Chapter 4
In Vino Veritas

AZ 1453 - Late Autumn
Kalonis, Notos

In one of the guest rooms of the city magistrate's mansion, Duke Cronos sat at a desk reading dispatches and sipping on a cup of wine. He did not drink for pleasure. He had always been suspicious of wine's ability to dull the senses, but ever since the failed attempt to reclaim the palace, he found himself turning to the bottle for solace more and more. It made the unbearable days a little more bearable.
While the Third Legion was making its vain march on the capital, the Alliance threw all its forces into seizing Girondin, Iakobin, Hebertos, Maranthe, and Kordai. It was an unmitigated disaster for the Protectorate. The local garrisons and militias were almost completely wiped out. In a single fell swoop, most of Notos was in the rebels' hands.
Cronos knew that without the ports of Kalonis and Danton at the very least, the fleet bound for the Darklands would have an all but impossible journey ahead of them. The whole venture could founder and the Chaos Dominion would be unopposed.
It was tempting to simply dig in and hold Kalonis, Danton and Babophos, but the Duke was not going to meekly give ground to the rebels. The Legion retook Kordai and it became the base for a new campaign against the rebels. Refugees, militiamen and mercenaries were banded together into an army of native Notians dedicated to retaking the captured cities. They were called the Olympian Bands and they were to mete out divine punishment on the Promethean Alliance.
For six months the Third Legion trained and equipped the Olympian Bands while they wintered in the west. They set out on their spring campaign shortly after the first thaw. If successful, they would show to the people that the rebels were not the only answer for their future and with only a handful of legionaries acting as advisors, it would truly be a Notian victory. Best of all, it shielded the Legion from further losses because every man who did not survive to fight in the Darklands was a man wasted.
Minimizing the Legion's losses proved to be the only good to come of the plan. The Olympian Bands did not even hold out a month before their broken and bloody remnants limped back to the relative safety of Kordai. Then again, the rebels had not launched a single new offensive all year, so if nothing else, the Olympian Bands bought Cronos a little more time.
Since then, the fleet arrived at Kalonis and the combined forces of the Crown and of the Church were garrisoned in the three cities that remained under Protectorate control. With so many new troops in the country and winter fast approaching, the rebels would surely choose to bide their time a while longer. The fleet would have their safe harbors for the winter and once the invasion force withdrew in the spring, the rebels would march westward uncontested. Both sides would achieve their ultimate objectives, but this hardly satisfied the Duke.
The celebrated Genius of the Nanoi Campaigns felt like a great fraud. Were his victories in the past a mere fluke? Was he rightly credited for them or was it in fact the work of another? These were the questions asked in secret about him and, indeed, they were questions he asked himself, especially on nights like this where he mingled his regrets with wine.
There was a knock at the door and a servant peeked in.
"Sir Ionathas to see you, milord," he said.
The Duke set down his cup of wine and told the servant, "Let him in."
The door opened to permit Sir Ionathas. As difficult as the past year had been for the Duke, how much more was it for his young protégé, who had lost his hometown and many of his companions to the rebel advance?
Though his many cares wore on him, the Duke nevertheless tried to present a genial facade.
"Come in, my boy," he said, motioning for the free knight to come forward. "How is the perimeter?"
"Quiet, milord," Ionathas replied, "as you would expect the farthest place from the enemy."
The reproach in his voice was clear. There was nothing to be gained by pretending to ignore it.
"Is there something you would like to say?" the Duke asked.
"I'm sure you already know Kordai has fallen back into rebel hands, milord."
The Duke nodded impassively.
"Yes, I know."
"It wouldn't have fallen if you didn't recall your troops, milord."
With the arrival of the fleet, the Duke was no longer the highest authority here in Notos. Still, it would be cowardly of him to hide behind his orders. He would not shift the blame to the Queen for the current state of affairs.
"The invasion fleet has arrived, Sir Ionathas," the Duke said. "We need all the troops we have to defend Kalonis, Danton and Babophos. Kordai simply was not strategically significant enough to maintain a presence there."
"Not strategically significant, milord?" Ionathas asked bitterly. "The Pearl of Notos wasn't strategically significant? Our refuge after what the rebels did to Maranthe wasn't strategically significant?"
Though the wine had dulled the Duke's senses a little, they were not so dull as to allow such dangerous overstepping of bounds.
"Mind yourself, sir," the Duke warned. "You may be a free knight, but you speak too boldly."
The warning seemed to check Ionathas' anger, but it did not cow him into silence. He was not the sort of man who was so easily deterred. It was a credit to him, but the Duke wished he did not have to deal with it tonight.
