Tarnished Empire – Danielle L. Jensen

The camp was eerily quiet given the number of men dying. Legionnaires carrying stretchers raced toward the medical tent, their faces grim, the injured writhing in pain. But where there should have been screams, the only sound was wheezing gasps for air through lips frothed with foam and blood. Marcus stepped inside the tent, the heat from several braziers warding off the chill of the morning air though they did nothing for the icy bite of trepidation he felt over what was to come. Medics moved between the cots, pulling off armor and clothing and discarding them in heaps to be taken away by the men who’d brought in the injured. Yet there was no urgency in their motions, only quiet resignation as they dosed dying men with narcotics, easing their path to the end. Spotting Racker, Marcus wove between medics toward the Thirty-Seventh’s head surgeon, who had his ear pressed against an unconscious man’s chest. “Can they be saved?” “Quiet,” Racker snapped, his dark eyes shifting up to fix on Marcus. “That’s precisely what I’m trying to determine.” If it had been anyone else, a reprimand would have already been on Marcus’s lips, but he only rocked on his heels, his eyes jumping from cot to cot, watching men gasp for breath. Seeing the panic in their eyes. The pain. The fear. “No.” The word made him jump, the finality in it making his stomach twist as he turned to look at Racker.

“You’re certain?” “Whatever the Bardenese burned to make the smoke, it’s pure poison.” Racker smoothed his white apron as he straightened, a full head taller than Marcus but skinny as a rail. “Their lungs are destroyed. They’re drowning in their own blood.” Exhaling slowly, Marcus scanned the tent. Every bare chest he saw was tattooed with a black 29. “How many Thirty-Seventh?” He knew some of his men had been killed when the Bardenese had broken through the tunnel and caught them by surprise, but that should be the extent of it. Hostus, the legatus of the Twenty-Ninth Legion, used the Thirty-Seventh like mules— making them excavate his tunnels, build his walls, and dig his latrines—however it was the Twenty-Ninth that led the assaults. Not because the older legatus wished to protect the younger legion, but because he wanted the glory of victory all for himself. Except glory always had a price.

“A few inhaled some of the smoke while dragging out the injured,” Racker answered, gesturing to the far end of the tent, where several still forms lay covered by blankets. “They’ll live, although only time will tell whether they recover fully enough to endure a hard march ever again. You may need to discharge them.” Marcus’s jaw tightened. Trained from age seven as soldiers only to have their careers ended at sixteen. The Senate’s army of administrators would take charge of them, pay out the balance of their earnings, and see them settled in one of the provinces. Except Campus Lescendor trained soldiers, not civilians, and discharged men usually ended up dead or in prison, poorly suited to life outside the legion. “Don’t make that decision before you have to.” “Yes, sir.” Abandoning the tent, Marcus blinked against the bright morning sun, vision clearing to find Felix standing outside.

His second-in-command was in deep conversation with the Thirty-Seventh’s primus, Agrippa, although both straightened at the sight of him. “Hostus requests your presence, sir,” Felix said, unease clearly visible on his face. “Immediately.” Trepidation bit at Marcus’s insides, but he nodded, striding through the camp with the two following at his heels. To his right, the fortress city of Hydrilla rose in the distance. The high walls were patrolled by Bardenese warriors, their catapults ready to be deployed at the slightest sign of aggression, their vats of tar never without fire beneath them. For months, they’d been laying siege to this last holdout of rebels, but it couldn’t last much longer. Not with the smell of snow in the air—the winters in Bardeen were notoriously vicious. The legions would have to retreat to the coast, which meant another year would pass with Bardeen still unbroken, still defiant against the Empire. Marcus suspected that was what this conversation would be about.

