Chapter Thirty-Nine

“But even if all your assumptions–”


“– assumptions are true, you'll still need royal approbation, and I seriously doubt the King is going to be issuing that anytime soon. I mean, you could try the Council, but after Durante's tucked his greasy, old tail...” Faer nearly stomped on the stone floor of the Tower room, as if it could somehow feel the assault of his disdain.

“But... I think I can do it,” Guy said. “I've got a feeling.”

In response, Faer gave Guy a withering stare, which Guy either didn't see – a possibility, given his flitting about the stacks of broadsheets they had collected – or was able to perfectly ignore.

If the student was truly becoming like the master, then it was probably the latter.

“There's no reason to think the spy would read the broadsheets, and no reason to think he would investigate personally–”

“And no reason to think there's only one of him,” Guy said, flicking from one cheap print to the next and back again. “Don't forget that.”

Swallowing his annoyance, Faer grunted and threw himself back on the bed. Indubitably, the student was like the master.

“Ghent said–”

But Guy didn't get to finish. The door slammed open, scattering the papers strewn about the room, bouncing against the back wall, crushing a small end table, and nearly slamming itself shut again. Cole walked through a flurry of leaflets and maps falling like snow.

“They've got his family,” he gasped.

Faer was on his feet, Guy still standing frozen in a posture of mild surprise.

Swallowing down air, Cole wiped his hair back from his face, damp with sweat. “We've got to go get them.”

“Did you run here?” Faer gestured at him as if presenting evidence, “From your house?!”

Guy seemed to catch up with the situation, coming alive like released clockwork. “Where are they?”

“...that is in the Cloth District?!”

“I don't know.” Cole's face fell into contemplation. “He doesn't know either. They would've had to keep them well hidden from him, or he'd've freed them himself.”

“They could've just been too well guarded–”

Cole gave Guy a piercing stare.

“–Right, no; you're right, that would be stupid. They would have to be very well hidden,” Guy amended. “If they're very well hidden, though, how do we find them?”

“Wait, how do you know this?” Faer sat on the edge of the bed, clutching the post.

Cole froze.

He thought.

He frowned.

“I don't know.”

Faer waited until his question percolated a bit, then repeated it, with deliberate pronunciation. “Wait. How. Do. You. Know. This?”

It looked, a moment, as if Cole wasn't going to explain, then he stopped himself mid-pace.

“You were right, Faer,” Cole said.

“Jolly good.” Faer nodded. “How-do-you-know-this?”

Cole hesitated, then grabbed a chair, flipping it around so he could sit facing them, with his arms slung over the back. He wiped his face again, taking deep, deliberate breaths. For lack of anything else to do, Guy remained standing in a suitably dramatic fashion.

“Remember how...” Cole paused, and turned to Guy instead. “Remember how Nika kept saying there was nothing we could do?”

“Vividly,” Guy said.

“And that a war history was a waste of time?”

“Like it was only days ago.”

“And that he had to do what he was doing?”

“Indeed, it's as if I've thought about nothing else for a week or more.”

Cole stopped himself again, then glanced around the room.

In the silence, Faer leaned over and whispered to Guy, “Stop it, you're taking my bit.”

“Don't tease – you like it when I draw rein.” Guy whispered back.

And so he did, Faer had to admit.

Cole stood. “He wanted the Comid response... has it come?”

Both were struck with a sudden urgency; they glanced around at the papers on the floor. Faer nodded. “Uhm... yes, it has... the broadsheet...”

He pointed. Guy looked at the wall behind him, wondering what in the world was going on. Faer gestured again, and he realized it was still in his hand.

“Oh-ah, yes,” Guy held it up. Cole snatched it from his hand, and began reading...

“If there's proof at all, this'll have proof... 'The honorable people of the Comid Republic...' 'eternal fight' ...hmhn...'injustice against our people' ...hadada... 'everlasting striving for peace and equalityyyy'..yyyy...yyy....AH! There it is.” He cleared his throat, pointing down at the words.

“'Regrettable as the surrender was, it is only a minor defeat in a war whose principles will never allow us to surrender completely. Our officers shall show the strength of our resolve in our fight for independence, fearing nothing but to be shown as cowards, fearing the consequences of unforgettable shame and unfaithfulness more than death. General Galen shall not waver, nor accept mercy, for nothing shall break our faith. Our General will become a guiding light amongst the martyrs of Midras, and will watch over his people from the safety of the Prophet's side, a witness before God of our faith and penitent servant of the cause.'”

“...Yes” Faer said, “They've been publishing this tripe all through the war. Your revelation is?”

“They don't have the Relay. They requisitioned all the horses in their territories for cavalry mounts. But they've also been fighting a political war – they needed the sympathy of the people in the lands they took, and Midraeic-heavy as they might have been, that meant sympathizing with the local Ainjir.”

“Yes, they've occasionally used the broadsheets to distribute political messages, to threaten and cajole local populations, spread messages...” Guy said.

“Nothing tactically useful, but, yes, messages. This is a message,” Cole shook the paper.

