Where Bhelith holds council with Lord Creature du Rochon.
Piyapon had attracted tourists for years, ever since its discovery over a decade ago by the fleet that had come to call it a new home. It had been spared the fate of other, more militaristic worlds, which had all fallen with the failed Colonies. Three billion people, however, barely marred its surface. The rings around it painted the sky in hazy, prismatic color, each strand of its star's light breaking and shattering into a thousand, thousand colors.
Beneath this spread of evening, inside of a tent that barely kept it out, that light, they planned.
Bhelith, Duchess of Piyapon, etcetera, and Creature, stood beside the table. Lukina slept. Some trick of holography had created a map of the city on what might have just been someone's converted barrel. The ranch was near enough that it was just possible someone had ripped one apart to make this lopsided table.
"Considering everything," Bhelith was saying, "the units will have to be split small. With so many untrained soldiers, it would be better to use them as distraction for more weathered units than send them to their deaths in the streets."
Creature stuck his hand through the holographic projection causing it to distort around his maimed hand. "The first wave we got was mostly mercs, goons, and fucking former military, they are holding it down... the second and third waves are your fucking farm boys and girls looking to learn a new trade," Creature said.
"Elf bitch outside has been working the virgins over. But training takes time." Creature remarked pulling his hand from the holographic projection and then using the only finger on his maimed hand to point out the river. "Time is a currency we don’t have. See the fucking issue is nobody seems to take these psychos seriously. Winter is coming, and that fucking river is going to freeze over and when that happens, small bands of these fuckers will simply walk over to the other province and loot, steal, and forces others into their ranks. Splitting down into smaller units.... we tried that...they uh our smaller forces to ribbons....only time I have had any success is when I take them dead on and with overwhelming force.. Fucking Lady Lorani apparently had a similar problem."
"There is a reason they have not done so already," countered Bhelith. "They need to contain to this province for a while. I believe we took out some of your problem, the two of us. You are the only fighter of quality here?"
The elven warlord gave Lukina's reclined, sleeping form a somewhat disinterested glance. Though, from what Creature could see, the newly unarmored, but white-cloaked Empress didn't quite seem up to the fight herself. It wasn't any physical quality, but over the last few days, he had watch her puking in the mornings and considering her proximity, it was clear why she wanted the space. She was pregnant. The snow-white, gold-welted and layered cloak hid it well, and she didn't seem to be too far along to wear her black powered armor, but it was there for anyone to see if they looked.
And here she was, fighting a border war.
"If that is all there is," reasoned the elf, "then, we will need to draw those troops out and overwhelm them, or entrap them. But the bait we could have used, that died with the Lady. A shame we could not have known sooner. We could have cut them off."
"I uh... " Creature hesitated. "I used to be like ‘em." He said not really looking at Lukina. "They are using the population as a shield. You could glass this fucking province without a second thought. But that would destabilize your fucking image. No one would want you as a fucking leader," Creature continued. "They don't lord over the towns like other people. They show up. Take who they need and what they want. Those idiots we killed and ran off will be replaced by next week."
"We need this... Black King. If we take him down, this fucking shit storm may go back to shoe level."
"Perhaps not so soon as that." Bhelith straightened, and Creature found her gold eyes upon him, as though weighing him. "What have they taken so far? Women, I gather?"
"They take the women, that's true. Use them as fuck toys and chattel. They take the men and boys too. That's their blood. Like a system of Conscription. You fight or we will kill your momma, boy. They also use this force to extort food, supplies, and thus keep the towns helping them. The people out here don't like ‘em, but it's hard not to fucking obey when they can kill your son or daughter they took and are fucking using."
"Have you reclaimed any?" Her eyes were strange to gaze into. They were pools of light, and warmth, but terrible; as though something lived inside the woman. A demon, maybe. Or some vengeful god. "The women? Alive?"
"Yeah," Creature replied looking at the woman with a kind of stubborn nobility in his eye. Creature was neither god nor man. Demonic nor Angelic. He was as his name suggested, a beast. A creature, a force of nature that moved on a whim. All this war was doing was giving the beast a direction to crash into. "When I uh.... attacked their forward camp two months ago. All the women in that camp, they didn't want to fucking come with us... Broken." Creature said indicating this had happened in the east.
She held his attention like that for a while, but the conflict didn't seem to be against him. She looked back at the table, at the planning holographic, and folded her arms beneath her cloak.
A weight momentarily crossed her expression. He wasn't a good judge of emotion, and a worse judge of elves, but he recognized when someone had decided to set their jaw. Had she smiled, just then, it wouldn't have been a smile; she would have been baring her teeth in anger. He could almost just about hear them click together as she worried at some as-yet undivulged consideration.
It passed, but not soon, and not readily.
"They are where, now?"
