Chapter Eleven

Terrible as the rear right wheel was, as long as one wasn’t sitting on it directly, and the carriage wasn’t moving that fast, it wasn’t so bad – and they were moving very slowly. Many trails had been cut through the jungle, as Ainjir waged many wars over many years, and while the plants always reclaimed the roads to some extent, it never quite had time to erase them.

As the hours stretched, and the horses plodded, the mess around Guy slowly exploded outward, and then finally began to draw back in. They did not work in silence; not only because between the jungle, the army, and the carriage itself, none was to be had, but also because Guy needed to plumb Cole’s memory for details missing from his papers. So the papers spread, Guy queried, silence would fall and the papers would be tucked back away, save perhaps one or two, their places held by increasingly erratic bookmark choices. But something was coagulating for Guy, Cole could tell.
As for Cole’s side of things, while the danger he had spoken of was very real, and very serious, he found himself compiling his own wartime history of Dominicus Galen, as if he could somehow come to new conclusions by feeling more sharply the emotions of the past.

Guy, popping a piece of sweetbread the cooks had saved for him into his mouth, gestured at a paper over his right leg. “I still don't understand how General Galen graduated with such a high rank. There's no mention of it in the copies of the Academy Lists, though I suppose you did say his class rank was excised, and no history of other cadets being given similar rank.”

Cole nodded. “It wouldn't be in the Lists; they only matter to the Academy. As for rank, a wise cadet builds contacts along with their spot on the Lists, but Nika was not a wise cadet.”

Guy’s brows went up, but Cole merely half-smiled. “A very good cadet, yes – a wise cadet, no. Nika got a high rank because he had a good contact in Colonel Yorik, but how that happened I couldn't begin to guess. By rank on the Lists alone, Nika would have been set to be Durante's protégé, but neither of them fancied the idea, so Durante allowed Yorik to cultivate a relationship with him. Yorik must have been an impulsive fellow – I don't know of anyone who promoted a fresh cadet quite as high as major, but I suppose either it was what he needed or what he felt Nika deserved, or both.”

“Dirty doings at the Academy,” Guy muttered. Cole raised an eyebrow at him, but he didn't notice, nibbling happily and getting bits of grease all over his uniform jacket. Guy was well-loved (nobody had saved Cole any sweetbreads, or given him a second cup of tea), that was not the same as well-respected.

Nothing was saved for Cole because nobody thought he needed anything to be saved for him. He would be able to get whatever he might want or need himself. As a Captain, more would be – and should be – expected of Guy, but Cole doubted Guy yet appreciated how stark the difference would be. Cole didn't resent Nika's promotion of his officer – he had completed the paperwork to make it official, after all – but he doubted the timing had been right.

Part of the problem was that this was Guy's element. In the field, he was neither physically imposing nor well-spoken, which undermined whatever excellent thought happened to go into the commands he issued. Seeing him making those plans, though... Guy was tenacious, thorough, and had an amazing capacity for retaining and organizing absolute mountains of information. He was wasted as a regular soldier, worse as a field officer. There was no reason to doubt him, but he gave men no reason to believe.

“It just really bothers me,” Guy broke out again. “It’s all so… unprecedented,” but this wasn’t the word – Guy nibbled another sweetbread and said, “Complicated. Unnecessarily complicated. Maybe necessarily. I don’t know. This is more complicated than shipping wombats.”

Cole frowned at him. “Is that very difficult, then, Captain?”

Guy shrugged, “My cousin in shipping says it would be very difficult, sir.”

“I don't think I know what a wombat is.”

“I'm lead to believe that makes them all the more difficult to ship. If Galen were in league with Ainjir somehow, through Yorik or something, there's no reason why he couldn't come clean. If he'd been secretly deployed by the Ainjir, there's no reason for General Durante not to defend him. If he'd been captured, there's no reason – and if you're to be believed, no way – that they could make him fight.”

“I hope I’m to be believed,” Cole said, but Guy was on a roll.

“That's not even taking into account the fact that the Academy Council would sooner burn down the Tower than have to admit any cadet turned traitor – regardless of him being the first and only Midraeic, they would look like fools. They decided there was no way to make General Galen fight, and had a vested interest in making sure he kept his word to flee the country. But I also don't know how or why or when General Galen would have defected to the Comids. You say you were absolutely certain it was him by the battle of Torin Valley, but that was nearly two years in. There's a suggestion here,” he shook a paper, “he could've been more or less directly involved as early as two months after graduation.”

Cole frowned, reaching for the paper in Guy's hand. Guy handed it over, leaning back with a frustrated sigh.

“What makes you say that?” Cole asked.

