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Lucidius straightened as the servant boy tightened the straps of his breastplate.
"Is this correct, commander?"
"It does not matter how it fits, boy. I am only bargaining today."
The boy fumbled with the laces of a gauntlet. "We're not - we're not advancing?"
"Not on this day. Bad omens. I will trust the seer's prophecy."
The servant sniffed as if to appear indifferent to this revelation, then returned to tying off laces and locking clasps into place. Once he was finished, Lucidius sent the boy from the tent and took a seat on his pallet. He reached for his sword and withdrew it from its sheath.
He could see his reflection in the polished bronze. His face was lined with scars and folds, and thick white hair sprouted from his nose and brow. "Not on this day," he whispered.
Outside the tent, his lieutenant general Furo was waiting with a saddled horse. Furo had done well to keep the horse's purpose a secret, but Lucidius knew that the men had their suspicions already.
The surrounding commanders ceased preparations once he emerged from the tent, and Lucidius could feel their eyes on him as they waited for a command.
"I am going to treat with their leader," he said with serene authority. "If we can reach an accord, then we shall not clash on this day. If we cannot, then I will summon you to battle." With that, Lucidius climbed onto the horse and spurred it onward, Furo in tow.
It was an hour's ride to the agreed-upon meeting point. When Lucidius and Furo finally came within viewing distance of the site, they saw that the opposing commander was already waiting with what appeared to be a servant boy.
"Ho, General!" the man shouted as they approached. "Fine day to surrender!" The man struck Lucidius as an irredeemable boor. He was sturdily built and gleaming with sweat, and his dark beard swallowed up the bottom half of his face. He wore a cape.
"Who is it now that expects me to surrender?"
"I am Kalvinus, Commander of the Aurumian army. Who are you?"
"Lucidius, the same of the Santonians. I'm glad you have arrived to this location safely." They all dismounted.
Kalvinus scowled. "I was prepared to simply take your head, but you have so conveniently served it up that I could not resist."
Lucidius felt his pride flare up. "General Kalvinus, the stars may not have ordained a victory for me today, but I have been known to defy them."
The opposing commander's expression shifted unexpectedly, to something resembling bafflement. Likewise, his servant arched one brow.
"You seem troubled. I only meant to ask you to speak with more respect."
"You were given a prophecy of defeat as well?" Kalvinus asked.
No. It couldn't be. Lucidius was careful not to betray his own shock. "It appears that you and I are meeting under similar conditions. I see now why you accepted my request."
"How can it be that the gods wish us both to lose?"
Lucidius shrugged. "I don't know, exactly. It seems the Oracle has lied to one of us, or perhaps both of us."
"I knew that old crone was a liar."
"They told me she's never been wrong."
"They told me the same. I distrust magic and its practitioners, but I sought her counsel at the behest of my men. She predicted certain death for me and defeat for my men."
"She told me the same."
Kalvinus appeared to consider this carefully. Lucidius could practically see his dull ox brain working over the implications of the Oracle's words. He wondered what it was like to be so colossally stupid and yet be in complete control of thousands of lives. It seemed exhausting.
"So, shall we proceed?" Lucidius asked.
"With a settlement of some kind."
"Why? Don't you see, old man? We can't both lose."
"This is true, I suppose. But neither of us will lose if we refuse to fight."
"That depends on your definition of a loss."
Lucidius was tired of this interaction. "I've come all the way out here to reason with you. It seems I've wasted my time."
"Yes," Kalvinus replied in a decisive tone.
Suddenly, in a flash, a gleam, Lucidius saw the man's muscles bunch up and could only watch as he lunged forward. He felt a sharp punch to his gut, and when he looked down, he found Kalvinus's sword buried to the hilt in his midsection.
When he looked up to meet Kalvinus's gaze, he was surprised to see the man's eyes shut and his jaw hanging agape, as Furo had driven his own blade deep into Kalvinus's neck in the same instant. He turned to look at Furo, but that man's fate was similarly grim.
The servant boy had driven a dagger deep into Furo's left eye, and the boy was now shaking in fear as tears streamed down his cheek. He and Lucidius locked eyes for a long moment before Lucidius felt his vision dimming.
"Well, boy, it seems the victor of this battle is the Oracle," he said as he slumped forward.