Chapter Thirty-Three

The door creaked open again, but this time slowly, and under the firm cover of night. Faer caught the edge with his hand, meeting Guy's startled glance as he slipped inside.

“I didn't realize how late it was,” Guy whispered, voice oppressed by the dark more than by conscious choice for quietness. “I must've lost track of time when–”

Faer nodded, cutting him off. Finger over his lips, Faer pointed towards the wall by the door, where an obscure bundle of blankets marked where Cole was sleeping. Guy cocked his head, then his brows came together, still visible in the light of the hall. Faer expression was too serious for Guy to say anything about it, but Guy was fairly certain something had to be drastically wrong for Cole not to have taken the plush General's bed.

“The King offered to save Galen if Cole takes back his rank and becomes Consort,” Faer whispered.

Guy's face seemed to rebound off that information at first, shooting the bundle that was Cole sleeping, and back to Faer, and then to the bundle again, before falling into an abrupt frown.

“But that–”

Faer nodded.

“But then–”

Faer nodded again.

Guy fell into a stormy silence. After a moment, he whispered as if afraid to say it, “But he has to...”

Faer nodded, shutting his eyes. Guy resisted the urge to sit down, right where he was.

“If I know the Palace’s torturer – and I wish I didn't,” Faer said, “we'll have until nightfall before they really get serious, but that's without royal interference. And apparently this is the minor disagreement that got between Cole and the King when he was Prince – Cole refused the first time he was offered the position Consort, at graduation, also because of Galen.”

Faer sighed. “Guy, if the King should decide to try to force Cole's decision, there's nothing I can do to slow down the process.”

“So, reckoning that if no torture is on the table, light torture will have to do, we have until tomorrow night to come up with an alternate solution,” Guy said, “...maybe.”

Faer nodded.

Guy shook his head, muttering in amazement. “How did you even get him to sleep?”

Faer shrugged. “Shit – it took hours to even get him to lie down. I drank him to sleep – a few glasses plus what he'd had at the ball. It's easier than you'd think. Galen's the one with capacity. I used to pour my drinks into other cadet's mugs just to keep up. Nearly killed this other cadet doing that once... Kiso, I think it was... not that anyone would've missed him...”

Guy's formidable frown seemed to intrude of Faer's reverie.

“It's just a nap. I'm to wake him at the half-hour, but I can't decide if I should forget to or not. I hate to say it, Guy...” Faer shifted, clearing his throat quietly, “... it's going to be the best way out, bar none, if Cole accepts. Not to say that I'm not working on anything else; I set out the papers about Kinsael...”

He gestured to where a heavily dimmed lamp shed yellow light over a ring of papers, laying like shingles over the ground.

“I have to tell you, Guy – I wasn't the best cadet in the world, but this plan fooled Cole, who more or less was the best cadet in the world. I don't think we have much hope.”

“Don't need hope,” Guy said, pushing past Faer, his various buttons and medals catching on the door. Going to the lantern carefully, he looked down at the papers, radiating from his feet. “We just need to be able to deal with what's in front of us. Where did it start?”

With a sigh, Faer quietly latched the door, walking over himself. He pointed to a paper by Guy's left foot. “At your little toe. Durante got word of a large Comid force setting up somewhere on the other side of the Ard Fana – there was already a significant Ainjir Force on the northwest side of the hills, but it was in a rill that exposed it to too much high ground. By way of fixing that, and increasing numbers, he ordered Cole to take his forces north from Merrywood to the plateau at Kinsael, while the other army double-timed it through the rill to meet up with them.”

“At Merrywood,” Guy said, crouching down over the papers, “We got handed our asses. We called it a victory, but staying in front of the bull prodding your backside doesn't mean you've escaped him. Almost lost Cole on the damn battlefield – they handed him fistful of medals after that one.”

“What happened?” Faer shifted, as if looking at the papers could give him an idea – or at least keep him out of Guy's way. “Another 'I am the invincible Esras Cole, woe to all those who oppose me' plan?”

Guy snorted, stifling a wry laugh, he tried hard to cut short.

Faer gave him a little salute as he sat down. “It was his favorite type of plan in Academy exercises. Granted, he has an excuse; he does deal out great parcels of woe when he wants to.”

“Not quite that plan,” Guy admitted, “but close.” He fished in his pockets as he sat, then gestured to a pouch behind Faer. Handing it to him, Faer watched him prepare his pipe.

