Chapter Forty
Submission

 
He had started the week as Lieutenant Guy.

He waited in the dripping dark, still as stone, and after another moment spent in silence, opened his lips to take a deeper breath that still did not stir his chest. Then shut them again.

The only brightness came from a torch, secreted around a corner, and his own eyes, that from time to time searched for shaken puddles, greyed dark, or other walking shadows laying secret in the dark. Watchful as a cat, he thought, loyal as a hound. Quiet as still water.

Spending time with Dominicus Galen, leader of the rebels, was in itself a learning experience. A desperate one, spent listening to bits and snatches of teaching falling through Galen’s constant push and pull on those around him. His use – or need – of the conflict just to relate. Needing not to tell, but knowing of the need to learn.

In a week of tired shifting between one general and another, Guy had collected a surprising number of hints and aphorisms, stories and advice, myths and warnings. Especially, he thought, considering how much antagonism he had bottled in his chest for Galen before meeting him. He hadn't let anyone know – Guy was an intellectual, at heart, and thought he could swallow emotion if learning were on the line – but his fear at meeting the Comid leader held a good amount of hate behind it, pushing it forward.

Now, here he was, waiting in the dark. Reminding himself of the little things Galen had let slip about the dark, and its denizens, and how to be one of them.

In the dark, Galen’s advice; in the light, Cole’s shielding – and one of those was distinctly more sinister than the other. Hours ago, miles above, Cole had wordlessly ordered up a uniform. It was not unlike that of a cadet in its plain, thick grayness, with no ribbons, no buttons. It was stiff-seamed and close-fitting, the cloth shadow-colored and smooth-surfaced so it brushed by itself in silence.

Also, Guy discovered in his idle shuffling and sleuthing about in it, this uniform had not less than a half-dozen knives, pins, an curious little tools hidden in every seam, cuff, and collar. While dressing, he accidentally loosed a catch in his right sleeve, which let fall a matte-colored weight unwinding a thread which proved to be silk-and-gut sennet-like thread, stiff as iron and razor thin – a built-in garrote. Cole had calmly shown him how to wind it up again – it wasn’t the simplest thing, to do so in the particular way that made it fall just so and kept it hidden, so Cole advised him not to play with the catch unless he planned to use it.

Guy had not played with the catch. He told himself it was good to know that it was there, and vigorously hoped never to use it. Something about it gave him a shudder, which – as the pretended voice of Galen agreed – was a bit particular of him. It wasn't exactly like the handkerchief soaking in its numbing draught in his pocket was any less malevolent a tool just for looking more innocent.
He opened his lips again, took another, deeper breath. The chest of the uniform was like iron, fitted so it did not stir very much when he breathed anyway, but still. He was wary not to let it stir. Beware the brightness of eyes in the night, don’t underestimate the susceptibility of shadows to stirring – like a cat's, an errant gleam, or a shift in the black, to the right observer, can give your position away.

Galen's voice, again, telling him things he needed to know, and things that he hadn't known he would need until he called and they came. Nothing like the heavy-handed hints of Kinsael. Everything like the careful maneuvering he had thought he had heard behind his tent every night of being on campaign during the war, his heart drumming with irrational fear. An entire war spent lying only half-asleep, always ready to be out-maneuvered, surprised. Discussing strategy, making plans with Cole, he had felt like a fortune-teller in the market, casting bones and sticks and feathers and sand, counting up his contingency plans to make certain they would come out of this or that battle alive – or mostly alive. Alive as they could be.

No wonder he had hated him. No wonder he had bottled it up – there wasn’t time for it.

No wonder, in those intense days, he hadn’t noticed he had grown so passive. Guy would cast out the bones, and Cole would gather them up, blow away the dust, and put them back down, telling Guy what the future was.

A drip from the low ceiling in this deep silence sounded like glass breaking, but Guy didn’t flinch. He was using it to time his slight stretches, keeping himself as limber as such stillness would allow. Wouldn't do to be stiff, even if the damp seemed to crawl into his bones and make its splintery home there. He was starting to think he could hear his joints creak when he shifted them imperceptibly to be certain of their workings.

Good. That meant good silence.

