Chapter 2
The Three Legates

AZ 1453 - Early Autumn
Outside Kalonis, Notos

The Queen and her conjurer who took the shape of the King withdrew, leaving Xenomachos with Lord Aristides, Duke Cronos and Lord Polynikes. He was still shaken by the news of the King's untimely death, but it was the deception the Queen proposed that disturbed him most at the moment.
The four of them sat in silence for a long while before Lord Aristides spoke up.
"I do not need to remind you, my friends, that what transpired here does not leave this room."
"Of course," Lord Polynikes replied.
Xenomachos could hold his peace no longer.
"It is not right..." he said. "This deception... It is not right..."
"And what would you propose, Lord Xenomachos?" Lord Aristides asked. "Do you think the men would follow a Xotika and a woman into Hades itself? Shall we return to Zephyr and name Lord Balios our King? Long has he opposed this venture. Perchance he would have us despoil the Notians or some other land to fill the coffers he loves so much, not that all gold in the world would avail him when the Darklanders come."
"His Holiness the Archbishop, he could lead us," Xenomachos said hopefully. "He set aside his long conflict with His Majesty to find common cause against the threat of the East. Who better to lead us than the Lucifer's own vicar?"
Lord Aristides balked at the suggestion, though.
"You pious fool. The Archbishop seeks only his own advantage. He would destroy everything Their Majesties have struggled to build. Call their dream foolish if you will, but I far prefer it to the tyranny of those wolves in sheep's clothing and priestly robes."
Xenomachos sprang to his feet.
"Lord Aristides! I cannot allow your abuse of His Holiness go unanswered!"
Unwittingly, he found his hand reaching for the hilt of his sword, but this did not intimidate Lord Aristides in the slightest.
"Would you draw your sword against me, Xenomachos of the Iron Wall?"
"Peace, both of you!" Duke Cronos shouted, putting himself between the two of them. "If we cannot stand together, how can our men hope to stand against the threat of the Darklands?"
Xenomachos felt shamed that his sinful nature drove him to nearly bare his blade against his fellow legate. It was an ill way to defend the Archbishop's honor.
"Our King is dead," Lord Aristides said, "but his mission remains and we must execute it. The men's spirits are raised by the fact that His Majesty would share in all the same perils and privations as they do. We cannot expect them to understand what has happened.
"It rests on us. We three must lead in the King's name. We must fulfill his will. If we must deceive our men so that they do their duty, then we deceive them. If it brings judgment on our heads, then let us be judged. I would rather face the Hades of the spirit than the Hades of the flesh."
"You speak blasphemy, Lord Aristides," Xenomachos said.
Lord Aristides was unmoved by the rebuke.
"I know not what lay on the other side of death, Lord Xenomachos, but if this venture should fail, a quick death would prove a kinder fate."
Again, Duke Cronos stepped in to play the mediator between them.
"Lord Xenomachos, nothing I can say will assuage your conscience, I fear, but you cannot say we cowed you to consent to Her Majesty's plan. Who does Xenomachos of the Iron Wall fear but God alone? Somewhere in your heart, you know this is best, even if it puts you at war with yourself."
"I do not seek to make an enemy of you, my old friend," Lord Aristides said. "I need you, your men need you. Indeed, all of Zephyr needs you."
He extended his hand. Though Lord Aristides' impious words grated on Xenomachos' sensibilities, he knew Aristides to be a good man and quite possibly the best of them as a leader. He would do nothing but what was best for Zephyr. And so Xenomachos buried his misgivings and clasped wrists with Lord Aristides.
"We must do what we must do," he said.
Lord Aristides gave him a slight smile.
"And so we shall. Come. Wash your faces, my friends. Bury your grief. Our work has only just begun."
Yes, their work had only just begun, but could they expect to emerge triumphant in this holy mission if it was founded on a lie? Would God forgive this deception or had they all just sealed their doom?