“I kept telling him he was too close to the front, but he knew morale was low, and the 'more present' he felt to the men, the better morale was,” Guy said around the stem. “We had suspicions that the Comids were going to start pulling their 'every officer is a target' plans again, and as you can see–” Guy gestured to his glittery uniform, “–it isn't hard to spot the Executive General in the first place. We knew Galen knew how dangerous Cole could be as opponent, and we, unlike him, worried about it. Merrywood is in the foothills, so the terrain gave ample trouble to both sides, and it was foggy as horse piss in deep winter that day. It 'just so happened' the Comids got a box around the camp – flanked us all from feed-box to shitters – it was only because Cole's guard was made up of Elites they stopped them. Told him to retreat.”

“The Ceadharc Sally – well, I suppose it figures. Cole doesn't retreat,” Faer said, fishing in his own pocket – the lawyers' robes were generally more amply supplied with such than uniforms – and retrieving his own pipe to bum a smoke. “He runs pointedly backwards, fist aloft in threat the entire way.”

Guy chuckled, nodding. “You know – apparently Galen saw him that day. D'you think that had anything to do with...” he gestured to the papers underneath them, “...this weirdness?”

“Could,” Faer admitted. “At Academy, it was like watching two dogs fight... or mate... or both,” Faer grinned at Guy's pulling a face.

“What I mean is, they latched on as brutally, if not more so, when they fought each other; I don't know if you've ever seen say... wolves for example. There's a real wolf problem up around Kinsael, actually, which is where my family comes from originally. Family's here now, but we used to visit. But if you've seen wolves fight – like with strangers to the pack – it's like.. from the outside it’s hard to tell, because it sounds and it looks like they’re trying to kill, but their teeth don't quite get into each other. If you’ve seen them kill, you know it’s much different, but if you haven’t, it’s terrifying. You think any second one’s going to die and then one will give up and they’ll just let it walk away.” Faer shrugged, taking a pull on his pipe. “It was kind of like that with Cole and Galen.”

Guy stared contemplatively through the pipesmoke. “We just killed the wolves where I'm from.”

“Oh,” Faer grinned, “so you're from sheepfucker country – got no use for wolves there.”

“Not when all they do is eat our true loves,” Guy said.

“We love grass more than wolves, and wolves eat the deer that eat all our fucking grass. You wanna talk animals to hate, talk deer.”

“That they're tasty doesn't hurt, either,” Guy added.

“It's good to talk to a man from the ol' backwoods.” Heaving a sigh, Faer looked down at the papers again. “So – what, Galen knew before Merrywood it was Cole running the show. Shit, everyone knew Cole was running the show. What would seeing him at Merrywood have changed about the battle of Kinsael?”

“Sentimental self-doubt?” Guy ventured.

Faer snorted so loud, they both turned to see if the bundle-that-was-sleeping-Cole moved. When assured it had not, they relaxed.

“If anything, Galen was the one who was pushing any plan that involved taking Cole out personally,” Faer said. “Maybe they put someone else in charge of Kinsael after that plan failed?”

Guy shook his head. “Nope. This was Galen.” When Faer gave him an incredulous glance, he confessed. “He’s been bragging about Kinsael since his capture. Just before the parade, he brought it up again, and told me that he lost AND he was a good general, which made me think maybe he had thrown the battle somehow. But honestly, Kinsael wasn’t enough of a battle to say anyone won, and Col-Raith was so close it’s hard to see how anyone could have thrown it. So I’ve been stuck on this for a week because he all but told me it was him. All but told me this was where the answer lay, too.”

“Shitty Galen and his shitty answers. He did that back then, too: 'If I tell you, how will you learn? Figure it out yourself.' Well, if I could figure it out, I wouldn't have asked you, you superior ass.” Faer sighed, “But it works, eventually. About when you're ready to tear your own eyes out in frustration.”

Guy raised a sheepish smile. I couldn't tell whether he was going to kill me or commend me most of the time.”

Faer grinned. “Ah, don't worry – he's secretly a cuddly little kitten.”

Guy's look of horrified disbelief was entirely worth it.

Hands clapped half-over his mouth, Faer had speak around his stifled laughter. “Maybe not quite – but if he was ever going to kill you, you would surely know it.”

“Yeah,” Guy asked, suspicious of the set-up. “How?”

Faer had gone watery-eyed from holding back laughter, but he seemed serious enough when he answered. “Because you'd be dead.”