He fell into the cotton-soft quiet of the empty place again, staring out like another of the owls carved on the dark parts of the stone walls, watching for traitors in the dark. (Who carved them? Why carve them? How did they make it seem as if their eyes still glowed in the stone, once one could seem them again in the velvety black?) Watching with him.

This was Guy's plan, so Guy took point.

So Cole had said, leaning back in the chair Faer had left abandoned, after being given his mission. Faer was circulating rumors in the markets and, if necessary, bribing the broadsheet printers with enormous sums to print news of Galen's change of heart, earned under the most (luridly described) brutal torments, where he turned over high Comid names in exchange for pity, for mercy. Cole used his back-pay; three years of unclaimed Executive officer rates, and for good measure told Faer to appeal to Ghent, not only for money but for backing up the rumor. They watched the Academy guards rearrange themselves around the Tower, as if security priorities had suddenly changed – as if prisoners had been moved.

There was no wind in the wet halls, but the tunnels breathed, taking in air without moving their chests, as Guy did. His eyes flicked away from the exceedingly dim light of the sheltered torch, staring into endless black hall, becoming reacquainted with blindness, so that when he would look up at the dim again, it would be open as a doting lover. When the air moved, it would be more than the breathing of the tunnels next time.

Guy had come up with the plan, which wasn't really its own plan, but an alteration of the idea he had had for catching the spy. He had detailed the steps, and Cole ordered the uniform. He had hashed out details, and Cole set sundry affairs in order and sent Faer on his way. He had come up with options, weaknesses, just to be aware of them, and Cole ordered two units of Elites to be ready, at his whim, to ride like blasted shrapnel. While Guy had dressed, Cole set camp.

Then Guy headed down, alone.

The tunnels were breathing quickly – as quickly as corpses could, for they were by no means alive. Somebody was moving around somewhere far above. He had been waiting long enough to get to know the sighs and grumbles. He had been afraid, before going down the dark, unremittingly afraid, that he would be able to hear...

The thought gave him shudders he calmed with a cool drought of reason. He wasn't that far from where Galen was going through whatever it was he was going through. He had been afraid that his silence now would become like the protracted torment of his silence at the Traitor's Gate, turning his friend over to torture. It was strange how a fear for another could become a fear for one's self, and how powerful that fear for one's self was when it came riding in on its attendant wave of hypocrisy. It was the sort of shame one died of.

But he had underestimated what a place built for pain and darkness could do. A few winding turns of quiet stone, and it was like there was no world – only the tunnels. That was the place he had come to – the place of silence and separation, your reward for a treason properly turned, was the absolute silence of isolation. You would beg for someone to come back and talk to you, after a short time, even with a whip and bridle. The quiet tunnels turned the pain of torture into the embrace of humanity, for at least, then, you weren't alone.

He had severely underestimated a place of pain and darkness.

Do not touch me, Cold and Quiet, he said in his thoughts, for you are my weapons now.

But that was hours ago. Breathe in, and out, the tunnels sighing like a distant lover.

Lieutenant Guy was General Guy now.

In the dark, unmoving, unaware if even his plan had worked – he knew what it was that Cole did on campaign, and it wasn’t quite waiting. Hurry up and wait, it felt like to all the soldiers, but to the person making the plans it was a protracted balancing act, a single step of what should be a brisk run stretched impossibly long. Circumstances and the movements of men forced one to wait on unsteady foot as long as possible before taking that decisive step. Once that step was taken, there was no one left to come to the rescue, and no one left to blame but yourself. Guy's plan was in the process of putting its foot down, steadying the swaying balance of their little consortium, with no guarantee that they would succeed, or that their idea would bear fruit.

It depended on a lot of things being true.

If there was a single spy...

If the Comids had Galen's family...

If Guy's misinformation was compelling enough to act as a lure...

If the spy reacted before Durante and the King could quash the rumors...

