Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for mature content.
Author's Notes: 2,872 words. Someone likes his monologues.
Karikoff, it was agreed by most who had met him, was a man who felt that laughter contributed to any conversation. Fortunately, he had the flowing and graceful voice to pull it off.
“My dear!” he said, embracing the young and strong lady standing in front of the green tent. It had taken her some time to shed her black suit of armor, stash it within her personal tent, and then evade guards and slip away until she arrived at the Eimhin camp, but his personality made the journey worth it. “The light of the moons complements you well!” He held the black-haired lady at arm’s length as she beamed in response. She was dressed in a tan shirt with a green sash and slim, smooth pants. The quiver at her back was empty of arrows, but her sharp gaze made up for any loss of intensity. Wearing flimsy sandals, her steps were far quieter than those of Karikoff’s heavy boots as they, observed by several armor-wearing soldiers donning the brown and orange cloth of Eimhin (complete with the nation’s symbol), walked away from his imposing tent.
“As it will our impending victory,” she said as they held each other’s hand. “It would be marvelous to see our King’s chosen heir poised atop that tiny land with the ego to think it can rule us.”
Jaunty, the long red hair of Karikoff spilled out from the helmet that covered his head and part of his face, rustling and shining in the moonlight cast from the brightest moon, which was now beginning to rise from the west. “Oh, but don’t forget how our allies wouldn’t be content with any of that false King’s better relatives. They secretly all want to stand on the bones of that ruined city.”
She laughed in a way that was far more grating and rough than Karikoff. Guards looked at their antics and eager expressions with an air of interest, having little else to do beyond observing the second moon make itself visible from behind the first (only a delightful sight the first dozen times). “They and what army? Maybe our King should make himself the successor, just to see how angry they’ll become.”
Jutting out his chin just a little more than it already was, Karikoff’s chiseled, strong-looking face displayed a sense of pride, lip curling upward in an expression of contempt. “Catharnach knows best how to unify a country, unlike them. I know that we haven’t a single traitor or turncoat among us, while you are a beautiful demonstration of Kasimir’s failure to rule.”
“He’s a man who wants a court of the faithful, but all he runs now is one of liars,” she said, shrugging.
They were interrupted mid-step, betwixt rows of compressed tents, by two men drawing out their spears. “What is your purpose?” One of them demanded from beneath a tall and pointed helmet. “Why’ve you come to wake up the soldiers?” Indeed, several men and women, looking sleepy and frustrated, poked their heads out and shot nasty glares towards the loud and boisterous couple.
In response, Karikoff, dressed in his full suit of gleaming armor, bowed gracefully. Both soldiers, faces turning pale as they recognized they general, took a step back while he regarded them with a smile. “My messenger has come to deliver some news to Belisarius,” said the man in the strongest voice he could muster. “You need not worry – she and the message mean well.”
The other man moved his spear closer to Karikoff. “We can’t trust anybody these days, especially that girl.” However, the first soldier placed a hand on his companion’s shoulder and whispered something into his ear. Karikoff balled up his hands and hummed, never once breaking his smile. The lady to his left raised an eyebrow, ears twitching slightly as she tried to listen in. Fortunately, the moon helped hide a strong blush on her cheeks as the soldiers shot furtive glances to the both of them, mentioning “lovers” and laughing to each other. Infuriated, she stormed past the guards as they bowed with respect, retracted their spears, and allowed the duo to pass. The others stared for a few seconds longer before many retreated back into their tents, the rest listening contentedly to Karikoff’s humming.
After a minute, the general said quietly to the lady, “I wish I had brought some of my men. This night worries me.”
Flustered by this offhand remark, she quickly responded, “If even all the soldiers cannot, I will keep you safe.”
“He might be spreading rumors about me. It might be best to worry about my men. Have your excursions been getting tougher?” The general had stopped humming and now frowned, making him look pitiful. It pulled at the heartstrings of the spy, though she didn’t like to admit it.
“The Mad King isn’t crazy,” she admitted, rubbing a hand through her short-cropped black hair. “There’s more guards at all entrances than in the past couple of days. I fear it might be impossible for me to come and go when his son arrives.”
“Then we’ll have to make this visit count,” concluded Karikoff as they entered a small, mostly abandoned clearing. A massive tent had been set up in front of them, poking up above the crowd that littered the land for miles. No light gleamed inside of it, so it only caught the moonlight on one side from the two moons, though the other side was struck by pinpricks of light from the tiny, rapidly rising third moon. A few stern-faced guards, dressed as the previous ones had been, stood guard around the space. One marched over with his palm held outwards.