Guy and Faer both stared, then Guy's face went slack. “Galen wanted to know the Comid response as soon as we got it. He knew it would be a message to him. This is a message that Galen is to die, or suffer the consequences. 'Nothing shall break our faith', 'will watch over his people from the Prophet's side', 'fearing the consequences of unfaithfulness.' If they do have his family, it's more than instructions, it's a threat.”

“Keep the faith or your family will suffer,” Cole said.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Faer put a hand to his temple, “first of all, this is terribly flimsy evidence, and secondly, he surrendered. He gave up all of their army... you'd think a surrender would do in 'the faith'.”

Cole shook his head. “To your first, this isn’t a law court, but it doesn’t matter because even a court would accept his request as indication of his expectation of message through the Comid response. To your second, no – a surrender is a strategic decision. It depends on what we think the Comid strategy is, and their rhetoric supports the idea of a strategic rather than forced surrender. Better to have to re-gather a scattered army than to have no one left. You saw him,” he glanced at Guy, “he hadn't predicted a decimation.”

“No one would've predicted a decimation – it's barbaric. Virtue's Tits!” Guy muttered, “he could've told them the whole plan ahead of time. He could've told them in the case of defeat he would surrender, but to Cole, because Cole would strive hardest to uphold Conventions and preserve the army. It'd be suspicious, so they'd be watching, but so far he's been proven exactly right.”

“Nika also said,” Cole went on, “that we had to believe that he'd done everything on purpose, that he was truly guilty of all of his actions. He didn't want us proving him innocent...”

They both looked at Faer. Faer scowled, but obediently demonstrated understanding. “Because if he was exonerated, the Comids would assume he'd bartered for his own life at the expense of their army. He's probably chock full of Comid secrets that would easily earn him reprieve. And, let's face it, the Academy would much rather make the excuse he'd been double-crossing, true or not, than suffer the damage to their reputation that having a cadet turn traitor has caused. The safest way of making sure Galen wouldn't try turning traitor on the Comids again was to require the ultimate demonstration of compliance.”

“He had to confess. He had to take responsibility, and he can't do anything that would help his case, or they'll harm his family,” Cole said.

“Augh!” Guy cried, throwing hands over his face. “Why didn't he just tell us?”

“It's a bloody sight too far for one of his lessons in thinking,” Faer grumbled.

“The spy,” Cole replied. “Nika said his war record would only confuse the case, and wouldn't help – he warned me about trusting people in the Capitol, right after he said he didn’t know how they caught him, and I didn’t understand but I was… uh, distracted. And so much happened just after…”

Faer and Guy exchanged a glance, during which Faer mimed a bow, as if receiving applause.

Cole, if he saw them, ignored them. “Maybe he didn’t know there was a spy, but he feared the information would get out somehow, even if he only told people he trusted; he believed the Comids could hear of it even if he betrayed them in private. And he didn’t know enough to plan for it, or he would have just told us. He just didn’t know enough for sure. He can't dissemble well enough to rely on double-talk, so he just threw everything he could at us and hoped we would figure it out. I think Guy's spy-theory is right.”

“But even a spy doesn't explain how the Comids got them in the first place.” Faer objected. “The Academy had a front row seat to him making these plans, and would've tried to mind Galen’s family, if only to keep track of Galen, and they didn't even know where he was. And there's – how many people in his family? Eight of them?”

“Ten including him and his father and mother,” Cole said.

“Well, now that makes sense,” Guy said, purely for his own benefit. “The Comids sent enough force to retrieve Galen to completely wipe out an entire unit of Capitol Cavalry.” He folded his arms over his chest, brows knitted. “Probably a set of Namera raiders, probably more than enough horse to carry ten people back with them at a good clip. Assuming he was with them, that could be how they got their hands on his family.

Guy shook his head. “Still, according to you two, he would've done anything to keep them safe. He would've hidden them, made them run...”

“There isn't much you can do against cavalry on foot,” Cole replied dryly, glancing at Faer. “You remember the exercises at the end of Third Year?”

Faer's chuckling was both enduring and entirely amused. “Oh, yeah. Never saw you and Galen on your asses so much...”

Guy and Cole ignored him while he finished his happy reverie.

“That’s the logistical part of the ‘how’,” Cole said, “but we’re missing key intelligence. How did they know where they were, what to send to get them…. he did say that anyone can lose – maybe it just… didn’t work. I met them before graduation – all but his father – but afterwards Nika said nothing had changed; he was still disowned. It was hardly a meeting, anyway – his mother didn’t even speak to me. I thought it odd that they would visit, but they said they had been able to come because Nika had fulfilled his duty to his father in graduating, becoming an officer of Ainjir. Nika hadn't wanted to be a soldier when he was young...”

“By the Prick of Conscience, what time that would have saved us,” Faer groaned, rubbing his eyes.

