Hugh and Theora went home while Grandmama stalked the battlefield for more bodies. The next morning, Hugh loaded what few things he had into the cart, met up with the twins, then Zeke showed up. Finally, Theoson arrived, escorted by a guard.
Zeke smiled and waved the guard away. “Come now, Theoson. You of all people must be used to the process of being exiled.”
“I’ve never been exiled,” said Theoson. “I sentenced those fools to stay in their wretched cities.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Zeke. They headed out of town.
On the way out, a young boy came up to Hugh. “My brother told me you have something for me,” said the boy.
“Here.” Hugh handed him his coin purse. The boy looked inside, and it was filled not only with coins, but expensive looking baubles from Walker’s estate.
“When I get back, find me again and I’ll make sure you have a place to live,” said Hugh.
The group continued to make their way out of town.
“What was that about?” asked Zeke.
“I owed him,” said Hugh.
Their first night, they slept at a roadside inn in the middle of several farms. It had a sign out front, announcing it was the only lodging in either direction for hours, so they decided to stop, even though the sun was still up.
While the others slept inside on beds, Hugh slept outside with the horse and cart, partly to keep them safe, but mostly because the inn had no bed big enough. They spread out some hay and covered it with a blanket for him, and he slept well on the makeshift accommodations. The next morning, they ate stew from the night before and hit the road again.
It continued like this for two more nights, and midway through the fourth day, they reached a bridge signifying the beginning of Austerian land. Before long, they were confronted by a group of soldiers.
“What’s your business?” asked one of the soldiers.
“We come as envoys from Polity on behalf of the Chancellor,” said Zeke.
The soldier spit. “They just keep making ’em smaller and smaller in Polity, huh?”
“We’d like an audience with the General,” said Zeke.
“I’m sure we can get you before him in a… little while.”
“Yeah, after only a tiny, wee bit of a wait,” said another soldier. No one laughed, but the soldiers were all smiling.
“The sooner the better. I hope you don’t think I’m being short with you,” said Zeke.
The soldiers chuckled. “Come on, we’ll take you.”
The soldiers escorted them down the road, through a valley with sheer cliff walls that reached so high, the valley was in almost total darkness by the early afternoon. They entered the city by lantern light, though the sky was still blue. They wound their way through the streets, past many single-story stone homes, and they entered a large building.
Inside, two men were wrestling, one much older than the other. They grappled for a while, and the older performed an armlock that caused the younger to yield. The younger wrestler stretched his arm a bit before squaring off to begin again.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the soldier in charge of the unit escorting Hugh’s group. “You have visitors from Polity.”
“Polity… are they still a city?” The older wrestler went to the corner, picked up a towel, and wiped himself off. He stood before them, nude. “I had word from soldiers that smoke rose from your city.”
“Maybe from the celebration,” said Zeke.
The man threw the towel to the ground. “What can I do for you?” he asked, looking at each of them in turn.
Zeke stepped forward. “Leocrates?”
“Yes, that’s me, now tell me what you want so I can send you on your way.”
Zeke looked back at everyone, then to Leocrates, especially everything above his waist.
“As you may well be aware, the conflict with the Otros has spilled–”
“Spare me the theatrics,” said Leocrates. “If I wanted a story, I would beat it out of the slave who tutors my children. Now, I’ll ask you again only one more time: what do you want?”
“Troops,” said Zeke. “We want troops.”
Leocreates sniffed, put his hand up to his nose, and looked at the blood on his fingertip. “Okay, why should Austerians fight and die for Polity?”
“Our cause is your cause,” said Zeke.
Leocrates smirked. “And what cause is that?”
“Stability,” said Zeke.
“My city thrives on chaos,” said Leocrates. “That’s why Austeria has always thrived, because there is no shortage of chaos. We drag metal up from deep beneath fathoms of rock so that men can turn them into weapons and kill each other. War has been good for us.”
“You won’t be selling much metal ore if your customers are slaughtered by the Otros,” said Zeke.
“Let me tell you something,” Leocrates said, kneeling down to Zeke’s eye level. “There has never been a shortage of men who wanted to make weapons. Polity will come and go, but the desire to kill is eternal.”
“Do you really think all the metal you produce goes to make weapons?” asked Zeke, walking out into the wrestling arena. “What are you going to have for dinner tonight?”
“The same thing every Austerian eats every night,” said Leocrates.
“Lentil stew,” said Zeke, nodding. “And I suppose you just heat it over the fire in your hand?”
