This is the second story in the Times' Change trilogy, which started with "A Second More". In ASM, available at http://greymalkin.s5.com/second_more1.htm, an injured Prince Stryfe is taken away from the palace by Redd and Slym Dayspring after they defeated Apocalypse and raised as their son, Sean. Now with their parents gone, Nathan and Sean are left to survive in the middle of a world at war. They can either be swept away or learn to control the current...
I'd like to thank Persephone Kore, Mitai, and Timesprite for all their valuable help in beta reading and just general encouragement. I couldn't have done it without you! *hugs* Feedback is worshipped and adored at email@example.com.
"Is he gone?"
"Yes, my lord. He left a few moments ago, with Tenlar's squadron."
Stryfe turned a small dagger over in his hands, pausing a moment to admire the gleam. He'd spent half the morning polishing it while Nate packed up his belongings again. Ostensibly, Lord Dayspring was being sent out for a review of Stryfe's allies in the wake of the important victory yesterday. In truth...
His brother had left because he thought Stryfe was a butcher.
Stryfe reached out and slammed the dagger point-first into a stack of papers on his desk. The casualty reports from yesterday's battle. Would Nate look at them and see how their casualties were twenty percent below expected, with a ridiculously low number of deaths as compared to their previous campaigns against a force that large and skilled? No, he would just see a canyon full of dead bodies.
As if he'd *wanted* to kill so many of Granthe's troops, without even giving them a chance to surrender. It was a *waste*. He could have used soldiers so skilled. But his own men came FIRST, flonq it! Was Nate gone from this camp so often that its occupants meant nothing to him?
Stryfe forced himself to keep his face completely composed as he looked up coolly at the orderly. Nate's departure must seem completely routine, or jackals would begin sniffing around, hoping to profit somehow from a rift between the brothers. And it *wasn't* a rift! Just a misunderstanding. Once Nate cooled off and Stryfe had more time, they'd make up and things would be back to normal...
"Thank you, Hudsen. You may go. Inform Lord Ch'vayre I wish to see him." Hudsen made the appropriate bow and gathered up his papers to leave, but hesitated a few steps from the desk. Stryfe looked over and raised an eyebrow at the servant's internal battle. Hardly surprising. Stryfe was well-known for rewarding initiative, but punishing impertinence severely. It was often difficult to distinguish between the two.
In fact, Stryfe had managed to go through a number of orderlies in the first few months of his command, though most were only mentally flayed and reassigned elsewhere once the ability to speak had returned. The one who'd tried to kill him had been killed and set out as a deterrent against other would-be assassins, of course, and the woman who'd decided his bed would make a fine place to rule from was... dealt with appropriately.
But Hudsen had come to him several months ago and managed to quietly and efficiently bring Stryfe's affairs back into order. The slight, sloop-shouldered man would never have survived long on a battlefield, but here he acquired an implacability sufficient to stop even the highest-ranked general at the door when his Lord did not wish to be disturbed. Stryfe had grown grudgingly fond of the man and was therefore willing to grant him some leeway.
Not that Stryfe would tell HIM that.
"A problem?" Stryfe suggested, letting the other man know that his time was almost up.
"I'm not certain, my lord. I... wasn't sure if you were aware of the... difficulties between Commanders Zain and Sydley."
"My officers know to work out their personal problems on their own time."
"It's not a personal problem, Lord. Commander Sydley was starting to process her new recruits, but Commander Zain claimed half of them for his own regiment."
Stryfe blinked. He knew Sydley had acquired a significant number of new recruits yesterday, under Stryfe's policy of assigning any surrendered troops who switched sides (after a thorough telepathic evaluation, of course) to the commander who'd originally captured them. Zain hadn't been anywhere near Sidley's troops, and there was NO excuse for claiming another commander's recruits. But Zain was no fool. "On what basis?"
Hudsen looked desperately uncomfortable. "As compensation for the soldiers *his* men captured, but were, ah, killed in the canyon."
"Oath. Thank you for bringing this to my attention." He gave a quick, sharp nod and stood. "I'll take care of it."
