by V Rose Dahrke
When he woke there was an eight-year-old boy sitting by the ashes of the campfire. He stared at him for a moment, unable to believe he was real. “Who are you?”
“Lord in Battle. My mother sent me. Triumph.”
“Thief-Queen of the Rilikan.” He was still half asleep, but he could tell the child took offense.
“We stole for one summer. One. Just like you’ll do, now that the Volupi took your lands.”
“We’ll get them back.”
“Not without help.”
Third Watch sat up. The others were still asleep. “Where’s my brother?”
“Your watchman? Drugged in the woods. You’ll have him back when we’re done. Do you want our help or not?”
“At your mother’s price? Never.”
“She’s not asking for your kingdom. She’s offering you a place in her empire.”
“Never. I’m not banding together with a bunch of thieves–you heard me–and assassins. I’m not submitting to Triumph. I still have some dignity, thanks.”
“Dignity tastes awful in midwinter,” the boy said, standing. “Well, you go ahead and get killed alone if you want to. Don’t say she didn’t try.” He headed for the edge of the camp.
“We’re not alone. We have the Greys and the Walkers on our side.”
The boy stopped, pivoted, and returned smirking. “You should’ve told me. I’d have left sooner. If you’re with them, you don’t need to submit to her.”
“Damn right. We’re fine without her.”
“Not what I meant.” He turned to leave again. “They’re ours already. As their ally, you are our ally. Welcome to the empire.”
“You can’t just assimilate us like that.” He kept walking. “I don’t like this,” Third Watch added, trying to fight his sense of helplessness. “I don’t trust a woman who’d send her child into my camp alone and unarmed. Unpredictable.”
Battle shook his head. “And you said this one was the smart one.” A chill went up Third Watch’s spine at the sound of laughter in the trees.