Chapter 3
The King Leads from the Front

AZ 1452 - Winter
Castle Zephyr, Hesperia, Zephyr

The atmosphere was always tense at the seasonal meeting of the council and as the years wore on, that tension only increased. In the three years since the letter of challenge from the Chaos Dominion was first received, the Zephyrians had worked furiously to prepare the men and materiel for the massive undertaking ahead of them. The strain on resources and the treasury frayed nerves and sparked all manner of bickering, breeding ill will from one corner of the kingdom to the next.
The war had not even begun yet and weariness was starting to take hold. It was plain to see in that very room, but even more so out in the streets. Discontent was rampant. In many corners, the grumbling bordered on sedition. The whole kingdom teetered on a razor's edge.
In spite of the great challenges he faced, Solon's resolve did not waver. Overcoming the crushing blow of Carpos' betrayal, he threw himself ever deeper into the war planning. He had to lead his people by example.
"Friends, countrymen," he said to the assembly, "the new year will soon be upon us. By midsummer, we must be ready set out on our expedition. Long have we toiled for this day and we cannot afford to tarry any longer. We have been fortunate that the Darklanders have not made the first move, but they are no doubt marshaling their own forces. Time is running out for us."
Several in the assembly began muttering amongst themselves until a nobleman spoke up.
"Your Majesty, are our forces even ready to set out so soon?"
The King looked to Lord Aristides and said, "Deliver your report, Lord Aristides."
Lord Aristides stood up and told the assembly, "We have twelve thousand men of the regular army, five thousand in the navy, five thousand volunteers, and two thousand special troops, which includes the cohort of the Royal Guard assigned for Their Majesties' protection."
"Lord Aristides, did you just say 'for Their Majesties' protection'?" Count Memnos asked.
"I did, Lord Memnos," Aristides replied curtly.
Rising from his chair with a start, Count Memnos slammed his hands down on the table and shouted, "Unthinkable! Your Majesty surely cannot mean to accompany the invasion force! It is madness!"
The Count's outburst prompted Aristides to reach for the hilt of his sword, heedless of Memnos' rank and standing among the peerage. Solon motioned for Aristides to stand down, just as the Count himself blanched at the threat he had unwittingly provoked.
"Please, sit, Lord Memnos," the King said, making a gesture for the Count to be seated. When the Count took his seat, Solon then said, "I cannot send more than twenty thousand of this nation's sons off to war while I remain safe here in the palace. A king must lead from the front."
Speaking in a more measured tone, Count Memnos replied, "Your Majesty must listen reason. If, perish the thought, Your Majesty should fall, what would become of Zephyr? Indeed, consider your age. How can Your Majesty hope to survive the journey alone, much less the campaign?"
"My age cannot be made into an excuse for shirking my responsibilities as King," Solon said. "I am blessed with better health than many men twenty or even thirty years my younger. It gives me all the more reason to go forward boldly for the sake of my people and my kingdom."
"It is Your Majesty's responsibilities as King that Lord Memnos thinks of when objects to this ill-advised course," another nobleman said. "Though he be the hope for our future, should not Prince Carpos, who even now fights against the rebels in Notos, lead our men in the Darklands?"
Hearing the lie that covered up Carpos' treason stung Solon like a dart to the heart, but he did his best not to let it show.
"For that very reason," Solon said, "that Carpos is the hope for this kingdom's future, he must remain with you, to lead in my stead when I and the Queen are gone."
"And why must Her Majesty also accompany the invasion force?" Count Memnos asked.
Out of a sense of propriety, Xanthe did not speak up at assemblies unless addressed directly and the only one to ever do so was Solon himself. Indeed, it was not customary for women to sit in on such councils at all, but Xanthe had a right to be there by virtue of being a ruler in her own right.
Of course, her being a woman was only one of the reasons she was little regarded. As much as Solon had tried to bring their two peoples together over the course of his reign, humans and Xotika still held each other in suspicion and contempt. Tellingly, not a single dignitary from Goldleaf attended the councils, which held part of the answer to Count Memnos' question.
"The Queen is our sole ambassador to the Xotika," Solon said. "Her people will not submit to human authority and the advantage they bring us would be sorely missed. Also, the Queen herself is powerful in the ways of magic and her abilities are much needed."
The Count frowned but accepted the King's answer. Another nobleman took the opportunity to speak.