Staring at Faer, who had gone back to looking at the papers, shoulders still shaking from the occasional chuckle, Guy resisted the urge to ask whether that was a joke or not.

Maybe he didn’t want to know.

“So what happened to you?” Faer asked. When Guy gave him a puzzled look, he pointed vaguely at some of the maps detailing troop movements that Guy had drawn up. “What you described as 'make a big army, make big army go East' looks more like the dormitory floors after a First Year soirée.”

Guy rubbed his forehead. “Ah, it was a nightmare! The attempt on Cole's life had gotten the Elites chewed out for letting it get so close, so they were tense as barn mice. The other army took a 'short cut' that one of their Captains knew, and ended up on the opposite side that we expected them. We got all these weird intelligence reports about the Comid army, and the supplies! Ah, Virtue's Tits, I think I blocked half of this bullshit out of my memory, it was such a mess. That's part of the problem...” Guy gestured expansively at the papers, “It was mess from the start, and it only got messier. To think anyone was in control of this chaos is insane.”

“What happened with the supplies?” Faer frowned, looking at the quartermaster's reports. “It looks like they all arrived on time and as ordered.”

“When are the supplies ever on time and as ordered?!” Guy whisper-shouted.

“It’s true. We sent patrols out with tethers, to tie all the pigs down.”

Faer choked on his own laughter when he realized Guy hadn't spoken. Cole set down beside them, in the light, looking ill-rested.

“Did we wake you?” Faer asked, clearing his throat in what he hoped was a manly, and not nervous, fashion.

“No,” Cole said.

Guy looked like he had stopped breathing. He glanced at Faer before he spoke, “Uh... how long have you been awake?”

Cole fixed him with an expressionless stare. “Nika purrs when you scratch under his chin.”

Luckily, the dim lighting camouflaged Guy's blushing. It didn't quite disguise Faer's shaking shoulders as he tried not to laugh, so Cole turned a cool eye on him next. “And it's not my favorite plan...” Cole said, watching as Faer stuffed a knuckle in his mouth, and tried to look apologetic. “It's my best one.”

Faer finally laughed aloud, and slapped Guy – who only managed a light, nervous chuckle – on the knee.

“Anyway,” Cole said, “You're right about this being a mess, Guy. I’ve been thinking about Kinsael since Nika first mentioned it, but ultimately Kinsael was a farce and a ruse and a let-down, and Col-Raith was the battle we should've been fighting, only delayed.”

“I could've told you that,” Faer said.

“But you can't tell me this – what was the very first thing that happened at Kinsael?”

“The order to move,” Guy offered. “We never really expected to fight on the Ard, nor wanted to. That's exactly what pinched us so hard at Col-Raith. So, the first action of Kinsael was to move.”

Cole nodded. “Then, our movements became confused.”

“Because of spotty intelligence,” Guy shrugged. “We suspected there were leaks.”

“Wrong,” Cole returned, “We knew there were leaks.”

“Well, yeah,” Guy shrugged again, “Nothing's completely secure, and we were vulnerable to their scouts, too.”

“No, try to remember,” Cole pointed to the map that showed the position just before the Ainjir armies had been split. “We'd just gotten the order to join up, and the Elites were shoving their noses into every decision, and we lost track of the other army because of their 'short-cut'...”

“...and we lost a bunch of supplies, including part of your kit, and shit bricks about it for a few days.” Guy slapped a hand to his forehead. After a moment's expectant silence, he tried again. He looked at Faer.

Faer shrugged. “Don't look at me.”

Guy slapped his forehead again and looked at Cole, “I'm hoping something relevant falls out. Nothing came of that – the Comids never even recovered it. Our scouts found it some days later, completely intact, and the Comid army never moved as if any of the information contained in it was read.”

Picking up an early-drawn map, Cole took some spare sheets of paper and tore them into pieces, and folded them into markers.

“'Completely intact' according to the stewards who lost it – who had just witnessed the Elites get reamed, and may have been thinking very hard about their collective health. Look, all Col-Raith was, was the battle of Kinsael, delayed. So all Kinsael was, was a series of maneuvers based on intelligence, punctuated by skirmishes. But, I’ve been thinking about our assumptions about Nika’s strategy. Look at this.”

Slowly, Cole began to move the folded papers along the map, matching skirmish to skirmish, in mimicry of the battle positions as they progressed.

