Ambition’s Cost

February 12, 2015 - Short Story

Ambition’s Cost- A Fantasy Short Story by Kelly D. Tolman

I turned and shrugged into the wind, allowing my despair to float onto the battlefield. Ten thousand lives of men and more were destroyed behind me. I could not face the smoke and ash of the burning city that I had been called upon to save. How little it mattered. Within moments, they would be upon me and my life would join the thousands I had destroyed. I cast my sword onto the muddy earth and waited for the deathblow that never came.
General Torc personally supervised my incarceration. I had expected his minions, always so fond of slaughter, to simply dispatch me and move on to the next poorly equipped soldier. The general, however, had sent word both as to my overall appearance, and how I should be treated.
“The growth of an empire is a challenge fraught with sacrifice and born through rebuilding,” were the first words he said to me. I stood before him, unarmed, clad in a dented breastplate and helmet held on by thin leather straps. My shoulders were stooped with battle fatigue and my body ached from endless last-ditch efforts, but I didn’t fail to see the cunning behind his dark eyes. I could see the smudges on my face reflected back in his polished armor. I could see the hours of training and practice lining the muscles in his arms and legs. He rode tall in the saddle, his shoulders square as he looked down upon me, and I knew that he sensed that my despair was not yet complete, and my passion for freedom not yet burned out. I answered him nothing. The time to play my hand had not yet come.
I was placed on a horse, my hands bound, and I was allowed to view the gathering up of what remained of my forces. Less than a thousand men remained. We had fought bitterly and the victory had been very, very costly. The vast majority Ridgeport was indeed in ashes, and the young women and children were being made into slaves, either to serve their new masters in rebuilding the city or loaded onto carts to be shipped like so many cattle back to imperial cities. There were no more old ones.
The food as a prisoner, I found, was better than the fare of a soldier. I shared my tent with no one, although guards were constantly watching. The horse he gave me was a fine animal, finer than any Ridgeport had ever offered me. And I had both parchment and ink with which to record my thoughts. I understood his tactics. The empire could use good soldiers. No, the empire needed good generals. What else did I have, what else could the world offer me? A fair tactic, I mused, as I munched the fine bread and cheese that had been laid at me door. Soon, I was confident, young women would be provided, or boys if I preferred. The art of gentle persuasion had not been lost on the pillaging conqueror. He was as efficient as any war machine, and nearly as inhuman.
In two weeks he did not speak to me again, but one of his lieutenants paid a short visit. The boy was barely thirty, equally well trained and equipped as his general, but brandishing the patience of a puppy. “The general has sent me to inquire as to your comfort and health,” he began. Plausible enough, but the lie was far too evident in his eyes, although his delivery otherwise conveyed a reasonable mastery of the deceptive arts. A man like Torc would not need a pimple faced-goon such as this to ask me.
“I am faring far better than you will be when you leave this tent,” I replied. A remarkable, yet entirely pleasant, mix of arrogance and fear played itself out in his eyes. “What is your name?”
“I am the one asking questions,” he replied with more anger than was necessary.
“Of course,” I mocked. It was a half laugh, calculated exactly to touch off his nerves. No, indeed the general would definitely not have sent this one. “But I will not speak to someone I do not know.”
“Lieutenant Havril Garamond, of the imperial army, commander of this prison convoy.”
“Very well, lieutenant, ask your questions, and make them useful since your time as commander of anything has been cut very short.”
At this point the whelp almost struck me. He caught himself just in time; he knew that would be going to far. What he didn’t realize is that he had already gone to far. I smirked in response.
“I am sorry, lieutenant,” I lied, “I should not be so rude.” His shoulders relaxed, and he regained some of his air of arrogance. “Would you be so kind as to take a message to your general.”
“Of course,” he replied. I wrote my request as eloquently as possible on a piece of parchment, rolled it, sealed it and handed it to the lieutenant.”
As I wrote, he asked, “How is it that you came to be commander of the defense at Ridgeport?”
“The same way that you came to be standing here waiting for this message,” I replied, “destiny.” When I handed him the paper, I realized how unkind I had been, and understanding his destiny better than he did repented a little. “I suppose that isn’t a very fair answer.”
“I had hoped for something more concrete,” he said.
