“The General will see thee now.” The gruff, frost-edged voice jerked Diccon from his memories, and he grew warm at the smirks on the faces of the men standing nearby.
“Yes sir,” Diccon was too embarrassed to have been caught in daydreams to feel surprise at the summons. He followed the metallic clinking of the man’s armor into the half-light of the tent.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the contrast, but by jumps and starts he was able to make out the shapes of the rough-and-ready table, a powerful-looking, iron-haired man, and the commander who had led him here.
The man seated at the table lifted his head and gripped Diccon in a hard gaze, as unwavering as the keen edge of a steel blade. “What a to-do a soldier of Gildnoir has made this day.”
Diccon frowned. “Sir?”
“To have failed in the act of information-gathering---even when the contact was none other than the Lord of the Night—to have insulted his Lordship to his face and in his own quarters…badly done, lad.” The man tapped a long finger on the tabletop, and Diccon’s attention was drawn to the large, elaborately cut ruby adorning it.
“How long have you been selling out?’ he asked. He strove to control the indignation that nearly choked him.
The man started, and black anger clouded his mien. “I do not understand what you mean, soldier.”
Diccon slid his hand down to his knife, then tossed his head. “The ring, sir. Very unusual for a general of the Gildnoir. How much did they give you?”
“Who, you son of a catamount?” The general rose, and his nostrils flared with rage.
Diccon blocked the gold-sashed commander who would have stepped in to aid his general, and indicated for him to be still with a slight pressure of his elbow into the man’s stomach. “It is no use pretending with me, General Moorcroft. I know the royal jewel of Scarlettania when I see it. Do you not think Fitz-Hughes would pay a pretty price for this piece of knowledge? I might acquire a large bauble of true Gildnoirian topaz for my efforts.” Diccon flourished his knife and twirled the shining blade under the general’s gaze.
The older man’s eyes flickered to his commander. “Step outside, if you would.”
“Are you certain, General Moorcroft?” the commander asked, eyebrows crumpled.
The general’s voice was too smooth and too flint-bladed to be taken for easy as he waved the sentry away. “Of course I am certain, Fulham.” The ruby of Moorcroft’s ring caught fragments of daylight and sent them eddying into the quiet dusk as the sentry opened the tent flapped and ducked through it to the dazzling day outside.
It was still for a moment within the tent, each man sizing the other up.
“Come now, boy,” The General said. He laughed, but Diccon knew there was the desperate snarl of a snared fox under the ill-fitting chuckle. “You and I both know that your brother hates you—the message you delivered with your own hands were my orders to stab you through with a Scarlettanian pike. Your brother bears you no great love.”
Diccon tossed his knife, catching it by the dark, obsidian handle. “And I return the compliment, general. That, however, does not deter me from my object. No man who deliberately fraternizes with the enemy can be called a soldier of the Gildnoir. You know that well, I think?”
The general ran a hand over his chin, jaw set, but made no answer.
Diccon tossed the knife again, this time catching it and thrusting the point forward until it made a little slit in the gold and black standard on the general’s chest. “I will take that as an answer in the affirmative. Therefore, by whatever honor is left in this wild country of ours, and by the authority with which every clansman of Fitz-Hughes is endowed, I am stripping you of your title.”
The general made a movement as if to spring on Diccon, and his mouth was a narrow, malignant slit in his face, but the knife-point kept him at bay. “You have no right. You are a paltry excuse for a soldier of Clan Fitz-Hughes. You are a half-breed!”
“A half-breed, my Lord, is far superior than a half-wit, or a half-truth. You, General Moorcroft, appear to be both.” Diccon coolly pushed the knife a bit harder against the man’s chest. He leaned close until he could smell the scent of stale tobacco and salt-pork in the general’s hair. “You will gather the men and announce my command over this army now. For all they—or anyone else—knows, the message was an order from Fitz-Hughes to invest me with your powers. Understood?” Diccon glared at the man, commanding his gaze.
Fitful blue stars collided with the staid grey of the general’s eyes in a storm of emotions, but Diccon saw no sign of resistance in them.
“As you say, soldier,” the general said. He held both hands out at his sides, and plastered a faint smile on his lips.
Diccon held him a moment more on the point of the knife, then nodded. Only now did he allow himself to tremble over his boldness—it was but momentary weakness, though. “We must make haste, Moorcroft,” Diccon said. He slid his knife back into the sheath in his boot, and turned to leave the tent.
There was a hurried step behind him, a low growl, and in a flashing moment Diccon’s arms were pinioned. He struggled against the iron grip of the general, but it made no difference—he was taken. The tide had turned with the agility of a panther on the run. Diccon growled his dismay and thrashed against the hold of his captor, but the general laughed.
“A half-wit, soldier? I think not.” The general’s voice was low and mocking. “But how would you like a half-life? I could bleed a few quarts of that sullied blood from your veins, if it would be to your purpose, General Quarry.”
~The Scarlet-Gypsy Song