Even if he hadn't been a telepath, Stryfe didn't need to ask where the disturbance was located. All he really had to do was wander the camp until he heard the shrill shouting from the southern borders, where Sidley's troops were biouviaked. Stryfe joined the crowd of soldiers milling around, not drawing a second look as everyone avidly watched the spectacle of the two commanders screaming at each other.
Stryfe folded his arms and watched for a moment, fascinated despite himself. Sydley's face had turned a fascinating shade of fuchsia and he seriously doubted the things she was suggesting were anatomically possible, even with the aid of telekinesis. Zain was taking it all without a word, arms crossed, superior expression pasted on his face. He waited until Sydley paused for a breath, then put in smoothly, "It's only fair. I captured the same number of troops you did; there's no reason I shouldn't get an equal number of new recruits. Have you forgotten I was *personally* with Lord Stryfe during the battle?"
"If the General was going to assign MY recruits to you," Sydley shot back, "I would have been given orders."
"That's what I'm here to do. The Lord General is a very busy man. He can't be expected to waste his time with mundane orders to every little commander."
Stryfe straightened and stepped forward, drawing a hard look from one soldier he pushed aside. The soldier took in the glowing eye, then quickly stepped back and began hissing to his comrade, laying in bets. Stryfe permitted a cool smile and pitched his voice to carry across all the gawkers as he called out, "I'm not so busy as that, Commander. I always like to personally reward exceptional behavior, you know."
Both commanders snapped to painful attention as their superior approached. "My lord," Zain murmured with a slight bow.
Sydley's eyes flashed fire, but she inclined her head. "General."
Stryfe regarded his officers with gray eyes hard as flint while the watching soldiers quickly took bets and whispered comments between themselves. Zain was a product of Apocalypse's old regime, where all officers were noble, male, and mutant. He'd never dealt well with the Amazonian Sydley, who stood nearly eye-to-eye with Stryfe. She had started out as a young recruit and risen through the ranks to officer. Stryfe didn't mind them carrying out their little feud in private, but when it spread to in front of the troops...
"I understand there is some disagreement regarding the new recruits from yesterday?" he asked conversationally.
"Very minor, my lord," Zain replied smoothly. "I was simply explaining to Commander Sydley the proper distribution of the recruits, taking into account all factors from yesterday."
"Very reasonable of you."
Zain smiled unctuously. "Thank you, my lord."
"The proper distribution of recruits is a very simple matter," Stryfe continued, his voice like silk-wrapped steel. "My policy is quite clear on the matter. The commander who takes the surrenders gets the recruits."
Sydley rocked back on her heels, a smirk painted on her face. Zain's eyes flashed. He bared his teeth in a smile. "I understand the policy, my lord, and fully support it. But I know that such a fine general would always wish to take circumstances into account. I captured as many troops yesterday as Commander Sydley, who failed to survive through no fault of my own, so--"
"No, the fault was mine," Stryfe interrupted pleasantly.
Zain opened his mouth, closed it, and turned a sickly shade of green. "Ah..."
"I *am* the one who ordered the deaths of your captives. Perhaps you have a problem with my decision?"
"Of course not, my lord." Zain's voice was nearly a squeak.
"Good. The recruits stay with Commander Sydley."
"Of course, my lord. I would never dream of going against your wishes."
"Of course not."
Stryfe smiled pleasantly. Then his eye flared and Zain collapsed to the ground with a scream of pain.
Stryfe glanced around and saw money discreetly changing hands. Ah well, it was good to give the common troops something to talk about. He looked over at Sydley, who was doing a commendable job of hiding her pleasure in her colleague's downfall. She straightened and snapped him a salute when she noticed his gaze on her. "Thank you, sir."
"I'm sure you'll do well by your new troops, Commander." He lowered his voice to address just her, though he kept up the pleasant smile. "In the future, if you have a disagreement with a fellow officer, I expect you to take care of it *without* resorting to screaming in front of the troops."
She nodded intently, snapping another salute. "Yes, sir."
Stryfe returned the salute and walked away. As he stepped over Zain's still-screaming body, he paused and added to the twitching man, "Incidentally, you're promoted for your actions in yesterday's battle. Report to Lord Ch'vayre when you're recovered."