“That’s a report regarding a skirmish at Burren Falls about two months into the war.” Sitting up, Guy shuffled through the piles on each leg, then pulled out a many-times folded sheet and put it on the table between them. “That’s a letter you saved from Durante from right after you started thinking it was Galen behind the Comid strategy. Either because you’re obsessive about squirrelling away personal information of your superiors, or because it contains a description of several battles, it was in among the battle plans. It talks about a lot of battles, but also talks about the uniqueness of Galen’s style by detailing a Second Year full-unit exercise Durante was called on to judge.”

“His bad luck,” Cole said, ignored the ‘obsessive squirrelling’ comment for now, “even the highest ranked Academy Councilmember must sometimes reduce themselves to watching First- and Second Year exercises.”

“I noticed because of the circles – and because I had heard of Burren Falls – I studied it during my defense of Captain Briar, because he was there. The exercise was a scenario about dealing with terrain – a group on the high ground and a group in the low ground but with good forest cover – which Galen, as possessor of the low ground, was bound to lose. Not only did he win, though, he annihilated the enemy. Set a plan based on feinting retreat to draw them down, infiltrating to cause confusion, targeting officers, misleading units so they could be flanked and surrounded – see, he so thoroughly infiltrated the other forces with his that was able to set up an inner ring and an outer ring, and when he gave the signal, the two halves of his forces just walked towards one another. The other team didn’t merely lose, they were wiped out – and by a minimal number of Galen’s own team.”

“Loyalty was always at issue with Nika,” Cole said softly, as he scanned over the letter. Phrases stuck out – ‘remarkably ruthless,’ ‘always unique,’ ‘clever but deceptive,’ ‘brutal though efficient’ – all read in Durante’s deep and patient teacher’s voice. “Even though Elites and Guardsmen made up some of the forces, the majority of the ‘officers’ would be cadets, and the cadets… well, Nika sometimes had problems getting other cadets to follow his orders, especially in the early days. He never inspired loyalty – he earned it, but it was always very precious to him. He only relied on those few he trusted to obey, and so always operated with the absolute minimum number of men.”

“It’s genius for a cadet battle plan,” Guy said, “but it is a battle plan built for exercises, not for the field. The same thing happened at Burren Falls – this battle plan, applied in the field – it’s just far too unique and specific a set-up not to be related somehow. The similarities are too many to discount, but then wouldn’t Durante have noticed – yet at the time it was only a skirmish, just an unusual one, so maybe it didn’t stand out enough to reach him? And then again, it’s bad terrain for applying the same plan, the Falls get in the way, there’s far too much up in the air, it’s too risky.”

“So it looks like Nika’s battle plan, but it’s applied clumsily.”

Guy leaned back, treating the bumps in the road as if they were giving him light massage. “Here's the weird thing, though, sir...”

Guy paused, his eyes closed. Cole waited, not terribly patiently.

“The weird thing is...” Guy rolled his neck, brows coming together. “...Well, wait, the weird thing comes later.” He sat up, taking back the letter from Cole’s hand (without so much as a glance at Cole).

“So,” Guy said, holding up the letter, “I guess, if it wasn’t General Galen, then it was either that somebody on the Comid side, in completely the wrong situation, came up with an incredibly similar battle plan, or it was somebody else who knew this cadet battle plan so well they could apply it – albeit inappropriately – in the field. Or, I guess, they had a copy, somehow, like you were saying with the Capitol Invasion plan.”

“All unlikely.” Cole shook his head. “No Academy papers leave the grounds, ever, unless a copy is approved, and then it would be logged. Things like the Lists and correspondence are no issue, but exercise reports and battle plans are tightly guarded. Likewise, to know the plan well enough, the person would had to have witnessed or participated in it, and that would mean a defector among either Elites, Capitol Guards, Academy officers or staff, or cadets, all of whose defections would have been noticed and logged as well.”

Guy shook his head again, his voice resigned. “It's not proof, but it's nothing to ignore, either.”

Cole found this new bit of news disturbing, to say the least. As early as two months in... he had been serving tea and eating table scraps, fuming at their defeats and unable to do anything about them. He had also been fighting aching loneliness, as torn by nagging worries Nika hadn’t gotten clear, as he was by self-pity for his loneliness. He was at once grateful and sorry that Nika had wisely fled the war. He had comforted himself with the thought that Nika was safe, and tried to do so honestly.

He couldn't help the rise like bile in his throat of anger grown rotted and old. He had comforted himself with those thoughts, that the loneliness that meant his lover was gone, also meant that he was uninvolved. His release of anger against their faceless opponents had been the only honest emotion he had felt that wasn't vast and bereft. It had been like the turning of thumbscrews when he had recognized Nika in the Comid strategy, taking what scraps were left to him to feel and twisting them into a seamless, inseparable mess of hard betrayal.

