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It was a journey of a thousand mess halls. Tom spent most of his time when not in combat recruiting. It was a tricky process, he had to feel out the new recruits, see where they fell, how angry they were. He quickly discovered that all of them were angry, to one degree or another. It made sense, the insane war they were fighting, a war their parents, and their parents parents, and a few more generations as well, had all fought was a meat grinder. Combat was brutal, the conditions between combat were terrible, everyone had dead friends, dead family. On top of it all they didn’t see how they benefited from the war. A few were patriotic enough they the blamed the Gandians for it, but most were just disenfranchised, completely disconnected from the goals of their commanders.
One of the hardest things was talking to Adrian. They didn’t move in the same circles, and with Tom‘s new rank it was hard to justify them even talking. That meant that Tom was mostly on his own trying to find new converts. The army moved, all the time. It was only a day or two in one location, and then they would move ever further into Gandia. One evening Tom was sitting around the fire with Charlie drinking and solving the worlds problems when the subject turned. Charlie started it by saying, “Well, this thing’s gone on long enough. Didn’t ever want to devote my life to rolling in the mud for the finer dressed.”
“I know what you mean. I always knew it was going to happen, but I did what I could to get out of it. Tried to learn a trade, guess I wasn’t quite smart enough. Didn’t pass my testing either, so I didn’t get to go to the academy. Meant being a soldier was the only option open.”
“I passed. Not my testing, was that I wouldn’t be here. Nope, my tradesmans tests. Could have spent my days making the plumbing work. Didn’t want to spend my life working with shit, so I decided to be a soldier. Figure I’ve dug a thousand latrines since then. Didn’t think that one all the way through.”
“Yep, it’s like anything else. Shit runs downhill, and the enlisted men are always at the bottom.”
“At least I get to move up, slowly. You keep deciding to roll back down into the shit.” Charlie grabbed another drink. Technically they weren’t supposed to drink while on duty, but it was one of the most frequently overlooked offences.
“Yeah. Well, last time a new recruit called Lord Conrose Lord Cornhole in his hearing. I couldn’t let the idiot take the punishment for that. I took the blame. The private didn’t have anything Lord Cornhole could take from him. He would have gotten lashes, I got busted back down the ranks. Ain’t the first time, probably won’t be the last.”
“You’re a good sort. Have another drink. The still produces something almost palatable these days. My dad had an exemption, distiller. I was the youngest son, so here I am while my big brother spends his days making high end hooch. That’s probably why I could do plumbing though, lots of time spent making sure the pipes were solid, so the still didn’t blow.”
“Ever wonder if it could be different?”
“All the time son. All the time.”
Tom found himself trusting the tall corporal instinctively. Still, it was a big risk. He swallowed his drink back and then went ahead, going with his gut. “Maybe it can be.”
“Can be what?”
“Different. I know a guy, he’s trying to change things.”
“Some swag is always trying to change things, trying to convince us he’s on our side. They never are. Can’t change a damned thing. They have all the magic, we have nothing.”
“This time it’s different. He’s… different.”
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“Happened that a few weeks ago a man walked into a bar. Wait, it’s not a joke. Adrian‘s a combat mage. He, well, he’s an asshole to be honest with you. No idea how to talk to people, throws money around like it’s going to buy him friends… which it does until they sleep off the booze he bought. However, he’s smart. Fucked up, deeply disturbed emotionally, but smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. Of course, he’s a battle mage so that’s not a surprise. Anyway, he’s trying to put something together, has a lot of theories about what’s needed to end the war. The first thing he thinks is needed is a change of power.”
“Right son. So this boy claims to be a battle mage and you believe him?”
“No, he was at one of my battles. He’s the real deal, throwing fireballs and lightning around. Told me a lot of personal shit, convinced me that he’s sincere. He doesn’t want to kill anyone anymore.”
“Lots of killin in a revolution. Lots and lots.”
“Yeah, but maybe less in the end. We’ve been at war what, nearly a hundred years? We might have a hundred years left. If we can change things, if we can figure out how to end the war early, isn’t it worth trying?”
“Shit, of course it is. Question is, can your boy do that? I mean, yeah, he’s a battle mage, but ain’t like he’s the only one. We have a couple hundred in this army, he’s just one.”
“Well, I’m betting he has a plan for it. He seems to have a plan for everything. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to get in more regular communication with him. Hard for a private though, it was a little easier when I was still a sergeant. Not easy, but slightly easier. Right now I’m just talking to folks, feeling them out. You’re the first one I’ve even told this much to.”
“I can help get you in touch with him. Some folks in command know I’m good with pipes. Sometimes they get me to help out with the plumbing. All that magic, they still need to shit, and it still flows down… mostly. If you can get a message to him, even a short one, get him to complain about the plumbing.”
“Yeah, I can probably make sure something brief makes its way to him. A quick note. Then maybe we can have a longer conversation.”
