|Illustration by Maria Kolaki|
His name is Kuss. Once, he was known as Kuss the Destroyer, Kuss the Warmonger, Kuss the Undefeated and Kuss, the Scourge of Kings. He had single-handedly raised an army and had overthrown the Tyrant of Kallipolis, taking his kingdom for his own, and then subjugating every nearby province.
“Know, oh King…” said the old man, the wrinkles of his face contorting with each spoken word, his eyes fixed on his lord, sitting on his golden throne. Kuss had taken the throne he now sat upon from the Dragon Lord’s hoard, and had made his very crown from gold stolen from the Demon Prince’s vaults.
“…that the Zukkara province has denied to give up their tenth of the annual harvest. Which, of course, will undoubtedly wreak havoc to our yearly revenue, especially considering the tremendous financial cost attributed to our Gurmoosh campaign.”
Heh. Zukkara. A nation of merchants, potters and river sailors. None of them could ever fight. Even now, with the majority of his army fighting the rebels in far-away Gurmoosh, he could still invade, kill a tenth of its population and hang the hetman by his own genitals, with just a handful of men by his side.
“No matter” said the Minister of the Golden Threshold, “Zukkara is a relatively small province and the tax we levied from them is insignificant. We can afford to let them get away with this one.”
He was about to protest, to speak up and call his Minister a putty-faced degenerate, when his Queen put her hand on his thigh and gently squeeze. His anger faded then and he lost his momentum. She spoke and his heart skipped a beat.
“Other regions will follow Zukkara’s example, however. If we let this go unpunished, then other nations will follow their example and where will we be then, Minister? No, what we need to do is-”
‘Burn their capital to the ground, kill every living thing, then salt the earth, so that nothing will ever grown again’ he thought, looking at his Queen with wide-eyed wonder. Had she changed back to her old ways? Had she given up the subtle, underhanded ways of civilization? Was she once again the warrior goddess he had fallen in love with, all those years ago?
“-oust their delegation from the capital, confiscate the wares of all Zukkaran merchants that are currently within the city walls. We will hold on to our policy, until they pressure their lords into giving up their taxes.”
“Capital idea, mother”, said the young man at the opposite end of the table, jotting down the minutes of the council. Kuss let out an expesperated sigh. The boy that had just spoken was his son. A pale, pudgy weakling of a scribe, who fainted at the very sight of blood. He would have fed him to the lions already, had he not been his only child.
His gaze fell to the map, laid out across the ancient mahogany table. He looked across the distant expanses that comprised his kingdom, at the mighty Jorrspine, that was the natural border to the mysterious kingdoms of the Orient, at the mighty river Horr, whose guardian spirit he had once beaten into submission, at the Horse Plains, where the Bronze Hordes dwelt, who had been the vanguard of his first army. In his mind’s eye, every single one of these regions was flooded with blood, the air ringing with the sound of clashing steel and the screams of men and kings alike, fallen by the hundreds from his blade.
“Not a wise course of action, my lady” said the Minister, waking Kuss from his reverie. He was old now, once again trapped in his throne, doomed to suffer the luxuries that weaker men desired for the rest of his life. “The Zukkaran Merchant Princes do, after all, control a large part of our exports in the Orient. Should we anger them, we could be facing a drawn-out embargo, which will in turn-”
He imagined drawing his sword from his sheath, climbing across the table and cutting off the Minister’s damn fool head, for wasting his time. He felt like screaming at the top of his lungs, with the fierceness of a lion at his council: ‘Cowards! Degenerates! Petty fools the lot of you! Enough with the talking, enough with the planning! Let us wipe Zukkara from the face of the map! Let us enslave their women and children and drown their men in quicksand! Lets us bury their leaders alive in the mortar of our temples! Let us do anything but talk!’
He said none of this, of course. He dared not. His Queen still had her hand on his thigh and he could feel the very weight of his kingdom pressing down on him, snuffing out the fire that once raged in his heart. He thought back to his father’s words, a lifetime ago:
‘A body fails, my son. It is a faulty thing that breaks and bends and twists and gets sick. You cannot rely on the body. But the body is commanded by the heart. And as long as the heart is young and there is fire in your chest, the body will keep going.’
“-cause a far greater…”
“The Merchant Princes won’t dare risk losing our favor, Minister! Should they anger us, they know that we will withdraw our troops that escort their caravans across their regions, thereby forcing them to spend-” his son butted in.
‘Never let your heart grow old, son.’
Kuss looked up, the bickering of his council a distant drone to his ears. He looked around the room, at the hanging banners of conquered kingdoms. He saw the torn banner of King Qurus of the Innurvel, the lion cleft in twain. He saw the banner of Lord Dumorn, Master of the Rivers, stained with Dumorn’s own blood, the stain surrounding the jagged hole through which he had stabbed at the poor bastard, as he begged for his life. He looked at each and every one of them, each a kingdom broken and forced under his rule. His eyes looked at his own banner then, where he could now clearly see his own motto, laid out before him, stitched in gold thread:
Fortune Favors the Brave.
“What say you, my liege?”
He looked at his council, who now stared at him, waiting for a response. He could hardly feel his Queens fingers now, as they dug into his thigh.
“You’re the tie-breaker, father. Should we pressure the Zukkarans or not?” muttered the boy, his arm raised high, smiling his big-toothed grin.
Kuss cleared his throat and spat, then. His council gasped at the sight. Stretching his mighty arms, flexing his muscles, the King grabbed his sword and strapped it on his back. Carefully, he took the crown off his brow and placed it before him, on the map. The gold now ringed his capital.
“What is the matter, my love?” said his Queen, her words bearing a command, which Kuss ignored.
He undid the brooch that held his regal cloak and got up on the table. Tossing the garment aside with one hand, he ripped his shirt with the other. His chest was pale and the skin was wrinkled in places, but his scars were still there, unfaded. His council took a step back then. The head of his royal guard stared in amazement.
“What seems to be the matter, oh King?”
“Kuss! Get down from there, this instant!” said his queen, the old lioness, and her voice made the windows around her rattle.
Kuss looked at her, then. He saw her wrinkled face, her mane of red hair raised up in a tight bunch, her painted lips and eyelids. He looked at her for a long while, but there was no sign of the woman he had fallen in love with. His Lioness had died long ago, swallowed up by the Queen.
No matter, he thought. Plenty more where she came from.
He ran, then, right before her hands grabbed him. This was his one and only chance and he had taken it and by the gods, no-one would stop him! No one would dare!
He jumped as he reached the end of the table, curling his body into a tight ball, bursting through the glass window, raining shards of glass and bronze down into the courtyard. Reaching his hand out, he grasped at the flag that waved in the autumn breeze and used it to swing himself onto the huge oak tree in front of his balcony. In a single, elegant motion, he grabbed a low branch, rode it till he was close enough to the ground, then jumped down, ran across the courtyard, punched a guard for no good reason and scaled the walls.
He was galloping fiercely on a stolen horse out of the capital by sunset. Behind him, the Zukkaran embassy burned. Before him, the world and its wonders beckoned. He spurred his horse on, like a madman, yelling at the top of his lungs, riding into the sunset.
Kuss the Undefeated had no more time to lose.
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