“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.” The commander says.
“Death is not defeat, sir.” The strategist retorts, leaning forward on the desk. “One man is not an army.”
Commander March-a tall, square-set man in his early forties-checks the urge to roll his eyes. He looks up from their plan.
He’s spent too much time in this room, too much time with the cocky, disrespectful man in front of him.
The past three days have drowned March in grim reports from the watchmen and snark from the strategist, who acts like it’s the commander’s fault that three different feudal lords sit outside the city walls with their respective armies. The commander would gladly blame the past week for his graying hair, the lines on his face, and his increasingly short-sighted eyes, but he knows that’s not it.
Nothing ages a man like four years of war.
And the last thing he needs is this troublemaker assigning himself a suicide mission.
“Not any one man.” Commander March answers. “As much as I hate to say it, you may be the exception.”
“You’ll win this battle without me.” The chair scrapes as the strategist stands, his knuckles on the table. “I’ve already shown you how-and for that I deserve to fight.”
Commander March leans back in his chair to look at him.
Twenty-year-old Omi, the strategist, is short, slight and wiry, with olive skin and almond eyes. He doesn’t seem the stuff of legend. Nevertheless, he is one-an immortal with magical genius, the only reason March and his city are still alive.
But Commander March will be damned before he lets the kid sidestep his authority.
“This isn’t your fight. I hired you, paid you for your help. You have no place in my ranks.” He states passively.
The strategist goes pale with rage. His fists clench.
“I placed myself under your command.” He says through gritted teeth. “I’ve obeyed your every order.”
“And you’ve been rewarded.” March answers. He stands up, pushing the chair back neatly under the desk. “Don’t presume that you’ve done me a favor-that your genius is a gift to my people. You named a price and I paid it.”
“I thought you were different from the others.” Omi points an accusing finger; his voice shakes with anger. “I thought you weren’t one of those warmongers who think they can purchase me and keep me like a toy. That’s the only reason I agreed to work with you.”
He knocks the chair aside and strides toward the door. “You can keep your bloody money.”
March crosses his arms.
“I didn’t say you could leave.”
The strategist stops cold-as if bewitched.
“Look at me, boy.”
Omi turns around; he keeps his murderous gaze fixed on the floor. His teeth are gritted and bared like a wolf’s, and his fists clench.
“You haven’t slept.” The commander’s tone softens a fraction.
March has known the strategist for four years; he sought him out when the war began, when his city revolted against the State of Onco and risked the feudal armies coming to claim them. The city of slaves was prepared for certain death-until March, against all hope, following stories and decade-old rumors, found the strategist.
Omi had saved them all-even as he stripped the city of a quarter of its riches. And three times March had thought it was over-and three times a different feudal lord had come for them.
Three times, after hard bargaining, Omi had agreed to help them.
“This war has dragged on for four years.” Omi snarls. “I’m the reason you weren’t all massacred in less than a day-but you, Commander March, gave them hope. These people don’t deserve hope. They don’t deserve your lies.”
“They’ll understand.” March insists. “They’ll realize they cannot have us, and leave us alone.”
The strategist laughs. He walks towards March and steps in front of him, just a half-step too close. Daring the commander to step back. Commander March doesn’t move.
March has always been an orphan. He was abandoned as a child and treated like dirt until he joined the guerillas that overturned the city. He is a leader. People look up to him and go to him for advice, to solve disputes, to make laws and regulations-and he’s dealt with insubordinate soldiers since he was a teenager. So he doesn’t bat an eye at the strategist’s bravado.
“I wasn’t born yesterday, sir.” Omi smirks.
But March has never had anything resembling a family. He’s never known what to do around real people, around their emotions. And no one has ever required it of him.
But even he has noticed that the strategist is not so heartless as he pretends to be.
Even he has noticed that the boy has changed and grown-that he acts too much his age to seem immortal.
Even he has wondered why Omi bargains for riches, when he has them all in the palm of his hand, when they would give all but their own children for him to save them.
“Let me tell you something, commander.” Omi looks up-his eyes are red. “Let me tell you a story.
“There was once a skinny, sickly boy who grew up with stories of knights and crusades but was actually raised to be a scribe. When he finally grew tired of being beaten into the dirt over and over by his best friend, who was a real knight, when he got tired of his predictable and uneventful life, a necromancer showed up and gave him the life he always wanted. At what price, you ask? The boy, then thirteen, had to kill the necromancer with a silver knife.