“What purpose you may have of our general must wait for morning,” she explained carefully to Karikoff and the spy. “The man is a deep sleeper.”
The spy saw what she thought to be Karikoff breathing in deeply, as though ready to laugh and taunt the other commander on his laziness, as she recalled him having told her as much during her last visit. Instead, he only sighed and stretched out a palm in the spy’s direction. She quickly reached into a pants pocket and yanked out a wrapped-up, slightly yellowed message. The guard watched as Karikoff delicately took the note and passed it over, she accepting it and bowing. “I shall need it checked for poison or any other such danger,” she said, walking backwards to the original post as her eyes darted between them, “but thank you. May the war only kill you.”
“May the war only kill you,” Karikoff and the spy said in unison before turning around and walking away.
They made sure to dart in and amongst the tents for some time afterwards. With each passing minute, only the most devoted and sturdiest of soldiers remained awake, much less outside their tents. The fourth moon, also rather small, could be only seen as a shadow over the first one, doing but a little more to hide the two figures already trapped in shadows. As the lady was familiar with the camp’s schedule, she knew that soldiers would soon be waking up to take control of the second shift. She would have to make the rest of her visit quick.
The lady kissed Karikoff on the cheek. “Thank you for this quiet and wonderful night,” she said, still leaning close.
“I think you have a bit more to be thankful for,” he replied, blushing as he held her hands and stared into her eyes. “Now, go find our maddened lord and see if he’s still awake.” As such, he let go gently, and they parted. The lady immediately slipped back into the darkness as Karikoff marched happily and peacefully back to whence he had come, resuming his humming.
Catharnach was not a shy exhibitionist, nor did he believe in late hours. Were it not for the guards taking positions and looking attentively about them, the spy would have only spent a few minutes before reaching the edge of the most imposing structure in that part of the camp. As it stood, a quarter of an hour passed before she arrived at her destination, dodging countless guards and befuddling the rest with a few tossed pebbles. The multi-room tent was held by stout wooden beams – she could spot the wagons that had carried them into place surrounding the building. The horses in the area whinnied and paced around the posts they were tied to as she approached, but she was adept enough to dart into a wooden privy stationed beside the tent before the guard marched their way over and planted their feet firmly in front of it. She despised the smell and the fact that she was effectively trapped. Most of all, she hoped she would be silent enough to eavesdrop without notice.
There were several lights inside the tent, easily lighting it up and making its presence clear to even distant observers. He must have felt secure in his position, the spy guessed, and many a pair of quiet footsteps in and around the tent indicated that she was far from alone. Only her own skills had saved her this time, a statement to which she still expressed a hearty doubt. Regardless, from her vantage point, she could see the figure of Catharnach lying on a comfortable palanquin within, eating what looked to be grapes. Beside him was someone else. Likely his husband, she guessed, and this was confirmed by her good ears.
“Why is it that Alsather does not have a throne? His people are a group of racists, so why not join him in casting aside that foolish girl and ruling Claec?” said Leathan in a slightly rushed voice, breathing in and out deeply.
“Because that smug bastard wants some amount of legitimacy. Her parents were ousted in a “scandal,” and it just so happens the last direct heir dies heroically for her country, bequeathing all her remaining power to the most competent man. He is too blind and deaf to realize that we all know he keeps her alive as a pawn to remove. If only he were dumber than that, so that I might march into his country and sever his head from his body. Kasimir and his kin should have finished their job when they had the chance.” Catharnach had a characteristic terse tone to his voice, spitting out and emphasizing half of his words. His silhouetted arms moved in frustration, accidentally hitting Leathan in the chest towards the end.
There was hence a moment or two’s silence as Leathan coughed. The Mad King appeared to move back, saying nothing, as Leathan said, “That’s…specific. How do you know?”
Demonstrating his favorite attitude and quick shifts in temperament, both of which leading the spy to assume that he was smiling smugly as he spoke, Catharnach said, “It is all too obvious, isn’t it? He could have had that entire family executed as soon as he had the power to, seized the throne violently. That he did not says all I need to hear.”
“Can’t you spread the word and undermine him?” Leathan attempted to rise up, voice growing a bit faint. “It’s so hot in here.” The lady watched as Catharnach moved closer and pushed down his companion with a firm hand.
