Chapter Twenty-Nine
Submission

 
“Spy?” Faer stood. “That's a very serious word to throw around in the Capitol.”

Guy nodded. “Which is why I had the servants leave.”

“How can you be so certain there was a spy?” Cole asked, filling his own wineglass, in noted absence of servants.

“Because otherwise my timeline doesn't make sense,” Guy glanced up at Cole, whose expression flashed him admiration in return. Guy tried not to look too pleased with himself, at least in front of a semi-stranger like Faer. Later he might giggle to himself.

“Fine,” Faer said, as there was nothing else he could possibly say to that. “The records they would need can't physically get out of the Academy, though. They have to be released by the authors, who would all be on the Council, and all interaction with them is logged. Breaking into the Academy Archives is actually significantly more difficult than breaking in to the kitchens.”

“Which indicates either a very good spy, another means of gaining access to Galen's plots, or cooperation from the Council,” Faer replied. “I only know about the cadet battle plan because Cole saved a correspondence from Durante.”

“Unlikely,” Cole said, softly. “Durante had his chance to have Nika on his side and wasted it, but it would make no sense to push him into the hands of the Comids. As a strategy it doesn’t make sense to use the Council, as no Council member would have more than, perhaps, one or two battle plans memorized. It would have to be the Archives, to get any useful amount of information for the long-term.”

Everyone had their suspicions of what secrets the military kept hidden in the vaults of the Academy; Cole, for one, knew exactly what some of those secrets were. Either form of knowledge was more than enough cause for concern.

Frowning deeply, Faer set his feet, staring steadily at Guy. “Let’s exhaust other means, then, before we invest ourselves in a very dangerous spy hunt. Have you thought about the possibility of old cadets passing along information?”

Guy, busy shuffling old papers to make way for the new, glanced up distractedly. “Yep. And while it's a valid concern, with Galen it almost doesn't apply. Everything I've heard indicates he isn't one for sharing plots, and at best, even a participant would have only the vaguest idea of where everyone else was, and what their jobs would be in the plan. It's possible, of course, but with the dispersal of officers to stations all over the country as the war started, it's very unlikely enough old cadets could be questioned to make a complete plan – unless the spy worked with a very, very wide network. It's a lot of effort for little result, anyway.”

Laughing, Faer folded his arms. “I was thinking a little more specifically...”

Glancing up again, Guy's frown almost made him look thick. “No – not to be rude, but even Cole couldn’t put together Burren Falls and the battle plan in Durante’s letter, and he’s obsessed with both Galen and Durante. Not that you couldn’t do it, but it seems unlikely.”

“Not Academy trained, eh?” Faer grinned at Cole. “Blood and Glory, Cole, where did you find this Guy?”

Cole rolled his eyes. “In a tinker's bin, marked 'damaged'. He was assigned to investigate for the court martial of Captain Briar.”

Faer whistled, shoving hands in his pockets. “Any chance you're thinking about pursuing a career in law after all this, Guy? I mean, after Executive General, where can you go?”

“Head of the Academy Council,” Guy said, still looking through his heap of documents.

“I thought you didn't want promotion,” Cole replied.

“No.” Guy scowled at him. “I don't want bollocksy, backwards promotions from... silly persons. I’ll go back to being a lieutenant and come up the normal way – and the only way to get you to stop interfering is to get promoted higher than you...” Guy shrugged not-quite-casually, going back to his papers. “So why not?”

“Deep Bowels of Dignity, don’t you plan, General Guy,” Faer said, chuckling. He stood to stretch, walking out into the center of the room. “So, we unravel Kinsael and find premise to defend Galen at trial, while trying to root out what appears to be either a very deeply placed spy or a highly organized spy network.”

“I'll look for networks first,” Guy interrupted. “That’s what the Comids were known for – networks.”

Nodding, Faer went on. “All while Galen confesses to treason and refuses to help us – meaning if our defense fails, we could all very well be put on trial ourselves.” He heaved a heavy sigh. “All right. I'll see what I can do with Galen–” which, as their exchange of glances proved, would likely be nothing, “–and, more productively, thwart proper proceedings in every way I can while preparing a defense for the trial.”

Nobody mentioned it, because nobody needed to, but Cole drained his glass and confirmed his part all the same.

“I'll handle the Prince.”

They each nodded. As Guy began to consume the room with a rustling of papers, Faer wove his fingers together, putting them behind his head as he began to aimlessly walk, thinking out loud in quiet mumbles.

