Lieutenant Talifus has agreed to meet with me in a tavern in the city of Almar, not far from the Alasian royal palace. When I arrive, he is already seated at a table with a tankard of ale, staring morosely into its depths. He barely nods as I sit down across from him.
“Questions, eh? Fine, go ahead. You won’t tell the Malornians anything I tell you?” I assure him I won’t.
1. Do you like your job? Why or why not?
Talifus scowls. “I hate my job. Those stinking Malornians tricked me! Before the Invasion I was a captain; they promised to promote me but instead I got demoted to lieutenant. I have to work under Captain Almanian. I should have been his superior by now.” He sighs angrily. “Not that I liked my job all that much even before. You know, I never really wanted to be on the palace guard. As a boy, I always pictured I’d join the army, where there’s plenty of room for advancement. It only goes up to captain in the palace. What more is there to strive for when you’re already at the top?”
“So why did you join the palace guard in the first place?” I prompt.
“Well, King Jaymin put me on it, and you can’t really say no to the king. Though I see now that I should have. He was nearsighted enough to think he was doing me a favor, I suppose. You see, my father was captain of the guard years ago when his father – Jaymin II – was on the throne. The two of us sort of grew up together here in the palace, but we were never close friends. Our fathers died in battle together when we were both sixteen, and I suppose Jaymin III thought he owed me something. He knew I was a good fighter, so after they crowned him king he gave me a position on the palace guard. I pretended I appreciated it – what else could I do? – and started working my way up the ranks, and here I’ve been ever since. Until the Malornians offered me the chance at something better, and then broke their promises, those filthy stinking liars.”
2. Do you have any friends? Significant others?
“Not anymore. All the Alasians I know hate me, and the Malornians don’t trust me. Nobody respects me anymore.”
3. What is your idea of success?
“Promotion. Power. Wealth. All of which I was supposed to get after I helped them invade.” He glares at me as though it were my fault. “I gave up everything to help the Malornians. Everything! And what did I get in return? Broken promises and demotion.” He slams a fist down on the table. “It’s all Captain Almanian’s fault. He’s ruined my life.”
4. What do you hate?
“Those filthy Malornians, of course. Almanian, especially. Someday I’m going to make sure he gets what he deserves for what he did to me.” Talifus takes a swallow from his cup and thumps it angrily back down on the table, ale sloshing over his fingers.
5. What do you do in your spare time?
“Try to plan ways to get even with them. And drink.” Talifus wipes his hand on his breeches, still scowling. “It’s their fault I started drinking. I hardly touched a drop until the day that messenger approached me with Regent Rampus’s offer and I began planning how to help them invade. Now I can’t seem to stay away from the bottle. I never used to be like this. Well, not as much.”
6. What did you have for breakfast?
“I didn’t have breakfast today. My stomach was acting up after last night’s wine. I’ve still got a headache.” He mutters something under his breath about “that cursed Almanian”.
7. Did you ever have a pet? Describe it.
“No. I don’t like animals.”
8. Do you believe in luck? Why?
“Yes. I’ve had nothing but bad luck for weeks now.”
9. What is your favorite scent? Why?
This makes him pause. “I don’t know. Fresh oatcakes, maybe. My parents and I, that used to be our favorite breakfast together in the dining hall when I was a boy. As we sat and ate, my father often used to talk to me about the future, about the army career he was going to help me get, about all the power and privileges I’d have when I was an officer.” Talifus sighs. “It never bothered him that I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. He had contacts in the army who he was sure would help get me on the fast track to success. We often talked about it at breakfast before he went off to work, and I still associate oatcakes with the promise of a bright future.” He sighs again. “Now that all the Alasians here have to do what I say, I sometimes make Lutian cook them for me even when they’re not on the day’s meal plan. But for some reason they don’t seem to taste as good anymore.”
