Chapter 1. Conquest
Tiergan had an iron-willed determination to succeed where others had not. In fact, failure was a weakness his opponents experienced. Not him. He never failed at anything he set out to accomplish and his current undertaking would be no different. A sneer spread across his face as he thought of the sheer simplicity of his plan, a simplicity his father could never appreciate. His father had failed. Tiergan would not.
Seventeen years had passed since Tiergan watched his father, the King, return to Griet in a shroud of humiliation, his conquest lost. The people’s admiration faded to disrespect and then turned to contempt. Tiergan watched them conspire against his father and he did nothing to stop them. It wasn’t long before his father rotted in his grave and he sat on the throne himself.
Tiergan became King of Griet and from the moment the crown rested on his brow he plotted, he planned. Every piece had to be just right. But it wasn’t until a Dolmertian stumbled into the Hall, a man with enough information to matter and enough hatred to make a difference, that Tiergan knew the final piece had fallen into place.
With the Dolmertian in tow, he and his strongest men left six weeks later. There was no room for doubt among his men, and anyone who hinted at the impossible task before them was eliminated from his strike force.
Tiergan whipped his horse and led his men toward the sea. Twenty rode behind him, assured by his confidence and terrified of his expectations. They accepted the invitation to join him because it would bring them honor, but Tiergan knew they feared they would not survive the journey. Not because the road ahead was arduous, but because he would not tolerate weakness. Anyone unable to prove his worth on a daily basis, or in a breath’s notice, would be eliminated.
Yet, his men loved him, they respected him, which was no small feat considering he looked nothing like a Grietian. With a blaze of red on top his head and a smattering of freckles covering his face, he looked more like an oversized farm boy than a King. But he brought their people wealth beyond measure and promised them dominion over all. And they worshiped him for it. The people of Griet would become gods, he told them. Griet would rule the world and crush the backbones of every foreigner until their hearts crumbled and they begged to become slaves. Failure was not a future the people of Griet ever considered because they trusted his unbending determination to win.
Win. Win. Win. Nothing else mattered.
As they neared the vast sea, Tiergan pushed off his horse, his boots pounding against the dirt with the force of a boulder. The ground answered with a jarring vibration up his legs and he cleared his throat to hide his grimace. He conceded that his weight had gotten out of hand since the Dolmertian had arrived, but to have the final pieces fall into place was cause for celebration. And what better way to celebrate than with food?
Tiergan looked toward the sea and narrowed his eyes. The silhouette of a large ship blackened the night sky, its dark outline rocking in the harbor. With every subtle pitch, starlight blinked out from behind the masts, over the sails, and between the ropes. The warm sea lapped against the hull and, as if in response, the ship creaked and settled deeper into its own bones.
The vessel was exactly the size Tiergan needed and just the sort of ship he knew he would find anchored in the dark bay. Puffing his chest and throwing his shoulders back, he turned to address his soldiers.
“Men, from this moment on I am not your King and you are not my soldiers. We are fishermen bound for Dolmerti.” He spoke in hushed tones, but his strength resonated through the terse staccato of his words. “I will be your captain and you will obey me without question. You must not refer to me as King until we once again set foot on these banks with our spoils in hand. Understood?”
Several of the men nodded in assent.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the soldier nearest him said.
Tiergan’s jaw tensed, his nostril flaring. “What did you say?”
The soldier’s eyes grew wide. He glanced to his left and then his right and then stumbled back a step. “Er…yes, Captain.”
With one hand, Tiergan grabbed the soldier’s face and, ignoring the man’s wild eyes, reached into his mouth and gripped his tongue. The soldier squirmed and let out a garbled plea, but it was cut short as Tiergan unsheathed his sword and smote off the wet lump of flesh. The surrounding soldiers breathed a collective gasp, a sound piercing though the thick desert air. With the tip of his sword, Tiergan skewered the bloodied mass and raised it into the air, his gaze flashing across his men.
“The next man who refers to me as Highness, or Majesty, or anything to the likeness will lose more than a tongue. Understood?”
“Yes Captain.” The men whisper-shouted.
“Very well. To the ship.”
Tiergan gave the bloodied soldier a disgusted look and turned toward the sea. His strides were long and purposeful, slowing only when he neared the bow. Arching his back, he brought his hands to the sides of his mouth and called up above.
“Ahoy there!” he said.
After several long moments of nothing but the creaking ship and lapping water in response, Tiergan figured the darkness of the night had sent the men below to slumber. He didn’t have time to wait until morning so he called out again.
“Ahoy!” he shouted a little louder.
