Walker came down the steps to find Herbert and Hugh discussing hunting. Walker stood on the last step as they turned to face him.
“I suppose you know why you’re here?” asked Walker.
“I have a sneaking suspicion,” said Herbert, “And I decline.”
“If you decline, I’ll have your army marching non-stop to the edge of the world and back until you accept.”
“Then I better get started now,” Herbert said, not moving.
“You knew how this was going to play out,” said Walker. “Everyone knew. Even those who cast their vote for you knew.” He walked up to Herbert and stood beside him. “Don’t act like this isn’t an enormous honor. You’ll be the most decorated Vice Marshal in the city’s history.”
“I don’t want your handouts,” Herbert said.
“I know,” Walker said. “You want to earn it.” Walker put his hand on Herbert’s shoulder. “You did earn it. You were a legend in the cavalry, you rose through the officer ranks faster than anyone in recent memory, you’ve won battle after battle, you’ve been paraded through the streets to the adoring cheers of the populace… there’s nothing left for you to accomplish. Just acknowledge that of everyone in the city, you’re the best man for the job.”
“That isn’t for me to decide,” said Herbert.
“No,” Walker said. “You’re most certainly right. It isn’t for you to decide. By right of the vote, it’s for me to decide. And I have decided you will be my Vice Marshal.”
“I will not open myself up to gossip of nepotism.”
“What gossip?” asked Walker. “The only scandal would be if someone other than you were to oversee the city’s armies.”
Herbert had been looking forward this whole time, and now turned his hand to face Walker.
“Tell me I can count on you,” said Walker.
Herbert lowered his head.
“Excellent,” Walker said. “Obviously, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the naval Admirals.”
Herbert stood looking forward.
“I meant go ahead and do that now,” said Walker. “You’re dismissed, or whatever it is officers say.”
Herbert turned to Walker, gave a little bow, and left.
“He’s wound up tighter than a rope, that one,” Walker said once he was outside, moving to sit down across from Hugh. “Well, I’m going to oversee the move from here on out. Hold onto that insignia. It signifies that you are my guest in the city. Which reminds me, anything you do, I will be held accountable for. Just keep a low profile, help me out a little, and I’ll return the favor. I’ll get you silver or gold citizenship before you know it.”
“I wasn’t planning on staying for very long,” Hugh said.
“Sure you are,” said Walker. “We need to get you a sea burial, right?”
“Actually, we talked to Henry, and we figured out a much simpler solution.”
“Hank,” said Hugh.
“Ooooh, Hank. You worked it out with Hank?”
“Well… Hank is on the level. He knows the golden rule.”
“What’s the golden rule?” asked Hugh.
“Find a way to do it cheaper,” said Walker.
“Oh, the solution is cheap. We just need a boat. We don’t want to wait for a moonless night.”
“Yeah, I figured me and the twins would go out as well, to pay our final respects.”
Walker stared at him. “No,” he said. “I can’t let you do that.”
“I won’t let you throw your life away,” said Walker.
“I just want to see him off,” said Hugh.
Walker shook his head. “I respect if that is how things are done where you are from,” said Walker, “But here, we do not allow people to throw themselves on the funeral pyre.”
“Oh,” Hugh said. “We’re just taking a boat out into the water to dump his body overboard.”
Walker went from looking intense to looking like he just smelled a fart. “Okay…”
“The twins want to stick around to watch the next sea burial, and then we figured we would get out of your hair and go back home.”
Walker began tapping his finger on his knee. “I see.”
The first of the movers began slowly trudging into the room and up the stairs with furniture.
“What do you want out of life?” Walker asked.
“I never expected life to give me anything,” said Hugh.
“Well,” said Walker. “I guess what I’m asking is… what can your home provide that I cannot?”
Hugh smiled. “Maybe I should be asking you what you want out of me, though I already have my suspicions. If you want to know what my home can provide me, it’s the peace of knowing that I can let my guard down not having to worry about people using me for their own devices.”
“I apologize,” said Walker. “I imagine someone of your size has people underestimating your intelligence quite a lot.”
“What is it about people that they think being big and strong means I have to be weak-minded?”
“Stories, I imagine,” Walker said, “Probably also some element of wishful thinking. No one wants to believe that someone else has it all.”
“Well, I don’t have any depth perception,” said Hugh.
Walker laughed and patted Hugh on the knee. “What I love about you, Hugh, isn’t how strong you are, or how smart you are. I love your honesty. It’s disarmingly refreshing for a man like me. I must hear a dozen people tell me a dozen lies each before I’ve even had breakfast.”
“Why do you surround yourself with liars?” asked Hugh.
“If honest people could get things done, I wouldn’t. As it stands, they’re my liars, and like all liars, they are ruthless. They get things done, and it is that which I respect above all else, even honesty.”
