Shattered Sunlight: Part Five
Val studied the map in front of him. Each of the many mountains of Shenkuu rose from its surface, and each of the villages and towns were marked with a little house. Shenkuu City was marked with a small citadel, and the temples scattered around the land were marked with miniature versions of the Lunar Temple in Shenkuu City itself. Then there were the tokens, red and gold and inscribed with a symbol marking what each represented.
The pattern wasn’t good. Shenkuu’s troops, represented by the golden tokens, held the high ground near the City, but the high ground farther out belonged to Sloth’s troops. Raiding parties moved along the mountainsides, keeping a careful distance from Sloth’s troops unless an opportunity to slow them down appeared. The pattern was clear, however: Sloth wouldn’t be stopped.
Sighing, the black Kougra looked up at his generals. “How long do you give us?”
Vesper was the first to respond. “It depends on how much attention Sloth gives us.” Vesper spoke quickly, running a deep purple hand over the globe beside them. “It’s fairly obvious that anywhere he focuses on goes down. Faerieland. Neopia Central. If Meridell and Brightvale survive the week, I’ll be impressed.”
“That’s just it.” Kentari spun the globe, turning it so that Shenkuu and Altador were facing the group. “He’s going to focus on us next. Haven’t you seen the pattern?” The yellow Shoyru crossed his arms. “Faerieland, for the Faeries that connect us and give us their magic. Neopia Central, for the symbolism. Meridell, Brightvale, and Darigan, because they’re close and as a triumvirate could likely hold him off, especially if they gathered in the Citadel. I believe that his troops in Neopia Central waited just long enough to ensure that it’d stay with them.”
“And then they came here.” Val nodded, turning the map. “Altador, too. Next...” He considered the map. “Roo Island is nothing to them. Taking the troops who destroy Meridell’s group, he can disable the Blumaroos as he crosses to Terror Mountain and Tyrannia. Take those next. And after he takes us...” Val trailed off, not wanting to accept the inevitable.
“The Haunted Woods.” Cassie’s quiet voice took up the thread. “Using the troops from here. Altador’s will stream to the islands. Then the troops that took the Woods can take the desert and those that took the islands can take Maraqua. The ones that take Terror Mountain and Tyrannia can reinforce either group.” She shrugged, black wings touching at the top. “Our job? Delay them. Build up the resistance that you talked about.” She glanced at Val. “You’re still planning that, right?”
Val nodded absently, considering the map of Shenkuu once more. “Cassie. Fly to the eastern groups and see if you can rig something to get rid of their spaceships. Take one of our warships with you.”
The Draik turned, already walking out. “Anything else?”
“Not that you don’t already know.” He paused. “Don’t get yourself killed,” he added softly.
Cassie glanced back, smiling. “I’ll do my best.” With that, she left.
Val kept speaking. “Kentari. Prepare the next lines of defense. Make sure that they’re ready for when Sloth’s forces reach them.”
Kentari nodded. “There’s more.”
“There’s always more.” Val’s tail brushed the floor for a moment. “Begin preparing them for passive resistance, too. Explain to them why.”
The Shoyru closed his eyes for a moment. “So be it.”
Without another word, Kentari left, walking at a much slower pace than Cassie had.
Val looked at his brother. “Vesper...”
“I’ll stay.” The purple Kougra grinned. “Did you ever expect otherwise? What do you want me to do?”
“Organize the Shenkuuri trainees and their mentors.” Val slumped into a chair. “I wish we didn’t need them, but we do. Send them into the closest ring of cities we have.”
“I know!” Val’s ears flattened, but the outburst faded just as quickly as it’d come. “I know,” he repeated. “There’s no other way.”
“There’s always another way.”
“Find one, then.” Val closed his eyes, head falling forward. “Ves, I need this. We need this. Delaying tactics, remember? Time to prepare the city for the final blow.”
“Can’t we keep the Shenkuuri trainees here?”
Val tried to ignore the pleading tone in Vesper’s voice. “I’m sorry,” was all he said.
A minute, two minutes, passed. Then, Vesper’s hand lay on Val’s shoulder. “Valentine...”
