Chapter 7 – Winning the Sahraoui War
“Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”
For the first time the next day, Janus didn’t show up. I continued to wait for him every morning, but he stopped coming. Time passed. Autumn was fading away.
I gripped my fork, and resisted the urge to hurl it at his imaginary face. The next time I saw him, I would give him a good fight just to prove that he needed to spar with me as much I needed to spar with him. He still said that I was terrible, but I had improved to the point that he actually had to make an effort to beat me.
My mother tapped her knuckles on the dinner table, jostling me out of my daze.
“Did you hear me, Dione? We’ve been invited to General Laurent’s victory celebration in the capital.”
I perked up when she mentioned the leader of the Imperial Knights. General Laurent was the best swordsman in the Angati Empire. Even as a Duke’s daughter who had spoken to the Emperor more than a few times, I was in awe. “Did we finally …?”
I didn’t need to finish my question for Father to nod. “We must congratulate him,” he said. “He subjugated the Ordos Kingdom after fifteen long years.”
The Angati Empire was frequently at war, big or small. Before we were an empire, we were a kingdom with four duchies, one of which included the Eferhild family in the South. Most of the Empire’s food came from our fertile lands, so we were the largest and most prosperous of them all. This fact remained since the first kingdom we conquered hundreds of years ago and as the Empire continued to expand ever since. Ordos, which encompassed the Johona Desert in the southeast, was our biggest conquest yet. While the world knew us for our military prowess, they were known for their seclusion.
I had never paid attention to the war which had started a year before I was born, and I had never cared for it. A part of me never doubted that we would win. Even so, I leaned forward eagerly. General Laurent was like a hero to my generation. He was the man we frequently heard about in war stories from messengers, and he was everything I aspired to be.
“Are you well enough to go?” Despite her sharp demeanor, Mother voiced an inkling of concern. Like Janus, my family had noticed my sickly complexion these past few months. Now that I no longer needed to wear the amethyst necklace for long stretches of time, my health had considerably improved.
I nodded eagerly. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Demetri also perked up, his willowy eyes brightening with excitement. “Can I go too?”
“No,” Mother said sternly. “You’re too young.”
“I’ll be eight soon,” he insisted. “Sister had her social debut when she was my age.”
“There are things you don’t understand,” Mother replied, her voice as sharp as the cutlery knife I was holding. Even I knew to be careful with her when she was this serious.
Demetri pouted, picking at his food sullenly. He was the baby of the family, and although I knew he didn’t like being treated as such, I reached over and patted his head. “Just a few more years, little one. Then you can join the adults.”
“That feels like forever,” he muttered.
Meanwhile, I picked up the knife and cut into the meat. The charred surface cleanly split, revealing a pinkish undertone.
“A few more years is nothing compared to how long the Sahraoui War took,” Mother said. But she also reached over and placed a few slices of meat on Demetri’s plate, as if trying to make up for her severity. “Eat up.”
Father, who had watched our exchange without much input, suddenly laughed. “I’ll be disappointed if you don’t grow taller than me,” he told Demetri.
My older brother Darius would have assured Father then he would tower over him soon, but my younger brother was a soft-hearted boy who preferred magic to swords and quiet days to boisterous. He pushed away the meat on his plate and nodded quietly, making no promises.
The conversation led back to the Sahraoui War. Father boasted about his contributions behind the front lines while Mother patiently listened.
I didn’t know much about the war, but I knew why it started. Fifteen years ago, Ordos created a terrible drought on our southern lands. Their desert terrain encroached on our abundant fields like wildfire. The previous Emperor had declared war to stop their efforts, and the current Emperor continued it. But since the war’s inception, news of the drought faded away, probably because Ordos was too preoccupied fighting us off.
“So what’s next?” Mother asked. “Are we venturing east or west?”
Her words settled over us like an icy blanket.
There would always be a next kingdom. A next conquest. And who knows? One day, I might be leading my own troops into battle. I might be leading them to victory.
“We haven’t thought that far yet,” Father said. “There is still more work to be done. Someone led the Ordos people behind the scenes during these past few years, but we don’t know who.”
“It wasn’t the Ordos King?” Mother asked. It seemed natural for her to think that way, but I knew that King Izem IV, despite his fancy name and title, was a powerless figurehead who held no power over his people. While his father who had been at the forefront of the war before his death, he was a sniveling coward.
“He retreated to his water palace during the middle of the war,” Father replied, confirming my thoughts. “It can’t be him.”
“Perhaps his retreat was just a facade to fool us,” I suggested.
Father grinned at me. “That doesn’t explain why he formally surrendered to us years ago, along with the numerous riches he paid to spare his life.”
I widened my eyes. Father pressed his finger against his lips, signalling to me that this was a secret between us. As a Duke, he knew many things he wasn’t supposed to tell his family, but Father never made an effort to hide them from me. I was good at keeping secrets … Darius, not so much.
“So we won long before,” I said in a hushed voice.
“Yes, but what’s the point of a monarch surrendering if the people do not agree? The Ordos people are prideful, strong, and dangerous, just like their terrain. They put up a good fight.”
“I still don’t understand why the war took so long,” I murmured. “Why didn’t we burn their cities to ash?”
Mother flinched, the color draining from her face. Like most women, she was ignorant of Angati’s military methods. Perhaps it was even odder to hear it coming from my mouth—the golden girl of Angati who received more marriage proposals than Princess Esme herself. But the moment I picked up my sword, flesh transformed to metal. Bones turned to marble. Blood turned to fire. I didn’t see people, but wooden chess pieces that could easily be set aflame. Each one served a greater purpose: victory, peace, unity.
“We didn’t want to destroy their beautiful architecture,” Father said.
I furrowed my eyebrows. This was the first time I had heard of an explanation like this. “Since when did the Angati Empire care about foreign beauty?”
Father grinned, and I sensed he was hiding something from me. “Now we do.”
I thrummed my fingers against the dining table restlessly, deciding not to press the issue. Instead, I wondered what it would be like to meet someone from Ordos. I knew that they were dark-skinned and dark-haired. They were strong and dangerous. They had a vastly different culture, one that was still not entirely known or understood since the Sahraoui War began.
I picked up my fork and twirled it around my fingers, much to my mother’s disapproval. The light’s reflection on its silvery surface produced a shine. I stabbed it into a charred olive, trapping its body with the fork’s prongs. The juice squirted out like blood.
Were they as pretty as the rumors claimed? Were they as dangerous as my father claimed? Or were they all that and everything in between?
I wanted to find out.