It proved harder than Tom expected to even get a note to Adrian. He kept trying to come up with valid reasons. Finally he gave up on that, and hired a camp follower, an orphan boy, to deliver a sealed note. It was something that would be looked closely at if anybody noticed, but the boy was alone when Tom found him, picking through a trash heap for any uneaten morsels. “Hey boy, want to make a nice shiny piece?”
“I’m not sucking you off.”
“I don’t… what?”
“I’m not sucking you off. I don’t need money that bad.”
“No, I need a note delivered. It has to be a secret, so I can’t use the mail. That’s it, I promise.”
“Alright. I can do that. A full silver piece?”
“Yes, and if you wait the man who receives the note will give you some money as well. Just money, nothing else.”
“Okay.” The boy had a sulky look to him, chin jutted out, freckles and dirt dotting his gaunt face. Tom thought he was around seven. The whole exchange left his stomach churning. Didn’t matter though, this was part of the system they were trying to topple, maybe if Adrian was as good as his word this boy wouldn’t ever need to worry about stealing food from trash and sexual advances from soldiers. Tom wrote out the letter, making sure Adrian would know who it was from, but nobody else reading it would be able to glean the information easily.
Then he waited. Charlie was as anxious as he was, in his own sardonic way. The tall corporal never quite smiled, but he always looked like he was laughing at a joke only he could understand. Tom found himself spending most of his off time with Charlie.
One evening the squad was hanging out around the fire when a messenger came up. “Charlie? Who’s Charlie?”
“That’s me son. What is it you need?”
“One of the battle mages is having a plumbing issue. Asked for you.”
“Well, if his lordship is having trouble with the shitter I reckon I can help him out, what?”
“It’s Adrian Kline. You know how to get to his place?”
“Reckon I can find it, where’s the mages quarter these days?”
“Northeast corner of the camp.”
“They can move mansions, make sure the gardens travel with them, but they can’t fix a toilet. Figures. Well, like I always say son, shit rolls downhill, and we are at the bottom of a mountain.”
Ernest said, “Alright Charlie, you wanna shirk your duty to deal with some high lords arse feel free. I suppose you wanna borrow an assistant too.”
“Yes sir, same as usual. Thought I’d take the new private along. He’s too clean, needs to get some shit on his hands. Make him an honest working man like the rest of us.”
“Fine, take him. Just get back quick we’re getting rotated in tomorrow. Everything needs to be ready to go.”
“Course sir. He’ll be ready.”
“Why the hell do I put up with you?”
“I’m the only one who can fix the still.”
“Right, that’s it.”
They left their part of the camp, walking northeast. It was early evening, and the camp was bustling. They hadn’t engaged the enemy in a few days, leaving most of the soldiers in higher spirits, but also on edge. Everyone was drinking, loud laughter and song wafted across the warm evening air.
The mages quarter looked the same as always. It was park like, idyllic. The temperature was perfect, whatever someone found most comfortable, that was the temperature they felt. It was late spring, flowers in full bloom, all the trees green, all the grass pristine. That was of course always true. The roads were lined with stately homes, small mansions for the most part. Adrian’s was the largest on the street. It was a street. Everyone else was living in tents, here it might have been a town that had stood for a hundred years. Tom and Charlie walked up the lilac lined walkway, up the marble steps, between the marble columns, and knocked on the heavy oaken door.
Adrian answered the door himself. His eyes were rimmed with red, his long hair was uncombed, limp and bedraggled, clothes wrinkled, his shirt only half laced up. He was wearing one boot and not the other. “Welcome, let’s get you inside, the blocked water closet is at the back, I’ll show you up.”
As the door closed Tom said, “Man, you look like crap. What’s up?”
“What? Oh, right. Sorry, been working on some new spells. It’s complicated work, take up most of my mental faculties, and I have to send the staff away. Too high a chance they will be exploded or something. I’m not always great at the day to day things. I forget to eat sometimes.”
“Okay… right then, this is Charlie . He’s a good sort, we can trust him.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance Charles. How much has Tom told you about my venture?”
“Not a hell of a lot. I think he’s unclear on some details himself.”
“Fair, I’ll go over it with both of you then. It’s not an overly complex plan, I prefer to use a looser framework with a lot of room for improvisation as the situation demands it. Anyway, step into the study. I have materials I need to help explain the outline to you.”
They walked into a beautiful room, dark wood shelves lined all the walls, filled with books. The furniture was overstuffed, dark wood covered in intricate carvings and rich fabrics. Tom noticed that it felt off somehow, there was a strange element to it. After a moment he realized what it was. “There are no shadows in here, no lamps, no windows. What the hell?”