Hugh looked at Walker for a few seconds quietly. “Tell me what you want me to get done for you. The sooner I know, the sooner you can get it and the sooner I can leave.”
“Well, then I am quite embarrassed,” said Walker, “Because I don’t even know. Someone like you doesn’t just walk into the city every day. I’ve never spent much time wondering, ‘What would I do if I had an incredibly strong and talented individual under my employ?’”
“If you have no use for me, why all the hospitality?”
“No, no, no. It’s not that I have no use for you, it’s that I have so many ideas floating around in my head, I don’t know what to do first. And then you just told me upstairs that you are already trained in smithing, and I’ve had all of a few minutes to ponder it over.” Walker stood up and went to the door. He spoke with the guards a bit and came back over to Hugh.
“How would you feel about fighting in the arena?”
“No,” said Hugh. “I don’t kill for pleasure.”
Walker nodded. “I respect that. It’s beneath you, to be honest. But what if I told you there was no risk, and that your performance would be a jumping off point for your service to me?”
“I need to know what sort of service you would ask of me if you want me to participate in blood sports.”
“This city may be going to war soon,” said Walker, “And I think you could make all the difference.”
“I’m not a gladiator, and I’m certainly no mercenary.”
“But that’s just it,” said Walker. “I don’t want to turn you into a solder, I want you to be a general. If you can demonstrate your physical prowess, I can justify giving you an equipment position in the military guard for the city. You’re job wouldn’t be the fight, it would be to work with the city’s guilds to produce the weapons and armor we need for our coming conflict.”
“I don’t understand why I need to kill someone to the roar of a crowd in order to produce arms and armor.”
“My brother informs me that our military is woefully ill-equipped. But here’s the thing… this city has used the axe in warfare since as far back as we have written records. I have been assured that if we march into battle using our current methods, we will be slaughtered. I need you to forge the new style of weaponry we should be using, and by using it with great success in the arena, you can popularize it.” Walker put his hand on Hugh’s shoulder. “I want to make you a legend so that people will do whatever you say. I will have poets singing your praises in the streets.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” said Hugh.
“It will be a Zombie Match,” said Walker.
“I’ll be fighting zombies?” asked Hugh.
Walker looked at him funny. “No… obviously not, there’s no such thing as zombies.”
“A Zombie Match is basically a form of execution. We have twenty prisoners, one prisoner is released into the arena, the gladiator dispatches of him, then the next prisoner is released, and it repeats until all twenty prisoners have been killed.”
“What weapons do the prisoners have?” asked Hugh.
“None, of course,” said Walker. “The point isn’t for there to be a fight. The prisoners are often starved and barely able to walk, often wandering around the arena until the gladiator engages them.”
Hugh shook his head. “This sounds horrible.”
“They’re murderers, Hugh. Child rapists. One of the guys kidnapped young women, kept them in a pit in his basement, and when the women begged for something to drink, he would pour a large pot of boiling water on them. Over a dozen girls died in that pit amongst the bones and rotting flesh of his previous victims. None of the men to be killed deserve to live, they deserve a worse fate than the quick death you can give them.”
Hugh shook his head again, though slower this time.
“Hugh, it’s not about the killings.”
“Then why do I have to do it?”
“Okay… it is about the killings,” Walker said, looking clearly strained. “Hugh, the people of this city are stupid. I think you might be smarter than I am, and I can barely stand how ignorant these knuckle-draggers are. I have to act dumb in public just to get them to like me. It’s degrading, and I think it’s having an effect on me, like acting the fool is slowly turning me into one.”
Walker stood up, stepped in front of Hugh, and knelt down. He looked up into Hugh’s eye. “If you don’t help me, I really and truly believe this city won’t be standing by this time next year. All these people around us, as dumb as they are, don’t deserve a slow death through starvation as they are violently sieged for months. The great works of art, the brilliant minds who created them, and all of this commerce which benefits the entire region… it could all be gone in a year if we cannot repel the coming invasion.”
“I was warned from a young age,” said Hugh, “That people would want to use me to cheat the Fates. I was warned not to intervene, to walk through life as an observer, not a tinkerer.”
“Fuck the Fates,” said Walker. “The Fates kill children, loving spouses, great men and women before their time… fate has no reason behind it. The Fates are random, and the world is too important to be left to chance.”
Hugh sat there, not moving.
“I know you’re a good person,” Walker said. “Are you honestly telling me that when you see people in need, you just leave them to the mercy of the Fates?”
Hugh closed his eye and rubbed his forehead. He looked down to see Walker smile with one corner of his mouth.
“What do I need to do first?” asked Hugh.
To be continued…