A Little War
A little war brewed that morning, and Itzal oversaw it. Its forty combatants barely made noise, sneaking through the garden’s tended overgrowth with their staffs held low. They had not all found each other, and perhaps never would. This war was, after all, meant to be a guerrilla war.
From the raised gazebo in the middle of the garden, Itzal could see some of the combatants on their small warpaths. With ten on one side and thirty on the other, it was meant to be an unfair little war. And when it was over, the sides would be reshuffled, and it would be fought again, perhaps twice more, then again perhaps later in the week. Many mornings they fought this little unfair war, sneaking through the large, overgrown garden, carefully tended to keep it full of enough cover for sneaking and enough open space for sparring, with the few little towers here and there in it, and the huts built in the trees, and at the middle the tall gazebo where, usually, the Master in charge of overseeing the wars would sit, but where Itzal sat, his tea hot in the cold morning air.
Preparing for war, although the world had not demanded them to be soldiers for a long time.
Itzal sipped his tea and avoided thinking that thought again.
The end of the war would be soon. At Itzal’s last count, most of the little soldiers had already removed each other from the fight—striking each other with their paint-tipped staffs, signaling that they’d been beaten. The smaller side had been losing. It often did. Although sometimes superior tactics or will would change that.
Or better tricks.
Itzal mused on that. Then someone interrupted him.
“Mr. Dantzari,” a child’s voice said. Itzal would never get used to that. Until recently, it’d always been just Dantzari, or, often, squirrel, because, as they’d say, “you do chatter so.”
This voice called out, “Mr. Dantzari.” For a moment, Itzal considered pretending as if he hadn’t heard. But thought better of it. And leaned over so he could see past the edge of the raised gazebo to the grass below.
One of the combatants stood there, leaning against his tall staff—half again as tall as himself—and looking every bit the impatient shop-goer.
“Good morning, Bergen,” Itzal said. “How does it with you this morning, little master?”
“Fair and along, fair and along,” Bergen replied, though he visibly tried not to roll his eyes at the silliness of the high style.
“And how fairs the war?” Itzal asked.
“That less well, Mr. Dantzari, sir,” Bergen said. “In fact, my side has mostly fallen. There’s some twenty-five or so of the other.”
Itzal nodded, sipping his tea. “And so falls the Empire, as the saying goes.”
“That they do say,” Bergen said. He sniffed. “How about coming to lend us a hand, then?”
Itzal paused in his tea sipping at the suggestion. “Why, sir, that is not the done thing. Not at all at all.”
“No, it is not,” Bergen said.
“Were I some master or professor, you wouldn’t suggest anything of the kind, would you?”
“No, I would not,” Bergen said.
“Why would you suggest it, then?”
“Well, Mr. Dantzari,” Bergen said. “The way I view it, there’s no better moment to question the done thing than a moment like this.”
Itzal felt the words “a moment like what?” bubble up in his throat, almost come out, then bubble away, because his mind supplied the answer. He knew exactly what kind of moment. It was his moment. He was about to be living it. This day would be the first day of the next new and unexpected epoch of his life. He knew what kind of moment.
It had not occurred to him that anyone else would know.
Coming to a decision, Itzal set his tea down. He hopped off the edge of the gazebo.
He nodded to Bergen, then grabbed a staff of his own from where they leaned against the gazebo.
“Straight at ’em,” Itzal said.
Bergen grinned. “Straight at ’em, sir.”
“Have you changed the rules for the Garden War?” Lilywhite asked. He stood at the window, the chilly air ruffled against his braided black beard and braided black hair. Mendkovac joined him at the window to look down into the garden too. He frowned to see the blaze of light blue that was Itzal. He swung two yellow-tipped bamboo staffs, leaving dusty yellow trails in the air and little puffs of yellow where the staff ends thumped into all the green staff swinging Bone Jacks. Bergen guarded Itzal’s back. All the other green-smeared Bone Jacks, already long “dead,” stood near and cheered, while the Bone Jacks with green staffs fell in yellow-chalk-dust death.
They seemed to be entirely too cheerful about the whole thing.
“It’s Dantzari’s last day,” Mendkovac said. His jaw gritted, a visible tensing even through his thick, white beard.