“Ahoy!” A lone voice descended from above.
“Have you any room for a few fishermen? We can pay a handsome fare.”
A pockmarked face with a watchman’s cap leaned over the bulwark rail. “Where are ye headed?”
“To the open sea. We have no preference what we catch or where we sell it, so long as we make a profit.”
The watchman cocked his head to the side like a dog picking up a strange noise. “Sounds to me like a group of fisherman such as that would need a boat of yer own.”
“Yes, it would sound as such, wouldn’t it? But I assure you, we do not have the means to procure our own vessel. In time, my friend. In time.”
The watchman glanced at each of the men before his gaze fell on the bulging purse thumping up and down in Tiergan’s hand.
“Throw me that purse,” he said. “I’ll see if you have the required fare.”
“Throw me the ladder,” Tiergan said with more force, but still careful to keep his voice friendly. “You have no reason to distrust a simple fisherman.”
Tiergan’s authority resonated through his voice. He could feel it rumble in his chest and permeate the watchman’s feeble mind. It was only a matter of seconds before the watchman submitted to him. Everyone submitted to Tiergan one way or another. He only had to wait.
The watchman paused, seeming to hold his breath, and Tiergan licked his lips. He had seen the same look in countless others. It was the uneasy smile, the nodding head, the faraway look. And every time he knew his orders would be obeyed despite the level of unease the other man experienced.
The watchman threw the ladder over the rail and winced as the bottom rung cracked against the hull. He cleared his throat.
“Come aboard then,” he called down.
As his soldiers climbed, the watchman folded his arms and searched the dark horizon as if he couldn’t face his decision to allow them on board, but knew no way to stop it. Tiergan smiled, pleased with himself.
One by one, Tiergan and his men kicked their legs over the rail and landed with barely a sound. Tiergan pulled himself to his full height and, after a quick nod, sent his men scurrying across the deck on the balls of their feet.
The watchman swallowed and moved his hand toward his belt. But his weapon was gone.
“What?” he said almost to himself. His body twisted left and right as he searched the deck. “Where…?”
Tiergan let out a barking laugh, but the end of it caught in his throat the moment he noticed the Dolmertian holding the watchman’s weapon. The Dolmertian held out his arm, the tip of the sword pointed toward the deck.
“For you, Captain,” the Dolmertian said.
Seizing the hilt, Tiergan forced a smile as he brought the sword to his side. While he was pleased the Dolmertian had relieved the watchman of his weapon, he was troubled by the ease with which he had taken it. The Dolmertian was far more skilled than Tiergan had first assessed – a dangerous miscalculation.
Tiergan locked gazes with the Dolmertian and for the first time since his arrival, the Dolmertian did not look away. Tiergan frowned. It was never a good sign when someone willingly held his gaze. And by withholding specific, and important details, the Dolmertian had proven more cunning than most. He had not exposed his skills as a fighter until now and Tiergan wondered why. His frown deepened. If only he had been more willing to disclose the remaining details needed to win the Incenaga, he would have tossed his carcass to the vultures long ago. Nevertheless, Tiergan could wait awhile longer. He turned his attention back to the watchman.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Tiergan said with a sneer.
The watchman shuddered. “Why are you doing this?”
Tiergan smirked. “Power. More than you could ever imagine. Enough to make grown men weep. Enough to make them worship me. It will be mine. She will be mine.”
“This is about a woman?” The watchman asked. His jaw dropped.
“Not just any woman. An Incenaga.”
The watchman snapped his mouth shut and lunged for the warning bell. He managed two urgent tugs before his actions stopped short and he fell motionless to the deck. The ringing bell echoed across the deck and faded into the sea.
“Thank you, Demyan,” Tiergan said to his swiftest fighter, his deadliest assassin. “Clearly the watchman was not fit to join us.”
Demyan lowered his chin and stepped back into the shadows.
Tiergan nodded in return and watched, not for the first time, as Demyan managed to blend into the darkness and disappear. If he had not proven so loyal in the beginning, and so insightful in his stratagems, Tiergan would have had no choice but to eliminate Demyan years before. While he valued strong soldiers, he couldn’t afford the risk of having someone as skilled as Demyan so near the Crown. Being close enough to take something for one’s self was a temptation any man would find difficult to resist. But Demyan didn’t crave power, it seemed. Not in the way Tiergan did, at least. Demyan was satisfied with killing, nothing more. And as long as Demyan was satisfied, Tiergan knew he had the only weapon he’d need to gain control of the Incenaga.
“Ready yourselves, men,” Tiergan shouted over fading bell cry. “The ship has been warned.”