Even Cole, in his excitement, let out a grin for that. “Nika said nothing had changed, but he stopped writing letters just before graduation. And if Guy's work is correct, it wasn't so long after Yorik made his offer, and being bribed by Yorik might have aroused his suspicions. I thought the stopped letters, the way he stopped dealing with his family, was because it was too painful; it all made him so miserable…” Cole shook his head. “And we were all so busy. The war was starting, graduation was coming, we were fighting for First – and I’ll bet that Nika was sending his family into hiding. I misinterpreted all of his actions.”

“He meant for you to,” Guy said. “One grand ruse, right from the start. But the question remains, if all you’ve just said was true – that he put in the effort to send them into hiding before he even graduated – how the Comids found them. If the Academy didn’t know, the spy is no advantage.”

“I wouldn't have thought it possible,” Faer looked up at Cole, his gaze sympathetic, but his words cautious, “Frankly, that's the best argument I have against your idea. Especially if he really started planning that early.”

“I don't know,” Cole said. “Nika's good, but he has his limits, his weaknesses. Could be any number of things. A lot could depend on who the spy was – maybe access to the Academy is only incidental to the spy, or maybe his family relied on Midraeic networks that turned out to be untrustworthy. Maybe his father defected, or maybe Abban ran away and joined up and revealed them. Maybe Yorik really did find him – I don’t know him well enough to guess, but he was smart enough to want to try to keep Nika around, so maybe he was smart enough to find him – then he went to the front not because he didn’t find Nika but because Nika turned him down once and for all. It's a mistake that's easy to make, thinking Nika is impervious to harm, unable to be manipulated. One he sometimes commits himself.”

Guy and Faer exchanged a glance – similar sentiments had been shared before, though not with Galen as their subject.

“Yorik,” Guy said. “If there's a spy with access to Academy records, Yorick alone could've blown it all for him. Knowing that Yorick was positioned to bribe Galen into staying, I didn't even have to
break into any top-secret vaults to track Yorick's progress. I did it with easily-accessible documents.”

“But those would have a significant delay in arriving – they would be behind…” Cole said.

“Maybe something went wrong on the road? Slowed them down?”

“It’s still…” Faer interrupted, then sucked a breath in between his teeth, “… I don’t know. There’s something missing. It’s a weak plan, on the Comid’s part. I could see forcing him to advise, but why give him the whole army? Surely it must have been obvious he would hate them for using his family against him.”

Silence fell.

“He didn’t betray me,” Cole whispered, his beaten knuckles brushing against his lips as he thought, “but he did betray his word. He took responsibility – it was all his responsibility… he chose what was best, for everyone…”

Guy and Faer exchanged glances, the pressure of a new idea, not yet fully formed, crushing all their old ideas in their berths as it grew. Eyes wide, Guy found his fingers sliding over the fragile paper of the plans in his hand as he tried to flatten what was already flat.

“One grand ruse,” Guy repeated, “depending on where the start is. That's... that's a lot to lose, if he failed. A lot to risk in the first place.”

“The whole nation, to start with,” Faer mumbled.

“No,” Cole said, brows knitting, “not the nation. He had faith in me. He believed I would win the war, one way or another. He had hated the idea of breaking his oath in the first place, but maybe he did, to protect his family. But once his family had been captured…”

“Oh...” Faer said, rubbing a hand over his face, “...bollocks. It was the only way he could help. That… that’s so much worse.”

“Well, you know it, too – that’s how he is,” Cole said, running hands over his face after a brief and bitter smile. “Only one way he could go: hardest for him, but also the most effective.”

Cole leaned back, holding himself up with a grip on the back of the chair. It was like stumbling through the woods, looking for a trail, only to turn around and its clear spread behind you while you panted, stuck with twigs and pricked bloody by brambles.

“Maybe he planned it from the start, or maybe they outwitted him, but once they had his family, he began one grant ruse. Sabotage the Rebellion from within. He needn't pretend his loyalty went any deeper than protecting his family, he only needed to keep hidden that he was deliberately losing the war. From the outside, the Council letting him leave would look like a rejection – so the Comids offer the opportunity to not waste his talent, he accepts. A five-year feint, with an ending that, in the best case, put him on the losing side of a rebellion. In the worst case...”

“He leads his own brother to his death, with all the others likely just waiting their turn...” Guy murmured.

They all looked at one another – Faer finally lifted his face from his hands, expression a mixture of fatigue and admiration. Guy stood, hands hugging around his chest, face caught between worry and the roiling of new facts and figures, the processes of his active mind. Cole frowned over his broken fist, blue eyes icy with determination, expression clear as the waters before a great wave breaks.

They all knew the crushing peak would be coming, but none could guess how hard and fast, or what it would sweep away.

“The issue remains,” Faer said quietly, knitting his fingers together as the latest mission coalesced in his mind, “how do we find the family that Galen couldn't find from within the Comid Hierarchy himself?”

Guy made a noise – almost a letter. After a moment, he took a hand from around his chest, raising it absentmindedly as if asking for recognition. The letter turned into words, falling into place like tumblers in a lock.

“I have a plan.”
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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: DREAM TEAM TIME *theme song*

They need a theme song
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 2021-02-22 @ 7:10 PM
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