If they could react before their gambit got Galen’s family killed…

Guy was hard pressed, upon reflection, to even call it a 'plan', but Cole had agreed to it. Cole had watched Guy as he changed from his glittering uniform in the dark of this shadow suit, brushing away the idle frills of court dress, a growing nervousness instead of epaulets dangling off his shoulders. Faer was off and running; they would receive copies of the newest broadsheets if they came out. Standing in front of the dressing mirror, Guy was still reeling from his return from his part of the mission; they needed a Royal Warrant to get anywhere near the dungeons in peace (Cole's frontal assaults had done them no favors) and they had sent Guy to do it. He had been the only one in doubt that he would be successful, but still, he hadn't expected Cole to turn that part over to him.

So as Cole watched him he had watched Cole in return. He had been ambushed once that day already by silks and fans, and was ambushed again by the languorous look of his General, lying back in his chair. He had watched Cole's eyes closing to slits as he settled in, draped as if the seat were the softest of beds, waiting to be called, waiting to rise up like a gout of flame, a wall of water, a tyrant sleeping in his throne.

'What am I going to do?' Cole had said, repeating Guy's question, cold eyes closing like cursed jewels being put in their black-cloth cases, 'I'm going to sleep. You bring me the traitor. I'll wake up.'

Dark Tunnels, you don't scare me, Guy said in his head, but sometimes he does.

There were very few options for who it could be, if they had his name. Guy had it down to a seven-of-ten certainty, and it was a very idle part of his mind, indeed, which gave any thought to whether the familiarity of the name would have any effect on what Cole would do. He was not a man whose plans were interrupted by his emotions. And now Guy knew it was all the more terrible when they were.

Emotions were a funny thing. He was aware they could build, quick or slow, and frankly wasn't that aware of the effect they had on him. Guy put all of his attention into thinking, into the task at hand, but the task currently at hand did not get done without some idle speculation to pass the hours. He was, effectively, in the middle of a great lover's tryst, attached at the hip to intrigue like courtly set-dancers taking their turn. Extending the metaphor: passing partners was all part of the dance, but there came a point in every young man's tarrying youth when the slipping of a partner's hand from his grip became suddenly meaningful, suddenly full of import, and ruined the dance. If one was lucky, truly lucky, then it happened early in the set, when another pass would put that hand back into his, and he could have the chance to grip it all the firmer for its new-found preciousness.

Nobody but Guy had doubted his ability to get a Warrant to come down to the dungeons, and as he had changed into his cat-skin uniform he had felt the metaphorical slip from his hand, the smell of something floral, clean skin and cloth, drawing away...

The smell of fresh air. It made little difference whether his eyes were open or closed, but his senses awakened. The lieutenant had been caught daydreaming again! But Guy didn't need to excuse himself to anyone – there wasn’t anyone to excuse himself to – only do his job.

Shuffling and the clanging noise of ruffled air and scuffed stones – the hallways breathed, panting a full, new breath. The door around the corner, within in the light of the torch, slid noisily shut, and though in truth the door was no louder than a mouse's step, Guy felt it touch the deep of his chest, causing quiet cat laughter at his clumsy prey. His eyes narrowed, lest they shine bright enough to be seen, even though he knew he wouldn't be.

But all prey has a certain amount of smarts. The spy could feel a living presence in the great stone corpse.

Eho...? Veni... veni, puer me,” the whisper hesitated, “...me dicito.”

The dripping ceiling responded, and with nothing else to do, he turned the corner, groping for the next dim spot of torchlight.

They hadn't lit any torches past Guy. The spy turned into darkness absolute, form silhouetted as if before the sun itself to Guy's dark eyes. Guy watched a moment, the swift sword of silence ready drawn at his side.

His heart beat quite fast, something like either anger or disgust rumbling in his chest now that he had the spy before him. Guy didn't know much Midraeic – his vocabulary nearly doubled over the last week – but he wanted to respond to the man's gentle begging of the dark to 'speak', the hypocritical endearment 'my child' he had tossed to the assumed presence of the man he had so thoroughly betrayed. Who now suffered far more than long hours passed in silence, in the dark.

Guy moved like a whisper, a rattle in the lungs of the old dead tunnels, and laid cold hands on the spy's throat, choking cries.

Tace,” Guy said, covering the spy's mouth with the draught-soaked cloth. He guessed, as a General, he wasn't much for speeches.

***

“Good plan,” Cole said, standing in the doorway of their meeting-place. His voice was smooth, like the sound of a half-thawed spring running under a coat of ice.