"They have been sending us supplies ever since. What fucking supplies we get has been coming from them. Fucking Blankets and meager food mostly...."" Creature responded.
The elf looked up, a hand snaking from beneath her cloak to cradle her chin. "If given the chance, I expect they would go back to them?"
Creature's brow tightened. "No. They have the chance. We don't have the troops to spare watching their asses 24/7. I'm saying they probably won't do much if the Black Army shows up. Probably would just go back to it. Its fucking amazing what you can get things to do when you hit them hard enough." He said with a bit of a rasp in his voice.
"Of your company, how many are women?"
He started counting out on his hand. "Uh. The Majority."
The elven general made a quiet 'ch' sound, in the back of her cheek. Then she looked at the city again. "Most of them untrained? Or, like Lukina, half-trained?"
"Nah. Most of the ones we have now are up to speed. The new rooks are almost finished with boot." Creature said as a muffled 'Yes Ma'am!" was grunted in unison. Kamilla was drilling the new ones again. "I fucking need weapons, and money, and more volunteers. This war is going to get bigger before it doesn’t."
"Then we do have the option of a gamble. Though, it is a dangerous one, for them." She spread her hands; the cityscape zoomed out, and she turned it, moving the interface with gestures. This was projected from her suit's helmet, which served, temporarily, as the holograph's hub. "I agree with you that he is the core of this issue, the 'black king'," she explained. "But the issue is getting at him. Do you think that, in combat, they could slay him? If they were to find him alone, or with a small company of men such as those we fought ourselves?"
He shook his head no. "I could slay you right now. Name myself empress and then kill everybody who fucking said ‘no’, because that’s about how it seems to work. Rule of fucking might. They are not a meritocracy. They take what they want and give nothing back. If his troops slew him, the slayer would be the knew black king, and we'd have to readjust to a new fucking mind. It’s hard to fucking explain." Creature said having spent time in a similar environment himself. "Uhhh, it’s the idea. But killing the Black King would probably scatter them… you or I would need to, if we leave it up to his men, they'd likely come back even stronger for it."
The elf dropped her hands at that, giving Creature a look of brief annoyance. But it wasn't a threat, just a statement of fact, and Bhelith let it pass. She settled her hands somewhere beneath the cloak, perhaps on her hips, from how the long cloak flared, and re-examined the cityscape. Her mien softened slightly, and she seemed, for once, a little bit weary.
"It is how most of our universe works. That is more the pity, then." After another long pause, she asked, "Did you manage to see the face of the one that almost slew you?"
"Yep. It was a fucking mao. He probably took one of his concubines and told her he needed her. That is what I'd have done in his shoes anyway."
"The rest of them, I burned. I cannot imagine he has found more of the quality he sent against us, there." She narrowed her eyes just slightly. At this point, they were looking at the cityscape, just to break the monotony of the view of the rest of the pitched command tent, which wasn't otherwise illuminated.
"You uh... never been on the wrong end of a war have you?" Creature said starting to pace in the tent. His head swiveling around and then looking down at the city. He then turned to face the interior of the "palace" they were standing in. "He isn’t starving. He is using what you'd see as weaknesses as strengths. Small numbers, limiting his technology. We kill his men, he just goes out a steals more, like he would guns, or food. War on a fucking budget. Took me a bit to get my idiot head around it too."
When his eyes roamed back to the table, he found Bhelith staring at him curiously. One of her hands was on the table; just her fingertips brushed the rough wood.
"Are you afraid?" she asked, no greater or softer than she had been speaking.
"Yeah." Creature said not even flinching. His raspy voice in the statement wasn’t trembling or fearful. He was completely comfortable with the fact that he was in fact scared of this Black King and his army. Though he had not put much thought into why he was afraid of this enemy he had, by accident ended up having to face.
She tapped a nail on the board. The Mikado did not have long nails, but it still made a proper tapping sound.
"Morale," she said. "All of it, from the beginning to the end, is around morale. You will lose every battle you fear so much that you refuse to fight it; you will win every battle that someone chooses not to pursue with you. The trick to warfare, therefore -"
"Are you familiar with the Gartagen Union Military?" Creature said, his amber eye tracing from Bhelith's feet and then up her body to her own golden eyes. She would see not a look of longing or desire, but rather a look of introspection. Whatever Creature had seen on the front line it had him thinking.
"Yes, I am." She turned more fully to him. "Along with their Rapid Reaction Force. I am rather convinced they do not know fear at all."
"Yeah. That was me. I was a Melee Specialist. Anyway morale issues happen in the fucking union… But if there is a moral break or insubordination. The Officer will draw down and waste one of the troopers, soldiers or voidsmen. It doesn’t happen often, but a quick arbitrary field execution will tighten shit up. I Uh, read in one of them fucking books, an ancient general had a similar fucking problem. His men broke in the face of the enemy. So he took his fucking men, and had them draw lots. Every tenth man in the army was beaten to death by the other nine," Creature replied, pausing before he continued.
