<—-Chapter Three of the Never Ending War can be read here.
The journey to the Land of the Mercs was rough.
It was much tougher than the Lady Queen Coffee was used to. Her home in the West Atlantic was fairly easy to travel around– not that she travelled much. It was much too dangerous, her councilors advised her. Too dangerous to be seen all across her country. The Mercs were ruthless, and they were unbiased. They wouldn’t hesitate to… to…
She wouldn’t think of that. Coffee knew that she had to visit them. Coffee had to visit him. He was the only one who could help her in a situation like this.
The trip took days, and by the time she arrived, she was exhausted. She had never been to visit a place like this before, but the queen knew that she’d be offered hospitality. He couldn’t avoid giving her a warm bed to sleep in. He owed her that much.
She continued to glance over her shoulder almost constantly, paranoia setting in.
She had, of course, come alone.
Looking down at the paper in her hand, she studied for what seemed to be the thousandth time. On it was the address that a messenger had brought her. The queen checked it once more with the number on the simple oak door in front of her, took a breath, and knocked, wishing that she’d thought to bring just one her guards with her. Surely, an exception would have been made if she’d just brought one.
“Password?” asked a gruff voice from behind the door.
She was startled. “I… I don’t know it. But I’m here to see-“
“No password, no entry. If we wanted you here, you’d know what to say to get in. I hope you have a nice day.” He didn’t sound like he meant it.
The queen wasn’t having it.
She banged on the door with all of her might. “I’d like to speak to Lectin!” Queen Coffee shouted. There was a pause, some scuffling of feet, and then the door opened.
“Name?” asked the shirtless man, looking at her suspiciously.
She held her head up high, like her mother had taught her to do. “Queen Coffee Beans, of the Western Atlantic.” The man laughed. She looked at him in disgust. “And I suppose you’re some kind of barbarian that will throw me out?” He shook his head, still laughing.
“Well, Your Highness, you don’t need to use that tone. We tend to see a pretty fair amount of royalty. Your title don’t scare me none. ‘Lady Fee’, I heard they call you. You’ve got no respect, and you and I both know it. You’re not nearly as intimidating as you wish you were. Here’s a little bit of information that you might like to know before you decide to continue bothering me; I kill a lot of royalty. Would’ve had a couple of tries for you, too, but for some reason, Ol’ Lec turned them down. Fool. And here I am, thinking that the Mercs are supposed to be unbiased. Except when it comes to you, I suppose.” He looked at her for a moment, narrowing his eyes. “Speakin’ of the old man, he wasn’t expecting any visitors. So tell me, Your Highness,” the man asked, a flash of silver catching Coffee’s eye, “what your real business here is.”
“That will do, Jon,” said an old, wise voice, stopping him.
Jon looked slightly disappointed. “Impeccable timing as usual, Lectin,” he said, sighing. He didn’t step any farther back from the Queen, but he didn’t dare press the matter any further, either, not with old Lectin there.
“I said that’s enough.” Lectin was old. Too old to be a Merc, in fact. One would wonder why he’d still be in a place like this.
“Coffee, dear,” he said. He smiled a bit. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
Coffee grinned like a little girl. “Lectin-sensei!” she cried, running to him and trying to get a hug. He sidestepped and she tumbled.
“Sorry, dear, but you know how I am.”
“But I haven’t seen you in years!”
“It’s true that you haven’t seen me in quite some time– Actually, you haven’t seen me since the wars began, have you?” he asked gently. “But I’m afraid I haven’t changed much.”
“Yes, well I see that your… erm… living environment and your standards and your sense of self-worth have changed quite a bit,” she said, looking around at the grimy entrance to the headquarters of the Mercenaries. It was much different from her palace, where Lectin had been employed, hundreds of years ago. “I can’t say that it’s much of a surprise, judging by the company you choose to keep.” She glanced once more at the man called Jon.