Guy’s mouth twisted into a frown. It was only good because it had worked.

Ghent had lent them the space – some kitchen storage room in the Academy, empty due to the season, and windowless, but above-ground. Ghent had offered a part of the cellars, but Cole had refused. He would evade, but not hide this.

To be beneath the ground, Guy guessed, was too close.

Cole had brought Faer with him, who, though he was disheveled, face lined with fatigue, observed with bright eyes. He had a wad of broadsheets rolled and stuffed into the back of his belt, having done without the hot lawyer's robes while busily bribing. Standing in the hallway, he only with effort restrained himself from pacing. Guy didn't blame him.

“You realize,” Faer said, noting that while Cole's cold eyes stayed on the hooded and bound form sitting in the chair, like a serpent watching a mouse, Guy was looking at him.

“You realize,” he began again – 'that for us to use torture to interrogate is illegal, especially you' wasn't the thing he was going to say; they all already knew anyway – “that this might be more than just a lead to Galen’s family.”

Cole said nothing, still watching. The spy couldn't hear them, though they weren't that far away. Not between the thick muslin bag over his head and their hushed voices.

Faer caught Guy's eye. “For your theories to be right, Guy, potentially this spy is way more than some Comid Agent. If he's operating alone, in the Capitol, and had been shipping them their military's plans, he's had to have direct access to the Hierarchy, he's got to have a say in what the entire Republic was doing, or planning to do, and he had to be in it from the start. He had to be above suspicion for them, too, and capable of protecting secrets that could ruin them. You don't just hand your tactics off to anyone...”

Guy nodded once. “It's most likely, if I'm right, we're not just catching a spy, but one of the co-conspirators who founded the Rebellion. Maybe not in the Hierarchy itself, but certainly of the highest rank.”

“And you know,” Faer went on, “if all was right with the world and we weren't in the midst of committing multiple treasons ourselves, if we caught a co-conspirator, we'd all be rewarded with gold-plated statues of our cocks in the Palace's gardens, to be admired with due solemnity and thankful awe.”

Guy's face couldn't quite crack out of its 'due solemnity', which only made Faer grin wider. “They'd even size you two up so yours wouldn't look so bad next to mine.”

“I want mine to be a fountain, and piss straight up in the air, all the time,” Cole said, absent-mindedly, “or maybe just at the Palace walls.”

“You know,” Guy said, “there's a very real possibility that I'm wrong. Most of the military does not suspect infiltration. There's also a very real possibility that, paranoid as they are, the Comids communicate with him through middlemen. He may not know where Galen's family is. He may not know anything.”

‘If their theories about any of this were right at all’ – but that thought he kept on his tongue.

Cole shook his head, eyes never moving. “Don't denigrate your plan now. Your insight about the Comid reliance on individuals is a good one. That he came when you put out the false rumors means something. He's the lynch pin. His communication will have to be direct. They need someone who will be able to provide Nika with a guarantee his family is still alive, still well, even as he walks to the scaffold.”

Guy shifted, feeling a warm panic, an unsteadiness, like he could feel Cole's anger radiating off of him.

“Look, but if I'm right about that, Cole,” Guy tried futilely to catch his eye, but hesitated to breach the line of sight between Cole and the spy, “then I'm probably right that you know who the spy is – I mean, he’s someone you know.”

Guy was seven-tenths sure. The Midraeic the spy spoke, made it eight- or nine-tenths. He didn't want to admit it, but he had had the feeling on seeing the name on Ghent's lists, recalling stories Cole had told of his youth in the Capitol, and five years of being forced to listen to the bragging of every Capitol-based officer in the corps about the quality of their city...

He wasn't sure how Cole would take it. So many people had turned on him, of late.

Cole stood away from the door frame, setting his feet apart, arms crossed over his chest. “It's time.”

The delay was calculated. It was obvious they hadn't brought the spy to the dungeon proper, but they had to make it appear as if that was by choice, rather than because they didn't have access. They had to imply that they knew far more than they were letting on, as if they weren't in a rush to get the information on Nika's family before the confusion their false reports would cause rained down on them, and everyone from the King on down came running to stop them. They had to be deliberate, uncaring, acting as if they had the backing of the Kingdom, and it wasn't just them, alone, madly trying to stay ahead of jumbled pack of burning fuses.

