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Forty-Seven Dictums of Warfare

Alex Shvartsman is a writer, translator and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 80 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, Galaxy's Edge, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and many other magazines and anthologies. He won the 2014 WSFA Small Press Award for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2015 Canopus Award for Excellence in Interstellar Fiction. He is the editor of the Unidentified Funny Objects annual anthology series of humorous SF/F. His collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma and Other Stories and his steampunk humor novella H. G. Wells, Secret Agent were both published in 2015. His website is alexshvartsman.com.
Teo followed one of his men through the vast halls of the palace, past the defaced portraits of royals and the vacant pedestals from which vases and small trinkets had already been looted. Laughter and muffled screams could be heard from some of the rooms they passed; the fighting was over, and the soldiers were helping themselves to spoils of war.
"She's in there." The man pointed at the wide doorway. He shifted from foot to foot impatiently, no doubt eager to join his comrades.
Teo dismissed him with a nod and pushed the gilded double doors open.
A teenage girl dressed in fine silks stood within, blade in hand. Half a dozen solders circled wearily beyond her reach, their own weapons drawn. Teo approached and the men parted to let him pass. He and the girl studied one another.
"Take another step and die," the girl warned, her voice cracking.
Teo chuckled. "Your stance and grip are all wrong. The toy you're clutching is good only for ceremonies; it would break the first time you parried. Any one of them"--he pointed at the soldiers--"could disarm you in seconds. The only thing keeping you alive is that circlet."
The girl blanched, likely unused to being spoken to in such a frank manner. Precious stones set in the silver band atop her head glinted. She regained her courage. "Keep away! I'm Princess Elena. No commoner may spill the noble blood!"
"Dictum seventeen," said Teo. "The ancient sages proscribed harming the enemy princes, for once the commoner accepts that kings are mortal, who knows what dangerous ideas that may lead to, eh?"
"You know the dictums?" She lowered her blade a fraction.
"I'm Teo, captain of the Third Battalion and earl of Shallowpond."
"You're too filthy to be a noble," she said.
He straightened his coat, its rims caked in mud and ichor. "This is what war looks like, Princess." His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. "My men can't touch you, but I'll cut you down if I must."
Her blade rose. "Do it, then. I won't forfeit my family's claim to the throne by surrendering!"
"A toothless claim, that. Your side has lost. But there's a deal to be made." He wondered if she would listen or lunge. She chose the former. "What do you think will happen if you surrender?"
"I will be ransomed," Elena said.
"Dictum forty-two. You'll be treated like an honored guest until some relative pays in gold or favors." Teo stepped forward, just beyond the edge of her blade's thrusting range. "Do you hear those screams? Thousands will be robbed or beaten, perhaps killed, merely because their liege lost a war they never wanted." Another step. He was nose to nose with her now. "You can save them."
Her hand trembled. She did not strike, even though the dictums allowed it. "What do you propose?"
"As per dictum twelve, my liege will need a royal signatory to the terms of surrender. You can die here to spite him, or demand better treatment for your subjects in exchange for your signature."
She hesitated. "How do I know you'll keep your word?"
"Dictum thirty-one. The terms offered during parley are binding."
Elena's lip trembled. Finally, she sheathed her blade and handed it over.
Once his men secured the princess, Teo said, "You should know that I lied. I'm a captain, but not a noble."
Elena cried out as she struggled in the grip of the soldiers.
Teo felt sorry for her. He had tricked her, claimed authority the dictums didn't grant him. But he might have saved her life--a real noble would have likely as not gone for the easy kill. Would she still hear reason? He had to try.
"Wait. Listen. I may only be a tanner's son, but everything else I said was true. I'll take you to my liege, who cares no more for the lives of common men than any other king. Of the forty-seven dictums of warfare, none concern themselves with compassion for the commoners. You, at least, seem to care." He signaled for the soldiers to release Elena.
Elena calmed, glowered. She didn't move.
Perhaps there was a chance for her people. Perhaps she was young enough and not conditioned to see the commoners as little more than livestock. Teo pressed on. "I may not have the authority to make this deal, but you do. You just have to present the idea to him as your own, like I did to you."
She looked at him, stone-faced, her eyes cold and calculating. He feared she'd refuse, but she simply nodded assent, a barely perceptible tilt of the chin.
She accepted the arm he offered. Then, quick as a viper, she withdrew a dagger from her sleeve and stabbed him in the heart.
She stood over Teo, watching him bleed. His stunned men surrounded them, but dictum seventeen protected her from their impotent fury better than a plate of armor. A corner of her lip turned upward and she dropped the bloody dagger to the floor.
"Let's go," she told them. As Teo slipped from consciousness he heard her add nonchalantly, "I'll parley more effectively with your king if he doesn't think me a fool swindled by a commoner."
The forty-seventh dictum of warfare lauded the value of saving face over mercy.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, July 5th, 2016

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