weeks with a girl there once, more than a century ago. Her name had been Koralia, and she had been an apprentice at one of the more famous shops. She had told him she had no interest in long-term romance or having a family. But later, he heard that she had married the shopkeeper.
It struck him with sudden and violent force that he had probably just killed her descendants, and he felt nauseated with himself.
That feeling persisted even after he’d walked over the ridge and found that there were parts of the city that were not completely destroyed—little suburbs and outlying villages that now appeared to be filling up with refugees. The more intact houses had attracted the attention of Cesseron’s men, particularly the Cruedruan mercenaries. Normally the looting and pillaging after a battle was one of the worst parts of war. Now, in an odd sort of way, Faustinus found it comforting just to see signs of life.
He left the city through the western gate, which somehow stood completely untouched, and had been braced open with an abandoned fruit seller’s cart. Then he took the long way back to the camp, where Brigit met him at the tent flap with a bottle of wine and a cup.
“Need a drink?” she asked.
“Yes,” he replied, taking the bottle.
That evening, when the sun was low in the sky and the unearthly orange glow had started to fade over the devastated city, Faustinus went to Cesseron’s tent, where all the highest-ranking officers toasted themselves and their brilliant victory.
“Gentlemen,” said the megadux, “I give you the united province of Thessalia. Ours at last.”
After the cheering died down, one of the legates—a very well-connected fellow with plans for a political career—asked, “So is the war over now?”
“Perhaps,” said Cesseron, turning to look at Faustinus with a raised eyebrow. “This is the end of this war, yes. But there will always be other wars, sooner or later.”
No one asked for clarification; they were too full of themselves and their immediate achievements to worry much about the future. But later on, when all the other officers had stumbled back to their tents drunk, Cesseron opened an amphora of ruinously expensive wine and invited Faustinus to join him for a quiet drink alone.
“You realize that if you can do this here, you can do it anywhere,” said Cesseron, handing Faustinus a gilded, jewel-encrusted cup.
“Where did you have in mind, exactly?”
“Anywhere.” Cesseron leaned back in his camp stool and grinned. “I’ve got the whole Middle Sea fleet under my command. I’ve got twenty legions. And I’ve got you, my friend. Just think of where we could go.”
“I suspect most of the men think they’re going home now.”
“Yes, because they don’t see the possibilities. We could cross the sea and go to Solopolis, Kambaki, and Koit. Or we could go to east to Merenopolis and Lebenstadt.”
“I suppose so.” Faustinus sipped his wine. It really was very good.
“We could go even farther than that,” the megadux went on. “Suppose we just kept going, like Diokles I in the days of the Thessalian Empire. Suppose we brought all the Trahernian lands into the family of the empire: Odeland, Krigadam, Annenstruk, Rawdon. Even Myrcia.”
“Myrcia and Rawdon are allies of ours,” said Faustinus softly.
“Yes, well, a lot of these little Thessalian city-states were our allies at one time or another. I daresay that’s one of the reasons it’s taken us so long to conquer this place. The trouble with allies is you can’t just tell them what to do.”
Faustinus set down his wine cup with a little more force than necessary. “You do know that I helped found Myrcia, don’t you?”
“Of course. I’ve read all about you, my lord. The fact that you’re so well known there would be incredibly valuable. People would flock to your side when we marched in. What do you think?”
“I think you haven’t met very many Myrcians.”
“No, I mean what do you think of my idea? We have momentum now. The whole world could come over to our side, once they find out what happened here today. So what do you think?”
“I think….” Faustinus gulped down the last of his wine and stood. “I think that I was seconded to your army for the duration of hostilities, and this morning I finished the war. I do hope you’ll excuse me, your excellency, but I simply must get back to the Imperial Palace so I can make my report to the Chief Sorcerer. And to his imperial majesty, as well, of course.” He bowed. “It has been a pleasure serving with you. I trust I will see you in the capital. Soon.”
Cesseron might have said something after that, but Faustinus didn’t hear what it was. And he didn’t particularly care.