"What's going to happen to Notos now, milord?" Ionathas asked. "The Third Legion is joining the invasion force, isn't it? Who will defend these three cities that are left?"
"The local militias--" the Duke began, but Ionathas quickly cut him off.
"Won't stand a chance and you know it, milord.
The Duke sighed and shook his head.
"It is out of my hands. The Chaos Dominion is the greater threat. If its power is not broken, all will be lost."
This was hardly enough to convince the young free knight, though.
"And if the rebels are left free to conquer all of Notos, how is that any worse? The rebels are in league with the Darklanders! I've seen it!"
"All the more reason to go to the source," the Duke replied. "With the Chaos Dominion defeated, the rebels lose the power behind them. However, if we waste any more time and manpower fighting the rebels here, we may well find the Dominion's main force landing on these shores. It would be the war of three hundred years ago all over again. Notos would burn and the past three years of fighting would be no more than a street brawl in comparison."
This gave Ionathas pause and the Duke pressed his advantage.
"Most of your people have forgotten, but I know that you at least received a proper education in Zephyr. You know what it would mean if the Darklanders came here in force."
Ionathas was silent. He had studied the histories during his training. He knew what the Duke was saying was the truth.
Cronos continued, "And so you know why I had to sacrifice Kordai and why, once the wind and sea favor us, we must abandon these last cities as well."
Ionathas did not say anything in response. Surely he could see the reason in the Duke's words, but it could not be easy to accept all the same.
"I would have you come with me," the Duke said.
"You and your freelances have proven to be resourceful warriors. I could use a band of irregulars to go where others cannot and do what must be done for us to achieve victory."
It was either the best time to make the offer or the worst, depending on Ionathas' state of mind. Cronos did not know which was the case, but he chose to take the gamble. Surely Ionathas could see that there was nothing left for him in Notos. Skilled as he was, he and his small company could not hope to defeat the rebels on their own. At very least, by joining the invasion force, he could serve his homeland better. But would he see it that way?
After a long silence, Ionathas finally said, "I need to think on this, milord. And even if I would agree, I can't guarantee any of the others will follow me. For them, this land is their whole world."
The Hawks of Maranthe were only good because Ionathas led them, as far as the Duke was concerned. There was, however, another whose services could prove immensely useful.
"If your female companion at least would join us, she would be worth a hundred men," the Duke said.
"Corona? I can promise even less with her. I imagine it's only a matter of time before she moves on."
The Duke shrugged.
"Perhaps so and perhaps not. You may find that she goes where you go."
Ionathas did not say anything to that and the Duke did not press the issue further. He was too young to see it, perhaps.
"Is there anything else?" the Duke asked.
"No, milord."
The Duke held up his pitcher of wine and asked, "Would you care for some refreshment before you go?"
Ionathas shook his head.
"No, milord, not while my men are in tents outside the city with sour wine and hard bread."
"I will see that fresh provisions are sent your way," the Duke replied. "Times are lean, but not so lean."
Ionathas bowed.
"As you will, milord. I'm going back to the camp."
"You are dismissed, Sir Ionathas. Think well on my offer."
"I will, milord. Good evening to you."
Ionathas walked out the door and in his place, Sir Telemachos walked in. Cronos returned to his desk and refilled his cup.
"What is the point of having me sharpen you, milord, if you smash the edge against the rocks?" the Master of the Sword asked critically.
"Leave me be, Sir Telemachos," the Duke said, taking a long draught from his cup. "It will not be long before wine this good will be naught but a memory. Have a drink, good sir. I will not be refused twice this night."
"Only one, milord," Telemachos said with far less resistance than the Duke was expecting.
Cronos took an extra cup and poured from the pitcher. He then offered the cup to Telemachos. It was a gesture that defied all the common protocol when it came to exchanges between men of rank, but this was not court with all its pomp and ceremony. It was just a drink shared between friends.
While the Duke refilled his cup, Telemachos took a sip from his own before saying, "So you intend to have that boy come with us?"
"Do you still suspect him?" the Duke asked.
"No, milord. He's no threat to us. I suppose it's a mercy to have him die in the East rather than see what this land will become after we depart."
"Who said anything about him dying?"
Telemachos drained the contents of his cup and then placed it on the Duke's desk.
Leaning in, Telemachos said in a low voice, "The rank and file may need false hope to go on, but we are above that, I would think, milord. We are going to die in the Darklands. Our only hope is that our blood will come at such a cost that we buy our lands another three hundred years of peace."
"Nothing is certain."
"Indeed not," Telemachos replied. "We may all die in vain, but I am ever the optimist."
The Duke shook his head and refilled his cup. The pitcher was now empty. He would have to send for another. The night was going to be a long one, he thought.