Chapter Thirty-Four
Submission

 
The vivid smell of pipe smoke had spread and stained the air a permanent foggy gray, holding the layer of greasy oil smoke from the refilled lantern under it like the layers of a cake. The first light through the window came filtered by the haze, and still caused Faer to squint his eyes. Daylight came early in the Academy Tower.

“Bollocks.”

He dropped the sheaf of papers in his hand and got up to pour another cup of rocky-tasting tea from the brass service. Its luster had somewhat dimmed with its long watch through the night. The butler of the tower, or whoever was responsible for polishing, wasn't going to thank them. Then again, that's probably why they had brought the brass service. The Tower servants were used to military men up in the night making plans and puzzling out schemes, but still not appreciative of the service bell over their beds ringing at ass-o'clock in the morning.

Faer lifted the little brass cup and took a sip. Ahhh – rocks. He thought maybe it tasted better cold. Or he was just getting used to it.

Cole and Guy were still working, conferring quietly over their notes to make absolutely certain it was rock-solid.

Because they had a defense now. What they had put together in the wee hours had been, at best, a fair guess. Once they had started plugging their new assumption in to the pieces of Guy’s timeline, however, guess built to theory. Now that Faer had a run at their theory, using all his lawerly skills to unravel, puncture, and dismiss, they had a defense. A fairly robust defense, in Faer’s humble opinion. Every once in a while, Guy would mutter half-oaths and chide himself for not having seen it.

May as well chide yourself for not having seen a ghost. Even Cole had been surprised, to some degree, at the audaciousness of a plan that required not only double-crossing your own army, but using knowledge of another to manipulate their movements into supporting your double-crossing.

Galen had been right. What he had almost pulled off at Kinsael had been bloody clever.

Faer took his little cup and sat back down on the floor. His job, now, was taking the detailed military jargon of Cole and Guy (which worked for the Council) and putting it into something between vernacular (for the audience) and legislative (for the various justicers).

It also meant fighting with both of them. No point stood on its own – assumptions wouldn't fly, and neither would speculation. Each part of the defense had to lead inexorably into the next. Unfortunately, Cole's style (which Guy had more than a little absorbed) was to see every event as a point leading to a multitude of options.

But, Tits – he was used to Cole being mad him. Adding Guy wasn’t much worse.

But they had a defense. And most of it was solid, rock-like as his 'limestone' tea. A reason to delay, if not necessarily enough to get him out of this mess. A re-characterization that might warrant mercy. Call in some favors, throw all the pull they had at it, and it might even stave off death.

Galen had taken it upon himself to turn traitor on the Comids, with no sure reward, and, as the death of his brother indicated, at great personal risk. They only needed Nika to confirm when his brother had died, but Cole was relatively sure. That didn't sit well with Faer, but he was so tired, he couldn't think of any objections to it.

“Alright,” Faer said. He rubbed his eyes, setting the sheaf of papers deliberately away from him. “That's enough for now. Everything else is detail work, and we've got plenty of time for that.”

Cole took him at his word and stretched out, able like a true campaigner to simply put work aside and relax as-is. Faer grumbled, shifting his sore butt on the floor, and wondered why in three years of Academy he had never gotten the 'true campaigner' attitude down. Must be a Fourth Year thing.

Guy gave himself time to sigh, turning his eyes up as if the very change in direction provided relief, but unlike Faer and Cole, after a moment's slouch he came right back. Gaze going sharp, he stuck his empty pipe back between his teeth, and folded his arms.

“The spy,” Guy said.

Faer blinked sleepily at him. “The who?”

Cole sighed, rolling back up to sitting.

“Or spy-network,” Guy amended.

Guy nodded, but the nods quickly rolled into shaken negations. “But, I mean, look at this–” he gestured the plans before them, “–the more I look at Comid plans, the more I think maybe I've just been thinking about them the wrong way.”

“Yes,” Faer sighed, “I, too, have been wondering whether this was a rebellion, or merely an attempt to communicate a desire for eternal friendship. Like a bundle of daisies.”

Cole cocked him a grin, but Guy ignored them. “A network makes sense, but I'm starting to think maybe it was just one spy. The Comids were good at networks, but ideologically, they tend to rely upon an individual – I mean, 'the smiling peasant', right? Gaius was probably just a pseudonym for a stable of writers, but they wanted to appear as if there was a single leading individual. A general alone doesn't make a war, but if we're right, they were willing to risk quite a lot to capture Galen. And, I suppose, you know, philosophically, there's Midras himself – a single prophet for a single god.