"I'd be willing to bet that the Black King handles his morale issues similarly. Moral here is more of an issue, because I'm pretty fucking unwilling to stop to the level of that fucking monster."
The elf hadn't changed expression, but she did lean upon the table, setting her weight upon her arm, and from there upon her shoulder. A few of the golden strands were telling at the roots of her black, straightened hair, and it gave her the look of a crowned monarch, despite the clothing. Her appearance seemed serene. She had apparently decided to let him talk, and keep him talking. "Yes. Because?"
Creature realized he had been misunderstood. "Oh, the fighting doesn't make me afraid. It what I was made to do. Like a fucking bird flying or a fish swimming, I get to it. It is his fucking ideology that frightens me. It is what...they are willing to do to others." He then turned his head and did a small glance at the sleeping Lukina. "What they'd do to people I give a fuck about if they win."
The elf followed his gaze to Lukina, and she, too, considered the recumbent sniper. She sighed, briefly, and closed her eyes. Then, she dipped her head, in acknowledgement to him. "Of course, we all have things we value. For what it is worth, I propose a different way to look at that."
She looked up again, and smiled.
"Are you saying I should drag fucking Lukina off and marry her while she sleeps? Because I've been considering it," Creature stated.
"No." The smile became a smirk. "But now, I have two problems. The Black King, and you. He has you as solidly as he has the towns surrounding the city. Would you like my advice? Not on this war, but on ruling? You command hundreds now, though you might not care for them like you care for her. They will weigh upon your conscience."
Bhelith was a very astute and alert individual. And for a moment, she saw it. His breathing intensified. That amber eye burned hot and bright. A swift moment of rage swept over him at the prospect of him being a problem, though he was managing his emotion rather well. But who would hit an Empress? If she were not Empress, she might have ended up with a fattened lip, however that title came with a kind of social shield. One that a life time of conditioning and training had insured carried over to her. "Is that right?" He said raising his voice slightly. "Yeah. They do." He admitted. "I'd confide all of it to you but I don't think we are on that fucking level at all. But yeah, that’s the fucking sum of it."
"The right by which men, women - people of all species - are ruled is non-existent. There is nothing right or correct about it. For centuries. A lie. It would worry me if you said you did not acknowledge that unnatural weight." The elf looked back to the city, and then dismissed the image with a wave. It left them in temporary darkness, but neither one of them could be blinded by something that mundane. They had the evening starlight.
"Kill them in your mind. All of them." She returned her hand to the table, looking to her helmet, which had been the projector. "It may sound strange, but it is often the only way to save them. Protecting the people who follow you is difficult, if you constantly mind their risks and affairs, and the truth of the matter is, no person can be fully responsible. The reason I say you have, or perhaps I am being unfair; the reason I believe you might be a problem is because you must risk everything, sometimes. That is why I mentioned the primary principle of warfare is morale.
"We can discuss the semantics as much as we want until we are out of breath," she said, "But are you willing to risk what might have to be done to win? Against this alien with his total lack of empathy? It is a difficult prospect, is it not?"
"No," Creature said in response to the question about it being difficult. "War is easy. Fighting, killing, burying your buddies. Fuck sometimes it is fun as hell, better then sex in some cases. To the first fucking question. Yea. I am. At the onset of this war I sent out my squire to handle a disturbance and to set up a fucking ambush. They captured her, and what was done to her was fucked up.”
"I sent out somebody I gave a shit about knowing something, anything could fucking happen to them. But she went out there, Lukina is here, all these people followed me because they wanted to. The hard-fucking part of it all? What to do once you have won. I usually took to whoring and drugs," Creature added gently as his eye moved over the half-elf’s slumbering form.
Lukina stirred in her sleep and mumbled something into the pillow, unintelligible. Bhelith regarded her again, in the darkness, her eyes luminescent with refracted evening.
"If you do not steel yourself for this, and if you guard these people too closely, you will not have to worry about where to whore or debauch yourself. Fear does not govern well; sooner or later, perhaps he will be murdered on his own, as you say. But, it is a reasonable tactic in war. If the people do not believe you will win, they will not stop sending food and supplies to your enemies. If you, yourself, do not really believe you can win, then you might never lift the sword again."
The Empress went and sat beside Lukina, near the middle of her bed, and moved some of the half-elf's red hair aside to view her face.
"Perhaps a few small victories would convince people. The easier route would be to silence your own heart."
Creature soaked it in. He feared, but his fears were more philosophical then physical fears. But the Empress was correct. "Well, we have won almost every battle we fought against them. I heard the Black army has taken to calling me the Red Terror or some shit for killing a bunch of them in their sleep. As for silencing my heart, if you aren't going on your guts, heart or whatever internal organs, then your brain just won't give a shit."