The black Kougra leaned forward then, and let his tears flow into his hands. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I really am. I don’t want to shatter them. I don’t want to force them to live as adults. But I don’t have a choice.” He curled in on himself, forehead pressed against his knees. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“Stay strong.” Vesper shook him gently. “How can you help us, lead us, when you’re like this? Val, sleep. Sleep, and give yourself a break from the war, even if only for a few hours.”
Val looked up at his brother. “Easy enough for you to say.”
“Just because I’m not the Lord-Heir doesn’t mean I don’t have my own duties,” Vesper snapped. “If you’d realize just how much this hurts us, maybe you wouldn’t send me to do this.”
“Who would you send in your place?” Val pushed Vesper back and stood, tail lashing from side to side. “I don’t have any other Shenkuuri here.” That wasn’t exactly true, and both of them knew it.
Vesper chose not to point that out. “Someone who didn’t live among them for years.”
“They don’t respect anyone who isn’t one of them.”
“They respect you.”
“I’m the Lord-Heir! They have no choice.” Val shook Vesper, staring into his brother’s silver eyes. “Do you want me to use your name, Amoure?”
Vesper glanced away, but he didn’t respond.
“Vesperius Amoure,” Val began, voice soft and calm, “second son of Arriell Amoure, second in line for the throne of Shenkuu, Shenkuuri warrior-poet, lord of the realm. Vesperius Amoure, I have bound you to me. You will do as I say. You will not defy me. And I say that you will spread the Shenkuuri trainees and their mentors among the nearby towns.”
Vesper bowed formally, taking three steps back before turning. As he left, he glanced back. “You’ll regret this later.”
“I already do.”
Val stayed put until Vesper left and the red and gold curtain swung back into place. Then, perfectly expressionless, he himself left. He didn’t have a destination in mind, but as he wandered, he found his way to one of the cherry orchards. The blossoms had left already, and fruit were beginning to ripen. Val ran a hand along one cherry tree’s trunk.
“What did you do?”
The words, soft and curious, simply made Val groan. “Go away, Fideus.”
“Sorry, Lord-Heir, but I don’t think so.” The spotted Lupe stepped out of the bushes, arms crossed. He wore black with white edging, and Val blinked a few times before realizing that yes, this was the same Lupe that typically lounged around in red and gold. Fideus smiled. “Not what you expected? So sorry, Valentine.”
“Why call me that?” Val’s claws extended, scoring the cherry tree. “You have no right.”
“Right?” Fideus laughed. “Who are you to speak of right and wrong, when you have sent your generals out on missions you consider to be nothing but pointless delaying actions?” He stepped closer, blue-gray eyes wide and curious. “Tell me, Valentine, what you said to your brother. He looked as if he wanted to kill something when he walked out of that room.”
Val stepped forward, grabbing the chest of Fideus’s robe. “How do you know what he looked like?”
“I watched,” the Lupe said calmly. “How else?”
“Magic?” Val turned, tossing Fideus aside. “Who are you? Why do you charm almost everyone?”
“Almost. Yes, that is the key word.” Fideus looked almost wistful for a moment. “They saw through it just as easily as you did. So glad that you’re only questioning me now, when only a week or so remains.”
Val stilled. “Why do you say that?”
“It’s interesting to try and figure out how much I can tell you.” Fideus sighed. “Would you like a name to put to who I am, Valentine? I am the Chronicler.”
“What does that mean?” Val faced Fideus again, arms crossed and tail lashing. “And you didn’t answer my question.” He repeated it, each word soft and clipped. “Why did you say that?”
“Because it is so.” Fideus spread his black-robed arms. “Why else?”
Val shook his head, turning away. “Go back to your place, servant. I’m sure my lord the Emperor will miss your presence.”
The black Kougra left the courtyard then, heading straight for the practice yards. Everyone else is fighting, he thought bitterly. Why shouldn’t I? He shoved aside the thought that he’d get all the fighting he wanted once Sloth’s troops reached the city, preferring to dwell on thoughts of the ease the Shenkuuri fought with. The ease that could’ve been his, if he hadn’t been the Lord-Heir.
It was too late to regret that. Val smiled, the expression grim. “Too late for any regrets,” he whispered, entering the practice yard. “Now is the time to live with the decisions that have been made.”
To be continued...