“Very well,” I began. “After leading the successful coupe of the late emperor Truril, and placing my late cousin on the throne, I tired of political intrigue. Furthermore, my deranged cousin had the audacity to slaughter my wife and sons to further cement his position. At which point I decided that the empire no longer held a place for me. Rather than watch him decay I fled to more comfortable parts, hoping to avoid the agony of watching his son take the throne. The world is a wide garden for an enterprising man, and Ridgeport needed enterprise.”
“So you came here to be a general, abandoning your loyal troops in Feneva?”
“No, nothing like that at all. My loyal troops would indeed have followed a general here, but I do not think they would have followed a wine merchant or a farmer, which I both was before and became again. I ran a healthy winery here in Ridgeport, and grew the finest grapes in the west.” I allowed myself some nostalgia as I spoke. Torc would certainly use the knowledge to his advantage if it had been new to him, but I knew that he was cunning enough to either guess it or spy it out himself and then to apply its meaning and use to the current situation. The question, of course, that I had to answer was whether Torc was acting strictly in his own interests, or if he was still functioning as someone’s lackey. I was, after all, a prize with many uses. So I made my ploy for solving this mystery.
“Have the general’s armies fared as well further north?” I asked.
“The general has no need to dirty his hands with the pig driving in the north lands, that is left for Laroc,” replied the lieutenant. I smiled inwardly, but was careful not allow any emotion to show on my face. A smile or a frown might be misconstrued at this point, and the lieutenant needed no further provocation.
I looked at the parchment in his hand, and said, “Please take care to deliver the message intact,” and even that dullard could tell the conversation was over.
The following day I was summoned, as expected, to preside at the execution of Lieutenant Havril. Disobeying orders in anyone’s army is dangerous at best. Doing so in General Torc’s army, particularly when it involves a treasure as valuable as myself is simply suicide. Lieutenant Havril made himself a very useful means of conveying that message to the remainder of the troops. Following the execution, General Torc invited me to dine.
The feast enjoined was sparse military fare. Slave girls served in abject silence, and the few I recognized were wise enough not to draw attention to themselves. I am not sure why Torc chose not to provide any entertainment that particular evening, but in retrospect I am glad he did not. Many worries weighed heavily upon me at that point and I do not believe I would have received satisfaction. In any event, the conversation turned quickly to political events, and the younger officers appeared eager to discuss the affairs of the empire. It was not terribly difficult to sort which lackey served which purpose to the general, and which few, like Havril, were expendable. I don’t generally like the outspoken ones, but a rather tall, broad man with an exceptional mustache after the eastern tradition caught my notice, both in the way he verbally browbeat the others quickly into submission, and in his intelligence into matters generally obscured.
He noticed for instance, “that we’ve been slogging out here in the forsaken western swamps for nigh on a year to get what?” At this juncture, for effect he kicked one of the unfortunate serving girls, “A few scrawny slaves,” and now he leered in my general direction, although he was careful enough to not sound too offensive, “and a doddering relic from the past.”
Quite naturally his little speech raised a cry of scorn from the general body. “For the glory of the empire have we captured the great city of Ridgeport, and are returning with its spoils to Feneva,” was the general consensus. “And when general Massoun has seen the changes in the capitol, he will gladly join us. There is no general like Torc, who leads us to conquest, destroying the enemies of the empire that others would not dare face.” I smiled now, a little bemused at this sort of talk. Would I indeed join this rabble of half-wits? Did Torc really understand the game he was playing? Of course he did, but I could sense that he was not truly capable of winning. He could come very close, but he could not win.
Torc supervised this display in silence, allowing his men to play their parts without interruption. I was almost convinced it had been entirely staged, until I understood that the nervousness in the general’s countenance stemmed not from my seeing through a charade, but rather from my not discerning the situation. I waited for an opportune moment, and proclaimed, “I shall never join the barbarism of the empire.” I allowed my hidden passions to play into my voice and body. “As long as a bloody tyrant holds the crown, it is an empire cursed by the gods, and upheld only by its pact with infernal powers.”
