It was shortly after Chrysan had joined General Helianthus’ unit that the general realized something was deeply wrong with the kingdom. The young soldier in front of him had requested a transfer from one of the safest, most stable military posts in all of Nastur. He’d given up one of the easiest ways to move up the social ladder for… what, to shoot arrows at people?
He was good at it, too.
Chrysan arrived, greeted everyone properly, with decorum and formality. All things expected of a castle knight and not a soldier. He got along with the rest of the troop and turned out to be as great at taking orders as he was at pointing and shooting.
Well, General Helianthus thought as he observed the new kid, some people just like war.
Some people fought for a greater purpose. Some people already had rank or station but felt that they needed to do some sort of “good” for their people. But that wasn’t the case, because soon General Helianthus was hearing rumors about the new soldier move around his camps. Loud ones.
Chrysan hated war. He hated this war particularly. He’d been vocal about it at the castle, too. Someone said he didn’t request a transfer but was forced into it by General Narsi Quill of the king’s army.
He had been in Queen Anemone’s detail when she died, he heard someone say.
Someone else postured that he was probably an illegitimate child of the king.
Half the things General Helianthus heard were lies, exaggerated stories that the soldiers told each other to keep their spirits up. One thing was for certain though: Chrysan did hate this war, and he came here specifically to fight in it because of whatever happened at the castle.
“General Helianthus,” Chrysan said one day. They were caught in a surprise attack close to the Nastur-Gladiolus border, forced to take shelter in a cave for a few days and set up defenses to survive. The troop was starting to fade—the general could see it in them. They held the line, but they were losing hope. Chrysan came up to him with bright and sparkling eyes. “I’ll swim out.”
“There’s a lake at the back of the cave. I believe it connects to the river we crossed to get here somewhere,” he said. “I and some others can swim out, and we can attack the guerilla troop from both sides.”
“How do you know it connects out?”
Chrysan cocked his head. “The tide has been coming in and out,” he said. “It’s been hard to get a shot past all the shields, but I do what I can when the enemies are close enough. In the meantime, I’ve been trying to think of a way to get out of this.”
General Helianthus stared hard at him, at the passive face Chrysan put on. “Your bow and arrows would get wet. They’re too hard to shoot,” he said. “It’s a good idea. I’ll send someone else.”
“You think I’ve never practiced in the rain?” Chrysan asked with a scoff. “You need people that can travel light,” he explained. “I can take off my armor. Send me and Cori. Some others who can move fast. Strike and get out before anybody realizes we’re there.”
“I’ve heard you hate the war,” General Helianthus said. “Why go to such lengths that you’d enter a battle without your armor?”
Chrysan cast a glance to his side as he stripped off the hard metal, leaving only the light leather beneath. “I want it to end,” he said. “There’re more important things.”
“More important than your life?”
“I can’t die,” Chrysan quipped easily. “Orders from Her Majesty.”
“Her Majesty?” General Helianthus echoed. “Chrysan, you must be more tired than I thought. Queen Anne is dead.”
He smiled. “I know,” he said, his voice soft. “I know. And that’s important, isn’t it? To remember that? To know why a war is more important than the death of your wife?”
When General Helianthus didn’t say anything, Chrysan barreled on like what he’d whispered hadn’t been the most personal thing he’d ever said in General Helianthus’ presence.
“Besides, what’s more important than a really nice sleep after a battle like this?” Chrysan laughed.
So General Helianthus chose a few people. Chrysan and Cori, like he suggested. The new addition, Camellia, who was proving to be a reckless and incredibly reliable soldier. She was from Gladiolus, much of the troop didn’t trust her, but she’d already proved herself many times over. A few others who could travel light, who could swim, and who he trusted to send without his guidance.
The attack was mostly successful. He lost a few good men, but ultimately a pincer attack seemed the best move for the Nastur army. Any survivors retreated, and General Helianthus went to meet the separate unit and recount his losses.
He met Day Bellis in a Gladiolus town a few days later. He was a man who held no weapons, who held his hands up in surrender as he approached.
And that changed everything.
The grand purpose the general had been fighting for—the revenge of his queen, the expansion of his kingdom for his king—it all felt pointless as he stood in front of a man who told him that Nastur had been attacking before Queen Ann was pronounced dead. That their schools had been destroyed before she had even fallen sick.
The Gladiolus man apologized for the loss of his men. He handed General Helianthus a flower. A daisy.
He received a letter soon after their meeting. It was an agonizing few weeks as it burned a hole in his saddle bag, buried beneath everything else. But he returned the letter, he asked for proof. What proof was there to be offered? the man had written. I offered the truth. I offered myself, with no protection. Gladiolus is a small country, ravaged by its neighbors. If we learned to defend ourselves, what would the larger kingdoms do then? And who was urging for our education, the uplifting of our culture and our skills more than the Queen of Nastur?
That was all the proof he had.
Cori was the one who cornered General Helianthus, a knife in her hand and her eyes narrowed into a glare. They were deep in Gladiolus territory at this point of the war. All of his troop was on edge, but Cori was used to being undercover—used to being in enemy territory. She had the most sense about her. Of course it had been her that had caught him.
“What are you planning?” She scowled.
He stared at her, mind blank.
“Who are you sending letters to?”
“I don’t know how you plan on sending a letter out of the middle of Gladiolus,” she scolded, “unless you’re sending them to someone here.” She took a bold step closer. “Are you?”
He lifted his head, bearing his neck for her. “And if I was?”
“General,” she said pointedly. “Who would you be writing to in enemy territory?”
“They are still people,” he said. “There are still people living here, Cori.”