He had to swallow, the very taste in his mouth growing bitter at the thought. He had convinced himself that it couldn't have been the whole time; the feeling of loneliness, the pathetic comfort of distance – those had been true. He had convinced himself that before he, and only he, had been certain it was Nika and no other behind the brilliance of their enemy, it hadn't been true.

Of course that thought was foolish. But he had believed.

Now those stretched and honest nights that broke him to loneliness, as the days had broken him to war, they turned traitor, too.

“Sir?” Guy asked.

Guy's reaction proved Cole's expression hadn't changed. He seemed more concerned that Cole had been daydreaming. Cole raised a smile at him. “Is it time for 'the weird thing', yet?”

Guy blinked, hastily clearing his throat. “Oh, yeah, sorry. I got a little side-tracked.”

He leaned over the table, rifling through the awful mess of papers in search of mysterious answers. Cole didn't mind. He took the chance to close his eyes, to truly get control of his emotions, rather than just his expression. Guy laid hold of whatever he was looking for, dragging it to the front (and throwing other papers on the floor).

“Ah-ha!” He held his prize aloft. “The weird thing!”

Handing the paper to Cole, he didn't wait for his superior to peruse its apparently revelatory contents. “Again, thanks to your extensive paranoia, we have a copy of the papers issuing out dispensations to the highest ranks of officers two months before graduation.”

“I think that's the clerk's paranoia, not mine,” Cole said. “I can’t recall asking for such a thing.”

As Guy had said, it was a list of names and numbers, with sundry notes like tailor's scribbles running up and down. Cole waited even less patiently.

Smiling, Guy gestured towards it again. “Well, I suppose the clerks were eager to supply you with whatever General Durante had ever sneezed upon, and they never throw anything away. We may not have every order he wrote, but you can count on us having a record of every coin he's even so much as thought of spending in the name of suppressing rebellion.”

Cole rubbed his eyes. He waited for an even voice to occur to him. “Guy, do elaborate, before I demote you, because I can now, you know.”

Guy coughed. “Well, um, according to this, preparation for the war began some five months before it actually began– not unusual really. Dispensations for the raising of troops went out almost immediately upon open declaration, which included salaries for the graduating cadets. Since in almost every case, cadets are going out with similar, if not identical provender, doing the calculations, you can get the possible number of cadets going with each divisional officer. This wouldn't be very useful, however...”

Again Guy reached into the mess of papers, finding a series of sheets all similar to the one he had first produced. He handed them to Cole, who, if he didn't look at them, did hold onto them in a deeply considerate manner.

“Well,” Guy went on, “Colonel Yorik is on the list for one cadet, easily noticeable because his rank doesn't really warrant one. Cadets go out either as Lieutenant fodder, adjutants, or protégés pretending to be adjutants. It's pretty safe to assume this is General Galen. Yorik puts in a change request, and by the end of the second month, his dispensation has risen – exactly the difference between one cadet and one major, meaning that by graduation, if our reasoning is correct, Yorik and Durante were both assuming that General Galen would be continuing with the army.”

Cole glanced at the papers, but it would take more sorting than he could do in these few moments to follow Guy's paper trail. He didn't even know how much majors were paid. He didn't know how much Guy was paid. Whatever it was, it was probably too low. He shook his head. “Not unreasonable. Nika himself wasn't sold on the idea of going into hiding for some time.”

Guy spoke with cautious slowness. “Yes, but Yorik put in, and received, a dispensation for General Galen's pay for the month after graduation, after, according to what you've told me, Galen had declared his plans to leave and informed his superior officers. I'm proposing that means the promotion to the rank of 'major' was actually part of a bribe.”

“What do you mean? Yorik was bribing Nika to stay?”

Again, Guy defaulted to caution. “I don't think it was Yorik. You said yourself, Durante passed on Galen as a cadet – didn't want him. Yorik stepped up and saw the opportunity, but the promotion to major, even for a gifted cadet, is ridiculous. He had to run the increase in his dispensation past Durante to get it approved. It was Durante who would have to move it past the clerks, which, if you've ever argued with a clerk, would take some doing.”

Cole nodded. “That's why I send you to argue with clerks. But even if Durante personally didn't want Nika, why would he pay so highly to have another officer take him?”

Gesturing towards the papers, Guy went on. “It was evident a war with some sort of Midraeic element was about to begin. Only an idiot would let Galen totally walk away, but then again, Durante didn’t want him, like you said, but maybe stashing him somewhere – like under a not-very-important officer in a not-very-vital post – would do. So he gave Yorik the ability to bribe him with rank, but it didn't work. That's what led me to the weird thing, because I had to look around different documents to even find evidence of Yorik after that. The weird thing is, they kept the dispensation up for three more months.”