Command was a large tent at the center of the camp surrounded by a perimeter of guards whose attention was not outward, as it should have been, but rather inward. Angry shouts and the sound of smashing furniture spoke to the reason why. “Oh, this is going to be delightful,” Agrippa said. “Gird your loins, sir, for it sounds like our patrician overlord is not best pleased he isn’t moving his bed and women into Hydrilla tonight.” “Be quiet, Agrippa,” Felix snapped softly, but Marcus was already walking between the golden dragon standards, one clutching a 37 in its claws and the other a 29. Stepping into the tent, he barely managed to lurch sideways as a camp stool flew in his direction. It struck Felix in the breastplate with a loud clang, and his second swore under his breath until Marcus shot him a warning look. The tent’s interior was in complete disarray. Tables overturned and stools smashed into pieces, fragments of glassware and bottles everywhere, wine soaking into the expensive carpets. At the far end, Hostus stood with his arms crossed and emerald eyes full of murder as he watched Proconsul Plotius Grypus tear apart his tent.

“Useless idiots!” the proconsul shrieked. “Fools!” Perhaps fifty years of age, Grypus was short and built like a potato with sticks stuck into it. He wore armor of the same design as any of Celendor’s legionnaires, but his was adorned with gold paint and had a dragon embossed on the breast rather than a legion number. He tore up a map, then started kicking pencils every which way, his grey hair floating outward as he whirled like a toddler in the throes of a tantrum. “You promised me results!” he screeched, then lunged at one of the cabinets that held maps and other important documents. “You promised me victory!” Catching hold of the cabinet, he tried to tip it over, his skinny arms straining with no results. He heaved harder, his golden skin turning beet red from effort, but the cabinet didn’t so much as shift. Behind him, Agrippa snorted in amusement, and Marcus winced as Grypus turned on him and his men. “You think this is funny?” he snarled, pointing a finger at them. “You think me a source of comedy?” “Apologies, Proconsul,” Agrippa said.

“Caught a bit of the smoke, I’m afraid. Excuse any noise on my part.” Grypus’s grey eyes stared, unblinking, as he tried to determine whether Agrippa was mocking him, then he snarled and spun away. “Wine! Someone get me a glass. A bottle. A rutting case, so that I might drown myself in sorrow for being surrounded by such buffoonery.” “Of course, Proconsul.” Hostus moved to a cabinet and extracted a bottle and golden cup. He filled the glass, then handed it to Grypus and set the bottle on the table that his second had righted. Grypus glared at the label.

“This wine was intended for my use.” “We keep it here for you, Proconsul,” Hostus answered. “So you might not be subjected to vintages of less quality.” A lie, because Marcus had seen the other legatus drinking a bottle only last night, but Grypus seemed placated. Sipping from the cup, the proconsul said, “You told me this would work. For two months, I’ve suffered through the misery of living in this camp while you tunneled like rats under Hydrilla’s walls because you hadn’t the balls to attack them like real men.” Grypus’s misery was a massive pavilion with every luxury that gold could buy. He had eight servants, a personal chef, and four women to keep him company while he was absent from his wife. It had required multiple wagons to bring all of it from the xenthier stem at Melitene to Hydrilla, his bed alone so large it had taken four of Marcus’s men to carry it inside. “A frontal assault would result in heavy casualties,” Hostus answered.

“They have the high ground and they are well prepared to defend against a siege. The tunnel was the better strategy and if not for that smoke, we’d have been victorious.” “And yet,” Grypus sneered, “I still stand in this stinking filthy camp, drowning my sorrows over this embarrassing defeat instead of toasting my victory.” The hatred in Hostus’s eyes caused a bead of sweat to roll down Marcus’s spine, every instinct in him screaming danger. How Grypus couldn’t sense it, he didn’t know, because the Twenty-Ninth’s legatus was clearly visualizing the proconsul’s murder. And when Hostus killed, it was never quick. “And you.” Grypus rounded on Marcus. “Don’t think you’re excluded from this, boy.” Draining his cup, he tossed it on the table, then closed the distance between them, looking up at Marcus.