He saw her waver: her hand fall a fraction of an inch, her shoulders relax, and her eyes move from him to something else, finally. “Of course there are,” she agreed. “We don’t fight wars against nothing.”
“Just for nothing.”
“You’re sounding like Chrysan,” she said. “What… what is…”
“Not like Chrysan,” he corrected. “He wants to end the war. We want to stop it.”
Her hand fell.
General Helianthus saw his opportunity.
Everyone’s eyes were on the arrow Chrysan had shot, on his fallen comrade.
He pushed himself up and he ran.
Something slammed into him. He fell forward, rolling. Something rolled over him.
He looked up, through the dirt that had clouded into the air from the fall. Camellia was already pushing herself up with her sword stabbed into the ground, staring daggers at him.
He likewise pushed himself up. There was an ache in his chest as he looked at her, saw her ferocity. She had always been like this—always a fighter, always brutal on the battlefield.
“Camellia,” he began. “You don’t understand.”
“Do not,” she barked. “No defense you offer will excuse what you’ve done. You’ve betrayed everyone who trusted you—your men, your kingdom, even the rebels you defected with. You’ve put us in danger. All the lives you were in charge of are lost.”
He sighed, standing up. Back straight. Tall and proud. “I did what I had to. There are things more important than an individual. As for my men… I’ve seen more men die than I can count. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for them.”
Camellia scowled, breathing hard. She looked like she was wavering. The general knew better.
“You can’t escape punishment, sir,” she said.
He nodded. He drew his sword. “And who are you to punish me, Camellia?” he asked, a light smile on his face. “Regardless, I am glad it’s you.”
She charged. He met the strikes of her sword with his own, parrying where he could. She had improved remarkably since arriving in Nastur and joining the army. Her swordsmanship was nearly flawless, but…
“You’re holding back,” he noted. She was mostly blocking—he was easily moving her back. She was heartbroken—it was written all over her face. Most of her unit was traitors, people sympathetic to the rebels and insurrection. These were people who hadn’t trusted her when she’d joined, people she’d had to defend to earn the trust of. He had sent her away on undercover missions to ease their worries after she joined, until she’d proved her loyalties were with them. And they turned around and did this to her.
Camellia scowled, thrusting right for his stomach.
He sidestepped and mirrored her, but he connected. He felt more than he saw. He saw her flinch away, grab her side. But he felt the resistance of the armor, of flesh. Felt the spasm of muscle when she moved. Heard her gasp and grit her teeth shut.
She tried to swipe him, but she was delayed by the injury. She stumbled and fell to her knees.
“At this rate, you won’t win,” he commented lightly. “You won’t avenge those kids that kidnapped the princess or your countrymen. Do you think I don’t know how it feels? I lost men for a lie. I fought and I killed and people died for something the king told them, for a sham. I want revenge as well.”
She gasped as she glared up at him. General Helianthus was the better fighter and they both knew it. It was reckless and foolish for her to chase after him.
But she couldn’t lose.
“Celan,” she muttered. She swallowed a deep breath of air. “Their names were Celan and Holly. Do you know everyone you wish to avenge, General? Or are they an idea you fight for?”
He raised a brow.
“You say you fight for others,” she grit out, pushing herself up. “But I fight for survival.”
She flicked her hand away from her side, splashing blood like it was a spell right into the general’s face. He flinched away.
Camellia threw her sword and it caught in Helianthus’ arm.
Before he could grab it, she was there. She’d started running as soon as she threw it, already making her next move. She ripped the sword from his arm.
There was the Camellia he knew, the one he’d seen from their years shared on the battlefield.
When he tried to strike her, she grabbed the body of one of her former comrades. He stopped mid strike, his sword halfway embedded into his friend.
She hid behind the body and stabbed through it. Through the neck, straight into General Helianthus’ heart. She pushed and pushed until she’d made it through the armor, blood covering her hands and arms, the corpse the only thing keeping them apart.
Then she pulled her sword out of both men in front of her.
General Helianthus fell to his knees.
Camellia sliced his neck.
He fell. Dead.
She looked around. There were no other threats. Most of her unit, including her general, the man who had given her a place in a country that wasn’t her own… was dead.
Camellia gasped for air like she was coming out of a spell.
Everyone was dead.
She didn’t mean for it to be like this. When she had said the war wasn’t over, that people were still dying… she thought she’d known who was dying for what reason.
But what reason was this? What was the point of fighting and dying, of killing people you thought you could trust?
Then she took one last gulp of air and wiped the blood off her face.
“Lady Camellia,” Via said, approaching slowly.
Camellia’s head snapped to look at Lady Via warily. There was something in her face Camellia was too tired to decipher.
“Good work,” she said. “You are truly as glorious on the battlefield as I’ve heard.”
Camellia’s head fell. She wasn’t much in the mood for the games Lady Via liked to play. She felt brittle, like metal that had been too long over a fire. “I apologize for disrespecting the dead. I simply wanted to give the general what he deserved,” Camellia answered dully.
“Oh, Lady Camellia,” Lady Via said sweetly. “No, no. I mean it.”
She reached out, placing a hand on Camellia’s blood-soaked armor.
“Who cares about the dead?” she asked rhetorically. “What matters is the survivor. And that’s you, hm?”
Camellia looked up at Lady Via, just an arm’s distance away.
Lady Via hummed, her eyes open, a smile on her lips. “It’s okay,” she said, and wrapped her arms around Camellia to hug her. “Not everyone understands what happens on the battlefield.”
“I’m not fit to be a knight,” she said.
Via shushed her. “You are a survivor.”
Camellia’s head dropped to Lady Via’s shoulder. “Please don’t…” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “Don’t make me leave her side because of this.”
“I won’t speak a word of it,” she promised.