Now, although I do have some deep spiritual convictions, it must be understood clearly that this was little more than a ploy to arouse the passions of the men and to signal Torc that I understood the situation and was prepared to negotiate. I had not quite expected the explosive reaction I received. “He blasphemes against the emperor,” they cried, and I was quickly dragged from my place and flung to the ground before the tables. “Let us kill him!” they begged their general, and for a brief second I thought they might not wait on his approval. But I had underestimated both Torc’s control over his men and their loyalty to him.
With his stern and steady voice, he said, “Silence,” and silence ensued. “General Massoun grieves still for the loss of his family, and when he is better informed of the situation, he will join us.” He then looked at me, and stated, “You must be tired, general.” I nodded my consent. “Return him to his tent,” Torc ordered, and I was immediately gathered up from the ground and escorted back to my tent.
I sat in darkness in my tent, waiting for Torc to arrive. I did not have to wait long. The time had come for us to discuss openly his plans, whether to claim the throne for himself, or to play the part of puppet to another in the capitol. Of course he would have to claim it himself. I had not heard of anyone in Feneva with the guts, or much less the money, to finance a reckless general with only half an army to command to assault a worthless city in a swamp. My thoughts were interrupted when the bulky form of general Torc entered.
“I presume by now that you have figured out why I’m here,” he stated, flatly. His voice was gruff and yet weary. His eyes betrayed him. He was desperate, and so I concluded helpless, at least in a political sense.
“Disenfranchised with your own situation, you are desperate for a way to preserve not only your position, but your wealth and even your very life. With no allies in Feneva, you have abandoned the capitol, giving some excuse to go pillaging across the countryside, and have secretly captured me. Only your closest officers know who I truly am, but word has spread that Ridgeport is burned and an important prisoner has been taken. You will use these half rumors to re-negotiate a position of power in the capitol, and failing that simply either sell me to the highest bidder, or if you are brave enough to present me before the emperor and claim your just reward.”
“You guess pretty good,” he replied. “But how can you be so sure that I am working alone?”
“I do not say you are completely alone, but certainly without any connections to speak of. Because with the right connections you would have been directly commanding our armies both to the north and south, and we would be waiting here to be re-supplied instead of simply waiting. I am quite convinced you are in a very desperate situation.”
I don’t know exactly what I expected at that point. Each person reacts a little differently when faced with the truth of their situation at the hands of another person. But I certainly had not expected his reply.
“You are correct about many things Massoun,” he said, “but not about everything.”
I prepared myself for his continued self-denial.
“I am indeed a very desperate man. You see, I actually do love the empire. Fornost is a terrible creature, barely capable of being called a man, much less an emperor.”
“I knew him when he was a child,” I bemused.
“He has grown more evil. And his evil has infected every part of the capitol. Our borders in the north are actually collapsing, not growing under Laroc’s supervision. There is no longer a war to be waged in the south. Although the provinces are compliant for now, they will soon rise in rebellion.” He laughed a little, “a rebellion that power-mongering politicians will start themselves.”
His eyes glassed over with a demi-maniacal hatred of his own situation and the world at large as he continued. “Fornost is a beast. He gluts himself in every imaginable pleasure. His thirst for slaves and money is endless. A person cannot abide his presence and still feel human. Even the most powerful nobles dare not face him lest they be forced to perform some lewd act at his whim, or bear witness to yet another of his atrocities. But no one does anything because in their hearts they are the same. They envy him and his power, and because he can abuse his power they are free to abuse their own. Yes, I am a desperate man, and that is why I have come here to these swamps to burn your city. So that you would have nothing to turn back to. Nothing to keep you from claiming your right as emperor.”
I only half listened to most of his tirade, but must admit that his last bit caught me entirely by surprise. I suppose I had been a political pawn for so long that the idea of actually attempting to take the throne myself had simply left me entirely. Yet here stood a man capable of great ambition, with a formidable army at his command, asking me to take what most others would take for themselves. I thought a moment before I replied.
“You are right about one thing.” I paused to look at his eyes, and as I expected they were eager for my response. “I have nothing to go back to. You are very efficient, I’ll give you that.” He laughed, a little smug, and I laughed as well, but not for long. “You realize that we will both be killed if we fail?”
“Death is a small price to pay to redeem an empire,” he responded.
“You realized that you will be killed if we succeed?”
