Ullsaard stood his ground.
"I thought you knew everything I did? Did you not hear my speech today?"
Askhos frowned and thrust an accusing finger at Ullsaard.
"Tell me what you have done? Why are the nobles paying for legions?"
"I am simply doing what you did, mighty Askhos. Rights of conquest have been given back to the noble families."
Askhos threw his hands up to his head and snarled.
"That is madness! They will fight you and each other, scrabbling over the spoils. There are reasons I withdrew those rights, curbed the power of the nobles and the legions. The empire does not need them now."
"By the end of the summer, it will be irrelevant. Salphoria will be part of Greater Askhor and the nobles will be so busy counting their new riches and measuring their new lands they won't even have a second thought to my taking of the Crown."
"A bribe? That's all this is? A bribe to the nobles to stop them arguing your claim to rule?"
"I was quite pleased with the idea. I came up with it myself. I will be going to Salphoria as well, to make sure things do not get out of hand."
Askhos shook his head and slumped back against the coffin.
"Take the Crown with you. Leave it in Magilnada if you have to, but do not be so far from it that I cannot see what is happening. You will need my help, Ullsaard. I have ruled this empire for more than two hundred years. What better advisor could you have?"
Ullsaard considered this proposal for a moment.
"One that isn't dead? One that doesn't want me dead so that he can reclaim his throne? Those would be a good start. I'm through with you. If I never hear from you again, it would be for the best."
The whole scene shimmered and faded. Ullsaard felt his body disintegrating, flowing back into greyness.
And then he slept again, and had no more dreams.
Spring, 210th year of Askh
The stink of beer and sweat was strong in the drinking cellar, tinged with urine from the piss hole behind a curtain in the corner. Gelthius was leaning against the uneven stone wall, his chair rocked back on two legs, feet up on the stained wood of the table. A half-full cup rested on his chestplate, kept in place by his clasped fingers. His helmet was tipped forward over his eyes, but he wasn't asleep.
On the other side of the table, Loordin and Sergeant Muuril were indulging in some drunken finger-wrestling, hands entwined as each tried to twist the other man's wrist far enough to make him submit. Further down the table, Juruun was picking over the plates for scraps of food; he was always a hungry drunk.
Next to Gelthius, Gebriun was slumped in a puddle of red wine, one arm used as a pillow, the other dangling uselessly. Gelthius's first thought was how much of a pain it was going to be to get the stain out of Gebriun's tunic. They'd all have to help; otherwise the whole company would be punished.
But that was not an immediate issue; they had another day of leave before they had to head back to camp outside Magilnada. For the last three days, the Thirteenth had whored, drank and eaten their way through everything the city had to offer. It was a last gasp of freedom before they marched on Salphoria proper.
Gelthius had mixed feelings about that. The advance duskwards would bring him closer to his family, but he was uncomfortable with the idea of Askhan legions tearing across Salphoria. There was no telling where they might end up and who they might kill.
"Smells even more like shit than normal."
Gelthius peered out from under the lip of his helm at a group of legionnaires staggering down the steps into the cellar. They had armfuls of cups and jugs with them, splashing wine and beer into the thin layer of straw covering the floor. He recognised them as members of the Fifteenth, survivors of the Greenwater campaign and the defence of Askh. As the twenty-or-so legionnaires fell along the benches and tables just across the cellar, one of them met Gelthius's gaze.
"And here's the reason it stinks," said the soldier. He nudged a few of his companions and pointed at Gelthius. "They let in fucking Salphor pigs."
There were sneers and jeers, but Gelthius ignored them. Muuril wasn't so forgiving. The sergeant pulled his hand free from the finger-wrestling and stood up. Loordin woke up Gebriun, who rose from his puddle with a snort.
"Didn't we just kick the shit out of you cunts already?" said Muuril.
There were scrapes of chairs as some of the other legionnaires in the drinking den turned to watch the inevitable fight. Most of them were from the Fifth, Donar's legion. If things got out of hand, they would weigh in with the Thirteenth, Gelthius hoped. After all, the two legions had fought side-by-side for two years during Ullsaard's grab for the throne.
"What did you say, pig fucker?" This was from the Fifteenth's sergeant, who emptied a goblet of wine into his mouth and tossed the cup to the floor in front of Muuril.
"What did you just call me?" Muuril cracked his knuckles, as much a part of the pre-fight ritual as the insults.
Muuril looked around at his men, and then across to the soldiers from the Fifth.
"But I ain't never met your wife," said Muuril. Laughter filled the cellar for a moment while the Fifteenth's sergeant looked on impassively. "Tell you what, why don't you suck my cock for me instead?"
This brought a few gasps from the Fifth, spits and curses from the Fifteenth. This time it was their sergeant's turn to smile.
"But I don't want to know what your mother's shit tastes like," he said.
Gelthius didn't see who threw the first jug; it might have even been one of the Fifth. Within moments, the two groups of legionnaires were lunging at each other, fists ready.
A solid left hook caught Gelthius on the brow, knocking him back. A legionnaire backed away, shaking his hand painfully, knuckles likely broken against Gelthius's skull. Gelthius launched into the fray, kicking and punching, aiming for arms and legs.
It was a brawl, not a proper fight. No knives were drawn and in the close press of bodies it was hard to land a proper blow. Bodies grappled and rolled over the tables; bottles smashed. There were as many curses and insults as punches. Muuril and the other sergeant made for each other immediately. Gelthius's superior landed a good blow against his opponent's chin, rocking him back a step. He followed up by driving his knee into the man's gut. That was a mistake. His kneecap rang against armour. Muuril howled and fell back, clutching his leg.
The Fifteenth's sergeant raised a foot to stomp on Muuril but Gelthius dived into the gap, tackling the other sergeant to the ground. He smashed his elbow into the man's nose before being shoved to one side, rolling out of the way as a legionnaire from the Fifth lost his footing and almost fell on top of Gelthius.
Gebriun caught Gelthius in the eye with a flailing hand as he fended off a punch. The Salphor heaved himself to his feet, driving his shoulder into the chest of another man, legs pumping until the two of them tripped over a fallen chair and collapsed in a heap.
Untangling himself from man and furniture, Gelthius heard the tramping of more feet on the steps. He looked over his shoulder and saw armed legionnaires jogging down into the cellar. The designs on their shields marked them out as the Second Magilnadan, their officer calling for peace.
"This will not be tolerated!" the captain bellowed.
The struggling slowly ceased as the officer reached the bottom of the steps.
"Your names and companies will be taken. You will be punished for this ill-discipline."
There were glances between the legionnaires; nods of agreement between men who had been trying to batter each other unconscious just moments before. Gelthius helped up the man he had hurled to the floor and received a pat on the shoulder as thanks.