Desmond would have liked to say he faced his death with dignity, that when they came for him he was cool and contained, had the grace and poise of a defeated king.
But he didn't. When they broke into the room where he'd managed to hide himself, he was already crying. He screamed and kicked and bit and raised all the ruckus he could. Fuck dying with dignity, he'd be as ugly and noisy as necessary in order to live.
All for nothing, of course. He was a scholar forced to be king, never trained as a soldier. The only knives he could hold were those on the dining table. He'd been raised in a monastery, not an armory.
So he lost the battle swiftly, beaten, bruised, and broken into submission. One felt fast to his arm as they dragged him through the halls, another dug fingers painfully tight into his hair and pulled him along like an angry child with their least favorite toy.
There was too much blood and sweat in his eyes to see where they were going, too much smoke and noise in the air to even try to get a question out—not that he thought anyone would answer.
But the heavy smell of incense reached his nose a few minutes later, and a familiar thick, soft carpet beneath his knees. They were in the grand throne room. Well, wasn't hard to figure out why he was still alive. One of Benta's favorite stories was of how his many-times great grandfather, the first of his family to rule as monarch, had taken his thrown by beheading his predecessor in that very room. The supposed sword that had done the deed hung on the wall immediately behind the throne. By blood, by might, by right do we rule.
Ah, it would be a good one for the history books and many generations to rule on. The kings who took by the sword eventually died by the same sword, having fallen from heroes to villains. Poetic, if trite, the perfect story by which the rebels would win the hearts of the masses.
If he wasn't about to be the executed king in the tale, if the rebels weren't far greater a problem than he could ever be, he might almost approve the ridiculous story being spun at his expense.
Familiar voices spoke around them, including the backstabbing bastard who had been second in command of his private guard. She and half of Bitter Frost had made swift work of killing the rest of them—and Captain Matthias had died trying to get Desmond to safety.
So much for their long history of honor and loyalty.
Desmond's head was yanked up and his face crudely wiped. He blinked away remaining flecks of crusted blood and stared into the dark green eyes of Bryan Kettermane, Royal Seneschal and someone Desmond had stupidly thought was his friend. Someone else who'd sworn loyalty, made promises to speak for the good and the just. Hundreds had attested he was an honorable man.
"How are you feeling, Majesty?" Kettermane asked.
Blood had filled Desmond's mouth from where his teeth had cut his cheek after one backhand or another. He spat it in Kettermane's face.
Chuckling, idly cleaning the blood from his face, Kettermane replied, "Don't be childish, Majesty. You've lost the war, face it with dignity."
"Dignity is the purview of honorable men, and I have no desire to resemble the likes of you," Desmond said. He spit again. Kettermane snarled and backhanded him, but Desmond only laughed. That seemed to infuriate Kettermane more, but before he could hit Desmond again, Bethany, the backstabbing First Lieutenant of Bitter Frost, grabbed his arm.
"Unhand me, Lieutenant," Kettermane snapped.
"He's had about all he can take. If you want to make a spectacle of his death, leave off."
Kettermane snarled several colorful words, but jerked his hand free and stood. "Where are we with matters?"
"The city has been taken, and the castle is nearly secure," Bethany said. "I've had reports of trouble, but no details yet. Scouts should be bringing me information shortly."
"Probably just a last few stragglers from the royal guard," Kettermane said. "Or misguided fools who think their pathetic king is worth dying for."
Desmond hoped not. He wasn't worth dying for, though he doubted he and Kettermane agreed on the reasons.
"Hopefully that's all it is," Bethany replied. "I've given the order to start having all relevant persons brought here for the ceremony." She dropped her gaze briefly to Desmond, something almost like regret filling her face for a fleeting moment. "Are you doing it? Or do I need to arrange someone? Whoever it is should probably go masked."
"I'll do it."
Bethany eyed him. "You do know—"
"Be quiet," Kettermane snapped.
"Sir." Bethany turned away, sharing a look with some of her people.
Curiosity fluttered briefly through Desmond, then snuffed out. He didn't care about discontent in the ranks. Not when those ranks had already betrayed him. He was vastly more concerned with Kettermane "doing it" himself. Kettermane wasn't a soldier any more than Desmond; there was no way he'd be able to cut Desmond's head off. So not only was Desmond going to die, it was going to be an agonizing death. Hopefully someone else would step in and finish the job after Kettermane failed miserably.
Kettermane shifted restlessly. "I want—"
The words were drowned out by the booming thunder of an explosion, followed by the crashing sound of a wall or something collapsing. That was followed by screams, cries--and then the unmistakable sound of battle.
"Find out what's wrong!" Kettermane snarled, even as Bethany surged forward, gesturing sharply for soldiers to flank her.
They hadn't made it more than a handful of steps when the enormous, iron and wooden doors of the grand throne room were blown in, and soldiers surged into the room.
"Oh, merciful gods," Bethany said, voice quavering. She whipped around and returned to Kettermane. "We need to get you out of here. Bitter Frost, soldiers! Protect Kettermane's retreat at all costs." She glanced to the men still holding fast to Desmond. "If they reach the door, use him to delay them." Once the soldiers had acknowledged the order, Bethany and Kettermane vanished through the door behind the throne.
The soldiers he'd only glimpsed before were now clear as day, and even more terrifying in reality than he'd always heard: blood red tunics, emblazoned with slash marks that seemed to open up their chests to reveal only a dark void, and dark steel armor riddled with sharp spikes.
Penance Gate, the most feared mercenary band in Harken—one of the most infamous in the world. Most mercenaries in the world tried to project a noble soldier front. Those from Treya Mencee seldom bothered, of course, but everyone else did.
Not Penance Gate. They went in the complete opposite direction and were as menacing as possible.
Why in the world was Penance Gate there?
Of the Bitter Frost and royal guards who'd been ordered to cover Kettermane's escape, at least a third ran away. The remaining were being destroyed like paper before a torch. Desmond swallowed, horrified and awed all at once as he watched Penance Gate fight their way through the grand throne room. Even with a third of the soldiers having fled, there was hundreds to go through and Penance Gate seemed only to have a small force—honor guard numbers, not more than fifty—rather than a fighting force.
One of the men holding Desmond yanked him to his feet and pressed a knife to his throat, right as the other one dropped with a crossbow bolt in his forehead. Desmond stared at the man bearing the mark of captain, a faceless soldier in a spiked helmet. But those eyes. The very color of a summer sky. Even if he hadn't known already that Allen's brother headed Penance Gate, he would know those eyes anywhere. Prince Chass—Crown Prince Chass. Why was he here?
"Don't come closer!" the guard said.
Chass laughed, low and derisive. "Next time, make certain to secure your rear."
The man drew breath to reply, but in the moment Desmond felt him jerk, and heard a wet, sucking sound. Then Desmond was free. He turned around, saw the man bleeding out from a wound in his neck, a tall Penance mercenary sheathing a long, thin digger.
"Your Majesty, are you all right?"
Desmond turned back and watched as Chass climbed the stairs to the throne dais. "Yes, thank to you and your people, Captain. What is Penance—"
"Questions later," Chass replied. "Can you walk?"
"Yes, I'm fine." Desmond walked toward him—and everything went black.
When he stirred, he was lying on the floor. No, he was lying on someone on the floor. He turned his head and looked up into familiar blue eyes. "Perhaps I was mistaken."