“What’s your point, that Polity is going to buy a bunch of soup pots if we risk our lives for them?”
“My point is this,” Zeke began. “I know you pride yourselves on being independent… but I’ve seen independent people, and you are every bit as dependent as a newborn baby.”
Leocrates walked over to Zeke and kicked one of his legs out from under him, sending him sprawling to the ground. The dwarf ran forward and Leocrates struck him quickly in the jaw, and he crumpled to the ground.
“Stop,” said Zeke, standing up. “Let’s not become violent.” He brushed himself off.
“Tell me again how dependent we are,” said Leocrates.
“Lie to yourself if you wish, but you would starve without the chattel working your lands and mining your ore. You know who is independent? It’s not soldiers, it’s farmers. Soldiers depend on farmers–”
“Soldiers depend on farmers?” asked Leocrates. “If the farmers didn’t give their food to the soldiers, it is not the soldiers who would go hungry. No, the soldiers would just live off of the farmers themselves.”
“Even so, assuming your barbaric scenario isn’t just over-inflated rhetoric, you rely on the farmers for sustenance, either in the grain they provide or the meat off their very bones. Without the services of others, you are nothing but killing machines with nothing to kill.”
They all stood in silence for a time, during which the dwarf woke up and was helped to his feet by the giant.
“We’re probably all tired here, maybe we should discuss it in the morning,” said Zeke.
Leocrates grunted. “I think we’re done. You can go home with what you brought. That’s more than you deserve.”
“No,” said Theoson.
“No?” Leocrates repeated. He walked up to Theoson, getting very close to him.
“You don’t scare me,” said Theoson, smiling.
“And what Politian citizen is this who thinks it best to risk death over a few words?”
“I’m not Politian citizen,” said Theoson.
“Where are you a citizen, then?”
“I’m a citizen of the world,” said Theoson.
“Well, you’re in Austeria, and we don’t recognize world citizenship here. You’d better be careful, because you belong to the first person who claims you.”
“If I am to be someone’s slave, be sure that they are able to follow orders.”
Leocrates smiled. “Theoson? Is that you?”
Theoson smiled back, and the two hugged.
“My wrestling coach at the Triumphant. You’ve aged horribly.”
“Living on the street can be harsh,” Theoson replied.
“Well… let me get cleaned up and we can eat.” Leocrates rubbed himself down with a sponge then donned a long gray cloak. He led them out of the gym to his home, where they crowded around a firepit outside. Leocrates and Theoson shared stories of Triumphants past, various wrestling and boxing matches, as well as stories of friends and what became of them.
Finally, a break in conversation presented itself and Zeke decided to try again.
“Now, about those soldiers…”
“Give it a rest,” said Leocrates.
Zeke motioned towards Hugh, and Hugh pulled out the sword he was to present as a gift. It looked almost as good now as when it was originally presented to him on the top of the volcano. Leocrates turned it over in his hand, testing its weight and balance.
“Okay, it’s a nice sword, but that’s only good enough for one soldier.”
“We want five hundred,” said Zeke.
“Then bring me four hundred and ninety-nine more swords like this,” he replied.
“Only five other weapons like that exist in the world,” said Zeke.
“Six is not much of an army.”
“How much in silver and gold?” asked Zeke.
Leocrates stared into the fire. “I’ve never seen the value in precious metals. You can’t make weapons to defend your family with gold. You can’t build a home or feed your family with silver.”
“You can buy all of those things with them,” replied Zeke.
“But why? Who is collecting all of this gold, and what are they using it for?”
“I don’t know, to be honest,” said Zeke. “I just keep giving people silver and gold, and I keep getting the things I want.”
“My men cannot be bought with silver and gold,” said Leocrates. “If what you say is true, that the Otros want to wipe out Polity, they won’t stop until they succeed. I want something more real, more tangible, something I can use even if Polity disappears in a few years.”
“Slaves?” asked Zeke.
“That’s a start,” he replied. “But we only have need for a few hundred, maybe five, or six, but that is hardly worth five hundred soldiers.”
“Tell me what you need, and I will get it for you,” said Zeke. Hugh could have sworn he saw Zeke wince immediately after saying that.
Leocrates just stared into the fire. After several minutes of silence, he stood up and went inside his house. Zeke followed him with his eyes the whole way, and once he was gone, he banged his fist into his forehead.
Theoson stirred the fire a bit, causing a log to fall and release a burst of cinders. He then turned to Zeke. “So… is this your first time negotiating?”
To be continued…