“You remember the relative positions of two armies in a battle years ago, and can't even be bothered to remember my birthday?” Faer teased, but his eyes were wide, watching the 'armies' move.

“Balls of the Ox –” Guy's hands shot down, holding the map in place as if it would somehow escape with all its knowledge. “In this, he's turning the army around. Putting the Comid command right in front of our lines. If this was really what Galen was doing, if we sneezed hard enough we could've tangled them in our handkerchiefs...”

Cole nodded. “Until Col-Raith. When we were surprised – like we were facing an entirely different army.”

Rearranging his hold on the Comid lines, Cole swept the papers about, effectively turning the army inside-out – sending units through and around one another to completely alter its formation.

Guy goggled; the very notion offended his sensibilities. It was an offensively total reorganization to attempt on an active battlefield, but – possible. They had the fog – the Ainjir had been nigh-immobile, focused on maintaining a defensible position. And it matched Col-Raith.

Cole let go of the dancing papers to wipe his nose, sitting back on his haunches. “Sleeping was a good idea. I thought of it after I woke up. I thought that… perhaps if I did not know all that went into Nika’s decision to fight for the Comids, I should not judge his actions – assume his strategy would be exactly as I had known it to be at Academy. I thought… none of this situation with Nika has been matching up – none of it makes sense, and perhaps that is because the problems with my assumptions were more fundamental than I thought they were. The image one presents, and the actions one takes, can be two very separate things, and just because it is not Nika’s style to use such strategies doesn’t mean he didn’t.”

Cole sighed heavily – the words had not been easy to get out, and he wasn’t sure he had said them right, and he was tired, still – so tired he could feel it in his face as he ran his hands over it.

“So, by way of adjusting assumptions, suppose Nika's presenting an image of loyalty to the Comids, and secretly trying to foil them.”

Faer and Guy exchanged a glance, but Cole did not leave them time to intervene.

“A scout finds a box of the Executive General's things, lying forgotten in an old camp, and brings it back. All of the sudden, they know our every move...”

“Except that they tried to take you, personally, at Merrywood, making a box with your name on it suspicious as a strawberry pie sitting on a stump in the woods,” Guy said.

“What is all this stumps and pies? I thought we'd cleaned you of your country aphorisms, Guy,” Cole interrupted.

“They're back,” Guy said, clenching his pipe in his teeth stubbornly. “I'm among friends now.”

Snorting, Cole tipped his chin at Faer. “Don't let him fool you – he grew up a mere district over from me.”

“Not that you would admit at Academy, o, high and mighty Prep Cadet,” Faer retorted.

“Anyway,” Guy scowled at them suspiciously like an ollamh. “That’s a secondary or tertiary strategy. It's an 'I know that you know that I know' plot, which Galen thinks is bullshit, but they wouldn't know that unless he told them. He must've convinced them the box was a trap.”

“Perhaps Nika was not totally at liberty to avoid secondary or tertiary strategies – or maybe he was choosing them anyway – maybe that’s what he started with, if his plan originally was to get away – or maybe he took a risk,” Cole replied. “He does that, too, you know. And he said – at Kinsael, even he thought what he did was clever. So, on our premise of only acting loyal to the Comids, Nika, taking the box as a trap, knows our position and our intentions, but has to plan like he thinks they're a trap – and make it convincing, reinforce the ‘trap’ idea so the Comids invest in his false strategy. All of his actions would have to look like decisive, defensive reactions, if he presents ours as active, offensive maneuvers.”

Cole mimed a few of the skirmishes with the papers on the map again as he spoke, filling in the gaps in their knowledge of the Comids’ actual maneuvers with guesses, based on his new theory.
“The reason Kinsael was such a confused mess was that we were both on defense, running from one another, while each skirmish convinced us both that we were being chased. And Nika planned it that way.”

He pointed to the papers representing the Comid forces. “Col-Raith is much more like Nika than Kinsael. What made Col-Raith so bloody was that both our forces and the Comids went for the kill – for victory. We dug in at Col-Raith because we had become suspicious of our intelligence – we could make no sense of the Comid movements – and so we needed to simply find defensible ground and defend it. We thought they were deliberately picking us off, unit by unit, officer by officer, if necessary.”

He paused, and some of the fatigue left his eyes with a flash of admiration.