The half-elf's elven heritage had made her appear younger than her twenty plus years, but sleeping, she appeared very much like a 13-year-old. She lacked the refined grace of her mother, Aleksasha, but in time, when she reached maturity she would probably rival her mother. If she reached her age of Elven maturity.
"That is correct." The monarch, seated and perhaps a little tired, looked up at Creature. "That is exactly what I meant. Can you send men to their deaths, not caring that they are to die? It is not a natural whim. It is not like risking your own life."
"No. Not my philosophy. I've been force marched into war and fought enemies I never met before. Anybody in MY army is here fighting and dying because fucking they chose to do it. They know the consequences, and if they are here then I know they don't have a problem being sent into shit storm. But I'll be right there with ‘em," the newly named Lord insisted.
"They choose to follow you." Perhaps, in some distant time, Bhelith might have been more angry that someone was being so obstinate to her; whether it was the ages she'd lived, the hour of the evening, or a patience that had been developed in her somehow or other, she didn't rise in that way to the occasion. Instead, she continued, steadily, "A trust they invest, knowing, generally speaking, that you will make the correct decisions. If you are afraid, you may hide it well, but you will make mistakes.
"You asked me before if I had ever been on the losing end of a war, and the answer is yes, I have. Two, in fact. In both instances, it was cowardice of the sort I am warning you about that caused the downfall of my people, and then again, many years down the road, my own mercenaries. Mark it well - it is this sort of cowardice that is our enemy, here. Do you understand?"
Creature gave a slow nod. "I will do what needs to be done."
"You and I have much to fear. Our loved ones cannot be so easily replaced. And so, we owe it to those irreplaceable people to do as we must, because that is what we are here for, even if it means forgetting that we love them, for a while," Bhelith continued.
"..My… lady," Lukina's voice was soft beside Bhelith.
"Child?" she asked, gently.
"Did they hurt you?" Lukina's green eyes were still half closed, her coloring was still off from the fever, despite the medication the doctor had given her to control it. "The little one?"
"No." Quietly Behlith added, "Go back to sleep. We shall be quieter for you."
"I hope to meet her... there are too few of us. Maybe she'll be loved," Lukina's sleepy voice trailed off as she closed her eyes, drifting back to sleep. Bhelith gentled the girl's hair, for a few moments, easing the transition. Then, she looked back to up to Creature.
"If you wish my advice, you should still train several small units, mounting them or finding them vehicles. They may not match the mobility of our enemies, but if numbers are our strength, we should know when to strike where, and we can cover more ground. It will be risking lives, but it is presently one of our few advantages." When she was certain the girl was asleep, Bhelith rose, herself, and came closer to Creature, for the girl's sake speaking softer. "We will need to force them out of the city, bit by bit. Perhaps as they are pillaging the countryside. You will need the scouts. We cannot clump forever, and do not have the resources to siege."
She met his eyes then, not unkindly. "Though, naturally, it is your province, Rochon."
Creature stood silent as he watched Lukina speak. He had no idea what it was all about but he opted to not broach the subject reckoning it was none of his damned business. "No. I think you are right. We can fan out. Set up check points on all the roads, out posts in major towns and start rejoining this fallen province back with greater Piyapon."
She nodded to him. "You have been a hero, I think, but now you should be a ruler. That is part of it. And when they come out to attack your weaker position, committing their small force to the task, we can take the city behind them."
"Yea. Lucarin needs to be Liberated. That is the symbolic fucking victory we need, that will restore the faith of the common peoples to the crown. Plus if we don't the winter will probably have this army frozen to death. So."
"Impossible to tell where they will choose to attack once we retake the rest of the province." This time, he realized, Bhelith was warning him; he could tell by the way she searched his eyes. It wasn't a kind look. Did the monarch really risk as much as she said? Could she have just gentled Lukina to sleep, and not have cared for her at all? "The weaker unit they attack will have to hold out for a while. And so will you, as you will have to let them. I cannot command your men for you."
Bhelith placed a hand upon his shoulder, and though the woman was slender, and her heritage made her seem the frailer, she steadied him with a grip like fate itself.
"Then I have chosen wisely. I apologize for mistaking you, and I shall trust to your courage."
"I forgive you." Creature said in response touching Bhelith's hand as if absolving her of all wrong doing. He then paused. "Oh. By the way. One of your marshals tried to shoot me for disciplining one of my soldiers. So I put eight rounds right back into him. He is uh. In the medical tent."
"He still lives?" Bhelith paused to consider the image, though the declaration didn't seem to upset her. "Interesting. I suppose eventually I will hear about it."
"Fuck yeah he is alive. I just figured I'd let you know that like. A Marshall tried to shoot a lord or something."
"Delegation," answered Bhelith, "means they have an office and will get around to an inquiry eventually."