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FROM ASHES TO EMPIRES

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Chapter 6

TW: n/a


“Only two survivors? Really?” Valtteri set the book he was reading at the edge of his hospital bed, the morning sun illuminating the cover. He finally gave the nurse who’d brought him breakfast his full attention.

“Yeah. Daniel brought one of them in… they were both covered in blood,” the nurse replied quietly as he set a plate of eggs, bacon, and toast on the bedside table.

Valtteri plucked up one of the bacon strips and took a bite. “That’s unfortunate, but I’m not sure what such a small group expected to do against an army.”

The nurse gave him a look. “...Anyway, one of them is in the room to your right, if you care to meet him. But please don’t bother the other, he’s still asleep. I’ll be going.”

“Sure thing.” Valtteri picked the book back up and tried to read as he ate, but his eyes glazed over the words. He couldn’t help but wonder about the two survivors—new commune members weren’t terribly rare, but their arrival was unique to say the least. Who were they? More importantly, were they willing to listen to him? If they were as opposed to the current leadership as they seemed to be, then maybe.

The book flopped back down as Valtteri swung his legs over the side of the bed. It couldn’t hurt to find out. He stretched, then pulled on a clean change of sweatpants and t-shirt, flinching as the cloth brushed his bandages. He, surprisingly, had most of his energy back. If it weren’t for his face he’d be back in his cabin.

It was only when he knocked on the door to the right of his room that he realized the nurse had never given him either of the survivors’ names. Too late to go ask, though, since the door cracked open a few seconds after he knocked.

“What?” The voice on the other side said, only one of its glaring, dark blue eyes visible.

Valtteri put on his most sympathetic smile, despite the survivor’s glare. “My new nurse told me about what happened. May I come in?”

The survivor’s eye narrowed, fingers tapping against the edge of the door. The eye looked him up and down, darting quickly from one feature to another, as if they were looking for... a weapon? Or something else to be afraid of.

“You said you have a nurse. So you’re a patient here?”

“Well, I certainly don’t want my face covered in bandages.”

The tapping stopped. “...Fine. Come in.” The survivor stepped back, leaving Valtteri to push open the door.

The first thing he noticed was a flask, likely filled with some sort of alcohol, on the bedside table. The second was the copious amounts of dried blood on the sheets and an open medkit on the floor. The third was that the survivor was fully dressed, bloody clothes and all.

He must’ve been staring, because the survivor commented, “It can get messy when you do it yourself.”

“You patched yourself up? We’re in a hospital, you know.”

A shrug, then he plucked the flask off the table, unscrewing the cap. He tipped the bottle up, taking a huge swig. Valtteri could smell the liquor from where he was standing--he grimaced, despite coming from a family of vintners, distillers, and brewers, he’d never smelled something so strong.

The survivor wiped his mouth with a blackened sleeve. “What’d you want again?”

“Just to talk. What’s your name, by the way? The nurse never mentioned it.”

The survivor narrowed his eyes again, stiffening slightly. “You first.”

Valtteri raised an eyebrow. “Sure. I’m Valtteri.”

The survivor took another swig. “Anthony.”

“And the other survivor?”

Anthony sighed. “You ask him when he wakes up, I don’t go around giving out names that aren’t mine.”

Valtteri smiled again, hiding his eye’s annoyed twitch. It was going to take some time to get any information out of Anthony, wasn’t it? “Your group was a rebellion, wasn’t it? Against the empire?”

If Anthony wasn’t sober before, he sure was now. The man looked like a deer who’d just heard the crunch of leaves under a hunter’s boots. “Why?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not looking to hand you over to them. I even think we have some common goals.” Anthony didn’t relax, but he didn’t stop Valtteri, either. “We both know Haelan is incompetent. I mean, you’ve seen the towns around here, right? They, and his soldiers, too, are on the brink of starvation because of him. Not to mention how outdated their weaponry is.”

Anthony nodded slowly. Finally, someone was listening.

“Just about anyone would be a better emperor than him. You, me, someone who will lift the restrictions on our manufacturers, so they can build more advanced weapons and produce unlimited—”

He was cut off by a short burst of laughter. Anth0ny tipped the flask back again, still chuckling, then slammed the bottle onto the table. His laughter faded, and his grin dropped like a bomb. “Get out.”

Valtteri’s mouth hung open. “...Excuse me?”

“I said get out.” Anthony’s brows furrowed. “I know what kind of man you are and what you’re after, and I’m not interested. Go pitch your bullshit to the suits in Hamnar, maybe they’ll take you seriously.”

Valtteri clenched his teeth behind a scowl that would make a devil wince, but Anthony held his glare. He cleared his throat, straightened his back, and turned to the door. “Fine. Rot with the rest of them.”

“I already have. Now fuck off.”

Valtteri didn’t look back as he banged the door shut behind him, nor did he acknowledge the nurses and visitors in the hallway asking what the hell had happened and if everything was all right, the pounding blood in his ears drowned them out.


****


Daniel didn’t even finish opening the door before an exasperated voice greeted him, “Ah, Daniel! Come, sit.” Valtteri, who had previously been furiously pacing in a corner of his room, rushed over to his bed and sat on the edge. Daniel took a seat in the chair across from him.

Daniel raised a concerned eyebrow. “You… wanted to talk?” He’d seen Valtteri angry before, but never so flustered. 

“Yes! I tried talking to Anthony. Lord, was that a mistake.”

“I’m guessing it didn’t go well?”