“It was the other way around. Nika maneuvered the Comids into believing that's what we were doing – surrounding, out-maneuvering, and picking them off unit by unit. They began by not trusting their intelligence, and thought they were on the run. He was fitting both armies into his plan. With my starting plan, the knowledge of our strength gleaned from Merrywood, and familiarity with the Ainjir Army's ways, Nika had more than enough intelligence to manipulate us, and the Comids. He ran them into us, and every time they ran into us, they turned and spread, trying not to be herded, thinking they were being out-maneuvered. He left Comid Command not only under-guarded and vulnerable, but right in front of our lines. Until – do you remember, Guy? The way it looked?”

Guy nodded. He had lifted up his knee so that he could rest his chin on it while he raised the memory of it, eyes flicking over the papers as if suddenly catching the melody in snatches of separate sounds. “They just swept out of the hills, in this giant mass. We had dug in, to the heels, biting our fingernails, and they came out on the field like this great cloud of dust, in marching order and everything. We thought that was it for us. We all thought we were going to die. Merrywood had been so close, and we were so tired, desperate...”

“We fought like cornered cats, and prepared vengeance for our fallen,” Cole said, and they fell silent.

“On the one hand, I can see it, but on the other… if Galen was anything like the Galen I knew at Academy,” Faer cleared his throat, hesitant to go on, “he never would have bet it all on pitched battle when you'd dug in like that. Not when you had the heart to fight...”

He grinned a sad little grin, watching both their eyes come up to him in the lamplight. “To any other audience, it would be slander to say it, but you know he would've waited until you were beaten, scared and vulnerable rather than bristling, defensive and desperate. He always had a great appreciation for timing.”

“It’s like him, but not like him,” Cole said. “But…”

They waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't, except for his brows to come together in concern.

“Abban...” Cole whispered.

Both looked up at him.

“Abban died.” Cole said. “Nika said it was his fault.”

“Oh, Galen…” Faer let out a heavy sigh, leaning back and looking away. “He never gave up on them,” he muttered. He couldn't help the note of bitterness in his voice. “Third Year he couldn't even go home; they wouldn't have him. Even Fourth Year, he was still writing them letters, getting no reply, hoping they might at least read them.”

Guy frowned at the papers. “Col-Raith was bloody. It’s as likely as anywhere for it to happen.” He paused, tilting his head as he considered. “Would Galen have joined the Comids just to protect his brother?”

Faer let out a little puff of breath and shook his head. “No – his family was everything to him, but he isn’t stupid. War is war. No guarantees he could protect Abban by joining. No guarantees how any of it would come out – if he hid his identity, if he tried to gain rank to protect him – I mean, with that many variables, who knows if he wouldn’t make it worse. Galen does take risks, but that doesn’t seem like his sort of risk. Honestly, the hardest thing to believe in this scenario is that Abban joined the Comids at all. He was such a sweet kid.”

“And probably as susceptible to pressure from his father as Nika was,” Cole said, returning them to paper armies before Faer could reply. “So, let’s say that Nika is fighting against his will, but appearing loyal. Abban has joined up, maybe for his father, maybe just because. Nika would find any reason to keep Abban out of the fighting. Something he wants to happen is happening at Kinsael – that’s what he told us, and he can’t lie for shit, so anything he told us is something he wanted us to know, or couldn’t help us knowing. But, then the whole strategy flips at Col-Raith – why?”

“Col-Raith,” Guy said, “is not just the complete opposite of Kinsael. It was the largest show of force from the Comids we had yet seen. One of their most aggressive offensive actions. Their army was twice the size suggested by our intelligence. They pulled in all their reserves.”

Faer lurched forward, throwing a finger down at the map. “If Galen was faking, they could have found out.”

“Galen said Kinsael was the key,” Guy said, nodding.

“If the grand Dux was discovered to have been treacherous,” Faer went on, “it makes sense to call in the reserves, so even if they’re caught they have the numbers to escape – they call in the reserves, bring Abban in, with Abban in, and no choice but to fight…”

“The best way to ensure survival is to win,” Cole said. “One way or another – if he couldn’t get Abban out of the fight, the best way to ensure his survival is to win.”

“Well, we survived Col-Raith by the skin of our teeth,” Guy sighed. He rubbed a hand over his face, relief still evident even years or months later. “How did we survive?”

Cole stared into the lamp, the flickering of the light raising sharp shadows on his face.

“I won instead.”
Chapter Thirty-One  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 like Faer, too. And I think I've got this where it needs to be, so here it is.
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 2021-02-06 @ 3:22 AM
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