“I would risk everything,” said Catharnach with a loud, venomous edge to his voice. “I have made a guess, not a confirmation. There is no doubt that many have thought the same, yet to act upon it without any evidence would anger both Claec and Walenty. Valeri – may he rot – was a hedonistic glutton in life, but his bonding with Kasimir has allowed him to outlive death and keep his alliance going. I can do nothing now.”
Another pause, characterized by the couple’s mutual deep breathing. “But I thought making them angry was-”
The King’s voice doubled in intensity. “Divided, not angry! Why else would I flood them with maps, plans, and arguments? They must be stupid enough to fail to see into my plan. And that is another reason I dare not challenge Alsather now; he would latch closer to Kasimir, and the more they put their heads together and cooperate, the more they understand my intentions.”
“You did say the charge would kill him anyway,” said Leathan in response, hungrily grabbing a few of the grapes that Catharnach had been steadily eating.
“Exactly! There is no need to take further shots at his reign, which is already too stable to resist us, when we are already sending him to his death.” The man took hold of a goblet and sipped it, coughing a few times before proceeding in his smug tone. “Right now, they all think that I want to seize Wyandanch and then kill them; they do not realize I have no caring for the city. Right now, they are too concerned with one possibility to consider my endgame, and so they can’t think as a group and pierce through my strategy.”
“Belisarius might,” said Leathan simply, lightly grabbing Catharnach by the shoulder and trying to pull him closer. The King swatted aside the hand, but did sidle right next to Leathan, leaning over towards his companion.
The spy tensed as she heard what sounded like footsteps heading to her location. Her feet felt stuck to the gross floor, leaving her rooted to watch this spectacle as she fearfully waited for the door to be thrown open. It took much of her willpower not to gag and throw up while also fishing from her pocket a black cap and placing it upon her head. Trying subsequently to remain as still as possible, her fingers clenched the rough wood as she heard the king reply sharply, “That makes him too much of a threat. However, they might unify against me if his word is proven correct, so I have sent word to my son on the matter.”
Leathan’s voice became clearer and more rapid upon mention of the said son. “He’s still coming? Has he been traveling through the mountains? How many of them has he killed by now?”
Catharnach chuckled, causing the spy to shiver, alongside something falling on her shoulder. “The boy has said that five more now lie dead among the passes, and the rest are too fearful to go near him. Five more lives removed in route to my goal.” He now pushed himself atop Leathan, so that they stared eye to eye.
“I did want to talk to you about Ailean,” said Leathan in a pleased tone, lightly wrapping his arms around Catharnach’s head. “Why not make him your hero? Wouldn’t it braver if the front lines died off and he was left leading a few more attacks on the capital walls? If you want to inspire the Alliance to rally around you, why don’t you give them a show?”
To the spy’s surprise, the Mad King nodded in approval. “It’s dangerous, but he has enough bodies to hide behind until the right moment. What better than to show the resilience and bravery of the Alliance against a cruel government than to put my own son into the spotlight? I had felt that my son’s request to stay at the back screamed of cowardice, and being at the lead would cost me a dear son, whether by Wyandanch’s hands or those of my supposed allies. This is an acceptable compromise. If he is injured or forced to flee, then our propaganda need not be entirely useless.”
Footsteps against the grass, combined with the couple’s growing intimacy, were enough to wrench the spy from where she stood within the bathroom. Eyes dilated and fearful, she hoped that her makeshift hat would identify her as one of the king’s watchers, particularly among the shadows in a cramped room. All she needed was a few seconds by which to state a goodbye and dart away among the wagons and horses towards the sea of tents, and then she could escape this dreadful camp.
“I know you want a show,” said Catharnach in what he might have thought was a seductive voice as the footsteps ceased, followed shortly after by the clanking sound of the armor of the guard stepping aside from the privy, and the door swinging open. “But my son considers it improper.”
“Your son isn’t here,” replied Leathan.
The man stared at the spy, interrupting his own whistling in this process as he identified the figure in faint moonlight. He was wearing gray shirt and pants, sans any shoes – she surmised that he had woken up and left his armor and weapon behind. After an awkward few seconds marked by mutual blinking, the intruder then blushed immensely, bowing his head down. “Sorry to have bothered you,” he whispered as the lady shoved past him, happy to be free from the wretched place.
The guard was likely befuddled by the presence of a woman whom he had not seen entering the stall he was supposed to protect, but she had vanished before he could say a word. The person, seeing their cap and thinking them being of the King’s private guard, probably thought almost nothing of it afterward.