Several hours later, after Mensa and the Zar Selentis left to return to the capital, Stefan sat at the table in his pavilion. Two candles in glass holders occupied the table’s center, their perfumed scent overriding the odor of sweaty men. Illuminated by flickering light, the map before him displayed his forces. He removed the pins representing the Alzari Matii. By now, they were well on their way back to Benez under Mensa’s command. Men were going to die because of the King’s order. A great many. In the days to come, the first to perish would mainly be Astocans. Some might say their deaths weren’t much of a loss. Eventually, his own men would number among the dead. A sense of helplessness crowded over him, and he sighed. Yet, he harbored no regrets for his announcement. Somehow, some way, he needed to stay true to his word.
“So what now?” Kasimir asked.
“We do as we have always done … save as many of the enemy as we can,” Stefan said.
Garrick grumbled a protest under his breath.
“I know how you feel about them, Garrick.” Stefan recalled the sight of Garrick’s mangled body and face after his torture by the Astocans. “But this was the one thing King Nerian, myself, and the High Council agreed upon: We would be different from other conquerors and choose to save most of those we defeated, give their people choices. This way, the common folk won’t think of us as tyrants—a lesson history taught us.”
“Use force as necessary for victory and compassion when the battle is won,” Kasimir said. A quote from Henden’s The Disciplines of Soldiering.
“I understand.” Garrick let out a resigned breath. “I still don’t like it.”
“What I don’t get,” Kasimir shifted in his seat and peered at the map, “is why the King ordered us to kill them all and now has withdrawn our Alzari menders.”
Stefan nodded. “Yes, I wondered the same myself. I can’t remember Nerian changing plans without conferring with me in person. So why now? I swear … I feel as if something is amiss back home. I don’t trust Mensa. Any man who is so quick to do anything without questioning motives often has his own plans.”
“You think he had a hand in this?” Garrick scowled.
“Not likely,” Stefan said. “The man barely knows the ass end of a horse. Someone else may be using him, or he’s smarter than any of us suspects. Anyway, unless I speak to Nerian himself, I’m not changing how we do things. We’ll mend as many Astocans as we can.”
“How are you going to accomplish that without our Alzari?” Kasimir leaned back in his chair, armor creaking as he did so.