Cole straightened his uniform and tried to drag his mind up from the dungeons, into the mindset of the glittering ballroom. He didn't want to acknowledge how difficult it was. After all, they had reached a task only he could do – and that he was supposed to be good at.

Cole didn’t want to think about how little it might matter how good he was.

***

The Capitol was a creature of two faces, like certain ancient gods. The Academy, its military rigor, defensive walls, strategic, confused street plan, and solid stone foundations was one exceedingly dour and daylight face. A face that obligingly turned towards the shadows when the light was right for glamor and wealth. The Academy tower went dark; the Palace tower lit up.

Leaving the Executive General's suite, Cole walked the dusty street connecting the furthest reach of the Academy's outbuildings and lands with the Palace's – such an obscure and territorial entrance was traditional. Tonight, the traditional path had been draped with great sheets of saffron cloth (likely prepared weeks ago, as was this supposedly 'spontaneous' ball) and on the saffron, artfully pained shields and signs of some the Academy's, and therefore the Military's, most famous heroes. Foxes, harts, tigers, and horses rose out of billowing cloth, ran rampant and fell back as the wind died, calling to mind the actions for which their bearers were famous – though, of course, all did so whilst subservient to the great richness of the saffron, the field of Keadar-Ainjir's crest, and therefore the background on which they all flourished.

As he walked, Cole kept an eye out for the argent otter of the Prince. As if to prove this was the Prince's function, Cole did indeed spot the otter – a tiny thing done up in silver, rampant, its little mouth opened as if in hearty laugh–

Facing, of course, a saffron-draped tailor's shop along the path, over which hung no military shield or charge that anyone would recognize, but which nonetheless encouraged Cole's begrudging feeling of being the Prince's 'special guest'. The otter's mirthful mouth pointed towards a roll of thread and a needle, done in brave colors and raised like a sword and shield, but painted on the saffron banner no bigger than Cole's palm. Anyone who wasn't looking for it, or the otter, wouldn't notice the tiny charge. A joke, at Cole's expense.

Certainly, this was the same Prince that Cole remembered. And he definitively remembered Cole.

Other officers walked the path with him, but he kept to the shadows, making no effort to be seen. Somewhere already inside was Guy – his particularly honored status requiring him to use the 'real' entrance – done up in full Executive General formal dress. No doubt, this very moment, Guy was being badgered by men he had never known about decisions he had never made, at least if Cole's experience was any use as estimation.

Cole had demoted himself largely for the freedom of motion he would have as just another brigadier (not quite as good as 'just another lieutenant', but there was a difference between anonymity and insignificance). As Executive General, he could go anywhere and command anything – but he would be made to answer for his commands, and was as much a target as the qualifying bulls-eye, and as much a threat as the judges at Academy archery competitions. But he was dodging the event that would make Executive General Cole’s reputation, leaving that version of himself as-yet unfinished in the eyes of society.

Brigadier Cole, however, was a fiend from a different age. Brigadier Cole had toppled his classmate from command, for the good of the country. Brigadier Cole was known for taking decisive action in the midst of battle, for being unafraid of consequence. Brigadier Cole was an arrogant, daring, and insolent hero, whose lack of error was due largely to pluck and the ability to turn any situation to his advantage. There was too much riding on Executive General Cole for him to be so lenient on himself as Brigadier Cole could be.

Remarkably enough, the man under the insignia felt little different for having put on a different uniform. Cole mostly felt tired. His knuckles hurt, as did a part of his ribs, and he could still feel Nika's head on his shoulder, the whispering of his voice, brush of lips against his neck. It made him shiver. On the surface, calm, but the man under the insignia heard the echo of his steps in the hidden hollows of the sprawling dungeon beneath him.

***

Guy took a carriage. Guy was wearing so much gold braid he felt ten pounds heavier, which was probably why Cole had insisted he take the carriage (or something). Guy had so many buttons on his uniform, Reynard had to come with him to finish doing them up on the way.

However, Guy was also getting his first real vision of the Capitol's other face – the one the poets called the Verun's Sister, a waterless river sparkling with beauty, an oasis of jewels burnished out of dusty stones.

Over the approach loomed the great tower, the hidden veins of dusty peridot in the stonework made to glitter by special candelabras hung down the sides, bearing long, intricate tar-and-tallow candles, their flames protected by bulbs and columns of thick glass. That they flickered in the wind only added to the shine of the hidden veins in the stone; that the chains holding them in place against the whipping winds made a great, semi-melodic racket as the iron struck the stone, augmented here and there by tuneful brass plates, only added to their charm.