“Absolutely not. I’ve never met someone so… so blatantly disrespectful, so arrogant...” His knuckles were going white from how hard he was clenching his fists.

Daniel put a hand on Valtteri’s knee, trying to distract him from cutting up his palms with his nails. “Okay, tell me what happened.”

Valtteri let out a long breath. “You know people don’t like to listen to me, that’s nothing new. Honestly, I’m getting used to it, but I’d rather not get used to being told to fuck off just for trying to have a conversation. Why did that asshole have to be one of the survivors.”

Daniel nodded slowly. “Yeah, that’s pretty rude, but I don’t think he deserves to die for it, Val.”

“I’m just saying it would’ve been nicer if someone else survived.”

Daniel took a breath. “I’ve actually been meaning to talk to you about the proposals you’ve been making to the assembly, and I’m guessing now also to Anthony.”

Valtteri pulled away from him. “What about them?”

Daniel folded his hands, rubbing his thumbs together as he tried to piece together the gentlest way to say what he was about to say. “It’s just… the assembly is loaded with work right now, and I know you haven’t been to them since the accident, but once you’re out of here, I think it’d be best if you at least waited until things calm down to go talk with them again. And maybe Anthony had that reaction because, from what you’ve told me, it seems like that’s the first thing you tried to talk about. Nearly all of his friends were killed yesterday, Val.”

Valtteri sat up completely straight, leaning away from Daniel like he was spitting venom. “Did the assembly put you up to this?”

“Wha—no. I offered to talk to you for them.”

“You what? Why?” Valtteri asked, bewildered.

Daniel shrugged. “They seemed stressed about it, and since they’re so busy right now, I wanted to help out.”

A short breath escaped Valtteri’s lungs. “I see.”

Daniel waited for him to continue, still rubbing his thumbs together nervously, but he didn’t. Had he been too harsh? Metal cart wheels rolled past the room, accentuating the thick silence between them. 

“Are you okay?” Daniel asked softly, unable to stand the quiet.

Valtteri responded in an unconvincing monotone, “Sure. I’m going to get some rest.”

Daniel stood. “I’ll talk to you later, then?”

He got no reply.

“Right…” the air was suffocating. He hurried into the hall, heading for the exit—until he stopped. Right in front of the closed door to Anthony’s room. He took a step toward it.

...

A sigh.

Anthony could wait. He already had plenty to work on back in the shop. Nevertheless, a twinge of guilt plagued him as he turned from the door.


****


As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to wait long.

“What are you doing here?” Daniel tried keeping his voice down, but it wasn’t very useful. Half of the dining hall was already staring at Anthony, who was still wearing his bloodstained jacket, reeking of iron, and carrying enough food for two.

“Lunch,” Anthony said, continuing his route to the door. Daniel had to speed walk to catch up.

“Shouldn’t you be resting? The nurses can bring you food.”

“I feel fine. And I’d rather get it myself regardless.” He nudged the ajar door fully open with his boot. It made a loud creak, sending even more eyes in their direction. Anthony either didn’t notice or didn’t care, he kept walking like nothing but the dirt path ahead of him existed, eyes fixed forward.

“I have a hard time imagining you’re fine, given… well, everything.”

Something in Anthony’s face shifted, breaking his stoic exterior for just a moment, then it was gone. Back to his distant stare. “I will be fine, then.”

“Alright.” Daniel decided not to push it, maybe this was just his way of dealing with things. There was something else, though. “I talked with Valtteri. He said you told him to fuck off.”

Anthony snorted a laugh, “Yeah, cause he’s crazy.”

“He’s my friend.”

Anthony slowed, raising an eyebrow at Daniel. “Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’? We’ve been friends for years, he’s,” Daniel took a second, “fun to be around.”

“Is he really?”

“Yes!”

Anthony’s expression softened slightly. He almost looked concerned. “Has he tried to talk to you about his goals, or ideas, or whatever he calls them?”

“No, why?”

Anthony sighed. “I know this might sound a bit strange, but be careful around him. I’ve met people like him before. The stuff he wants is dangerous.”

Dangerous? He’d never even seen Valtteri so much as raise his fists. “What… what kind of stuff?”

“I may have interrupted him before he could go into detail, but—”

“You mean when you told him to fuck off?”

“Yes. Anyway, what I know is that he’s power hungry and he wants Haelan gone, along with other things. A concerning combination.”

That halted Daniel in his tracks.

Anthony turned. Judging by his perplexed expression, Daniel’s shock must’ve been evident. Since when did Valtteri want Haelen gone?  “Oh, uh... so you really didn’t know. You might wanna talk to him about that, I guess. Good luck,” Anthony said, quickening his pace toward the hospital.

“Wait!” Daniel jogged back up to him. “You were fighting Haelian soldiers when we rescued you! That means you’re against Haelan too, right?”

Anthony groaned, walking even faster now. “It’s not the same.”

“How so?”

“We never wanted power.”

“Then what did you want?”

Anthony stopped—Daniel had to swerve to avoid bumping into him. He figured, oh great, he must be angry, but when he stepped in front of Anthony and saw how deep and dark the bags under his dull eyes were, how his shoulders slouched uncharacteristically for a man of his imposing stature…

Anthony let out a tired breath. “Just a home.”

Daniel only blinked. What response could he possibly give to that?

“I’ll… tell you more later, if you want. I’d like to get this to Ma— my friend” He skirted around Daniel, all life in his step gone.

Daniel didn’t stop him.