Cole rifled through the papers in his hands. The columns of numbers seemed suddenly sinister, notes crawling over them like plotting bugs. It made sense, now. “They kept it up until they completely lost track of Nika.”

Guy nodded. “General Galen's back-pay as a major would have amounted to quite a sum after five months, which would only become more and more valuable to a fugitive cadet as time went on. Yorik's dispensation stops completely after the three months, making it likely that after failing to find General Galen, or determining that Galen had already defected, he used the money reserved for the bribe to come back from wherever he'd been looking. Yorik doesn't enter into any active battle I've heard of until six months into the war, and when he does, it's at the far edge of the front on the Guise floodplain. It doesn't give us an idea of where Galen went, since the Rebellion was concentrated and moved outwards rather swiftly, but it does give us a story line of similar strength that conflicts with the idea that Dominicus Galen was involved in the war two months in.”

Clutching the papers in his hand as if they kept him afloat, Cole smiled. “Guy, I think I may love you.”

“Please, sir, let's keep this appropriate.” Guy reached into the growing mess on the table again, hauling out another sheet. He held it loose in his hand while he spoke, “Anyway, here's the kick in the balls...”

Keeping hold of the records he'd already been handed, Cole only glanced on the paper. He didn't recognize the formatting. “What's that?”

“Oh...” Guy shook himself, “...erm... actually, this is just some of my notes. It's not really anything... the kick in the balls is something I thought of.” He cleared his throat, “The kick in the balls is that this sort of double-dealing, the bribes and all, shouldn't have been possible. The weakness in the Galen-Goes-Comid-Immediately story-line is the imperfection in the plans: his battle tactics show up, but they show up in bits and pieces, and with junior mistakes in them. I mean, the Academy practice battles aren't perfect, but you're taught to expect the basic difficulties which these mistakes stem from. I also have the full conviction that you would have noticed him much earlier.

“But there's a problem with the Galen-Goes-Deserter story-line. We have a very clear record of what happened to the cadet ranked Second of your class, from too many directions. Little mentions in dispensations, supplies, organizational records. The bribe involving the rank of 'major' is possible, but to cover as many records as the term 'Second' is smeared over, even taking into account that Durante himself is a source for most of his movements, the bribes would have to be as extensive as they were enormous. It's either a weakness in the story-line, or an indication that this conspiracy about Nika goes very high.”

Guy's ominous pronouncement rang out in a silence rife with consternation. Jolts from the carriages rough wheel shook them along in several seconds of momentous implication.

Until Cole laughed. It wasn't the amused little chuckles he had been indulging in recently, either, but a full-throated laugh. Guy couldn't help but feel somewhat hurt. He sat up, trying to gather as much dignity as he could. “Sir...”

Cole stilled himself, little starts still escaping him. “You flatter me, Guy.”

“Sir?” Guy asked, unsure if he should be offended.

“I was Second; Nika was First. It was... an interesting time in our lives, and I could only tell you half of it. Nika's rank being excised drove me up to First before you met me, but nobody has had time to go back and correct the records, especially piddling clerks' field records.”

Guy's offense gave way to a relieved smile; his back straightened with pride. He allowed himself a victorious clenching of fists in the air.

“Also,” Cole smiled at him. “I may yet still love you...”

He waited until Guy looked on him with suspicion. “But if 'General Galen' hears you call him 'Nika', you may not live through it.”
Chapter Ten  by OllamhRemi
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Chapter Thirteen  by OllamhRemi
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Artist's comment:
[icon by the incomparable StGibbs [icon=???]]

Warning! This story eventually includes these elements:
Violence (battles and rough sex, a twofer); Homophobia (internalized and familial, but no slurs or violence, the world is too gay for that); Religious Intolerance (mostly language and for fantasy religions); Explicit Sex (obvs); Female characters in non-sexual, plot-central roles (just minding the TOS here)

Individual chapters will be tagged with relevant filters but be forewarned and consume at your own discretion.

Start at the Beginning: Chapter One

AN: I flatter myself that this is much clearer than the previous versions of this scene, and also should clear up some nonsense in the plot the previous one generated.
Also, wombats are entirely inappropriate to this setting, but I kept them in because everything is better with wombats.
Content details:
• Category – Literature
• Critique – Optional
• Filter – N/A
• Series – Original
• Theme – Rivalry
• Theme – Romance
• Theme – Supernatural/Fantasy
• Time Taken – Who knows?
• Tools – Literary Work – Prose/Stories
Posted on 2020-11-29 @ 2:35 PM
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