His breath reeked of garlic and wine, and Marcus blinked as his eyes watered. “I didn’t even want the Twenty-Ninth for this job but the commandant said you came together or not at all.” Hostus’s face twisted with fury where he stood behind the proconsul, a knife appearing in his hand, but Grypus was oblivious. “I wanted you, Marcus. The Prodigy of Lescendor. ” His voice dripped with mockery. “The brightest mind to ever have graduated, they said. Undefeatable, they said. A strategic genius, they said. Well I say you’re a useless piece of shit!” Grypus screamed the last, bits of spittle striking Marcus in the face, but he didn’t react.

Only kept his expression blank and his eyes on Hostus, ready to intervene if the other legatus lost his temper. Even though it would cost him. “Prove your worth!” Grypus screamed at him. “Justify the gold I’ve spent supporting you and your legion of boys when I could’ve had any legion in the Empire at my service. Give me a strategy to take Hydrilla or I swear on my family’s name I’ll have you gutted and left out for the crows to feast upon.” Behind him, Marcus sensed Felix tense, heard Agrippa murmur under his breath, “Steady.” But Grypus heard. Leaning around Marcus, he said, “You think that I can’t? You think that I won’t?” He laughed. “The Senate owns your lives, boys. You are its property to do with as it wills.

And in Hydrilla, my voice is the Senate’s voice. My fist is the Senate’s fist. And if I decide to strike you down, that is my prerogative. Understood?” “Yes, Proconsul,” they both answered. Seeming not to notice that Marcus had remained silent, Grypus said, “Now that we are clear, give me a strategy.” Marcus’s strategy had not changed. “Hydrilla is the last significant piece of the Bardenese rebellion,” Marcus said, watching Hostus as he spoke. Seeing amusement replace the anger in his eyes. “Taking them by force will result in catastrophic losses of life on both sides, that’s true. But perhaps of more significance is that the Bardenese will see those who died in Hydrilla as martyrs to the cause, which is likely to cause a surge in rebellion across the entire province.

Far better to force Hydrilla to surrender, which will break the spirit of the rebellion, hopefully for good.” “We offered them a chance to surrender months ago,” Grypus snapped. “I believe their answer was to catapult the head of the messenger into the center of this camp.” “And now they’ve spent months entirely cut off from supplies,” Marcus answered. “That fortress is full not just of warriors but of families. Children. And if they aren’t starving yet, they will be soon. We can wait them out.” “That’s the advice of the prodigy? To wait?” Grypus grabbed Marcus by the front of his armor, shaking him violently. “I didn’t bring you here for you to tell me to wait, you useless lazy pissant! The Senate will hear of this, boy.

They’ll hear about your lazy strategies, your desire for them to pay for you and yours to lie about waiting.” Marcus let the man shake him, watching Hostus lean against the table, his shoulders vibrating with silent laughter. “With respect, Proconsul,” Marcus said. “It will be a far better thing for you to justify the cost of feeding two legions for another month than for you to justify the choice to send two of the Empire’s most valuable assets to their deaths for the sake of a fortress of little worth. Especially when it spawns a rebellion that will require more legions and more gold to quell, at which point the Senate will most likely offer the governorship of Bardeen to someone other than yourself.” “Why you little—” Grypus swung his fist, catching Marcus in the mouth, one of the man’s rings slicing his bottom lip. Pain lanced across his face, but he’d experienced far, far worse, so he only looked down at the little man before him. “My duty is to give you the best advice to achieve the Empire’s goals, Proconsul. But the decision of what to do is not mine to make.” “A small mercy,” Grypus hissed.

“Else I’d forever be remembered as the man who sat on his ass and starved children rather than as one who fought for his prize with blood and steel.” You’ve never fought for anything in your life, Marcus thought, but he only nodded. “I await your orders.” Grypus turned on Hostus. “I want this fortress mine before winter. See it done.” Hostus smiled and nodded, then said, “Marcus, since you’ve voiced your advice on this matter, perhaps you might direct your prodigious mind to the troubles in the followers’ camp. I’m told the whores are hungry and they are little good to my men if they starve to death.” “Yes, sir.” Marcus saluted him, then turned on his heel and strode out of camp.

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