Nodding pleasantly to the troops, Stryfe returned to his command tent.
Stryfe stopped just inside the entrance to his tent, finally allowing his shoulders to slump in weary exhaustion. He'd been up since dawn, dealing with one emergency after another. A regiment had taken heavy losses at Levin. The resupply was late to their secondary camp. An outbreak of disease. A soldier stealing supplies. And more flonqing *maps*!
His days were endless, and the nights just grew shorter and shorter as the demands on his time grew greater. Stryfe didn't even bother lighting the lamps as he walked into the tent, leaving his clothing scattered where he dropped it and collapsing face-down on his cot.
After lying there for a long moment, Stryfe turned over and draped his arm over his face. Oath. When had his life become nothing but maps and endless meetings? He'd always enjoyed spending time with the troops, dining with different divisions regularly to avoid appearances of favoritism. Reading in the evenings. Strategy games with--
Now... he barely had energy to drag himself back to his tent at the end of the day. And he would be pulled out of his bed at dawn to begin again. Of course, he *could* delegate more to his officers and advisors. Lord Vande was constantly telling him that his overwork was unnecessary. But that would mean allowing himself to be nothing more than a figurehead.
While that life might offer more in the way of immediate physical pleasures, it would be empty. He knew he'd grow bored of it in little to no time. At any rate, it was dangerous to let people become too accustomed to making decisions without you, or soon they might come to think they didn't need you at all...
Stryfe shivered slightly, pushing back memories of orange light and endless pain. He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders, cursing flonqing perfect telepathic memories. He bit off another oath as he realized he'd started to reach across his link to his brother without even realizing it. That was the *last* thing he needed! He had to wait to talk to Nate in person, not--
#... I didn't mean to disturb you. I'm sure you're busy.#
#So are you. I was... just thinking about you. How are things going there?#
#...Good.# There was a long pause, then Nate said softly, #I miss you.#
Stryfe smiled into the dark. #I miss you too, Nate.#
Stryfe closed his eyes and reveled for a moment in the feel of his brother's mind curled up against his. When they'd fought, he'd had a horrible vision of Nate leaving, not just on another mission, and... never coming back, leaving his mind silent... But he was here, and Stryfe could take a deep breath again for the first time in days.
#Nate... I didn't really intend to send anyone out for a few weeks yet. There's a lot to do around here. You... you could really be a help.#
Nate's mind went so still and quiet that Stryfe was horribly afraid he'd cut off contact entirely, but after a while he said quietly, #That... sounds like a good idea. Oath, it's so boring out here I've been sleepwalking through it!# A quick mental grin, so vivid Stryfe could nearly see his brother standing in front of him. #I have to keep you out of trouble, right?#
#Or at least get into it with me,# Stryfe retorted with an answering grin.
#Sounds like a plan. I--think we can leave here by mid-morning.#
#Good. I--# Stryfe cut the thought short and sat straight up as the tent flap was shoved open, admitting several figures. The lamps flared to light with unholy glee as he glared at the intruders. In frosty tones, he said, "This had *better* be important."
"I'm sorry, my lord," Hudsen apologized, but he was run over by Ch'vayre and Vande.
"Lord Stryfe, we just received word from the Aldain camp. Their resupply team ran into trouble at a village," Vande reported.
#Emergency, Nate. I'll see you soon.# "Define 'trouble'."
Stryfe stood up, his eye flaring brightly. "What?" he hissed dangerously.
Ch'vayre took up the report. "The team went out as usual to obtain supplies from a village. They were ambushed by a group of malcontents hiding among the villagers. One man managed to escape and report back to camp. We need your orders for retaliation."
Fury snapped through Stryfe, surging through his veins and eliminating any traces of fatigue better than the army's best stimulant. "I will NOT permit my soldiers to be *slaughtered* by flonqing *peasants* who smile pleasantly one day and shoot them down the next! We make an example of these."
Ch'vayre and Vande both bowed. "We'll send the orders to--"
"No," Stryfe interrupted, looking at them from beneath half-lidded eyes. His voice was low and full of deadly promise. "They attacked *my* men. I will deal with this myself."