“Oh, yes, I haven’t done the entire house yet, it takes a long time to work a room like this. Every object in this room emits light, just a tiny bit. Even us, when we are inside. I found it unsettling when I first did it, but now I find it soothing. It makes reading easier, there is no shadow in the crease of the books. Eventually I will have the entire house converted, but for now it’s only a dozen or so rooms. You are probably wondering how you can see. That was tricky, I had to ensure that the pupil of a visitors eye didn’t emit light, because of course that would have prevent it from absorbing light, rendering us blind. It would have been easy if I had only worked it on specific individuals, well, not easy but comparatively easy. Making the weave valid for any living being who entered the room was a greater challenge. Then I excluded rodents and insects of course. The house is quite rodent proof, but somehow they still seem to manage to get in from time to time.”
Tom took the opportunity to speak when Adrian finally paused for breath, “Okay, so, that’s fascinating, at least the two or three words I actually understood… but we should probably talk about the plan.”
“Right, sorry, I get off track sometimes. So, we need to overthrow the king, and the entire system of nobles, replace them with a system of government that meets the needs of the people, that has accountability for its actions. I was thinking a form of democracy, I have written several treatises on how to implement that, with safeguards against mob rule and the like. Anyway, that’s for later. For now, we have to overcome the powers that be. Tear down the government, and that means a great deal of work. I’ll give you the broadest of broad strokes, then we can hash out details. Some of this might even be more in your wheelhouse, I don’t plan to use battle magic against our own populace, at least not if I can avoid it…”
“First, we need more battle mages. The Academy has excellent and extremely well researched techniques for removing the independent spirit from mages. It makes us less effective in battle, less imaginative, but it makes us more controllable. That means most of my peers are not going to be on our side. I’m better than them, largely because for whatever reason I wasn’t broken by the academy, and I was smart enough to hide it from my professors. I quickly realized what they were doing in terms of brainwashing. By the time I was seven I understood the goal. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work on me. Anyway, students. I’ve been invited to teach a few classes this term, and I plan to modify the curriculum quite heavily. The students won’t have as much power at their disposal, but the ability to innovate should make them more than a match for most of our battle mages. So, that piece takes care of itself, with judicious use of student recruitment. The next piece is going to be ground troops. Battle mages are exceptional at mass damage, but we can be overrun by enough ground soldiers, and it would be hard to convince free thinking mages to rain death down on their own people. So, I need soldiers. Boots on the ground, and I need leaders. If this is just a mages revolution it will be a country run by mages. We have a way of getting out of touch with the common man. I think it’s going to take three or four years of prep before we have enough people, which means a lot more death, but I do see ways to minimize them, especially for our forces. I don’t have many ideas to help the Gandians, as much as I would like to. For us though, we’ve been using almost the exact same tactics for as long as anyone can remember. They work, of course, that’s why we use them, but they are high attrition tactics. They work because we have a lot of men, and we have a society where the men throw their lives away at the enemy. Maybe in the start of the war that was a valid approach, but it isn’t anymore. We can spread better ways of doing things among those who are with us, then use those same ways of doing things later against any soldiers foolish enough to side with king and crown. Did you hear that Lord Conrose has been named minister of defence? They put that perfumed moron in charge of the entire army. The death toll will be staggering. At least if those who are with us are using better tactics they might survive at a higher rate, leaving us less to fight against in the end. So, that’s the recruitment strategy. Once we have enough men, we wait until we have a good moment, and we attack in force. Most of the assault will be handled by battle mages, ringing the capital, ready to rain fire and death on the royal palace. If I’m careful and don’t let any word of this leak to anyone we should be able to be in position before anyone knows. At that point your men will occupy the city, taking out the guards, with a small contingent of my battle mages, and we will take the king. That’s the broadest of broad strokes. I have details, maps and binders – all magically warded. Here”
Adrian finally stopped talking. He drew out several rolled sheets of paper, and folders full of documents. A few gestures over the pile and they filled with lines, figures, drawing, writing. It was incredibly intricate and detailed work, showing exact approaches, which streets were easiest to barricade, how long it would take for the palace guards to mount defences of different sorts, he had planned an entire war.
“Now, keep in mind, I know that all of these plans are going to change once we begin aggression. I have contingencies for most foreseeable scenarios, but of course I can’t have contingencies for unforeseen scenarios, by definition. Anyway, you have a few hours. Please study the plans. I have to return to my spellcrafting. I have a holding pattern on the piece I have in progress, but if I leave it too long this whole building will be a smoking crater in the ground. Please let yourself out once you have finished studying. Oh, before I forget – take these.”
He handed them each a rolled piece of parchment.
“If you write on this it will appear on a matching parchment here, and if I write on mine you will see it on yours. You can erase what exists by waving your hand like this over the parchment, or simply by rolling it back up. Anything written while it’s rolled will show the next time you unroll it, and vanish after you roll it up again.”
“Okay… um, wow. Now, please, smoking crater and all that, go take care of that.”
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