I don’t think he was quite ready for that eventuality, but I knew that he would have face that truth sooner or later. After all, there could only ever be one emperor, and no supreme ruler could ever trust a confidant who gave him supreme power. But I was prepared for his reply.
“Death is a small price to pay to redeem an empire,” he responded.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Death is a small price to pay, but even those small prices add up quickly.”
He proceeded to tell me of his plan. I found it much better laid out than previously anticipated. Among my colleagues I was always known as an infernal conspiricist, but next to Torc I was tame. I generally developed very cunning plans, and attended to the important details, often relying on human nature to fill in any gaps. Torc left nothing to chance. We both knew that direct assault on the capitol would be effective, yet hopeless in case the opposing army decided that their depravity was worth fighting for. However, a direct assault aided by additional inside turmoil would certainly give us time to seize the throne. The essential idea was to aide the provinces to the south to start their rebellion, and allow them to truly threaten the capitol, even allowing them to destroy opposing forces if necessary. And then to simply assassinate any of the more powerful politicians, including, of course, the emperor. Then I could safely declare myself in the capitol, negotiate a peace with the rebels and save the day.
Although there were several difficult hurdles to overcome with the plan, Torc informed me that he had indeed already started the rebellion, and that his army was currently the only thing stopping the rebel army from sacking the capitol. “Feneva is at our mercy.”
Within a matter of weeks we had traversed the countryside back towards Feneva. I must admit, in that short time I grew both restless and nostalgic. I had no real hope of success, and didn’t know what I would do even if I did succeed, but I was overcome with some amount of joy, more so than I had been in years. So I took a slave girl from Ridgeport as a wife. A consort would have been more fashionable, but she was actually from the nobility of that city, and proved to be a wonderful companion despite her youth and lack of proper training. I passed my time idling away the hours. Torc had the situation well in hand, and although I took great care to learn the details of his regime, I did not interfere with the daily decisions regarding his operations.
Meeting the leader of the rebels was hardly enlightening, but I believe it changed me a great deal. Houron was hardly a unique individual. He was that kind of leader who found himself there more through luck than ambition, although ambition ran thick in his blood. He was a powerful brute of a man, both tall and strong, covered in thick black hair with the constant smell of sweat and fish. The machine of war he called an army operated on vain hopes of freedom and the greedy ambitions of its generals. Houron, nor his cronies, held any real ideals about what they were doing.
“Give me a piece of land,” he said, “and a few servants to work it for me.” He swilled his wine without thought or care and feasted heartily on anything brought before him.
“Spoils to the victor,” I replied cheerfully, allowing myself to participate in the revelry for my comrade’s sake. “There will be land and riches enough to go around.”
Torc, I noticed, raised an eyebrow at my comments. I am not sure which question was bouncing back and forth in that brain, whether for his own interests or the empire’s. He simply raised his cup cheerfully and joined the celebration. We were now only a day from the capitol.
We sent an emissary demanding the immediate capitulation of the emperor, as well as the full support of all politicians in the empire. Naturally, we received only the messengers’ heads in response, but we had expected little more. General Laroc had an army less than a week away, and they would attempt to buy time until he could arrive and save them. We allowed them to play their game. I had no intentions of sacking that city; it would be far too costly to rebuild.
Although I had never faced Laroc in battle before, I had known his family well, and those who instructed him in the art of war. I took closer counsel now with general Torc. Although I trusted his decisions to a great extent, he was still unaccustomed to winning an impossible battle. We would need to keep the majority of our forces to guard the city while the remainder of our army defeated Laroc’s much larger force. Naturally Torc advised against this move, but his resistance was short lived. “It is the best way,” I stated. “Your troops are seasoned and well trained. They will not be facing a man of any real intellectual account. Laroc is not a strategist nor even a warrior, he is a politician in a suit of armor.”
“How can you be so sure,” asked Torc. “He has campaigned well, and I have met him on several occasions. He has always appeared very sharp to me.”
“Because he is who he is,” I replied. “A man cannot cease to be himself. As a boy he once played with my own son. He would often bully the other children, until one day a smaller boy caught him in a hunting snare and left him tied in a tree for a day. Laroc never discovered that the trap had been set intentionally, nor had any of his family, and that brash bullying boy never learned his lesson. I am certain he will overlook the trap he is walking into now.”
