Alexander Lanstar sat on the stairs of the Sulci wall, contemplating his troop positions. On paper it made sense, but something did not look right to him. There was something missing. Alexander had been given command of the army seven years ago after an eight year string of bad commanders following his brother’s death. In those eight years Sulci had endured some of the worst Pons attacks. They had never succeeded in breaking through, though. The brave soldiers had always held Pons back. Alexander had noticed a difference. Pons did not attack as often, and each time it was at a different spot of the wall. They were looking for something, a weak point probably. A thick wall of solid stone plated with metal spikes did not have many weak points. Alexander often wondered what it was that the leaders of Pons wanted. Were they just obsessed with commanding all of Karst? Or was their leader, Jerek Tyler, really as insane as the rumors said he was?
Karst had once had a royal family. They had lived in what was now Pons. Jerek Tyler had killed them when Alexander was young. Ever since then all of the nation cities of Karst had boarded themselves in. Each city became its own country. There were no safe allies anywhere. If Jerek Tyler could sneak up on the royal family, who’s to say that your neighbor city would not turn on you? One by one Tyler had eliminated the other cities. There were rumors that Nox was still standing. Alexander figured that Nox had been destroyed long ago. It was too close to Pons for Tyler to allow it to stand. Now, all that was left was Sulci, at least as far as Sulci knew. And with each destroyed city, Tyler’s army grew. The people could choose to join him or die. Some of them chose to die, but when the others saw Tyler’s methods of torture, they quickly chose to join him instead. The war had been going on for twenty-two years. Alexander wondered how much longer it would take. No defense could hold forever. How long would it take before he was bowing before Jerek Tyler and pledging his allegiance as well? Who am I kidding? I’m the commander. I’d be dead before Tyler ever arrived in Sulci.
Alexander stared at the far end of the wall. A drain was the only opening in the Sulci wall. The river ran through it. Well, it used to be a river. Now it was more like a small stream. The grate over the drain had disintegrated a long time ago. Alexander had tried to get it fixed, but something always stopped him. Most recently the governor of Sulci, Leroy Thesle, had decided that he needed the metal for something else and that Alexander would just have to wait. So, instead, he had found two large dogs and tied them to the wall by the gate. It was the best he could do for now.
He realized – that’s what was bothering him. Two men were always stationed above the drain. It was quite far away, but his vision was good and the wall rose above all of the buildings in Sulci. He could see that no one was there. Why weren’t those men there? He stood up to investigate, but he was interrupted by a group of people approaching him from below. He sighed. She always picks the most inconvenient time to be here.
Diana Thesle was standing below him, surrounded by her seven guards. She came to visit him at least once a week. They had known each other forever. They had even gone to school together in the early years, before Alexander had joined the army. For years they had not spoken. Then, a few weeks prior, Diana’s father had informed Alexander that the two of them were to be married. It was a decision that neither of them could control, and one that Diana clearly did not want. Alexander could not visit her (it was against some rule that her father had created), so she visited him. Unfortunately for him, she always came when he was in the middle of something important.
He smiled down at her. “You should come up here. The view is spectacular this morning.”
“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked.
“Pons has a large army. They aren’t suddenly going to jump out at us. Plus we’re behind the trees, and they never come through the trees.”
“Well, alright.” Diana walked up the stairs slowly. He could tell that she was wearing some ridiculous shoes. She also had on an absurdly long red dress. She didn’t have to dress up for him. She knew that. Her father would not let her out of the governor’s mansion looking like a commoner, though, so she went through with it, and Alexander didn’t argue. Her guards waited at the bottom of the stairs.
Alexander leaned against the edge of the wall and looked out at the world beyond Sulci. Below him was about a hundred yards of grass, still wet from last night’s rain. After that was a forest so thick that even Tyler wouldn’t go in it. The forest stretched on for miles. How many miles exactly, no one in Sulci knew, because no one in Sulci had gone into it and survived the journey. Then a long, dry grass plain. Then the edge of Karst, and the sea, and Pons. Diana was facing the other way. She never liked looking down. The Sulci wall was exactly forty-three feet tall. The height did not bother Alexander anymore.
He turned to look at the city with her. There was an open space of several yards below the wall. One large road led straight down the center of the city and directly up to the governor’s mansion. On both sides of that road were the shops and blacksmiths and other such things. Branching off from the main road were smaller roads where wooden houses were built. The whole city sloped upward, ending with the mansion, flanked by the prison on its left and an old abandoned building on its right. Towering above everything were the mountains. If Alexander leaned his head all the way back, he could just see the tops of the closest peaks. Sulci had some paths into the mountains, but no one had ever been to the other side.
“Hello,” Alexander said to Diana, who was surprisingly quiet.
“Umm… How are you?”
“Fine, and you?”
“Good, good. That dress looks extremely uncomfortable.”
“Well, you know Leroy. I have to dress like a great red peacock and strut around the city or I’ll shame his existence.”
“What is a shame is that he forces you to do things like this when your sister -”
“Shut up before someone hears you,” she said quietly.“Everyone already knows about it.”
“Leroy doesn’t know about it."
"And everyone enjoys it too much to say anything.”
Alexander stared off into the city. “I don’t enjoy it. I could tell him.”
“But you won’t because you know he won’t listen.”
“Yeah, he’ll accuse me of defiling his name.”
“Exactly. We’re all stuck with his decisions, no matter how stupid they are.”
“Right,” Alexander said quietly. Stuck with stupid decisions. Like the decision for you to marry me.
“No, no, you’re right. We’re stuck with what he decides. We’re stuck with each other. We never would have decided this on our own.”At least one of us wouldn’t have…
“You know I didn’t mean that.”
“Didn’t you?” Diana was going to respond, when several soldiers approached Alexander. He had seen them coming, and just in time too.
One of them, a young man with yellow hair named Harvey, started talking quickly. “Sir, we think we’ve found… something.” He hesitated and looked at Diana.
“I should leave,” Diana said. “It was good spending time with you, future husband.”
Alexander clenched his jaw. She just had to add that on, didn’t she? As she climbed back down the stairs, Harvey leaned closer to Alexander and whispered. “The drain, sir.”
He didn’t have to explain. Alexander swore under his breath. He ran part way down the stairs and looked at Diana’s guards. “Hey, make sure she gets back okay. No delays, no stops. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” they all said in unison as they saluted him.
“What’s going on?” Diana said, a concerned look on her face.
He smiled at her. “You should be getting home. Your father will be expecting you for lunch soon. Have a good day… wife.” He quickly ran down the rest of the stairs and continued past them. It made him angry that he had called her wife. He thought that it would make him feel better, like he had gotten back at her, but it did not. Ignore it, he told himself. You have much worse problems.
When he got to the grate, he knew that something very bad was happening in Sulci. The dogs were gone. The guards were gone. And in the drain, he saw a hint of blood. He swore again. That’s what Pons was waiting for.
He had to contain the problem. It could only be one man. It had to be. A group could not have snuck in unnoticed. One man, he could handle that. He turned to the group of soldiers that had followed him. “You two, guard the drain. Prezel, your group, make sure the governor’s family is inside of the mansion, and lock it down. The rest of you, start looking. There’s a bleeding Pons soldier in here somewhere.”