Cole said it was a good plan, but in truth it hadn't quite been proven; they still had to get information they could use to free Nika's family. The final test would be whether Cole pulled a sword out the fiery deluge of confusion they had caused, or just a twisted lump of seared metal.

Guy hesitated only to compose himself. Faer disappeared from the doorway. With the cold deliberation the cat-skin uniform demanded, Guy made his steps loud as he crossed to the chair, and ripped the muslin from the spy's head.

Cole did not so much as flinch. To his credit, neither did spy, blinking in the sudden brightness.

“Servan,” Cole said.

Even knowing Cole as he did, Guy had expected some kind of reaction. Servan had run the shop at which all the cadets had gone to relax, eat and socialize. Officers from Durante to the lowliest clerk came to have tea and partake of Servan's Midraeic hospitality – and his healthy discounts to those who served the Kingdom. During the war, his shop had been attacked, he himself had been beaten, and his stores were more than once spoiled – until it was clear it was safer for him to deliver his joints of meat and tea-cakes than stay in his own shop. His loyalty to his nation would not let him flee.

Ghent had told Guy of Servan in terms that were glowing, given the Old Oak's rough bark. He had also described how Servan had doted on Galen. Of course, he disapproved of his relationship with Cole, but he was happy to see one of the flock paying back Ainjir's sheltering of the people of Midras with loyal and remarkable service. Servan's had been one of the places which Cole and Galen went often, Servan's generosity making it one of the few, as poor cadets, they could afford.

And, of course, he had been a staple of the military's operation for more than fifteen years. He was too established, too regular, to be part of such a late-come Rebellion. But Guy was not from the Capitol. It helped, too, that Guy had spent a week marching with Comid prisoners.

What had they told him – ‘the butcher’s is the house where coincidence sleeps.’ Servan was established, trusted, and the Ainjir military had a complete and blissful ignorance of the long history of manipulation and subterfuge that accompanied the socially vital role of Midraeic butcher.

At least one-tenth of his doubt had been the hope that it wasn't going to be another person from Cole's cadet days.

“Esras Cole? It is so good to see you,” Servan was older, his voice tinged with a little age – like a kindly grandfather – and had the lilt of a Midraeic accent, which even a decade and a half in the Ainjir Capitol hadn't worn away. Servan looked a little embarrassed to be tied up, but not nervous – never nervous. “I don't know what I've done...”

It was a good act. After so long doing it, he was expert. But there was absolutely no reason for a butcher, even so familiar a one as Servan, to have access to the dungeons, or to be able to find his way to where treasonous prisoners would be kept, in the maze of the underground.

Though his anger earlier had been palpable, Cole had pulled everything in, until he seemed to be radiating nothing at all – not even body heat. He was a cold, dense weight, standing with funerary oppressiveness, like a slab of unworked jet at the center of the room. Guy skirted the walls on his way to the door, feeling pressed.

Cole crossed to the chair in three even steps, and laid hands over the arms of the chair, eyes locked on Servan's.

“Where are the Comids holding Nika's family?”

He asked with no intonation, not expecting any answer.

“I don't know what you're ta...” but Servan's voice died in his throat, the cold fury of Cole's gaze pushing it down. He said nothing. There was no time for foolish games.

Guy turned away, forgetting all pretense of calm, and exited the room, shutting the door behind him. Faerstood with his back pushed up against the wall, face pale, beside the doorway, and Guy found himself stumbling over to do the same himself. Faer's hand was fixed over his chest, his fingers bent into an old sign, warding off evil. He smiled apologetically at Guy, for his superstition, and shut his eyes.

“He won't hurt him unless he has to,” Guy said, to no one in particular, sure that Faer had already shut his ears, too. Even having said it, Guy bent his head forward to stare at the ground, and tried not to listen, too.

In two hours, Cole had his answer.
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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: F-f-f-FINAL COUNTDOWN *guitars*

Have An Interlude, feat. Guy
 
 
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 2021-02-22 @ 7:16 PM
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