The apparent ease with which the Adusinate had granted him an audience with their leader surprised Keranta, though he would never show it. All that he did must appear to be part of a plan, which it certainly was, but also one in which he had unending confidence. As it was, he did feel confident. He had been given the night before to devise more of his plan for retaking the capital, and his years of service as commander of the royal armies had done him well.
But now, the challenge was different. Arrayed before him in a large tent were the foreign captains, strange men with fierce faces that had likely seen as many battles in their own lands as Keranta had in his. The one in the center was different, though. They called him Adanul, and while he did not appear as old as the others or even as old as Keranta himself, it was obvious that the rest heeded his counsel above any others.
He would be the one to befriend first, the general thought. The constant intercession of the Adusinate’s translator, a slight man named Lati whose accent in the speech of Lewangwati told of islands far to the west of the capital. How someone from a place so distant had ended up in the company of these sailors, much less how he came to speak their tongue, were questions for another time. All that mattered now was whether or not the man could be trusted to convey Keranta’s plan without error or falsehood.
“My name is Keranta Surankaje, and my kingdom was stolen from me by my wife’s brother, Prince Daruntala. Instead of killing me, the traitor left me here on this island. I would do anything to take back what is mine.” Only Keranta, he thought. Not Ajan Keranta. Though his words were meant for Lati’s ears, his eyes never left Adanul’s. As soon as the translator had finished his message in that clipped speech he had somehow learned, Adanul spoke.
“And how can we believe you, Keranta? Surely, you can give us more than your word.” Thankfully, he could. Among the few possessions left to him after his hasty exit from the capital by night was a single piece of wood, marked by the royal house and naming Keranta leader of a campaign in this farthest frontier in the kingdom. That this campaign was to be waged by him alone was only a technically, for the formal requirements of his exile could not be brushed aside even by Daruntala’s brashness.
Keranta withdrew it from his pocket and handed it to Lati. The man pored over it, turning it upside-down and examining it so closely that he almost risked a splinter. Finally, Adanul interrupted him and extended a hand. Passing over the little token, he nodded once to Adanul and then to Keranta while speaking in the other man’s language.
The stranger spoke again, as the translator took the piece of wood back and returned it to Keranta.
“Very well. There is also a debt owed to us by the court in Lewangwati. In our country, the harming of ambassadors is a serious offense, and one for which I personally seek recompense. I propose that we work together in claiming what is rightfully ours.”
It had not occurred to Keranta before that this Adanul could have had some relation to the ambassadors. As much as these faces looked similar now, he supposed that they would cease to do so as his familiarity with them grew. Furthermore, the details of the men’s faces had now faded into memory, and not only as a result of their torment. It was the screams that cut through the fog of years most clearly. Such things were common in war, but what was expected on some distant battlefield was quite unexpected in the lavish surroundings of court, where the cleanliness and order or even the smallest details were looked after purely for the pleasure of the royal beholder. Such a place was not meant for dismemberment and death, and so most of the onlookers had no preparation for what they saw embodied that had only been known to them before from plays and puppets.
But Keranta was prepared, and should have known that the Adusinate would be back with a mind for vengeance. Let theirs come with mine, he thought, and on my terms.
“It pleases me that we can help each other,” he replied. “As I know the enemy’s strengths, I offer to guide you on your journey to the capital. I can take you around their armies and fortresses, through country their commanders either do not know or fear to cross. We can strike them where they are weak and gather the king’s enemies against him, after which Lewangwati will be open to our forces. Any payment you ask in return will not overshadow my joy at seeing the traitors punished and my kingdom restored to my hands.”
His hook was now baited, and dangling it in front of such hungry fish almost brought a smile to his lips. The hardest part was always the waiting; not knowing if the Adusinate would heed him, even if the translator’s words were correct. It always had been so, in negotiations that had taken him all over the kingdom. Now was no different, despite everything that told him it was. He must give them time to confer amongst themselves.
It took less time than he had anticipated. Only a moment’s worth of pleased looks and laughter had passed before Adanul turned to Lati and gestured toward Keranta.
“Shudis ner dereh,” the foreign captain said.
“Tell me more.”
“Do you have a map?” Keranta asked.
“Fudeli ned ere esedereh?” Adanul turned and said something Keranta could not hear to a man at his rear, who then darted out of the tent and into the growing dawn light. The silence that followed gave the general time to think.
His flight out of Lewangwati had taken him to this little island at the far northeastern border of the kingdom, near the edge of any map he had ever seen in the archives. What interested him more than what lay beyond it were three of the many larger islands to the south: Patwa, Nubi, and Laku. He hoped it would not take much convincing to gain Adanul’s support for what he was about to do, given his promise of treasure in return.
The bearded man returned carrying what looked like a rolled-up square of animal skin, which he laid out on the table between Keranta and the Adusinate captains. Keranta’s breath caught within him at what he saw: everything he had ever known, every distant land on which he had ever fought or negotiated or even dreamed of, sat within the lower right-hand corner of the drawing. Far to the northwest, in the corner nearest Adanul, a vast island made all the efforts of the dead king—every dead king, really—of Jewaktana seem like a child’s innocent mockery by comparison. When a single nation could encompass so much land, and what he imagined in an instant to be so many people and tongues, to what then did all his own kingdom’s blood and treaties add up? Was the Kingdom of Holy Victory nothing more than a collection of specks on some foreigner’s map?
But this thought did not strike fear into the heart of the general who had brought the trophies and slaves of so many of those victories back to the City of Kings. Instead, it only encouraged him. Ajan Keranta Surankaje had not earned his epithets by cowardice.
The time had come for the Many-Splendored General to show himself once more. He reached out to point at what appeared on the map to be an empty space.
“We are here,” he said, looking to Adanul. “Kalo Malut. The capital is here, on Nuritjuka.” Land of Gold. Let their translator try that one. His finger traced a curving path back to Kalo Malut. “We must be careful as we pass through the kingdom, or else we will alert my enemies.”
That much was true, both of those who bore no love for Keranta himself and the kingdom in general, but he could distinguish between them better than many supposed. He thanked Bariti for that, and felt a sudden pang of loss at their separation. What revenge he could take at the hands of these Adusinate was only an appendage to being with her again.
The strangers took their time before answering him.
“What is the best course?” Adanul asked through Lati. Keranta brought his finger back to the space between their location and Lewangwati, settling on a smallish lump that stood for Kalo Patwa.
“Make for this island, where there is much water and game. We will gather what supplies we can before turning here.” He drew a fairly straight path to what he knew to be Kalo Laku. “I have allies here who will join us in attacking Lewangwati, but only if we give them Kalo Nubi first.” The last island was nearer to Kalo Patwa, a squat lump of earth barely worth mentioning, except that its new chief had thought to entertain the kingdom’s enemies too many times.
It was not for Adanul to know that this last statement was a lie; after their campaign together against the eastern islands, Ganita would have joined Keranta to the bottom of the sea without question. But the general of Jewaktana’s armies had not become such without a sense for knowing an opportunity when he saw one.
“Can we not simply sail around Kalo Nubi if it poses a threat?” Adanul asked, resting his chin on his hand.
“Perhaps to one of our small ships, but certainly not to your own. And of course, our spoils there will only be a taste of what I can offer you as king.”
Adanul let loose a grin that a more experienced man would have suppressed at what appeared to be such an easy victory, and that was when Keranta knew that the only victory here this morning was his own.