Lectin narrowed his eyes a bit maliciously. “I would sigh, Princess, but I somehow knew that was coming. You haven’t changed a bit. You can’t bear to be a good person for more than a moment, can you?” he asked. His voice was always the same. Kind, even when he was reproaching her. He had an expression on his face that Coffee remembered well, as she had seen it so often– disappointment. “That will do, Coffee. And don’t, Jon.”
Coffee hadn’t seen what Jon was doing, but she had a feeling that the uncivilized man would be planning something gruesome. She couldn’t deny that he seemed the type.
“You have no right to judge me,” Jon muttered under his breath, his voice close to Coffee’s ear, startling her. “You don’t know a thing about me. You don’t know a damn thing about any of us. We don’t have our lives handed to us on a solid gold plate. We have to work. You have no right to judge,” he said again.
“What, Lectin?” he asked defiantly.
“That will do.”
Lectin looked around at the Mercs that had begun to watch, trying to get a glimpse of this curious stranger, and hoping for a job. “Disperse!” he ordered loudly. He had such a commanding, booming voice, especially for a frail looking older man. Much different from the softer, grandfatherly tone that he’d used with Coffee.
“Lectin-sensei?” She wasn’t used to that kind of tone. It frightened her.
“Come with me,” he said, motioning for the queen to follow, wobbling on his cane a bit as he led her to his own personal study.
Queen Coffee realized with some disdain that her beloved old tutor must be pretty high up in the society that he was living in, if one could indeed call this place a society.
If he was given such a seemingly large space for only himself, he must be pretty important. It raised her opinion of him just a bit. Even so, she couldn’t resist commenting on the cramped space.
“This is your office?” she asked. Disgust could be lightly traced in her voice, although she’d tried to choke it back. Lectin sighed.
“You’re too much like your mother. It’s not good for you.”
The queen spun on him. “I wish to be half of the woman that my mother was. And you have no right to say that my admiration is a bad thing.”
Lectin ignored her outburst, reminding himself that this was one of her lesser ones, and shuddering at the thought of the tantrums he had endured as her tutor so many years ago. “You’re not here to make small talk with me, Princess,” Lectin pressed.
“And I am no longer a Princess, Lectin-sensei. You know that.” She looked at him. He was one of the few people that she allowed to speak to her in that way.
Sometimes she wondered if familiarity really did breed contempt.
“What is it that you came here for, Princess?” he asked abruptly. She narrowed her eyes at his usage of her ex-title.
“Could I not just come to check in with the best of my old tutors, and one of my father’s most trusted advisors?” she asked in a sugary sweet voice that made Lectin sick to his stomach. He knew that she wanted something. Something dangerous.
He refused to play her games.
“When I left two hundred years ago, you seemed keen on never seeing me again,” he said. “What do you need so much?”
“Why can’t we just forget what happened in the past?” she pleaded with something like desperation.
“I told you when I left, Princess, and I’ll tell you now that you’ve decided that you’d like me back in your life. You should never have gotten the throne. You should have accepted Queen Melkyre’s offer to protect your kingdom until you had matured. You should have waited until you were ready. And even now, you’re not yet matured. You should not have gotten the throne so early in life. It’s damaged you. And it’s damaging your country, from what I hear.” He raised an eyebrow.
“Like I said, Lectin. Why can’t we just let the past be the past?”
“You’re not one to let go of grudges so easily, Princess.”
“I am no Princess!” she shouted.
Lectin smiled grimly. “But you are. And if you had any common sense, you would see what I meant.” Lectin had spoken in that same soft tone that he’d used before, as if addressing a child. And, in a way, he was. “Your subjects do not respect you. I doubt that you even respect yourself. Now, Princess,” he said in a more forceful voice, “it’s time you tell me why you really came here, and tell me now, or else I will send you out to be at the mercy of my Mercenaries. And I assure you, they are not keen on peace and virtue. Especially if you’ve downgraded their home and way of life, as you did only moments ago.”
The Lady Coffee signed, and sat down resignedly on the chair across from Lectin. This was one of the reasons she hated him. He made her feel like a child.
“As you wish, Teacher,” she said mildly, though she narrowed her eyes. “As you wish.”