“The boy’s life progressed much as the legend does. Omi's intellect and imagination were sharpened by the necromancer's curse, and he won battle after battle. People took notice of him, but never realized Omi wasn't interested in power or riches. He was addicted to the game, the rush that comes from moving people around like pieces on a chessboard and winning, time and time again.
“The strategist did have a sense of justice, and did what he thought was best, always within the game. Then he got older and older, but his face remained five-and-twenty. He grew weary, but always came back, like an addict, like one who has nothing else.
“Until he met my mom.”
He looks at the boy in front of him.
Four years ago, the commander followed the stories and legends that led him to the strategist-but when he found him, and tricked him so his genius would become apparent, the boy had only repeated, I’m not the one you’re looking for, I’m not the one you’re looking for.
But he never explained himself. March was so focused on convincing him to help, that he never considered his young age. He didn’t consider that he might be telling the truth.
“She hated him at first-she told me so once, laughing-hated his arrogance, his disdain for human life. But Omi came back to her, again and again, perhaps because she was the only woman who'd ever refused him.
“So she taught him. My mom taught Omi gentleness. She taught him the two sides of every story, taught him to stop saying casualties, to start facing the death of innocents. She literally took away his sword and gave him a plowshare, and he fell in love with her for it.
“I was born. My father taught me to fight, taught me the game of war. I loved it, on paper, in our garden, loved the battles we waged.
“But his past would not stop chasing him.
“My father left, sometimes for months at a time. The people he fought for ceased to be the ones he wanted-it became the people that knew we existed, that could kill us if my father refused to obey.
“Omi discovered true fear then-the terror that chases down those who have everything to lose and devours them whole.
“When I was six, my father came home wounded. He didn't last a week after that.”
Omi swallows. He is visibly trembling, stalking around the room as he speaks, trying to hide it. He tries to go on-and the words come out of him in bursts, like he’s dragging them up from his gut, one by one, and forcing them out.
“He could not live with the guilt of killing all those people, so he found the silver knife and-“ He swallows again, forces something back; he turns his face to the wall and leans on it, with his forearms against the wall and his hands over his head. “He slipped it to his enemies.” The words come out in a hoarse whisper.
Commander March has doubted everything the strategist said-up until this point. At this point, he knows Omi is lying. If legends work the way March has been taught, if magic works the way March knows it works, then the immortal legend was not murdered by his enemies.
If that were true, the boy in front of him would shout the words vengefully.
He wouldn’t whisper the lie like it’s a cancer, eating him up from the inside.
Faced with this lie, March has no other choice but to believe the strategist’s story. No man could fake this, this shame and rage and grief, the self-destruction that comes from killing one’s own father.
Commander March steps up to him-in four years, he’s never touched the strategist, except in their combat lessons. In four years, he’s never acknowledged the human flaws that Omi lets slip-he has always thought them lies, ploys to get March to lower his guard.
“How old were you?” March asks.
As a commander, he can understand why the legend forced his son to wield the knife. As a commander, he can understand sacrificing a man to danger and certain death, because he’s the only one who can be trusted to bear that burden. And the burden must be borne.
“I was six, sir.” Omi says. That’s no excuse, his tone says.
March realizes that the legendary Omi was a coward.
He puts a hesitant hand on the strategist’s shoulder.
“Go to bed.” March tells him. “You’ve earned a rest.”
Omi crumples to his knees, as if the commander’s hand weighs him down.
“Let me go.” He moans. “Let me do this-I’ve earned it, I’ve earned it, I’ve earned it, I can’t sleep, what more do you want from me? Let me fight-”
“You don’t have the experience. You’re not prepared for it. ” March kneels by Omi. “I don’t let my men go into danger without reason.”
Omi doesn’t notice the commander’s acknowledgement. He curls into a fetal position, his nails sunk into the back of his neck, drawing blood.
“I wish I were a coward.” He mutters. “I wish I were a coward-I would never have come here. I would never have killed so many.”
“You could leave.” March says-though it is exactly what he fears, though it would mean death for everything he loves and fights for. “You could run away, never come back.”
“And live with the guilt?” Omi says-choking on a sob. There’s fear in his voice, overwhelming, chilling terror. “Live with your blood, Commander, on my hands? What for?” And his shoulders shake, and he cries out loud, and March has no clue what to do.