I do not believe that my answer satisfied Torc, but he did not question my strategy. We had reached that pinnacle which he could never hope to scale. This far he could have come without my help, but to actually succeed he would have to win two impossible victories, the first with Laroc which he may have been able to do, and the second at Feneva which he could never do.
Laroc’s troops first encountered our forces five days later. Our guerillas first began harrying the enemy three days before. The strategy was simple enough. Slow them down. Cut off their scouts. Harass them as quickly and efficiently as possible from as many sides as possible.
The final maneuver was costly, albeit not as costly as a frontal assault would have been, but it took a great deal of convincing to pull off. Asking men to kill themselves rarely is a good battle strategy, but I found some who were willing, and gullible enough to believe I could save them. The basic idea was to make a feint with a large enough force to get Laroc’s army to pursue them, and then to use the main force of my army to attack Laroc’s rear. Amazingly enough it worked; and as Laroc is one of those generals who enjoys fighting from behind his forces, we captured and executed him without problem. To my even greater surprise, some of the men from our advance force survived.
Entering Feneva would prove more difficult. Naturally our army could easily storm the wall and after a few months siege the city would fall. However, that would weaken both the empire and my own ability to govern it. I am not a man fond of waste. So I sent them again an emissary, this time bearing a corpse-less head of his own. With Laroc dead, some politicians were prepared to negotiate. Not formally, of course, but secretly. I had some cousins still in power, and many old friends, as well as a few ambitious youth. Each without knowledge of the other participated in a subtle plot.
Members of the opposition were convinced to attempt to flee the city at given times and places. Naturally they were captured. The useless were killed. The useful held as comfortable prisoners. In each case word was spread of their successful escape. Messages reached the emperor of conspirators and traitors within my ranks. Stories of assassination attempts on general Torc and myself found their ways into taverns. And Feneva relaxed. I sent a great portion of the rebel army back to their provinces with instructions on how to remove their local governors. Then the emperor died, mysteriously overcome with a fit of insane rage, stabbing himself in the heart. The only witness to this tragedy was his most trusted advisor and the leader of his personal bodyguard. A day later his sons were found butchered. The city was thrown into a panic. Where would they turn for leadership?
The city gates were opened, and my bodyguard and I made our way to the palace. I presented myself before the great council, and I promised to avenge these horrible deaths and bring peace again to the empire. As the only living relative of the emperor, it was both my right and my duty to restore the glory of the empire. In addition I had a substantial force of men willing to destroy anyone who stood in my path.
In a short time conspirators were found and hanged. Those who did not support my cause were executed for not supporting the previous emperor. During this time Houron was found to be responsible for the death of one the other would-be heirs to the throne, and likewise executed. In fact, the majority of the rebel leaders were found to be responsible for much of the mayhem and were all killed quietly and quickly. Support for my cause was both unanimous and energetic.
Finally, I found myself alone, in the palace with my power. I sat beside a shallow pool of water near my apartments, gazing at myself in the ripples. I saw and felt the blood on my hands. How many had I murdered along the way? How many exiled? How many lives destroyed? For the sake of the empire? For the sake of ambition? Just to see if I could actually do it? I smelled of blood and dung. I felt my body covered in blood and mire. I tore off my filthy bloodstained garments, and thrashed about in the water, trying desperately to wash the stains from my body. Exhausted, I sat down and looked out over the city, and in my mind I saw the vineyard I first purchased near Ridgeport. I saw the home and the country fields where my children grew. I saw the battles I had won, felt again the glory. And I saw myself standing on that hill near Ridgeport watching the slaughter. The blood returned.
I heard Torc enter. He was alone, but I knew he would be unarmed. I clothed myself and called for fruit and a knife to cut it. We talked. Some pitiful matter regarding affairs in the city, I wasn’t really paying attention. In my mind all that I could see was the blood and pain that he had caused me. The thirst of power had driven me to atrocities I never believed myself capable. When the knife came I took my revenge. I passed all the blood and power and guilt onto Torc. As I slumped to the ground, I felt again the smoke and ash of a burning city and was grateful for the deathblow that saved me.
THE END

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