The arms that pulled them into the ship belonged to a burly soldier with a scar across his right cheek, but Valiann barely saw him. Hanni laid on the deck unconscious and barely breathing, with his right leg twisted all the way around like a wet towel. Valiann stared; he didn’t even know how to bandage properly. Hanni has always taken care of them both.
The ship shored and was met with half the Marish army. Valiann carried Hanni from the boat and eased him onto a comfortable-looking patch of mud, all the while thinking he would start crying. He absolutely would not.
Princess Lynia was waiting for them. The look on his face must have been terrible, because she smiled at him as if he just did something clownish.
‘I can see the fires from here!’ She said cheerfully, ‘where are the golems? Didn’t they make it?’
Valiann, still drenched to the skin with hair and weed plastered to his face, walked back into the water. The Master Cube, not having left his hand since Hanni put it there, glowed brightly as he spun it once again with renewed purpose.
Something felt different; the Cube now felt deft and responsive, almost eager to be used. Rather than a puppeteer moving ten dolls with one string, he now moved one tied with ten. Or perhaps a bit more.
After minutes of quiet, the Ilmarys’ veil of orange and black began to roil. Three square blocks of metal parted its surface, followed by three elliptical torsos of cabled steel. Three sets of hydraulic shoulders whirled and hissed, ejecting water and greedily sucking in air, powering those fat-fingered hands that clenched and unclenched as more water seeped out of the cracks of its joints. Three pairs of triangular feet shovelled aside the mud that buried them with each step, digging parallel tracks almost a metre deep. Three golems, completely intact, have made it across the river, and now stood in a concave in front of their small master.
With a sweeping gesture Valiann turned to face the Marish host, his expression viciously triumphant.
The Marish soldiers gathered by the river woo-ed and ahh-ed, but Lynia’s excitement surpassed that tenfold. She ran towards Valiann squealing, hopping carelessly over Hanni’s body, and threw herself at him in a hug that was more a tackle. Before he could react, she planted a kiss on his lips that smelled like fresh roses, and held his hands to her chest.
‘Such a good boy, Valiann Del! You will be rewarded!’ she exclaimed, leaning uncomfortably close.
She smelled dizzyingly good, but Valiann saw her hands close on the Master Cube. ‘You be careful with that,’ he said.
‘Of course, you’ve worked so hard to retrieve it for me,’ Lynia said.
‘And our agreement?’
‘Pray calm, dear Valiann. You Cadets are no spies; how could I rely on information from you?’
Two Marish soldiers walked up to Hanni and pointed crossbows at his head. It would have been a hilariously useless threat under normal circumstances.
‘Our Keeper will escort you and your friend back to the Citadel,’ Lynia said, ‘now the Cube if you please.’
Valiann began to laugh. At first the princess laughed with him, but his eyes sobered her up quickly, for he looked at her as one would examine an interesting beetle, or admire a pretty plant.
‘We are leaving. You are coming with me princess.’
The golems suddenly bent down all at once. Guarded by its peers, the middle one scooped up Valiann and Lynia in its massive hand in a single motion, then promptly turned on the spot and lumbered back into the river. The Marish crowd cried out in surprise, but by the time they rushed at them the golems were already chest-deep in water.
‘Will you leave your friend to die?’ Lynia asked as she leaned on him with no intention of struggling, ‘I saw how you looked when you carried him. You care for him don’t you?’
‘You don’t know a thing about caring.’
‘How rude of you to assume.’
‘And how bizarre of you to be so casual.’
‘Perks of being a princess, I can be whatever I want,’ Lynia said, and playfully nibbled at his ear.
‘Don’t be so friendly to someone who’s going to give you to the Thaumians,’ Valiann said.
Lynia froze, then bit down hard on his earlobe, and as he recoiled made a decisive leap into the river, but with one twitch of a finger Valiann made another golem fished her out of the water by the legs.
‘How dare you? How dare you betray me?!’ she yelled.
‘Why are you even surprised? What did you expect?’
The golems were now almost completely submerged, but kept their arms raise above water.
‘Kill that one!’ she yelled at her soldiers on the shore, ‘kill Han’Nietzeul!’
Valiann bit his tongue to keep his face calm. The golems kept walking.
The wait lasted seconds but seemed forever. Then a voice shouted from the riverside, ‘wait, wait!’ It was one of Lynia’s generals.
‘No! It’s a bluff!’ Lynia screamed at them, ‘I order you to kill Han’Nietzeul!’
Of course it was a bluff; everyone on that bank knew it. They couldn’t call though, not when their entire existence depended on the safety of their precious princess. Lynia could throw her own life away whenever she wanted, but the generals couldn’t let her, because the death of a royal under their watch meant at the very least the execution of their entire families.
They sent Hanni down with a boat and Valiann ordered another golem to scoop him up. The boat waited around expecting to pick up the princess, but Valiann kept walking, this time parallel to the shore. The crew tried to climb onto the golem’s hand, and quickly fell back as Valiann tightened the hold on Lynia, just a little.
The Marish army on the shore moved with them at first, but most doubled back as leaving the camp ill defended with Thaumians’ side full of activity was begging for trouble. At the coming of dawn only a small host of cavalry still kept pace.
‘You can let me go now,’ Lynia said glumly. Spending most of the night upside down in the clutches of a metal hand must have been unpleasant, ‘you don’t need me anymore.’
‘Could have saved yourself a lot of effort, princess,’ Hanni said. He was awake now, and despite the swaying had managed to bind his leg. It was nowhere close to the treatment he needed but it had to do.
‘Can you swim?’ Valiann asked.
Lynia gave him a baleful look, then took off her armoured dress and tossed it into the river.
He nodded, ‘don’t think too poorly of us. You would’ve done worse.’
She sputtered and flailed as Valiann dropped her into the water, ‘I hate you Starling. I hope I never ever see you again.’
Why that statement sounded bashful Valiann couldn’t tell, and as Lynia’s bobbing head drifted to shore the sense of triumph he had hoped for came in the form of weary, unfulfilling relief.
‘I’d say things went well overall,’ said Hanni as he laid back on the golem’s hand and surveyed the water with casual interest, as if that messed up leg didn’t bother him.
‘This was all my fault.’
‘Way I see it, we just saved the twenty thousand lives in the refugee camp and ticked a major item off our list. That’s a win.’
‘You almost died.’
‘Still alive…though I’d very much like to see a surgeon.’