From the glimmering of the tower, up the progress of the hill, until finally the road broke through the Old Wall like a leaping fish. The ambient presence of flame and light only grew like wax piling down from the column of the tower, and once the wall was breached–

Breaching the wall was like breaking the surface of a warm ocean, the flickering play of peeping lights changed into a different spectrum entirely. The city, teeming with black and gray, stone and wood, dung and riotous people, became gold-lit, cloth-covered, and resounded with the half-musical chaos of the echoing tower. Saffron banners shifted in the wind to make red-orange mirages in abstract shapes, adding yet more transience to the false daylight of innumerable torches, fire pits, and candles.

But the transformation was not done. A Royal Ball was unquestionably the province of the Nobility, no matter in whose honor it was thrown, and once they began to stream through the streets, saffron became burnished gold, the moonlight sterling silver. The shadows turned to deep swatches of purple or silken black, the smoke and stone peppered with incense and made even and soft as milled wool. The shouts of conversation became a mull, more of the flavor of wine than the content of words, punctuated through with sharp notes of laughter. The noise of it seeming to float overhead where they weighed the air with their innuendo, joining the cacophony of night-birds and the clattering tower.

The Palace itself could now be seen. The buildings stretched around its great, ancient tower, and sprawled down the hill through the massive expanse of the grounds. Each building was set within the ring of the next, as a lengthy testament to passing fashions in architecture. Now, unless within the walls themselves, the only marker of its inconsistent build was the brightly incongruous roofs poking through one another like multicolored chicks in the nest. Fortunately, the style of the last hundred years or so was admirably suited to the Palace's ever-changing face, being a creation of high, square walls and repeating, gilded knot- and scroll-work, punctuated with windows like the geometric bays of old arched roofs. Patterns, mathematics, and metallurgy were 'in'.

Once through the wall, any one conveyance was merely a part of the spectacle itself. The approach of all the nobles various carriages, coupes and landaus made of the road a river, populated with a thousand glittering fish in an imperfect school. More foolish and significantly less organized than the chain-mail schools of the ocean, they flocked to the single point that glowed with torches like a predator's worn-white teeth, the crowding not so much for first place, as for the most daring approach. The road brought them sufficiently close that, like ricochet sparks, the carriages dispelled their heat and ash, and sent only light spinning off on any of the hundred shell-paved paths, set out like the intricate interlocking bones of a tiny fish, a bonepile or ashpit at the predator's door. For fear of dampening shoes or dresses, the flitting of the noble sparks poured through the thin, over-stuffed pathways, creeping roundabout as the equations posited by their designer some hundred years ago, as they made their way through the garden to the Gold Room.

A Royal Ball could only be held in the Gold Room, kept in the intertwined wings of the Palace. Unlike the forbidding temple of strength the Founder had built to keep his city safe, the whole of the way to the Gold Room bent towards flowing the people in – as if the whole Palace disgorged itself on the doorway, turning the whole of the world inside out – but the Gold Room couldn't be seen yet. The garden hid it.

Though the garden itself was a thing of beauty, for tonight's festivities it was too banal – instead of greenery, the Palace decorated itself with light.

Torches grew in complexity as the guests traversed the garden, until those nearest the palace itself stood like fountains, with dancing flames instead of water. These gave way to the palace's own lighting, their decorative function replaced with draperies in royal colors – the Regent's Red, the Royal green. Unlike the banners on the Academy approach, these were decorated with cords or embroidery to create seals and designs honoring noble houses and knights, though still over all was the saffron backing bearing a berry-colored boar of Keader-Ainjir, it's body on guard and tusks bared, though its eyes had many hundreds of years since closed.

Of course, standing as second, the green ox of the King. In rare bout of humility, the silver otter was nowhere to be seen, though suspiciously otter-like silver waves ran underneath several of the more prominent banners. All the nobility's shining opulence was, after all, tonight in honor of the military, their welcome and lauded guests.

Guy's carriage made the round twice before its agape occupant could finally be persuaded to get out, and wade amongst the glory.
Chapter Twenty-Eight  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: And I make up for the last chapter being too long, by having this one be almost too short. Actually, all the chapter breaks here are awkward.

Somebody should probably fix that.

It might be my job.
 
 
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
 
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Posted on 2021-01-30 @ 8:55 PM
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