"Setting aside Your Majesties' intentions to personally lead the invasion force, what of our numbers? The invasion force is half the original goal of fifty thousand men. The volunteers have benefited from these three years of training, but we have been unable to equip them as well as our regular troops. Supplies of war materiel have run short and the rebellion in Notos has greatly damaged our efforts."
"The economy languishes, Your Majesty," the Grand Logothete added. "As you know, the harvest has been meager this year and drawing so many men from their trades will only make the situation worse. The treasuries are all but empty. We have already incurred great debts to finance the campaign and the first ship has not even left port. I know my warnings have gone ignored time and time again, but I ask you one last time, Your Majesty, will you not reconsider this course?"
Solon gripped the arms of his chair. Never in these three years did the doubters ever show any serious consideration to the threat posed by the Dominion. They would obey his orders as King, but few seemed to truly appreciate the great danger that lurked in the East.
"How easily people forget," the King said with a sigh. "Memory fades before a single generation dies out. How much more so when three hundred years pass..."
"Your Majesty?"
"What benefit are overflowing coffers to the people of this land when Darklanders raze their homes?" Solon asked. "Is it better to have legions in full array fighting in the streets of our cities and towns? Will the nations come to the Monarch Lich and demand he repay our debts when he sits on my throne? What will come of any of your concerns should the Dominion's banners fly over Hesperia?"
"And what difference will it make if Your Majesty and so many of this nation's best men go off to die in a foreign land, leaving a broken, destitute, and practically defenseless kingdom behind? Zephyr's ruin is all but assured."
This new voice of opposition was from Duke Balios, Solon's nephew by his half-sister Antigone. After Solon and his children, Balios was next in the line of succession and all too aware of it. He succeeded his brother as head of the family only last year and began to make a name for himself with his vocal opposition to the Darklands campaign. Ironically, dealing with him was even worse than Solon's long-time rivalry with Archbishop Gamaliel. At least on the issue of the Darklands campaign, the King and Archbishop were of one accord.
And it was by this unlikeliest of allies that Duke Balios and his objections were met.
"Balios, son of Menander," the Archbishop said, "why do you speak as the unbeliever does, putting his faith in the treasures that moth and rust consume? It would be devastating to learn that a noble layman of your liberality was in fact a hypocrite whose heart belongs with the profane earthly things."
The implied threat was enough to silence Duke Balios. Balios was known for making a display of his piety and generously donating to the Church to contrast himself with the apostate Solon. It was all part of his political maneuvering, but all that would be for naught if he displeased the Archbishop.
With Balios checked, the Archbishop continued, "You of little faith, why do you doubt? Have I not said that what is impossible with men is possible with God?" He rested his hand over his heart and said, "Am I not His agent?
"Through my agency, God will provide. Fear not for men and treasure. The legions of the faithful will also march on the Darklands and their shepherd will guide them."
"Your Holiness intends to go to the Darklands as well?" Duke Balios asked.
The Archbishop nodded.
"But of course. If an earthly king relying on a man's strength and a man's wisdom would venture into that accursed realm, should not the Vicar of the Lucifer go forward even more boldly? For my trust is in a wisdom and a strength far greater than that of any mortal man."
Taking on a more businesslike tone, the Archbishop then said, "Twenty thousand have answered the call thus far and by midsummer, that number shall be doubled."
The bold declaration prompted fresh mutterings in the assembly. This was the first time the Archbishop had ever given a figure for the forces the Church had been raising and it almost matched the combined total of the regular army, the navy and the volunteers. That the Archbishop meant to double that number in six months' time...
From the beginning, Solon felt that the Archbishop's efforts only served to draw men and resources away from the main force. Though the zealots flocking to the Church's banner would be eager to fight and die at the Archbishop's command, they were no doubt bound to do more of the latter without proper training. Then there was also the creeping suspicion in the King's mind that the Darklands campaign would prove to be a pretext for the Church to build up a force strong enough to drive Solon from the throne and replace him with a new king who would restore their former privilege. Someone like Duke Balios, for instance.
Solon had to set his suspicions aside, however. If he did not observe all due diplomacy, the delicate balance could collapse and everything would be lost. Much as when the Archbishop first pledged his support, Solon would have to hold his nose and keep the peace with his enemies for the kingdom's sake.
"That is... encouraging news," Solon said, somewhat haltingly. To the assembly at large, he then said, "I know this land faces hardship and that it will take many years to recover, but if we do not stop the Dominion at its source, our people will suffer far worse. We must bear this burden now so that our children's children will know peace. Our work has only just begun. We must go forward and from the front, I will be leading you."