My Dearest Cora,
The strangest thing has happened.
First, I am well. I am fed and warm and safe. Well, safe as anyone can be when they are marching to war.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was so consumed with the unfairness of my exile. After everything I had sacrificed – I had led the army that defeated Savian the Red. I liberated the kingdom of Exigen from Savian’s rule and made the seven realms whole again. Peaceful again.
I thought my reward would be titles, lands, songs sung by every bard this side of the great river. I thought I would train the next generation of soldiers so that a ruler as despotic and ruinous as Savian would never again be allowed to find power.
On that last score, I was right.
But what I didn’t understand was that it’s not about the unfairness to me. It is unfair. But it is the price I pay to serve the realms, and I will pay it.
I was wrong about peace.
Fenri taught me that peace isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. It is an illusion sold by those in power to maintain their power. Peace means “I keep ruling, and you do what I say.”
It doesn’t exist. There is always either a war coming or a war to recover from. It’s a cycle. And that cycle IS stable. The world needs war. Balance. Do you see? It makes sense.
Now that I write it out, it seems to make less sense to me. I should have Fenri explain it to you. She’s my lieutenant. She’s the carrier of the strategy, as has been true of her family for ten generations.
Cora, the strategy is a masterpiece of foresight. None in the seven realms knows of it, yet it has led to this golden age, scientific advancement, longer lives, and happier lives!
Fenri and her people – they are the true benefactors, the progenitors of this era. They do nothing but train and struggle and die and never with a moment of recognition by those they serve.
I’m not making sense, am I?
Before he became Savian the Red, the conquerer, the tyrant, he was the king’s general. And then the power went to his head, he lost his mind and declared himself ruler of Exigen, do you remember?
But he wasn’t mad, Cora; he wasn’t evil. His fall was ordained, just as mine was. He served the realm as I do now. When he burned Miona, when he killed those people – he did so in service to the realm. I know it sounds absurd, but it worked! Cora, it worked. I remember sleeping in my bunk as a soldier, filled with fury at the news. How dare this man violate my country so savagely. When I wanted to put down my sword and rest, I would smell the smoke of Miona burning, I would hear the screaming of its citizens, and I would see Savian laughing eyes as he put down the torch.
I had to become who I am to stop him.
And just as he made me, I must now make the next me.
Do you see? Today’s greatest hero must be tomorrow’s villain to find a hero still greater.
It is not without cost. And I mourn the lives lost, the further life that must be spent. But there is always a cost. And I think it is cheaper in the long run to pay those lives.
If I had never picked up a sword – where would the world be today? Fragmented. Weak. Isolated. Broken. Think of the artisans employed by my invention of modular armor. How now every soldier fights with the metal only affordable by the rich before.
And if Sagad’hilu had never besieged Artis, Savian wouldn’t have devised his book of tactics. And if the bandit king Worrekin hadn’t waged war, Sagad’hilu never would have created her sword dance.
But because of them, because of me – this world will endure and prosper and grow.
Cora, I’m leading an army against the realm. Because that’s the best way to serve it now, that’s how I can serve. And it has to be me. Only the best leader among us can maintain the strategy. It is constraints that lead to creativity – it is hardship that renders strength – only through the greatest of trials will the next hero emerge.
That’s what Fenri said, and she makes a lot of sense to me. She was the one to welcome me when I got here. I was bone-weary, having ridden for four days and three nights with only a scattering of sleep.
And they were lined on the street, waiting for me, cheering for me. I thought I was hallucinating, thought I was dying, maybe. And then I noticed the insignia on their armor. Savian’s insignia. These were Savian’s soldiers. They were my enemies. And they cheered for me.
After my friends had disavowed me, slandered me, banished me, you can’t imagine what that felt like.
And then Fenri brought me here – to my new manor. It had all been prepared for me. They had been waiting, counting on the queen to follow the strategy. She arranged it all – for the evidence of my treachery to be planted in our home. She paid soldiers to testify to my cruelty on the battlefield.
It’s all a lie, Cora. But it’s also true. I will be that person now. The person the queen demands I become. Because I serve the realm, I will not hold back. I will try with everything I have to burn it all down.
Carry my best to the queen and your parents.
And find somewhere safe, Cora, I am coming.
© 2021, Aaron Zimmerman. All rights reserved.