(“Well, technically there’s other prophets,” Cole said, though Guy completely ignored him).

“For Kinsael to have happened as we think it did, they had to have almost entirely relied upon Galen by himself; otherwise why not just hand command over to a more reliable general? I'm thinking that might be a pattern; I'm thinking maybe whoever got Galen's battle plans did it alone, as well.”

“Is that so?” Cole asked, eyebrows up, half-smile still on his face as Faer pretended to die of fatigue around his oasis-like teacup. “Application and ideology are very different things. What gives you that impression?”

Guy frowned over his pipe stem, refolding his arms over his chest. “I dunno. Just a feeling, I guess.”

From the floor, Faer gave Cole a chastising glance, and Cole grinned back at him. As Guy leaned forward to pick up other sheets of paper, clearly ready to go right into rooting out the spy, Cole put a restraining hand on his chest.

“I'm the only one who's gotten any sleep at all tonight, and it did me well,” he said, catching Guy's eye with a certain sternness, but he glanced at Faer, brows knit. Both he and Faer had been up for almost two days now, with only chance hours of sleep between them, but if they could still act… “What are the odds we can act on the defense now?”

“If we wake up a Chief Justicer to give him this pile,” Faer said, sitting up and grabbing his papers, “we’ll probably get locked up ourselves. Anyway, there’s a little time,” even he was surprised at the pity in his voice, and cleared his throat, “a little time yet before it’s bad. Nothing worse than a bad day at Academy.”

Cole and Faer shifted towards getting to bed, but Guy couldn't.

“Cole...” Guy said, but upon gaining Cole's attention, he hesitated – but went on anyway. “What are you going to do about the Prince's offer?”

Tired blue eyes stared at Guy, frighteningly lost of light.

“'King',” he corrected.

“Well...” Guy's voice dropped in volume of its own accord. “Have you thought... maybe he knew you'd get the offer. Maybe he meant for you to acce–”

“I never told him,” Cole said. His thumbnail went to his mouth, but he managed to stop himself before biting it; though he smiled, it was clear his slips into imitation of Nika weren't amusing. “I never told him that the Prince asked me to be Consort at graduation. I was too ashamed that… I was tempted. I barely even admitted to Nika that I'd met him.”

At once Guy felt a tightness in his chest, that same feeling of urgency that had begged him to say something to Galen before he went down into the dark – this time, Guy wouldn't fail to speak. Taking a deep breath, he turned his expression to steel, his voice full of surety.

“It isn't your fault he's down there. You can't forget that General Galen knew he would go to the dungeons; he knew what was coming. It was part of his plan, and he said he doesn't doubt his plans.”

“Nika's plan is to die,” Cole growled, the rumble to his voice more of pain than anger.

“Galen's plans are never that simple,” Faer said, not a shred of doubt about him either. “And, honestly, until we’re sure what his plans are we shouldn’t interfere – not too much, anyway. Otherwise, fuck the Chief Justicers, we would be stopping this now.”

“Maybe he wanted us to find the spy!” Guy blurted, then shrank, then – under the amused gaze of Faer and less amused gaze of Cole – straightened, clearing his throat. “Something to consider… for later, maybe.”

Faer put a hand on Cole's shoulder, then stood to stretch, breaking the mood with sheer lankiness.

“Spy or spies or no spies, sleep is a good idea,” Faer said. He walked over to one of the plusher chairs to make a nest for himself out of his law robes and coat. “The glorious practice of the law is ninety percent hard work and long nights, ten percent learning to sleep in your chair.”

He fell back into the chair, seeming to fall asleep upon landing.

Cole stood as well, walking over to the bundle of cloth on the floor where he had been sleeping before. Guy, still fighting with himself over whether to keep working, didn't quite register it until Cole lay down, stretched on the floor.

“Hey, aren't you going to–” he cut himself off with a gesture at the bed, before looking around for some hidden cot or pile of blankets where he was supposed to sleep. “If you're sleeping there, where am I sleeping?”

Cole, nestling into his coat, looked back over his shoulder at the grand old four-poster with a small smile.

“It's your bed, Guy,” he didn't quite laugh, but neither was it quite funny.

“Lie in it.”

***

It was truly wonderful. He was nestled in a cloud, lighter than the air itself, and near dreamless. Guy hadn't slept in a bed this nice since... ever, probably. It didn't rustle with cornhusks when he turned, or catch on him with its buttons and leave stripes of rank imprinted on his sleeping skin. He tried to sleep light, telling himself to wake after the light rose to mid-morning strength, but it only resulted in a fogginess to his dreams, a half-wakeful cotton-fluff of thoughts.