10. What is the strangest thing you have ever seen?
Talifus’s eyes grow distant. “You don’t expect to see a company of hundreds of soldiers moving in complete silence. I don’t know how they did it that night. Wrapped their boots in cloth, maybe, to muffle the sound of their footsteps. And it was a dark night, perfect for their plans: no moon, and the sky was overcast. I was expecting them, but even so, I hardly realized they were coming until they were right there before the palace gates in a silent throng. Not a single footstep, not a whisper, barely the slightest rustle of movement. If it hadn’t been for the torches by the gate, I would hardly have known anyone was even close by. And yet there they were, ready to change my life and Alasia’s.” He sips distractedly from his tankard. “You wouldn’t think life-changing events would slip in so silently. Maybe that’s why it seemed so strange, so out of place. You’d expect an invading army to charge in with trumpets and war horses and battle cries. You don’t expect them to just appear out of the darkness like a horde of ghosts in front of your home.”
11. What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?
Talifus looks away, and for a moment I think he isn’t going to answer. When he speaks again, his voice is lower, and I have to lean forward to hear.
“It was that same night, of course. The night of the Invasion. There were four of us guards who knew what was about to happen, and I had arranged the schedule so that two of us were on duty at the gates and the other two at the main door, ready to let the Malornians in.” He chews his lip, fiddling with the handle of his cup. “You ever have one of those moments where it seems like your future is teetering on the edge of a blade? You need to make a quick decision, and you know that one way or another your life is never going to be the same afterward. And you’re terrified you’re about to make the worst mistake of your life.” He sighs heavily. “Not that I really had much of a choice by that time, you know? I had already agreed to help them. The arrangements had all been made. They’d paid me an advance – not a terribly big one, considering everything I was doing for them, but they’d promised a lot more would be coming afterward. And now there they were, waiting outside the gate while I stood guard up top, and I had a split second where I almost….” His voice trails off and he closes his eyes, shaking his head hopelessly. When he lifts his tankard for another gulp of ale, I see that his hands are shaking.
“But I did it, of course,” he continues finally. “I had to. I had to! They would have killed me if I’d backed out of the deal then, and the other three would have let them in anyway, so what would have been the point? I had no choice, really.” It isn’t clear whether Talifus is trying to convince me or himself. “Almanian was there at the front, and I led him across the courtyard and into the palace, showed him and his men the way through the corridors. I’d tried to keep the duty schedule as light as I could that night, but I had to assign some guards to each floor or it would have looked suspicious. We killed them all. We had to. I didn’t want to do it, but there was no other way. And I didn’t realize the Malornians were going to kill everyone, even those off duty and asleep. That part wasn’t my fault! And when Almanian made me lead the way to the king and queen’s room, I – I – I -” Talifus breaks off again, his voice anguished, trembling all over now. “I swear I didn’t know what they were going to do! The messenger hadn’t said anything about that part! I never thought they’d harm King Jaymin. Just take him captive, maybe, along with the queen; make him a puppet ruler in their new government, or something. How could I have known? How could I? You can’t blame me for what they did!” His head sinks into his hands and he groans. “I’ll never forget that moment, waiting outside their door with Lasden while Almanian went in. By then it was obvious, but what could I do? Lasden was watching me with his sword ready like he knew I was having doubts, and their people were all around. I couldn’t have done anything if I’d wanted to. I wouldn’t have stood a chance. There was no point in trying.” He buries his face in his hands again. “It wasn’t my fault,” he moans once more.
I wait, but for a long time Talifus remains motionless. Finally he fumbles for his cup and drains the rest of his ale in one gulp. Glancing across the room, he catches the bartender’s eye and gestures with the empty cup. The man hurries over with a pitcher to refill it, and Talifus raises it again, sucking the contents down almost desperately, as though he thinks the only solution to his anguish lies at the bottom of the cup.
Finally he pauses for breath and looks up, seeming surprised to see me still sitting there. “You’re done, aren’t you? Leave me alone now, all right?” Without waiting for me to leave, he turns back to his ale.