He thought his eyes opened, but everything was blurry. The ball was over and yet they talked. She was so pretty, exactly like he would hope her to be, from sharp wit to soft shoulder. Dressed in a loyal green, it folded and drew around her, the shadows of black lace tucked into it turning the real shadows curled and intricate. Her own shadow was simple and clear; tall and strong as the tower, and glittering through with elegance. She leaned in to speak, and he saw a smile, a true smile, that wasn't shaded by mourning for the first time in the night...

The image of green silks moved away from his eyes to a cottony one, of a stone room in yellow morning light. He thought Cole was awake, but they hadn't been asleep that long, and blue eyes catching on Guy's like jewels, he merely put a finger to his lips for silence – which was strange, because it sounded like hollow knocking on wood – and bid him sleep again.

A blink covered a lot of time. He was determined to awake, he remembered, and demand Cole, demander of sleep, follow his own demands. But then he thought he saw Cole sleeping, but it was just blankets, and blankets don't sleep. He took a deep breath, aiming for wakefulness, but under the pipe smoke smell came something floral, just a bit like cloth and clean skin, and his brain shunted him straight to dreams again.

***

Cole did not quite sleep. True his word, he lay down, and he tried, but it was fitful, rest-destroying starts and stops, each waking punctuated by an unchanged nightmare.

He remembered, bitterly, how it had been at the beginning of the war. The first time he had been alone in bed for so long – since his relationship with Nika had begun – with no hope of knowing when next he would see him. He remembered the thought, as he wandered through camp, wakeful and over-worked, exhausted but unable to sleep, that he should find someone, anyone, and lay with them. The circumstances of war were not so generous, and nobody would mind a lie, for comfort's sake.

And he remembered that thought reducing him to tears. He hadn't cried in years, not for anything, maybe even since his mother’s death, but Cole had felt his throat close and his eyes sting, and the cold of the night seemed to blow through him – his bones not even thick enough to stop the wind.

Nika was safe, he had said, that's all I need. I should be happy, if by being alone, I've let him be safe.

Let me be the stone facade, he had said then. The one that Nika always teased him with, his granite mask. The passionate, silly, romantic went with Nika, off to where he would be safe. Cole could be the rocky tomb, the empty temple. Even empty, it was a grand monument to all that he ever wished for. All that was off where Nika was safe.

Nika was not safe. Cole left him in danger. A matter of a half-hundred feet may now have stood between them, as opposed to a hundred leagues, and Cole's stone facade was cracked and falling, and still he left Nika in danger.

...Life, what once was separate whole,
Now twined and doubled as we are together,
And halved once thou dost part.

He had left Nika once, and felt the pulling apart over vast distance the twined strand of his life. The strain of its distance he had used to assure himself – the pain meant, though parted, the other half was there. It had been wrong then, and it felt wrong now. Now they pulled again at the double strand, this time hacking at the gentle skin that kept them joined, and the pain was only reassurance that they were trying, finally, to rip them apart.

Cole would cling all the harder for the pain of it. He could not fail. Whether he had to submit to ruling this kingdom, or rise to conquer it, he would not allow it to stand between him and Nika.

Cole was still curled silently, balled around his uneasy half-waking dreams, when he heard the gentle knocking at the door. They didn't interrupt the sleep of the Executive General for trifles, and he was not sleeping so well he would miss it, so he answered, wary of waking either Faer or Guy. His growing hangover punctuated his rising with the added point that his sleep would not last long, even if it miraculously became restful.

The servant of the Tower was making a good show of wakefulness, for how early it was, but seeing who was behind him, he may as well have stayed in bed.

“Brigadier Cole, a guest has arrived...” but Cole was already out the door, shutting it quietly behind him, hangover forgotten, and his face abeam with relief and affection that could not be disguised by his crisp salute.

“General Durante,” he said.

Durante smiled, the lines in his face clearing the way for it. He acknowledged Cole's salute with paternal pride, the gesture as close as propriety and rank would allow them to a relieved hug.

At the moment, Cole would believe in any kind of God Nika may have described. This was his salvation.

Durante had come to set things right.
Chapter Thirty-Three  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 don't know what to say except I can almost promise that's the last chapter of recounting old battles. Almost certain. New battles are still on the table, and also heartfelt talks.

So many heartfelt talks coming up.

don't worry, they're all short and terrible
 
 
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 2021-02-06 @ 3:28 AM
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