“Oh, is that Itzal, then?” Lilywhite said. The slightly-over-this drawl that had always slowed his voice and annoyed Mendkovac had grown lazier in the years Lilywhite had spent away from the Academy. Lilywhite’s lips slid toward the satisfied smile that had also always irritated Mendkovac. That smile had also grown worse in the years since they’d last met. It had always been an expression that said I know more than you. Before Lilywhite’s sabbatical the smile irritated Mendkovac because there was no way in all hells that Lilywhite—the young professor—knew more than anyone. He hadn’t seen anything yet. Now it bothered Mendkovac because he feared that Lilywhite now knew more than Mendkovac ever could.
Mendkovac would never tell him that.
“The little jingler’s still having memory problems, I see,” Lilywhite said.
“What? Oh…yes. His trinkets,” Mendkovac cleared his throat. He tried to ignore Itzal’s trinkets. Little bits and pieces—baubles and trophies, as far as Mendkovac was concerned, and therefore admissions to vanity—hung about Itzal’s person, tied in his hair and sewn to his clothing and belts and so on. Itzal claimed they were aids to his memory, which made sense to a point. That point was the point where it seemed as if Itzal’s memory worked unnaturally well…for most things. He had an incurable, absent-minded air to him. Always had. Mendkovac believed in the power of discipline and training, and he had never quite felt calm in the idea that anything but the right training would help minds work right.
Bone Jack training, though, did not dictate. It suggested. It was a training of water and wind: forgiving but inexorable. There is no way but the way that we find ourselves. Some might walk with us, and some might have gotten to the end before us, but we must still find our own way.
“You grind your teeth, old salt,” Lilywhite said.
“You errant idealists keep me awake nights,” Mendkovac said. He left the window. His tea sat on the corner of his desk, and he picked it up on his way to his chair. He had a desk that might seat eight, at a pinch. It helped with meetings. Behind it, shelves piled with scrolls and old books and stones from distant places loomed over a high-backed chair. He sat in it, sighing while it creaked, and he smelled the steam from his tea.
For a while he watched Lilywhite, and Lilywhite watched the Garden War out the window, and neither of them spoke. Two old campaigners with enough in common to render reminiscing redundant and enough life between them to make inquiries about the present uncomfortable to imagine.
Still, it would have to be done at some point.
“Are you here to lament some more, Old Bad News?” Mendkovac asked. He pulled one of the papers on his desk closer to him so he could glance at it. “Your letters always sound so dire.”
“I came back because I had not been back for too long,” Lilywhite said. He sipped his tea. His tone would have sounded sincere and convincing to many people.
“Maledict, I am not yet so old that I have passed into my dotage,” Mendkovac said, his frustrated tone booming around his office. “Do not waste my time.”
That amused Lilywhite. His smile widened. Another thing that Mendkovac had never liked about Lilywhite: he always seemed to see a joke where no one else did.
“Do you know what keeps me awake nights, old sir?” Lilywhite said. “A strange thought. I simply cannot figure out the answer to it. I don’t know why no one on this continent seems to ask Bone Jacks to be Bone Jacks.”
“This again,” Mendkovac said, half inquiring and half exasperated. “Will you never cease to preach your aching sermon? These are changing days, you say. These are times when we are most needed, you say. The winds carry a future that will break our wills. These are the latter days, and this the new world. The great wars are won. The peace times are here. Do you not weary of being the one person in the world fearing an apocalyptic war in the minds and imaginations of men?”
Still, Lilywhite smiled. He sipped his tea, looking back at the garden. “Mister Dantzari’s broken all the rules. They aren’t even fighting the same war as before. The dead have risen, and the factions have shifted.”
Mendkovac coughed, but said nothing.
“I have never said those things, Mendkovac. Apocalyptic war? Doesn’t sound my style,” Lilywhite said. “I’ve only heard one person say anything like them.”
Mendkovac, now grumpy, directed his eyes toward the letter on his desk from Lilywhite. “I suppose I inferred…” he started, but did not continue.
“Time was, a Bone Jack’s inferring carried a different kind of weight than mere guesses. Not in our lifetimes, sure enough,” Lilywhite said. “Still, we remember those times. Don’t we? When a Bone Jack knew his guesses weighed what another man’s wisdom weighed, and when he knew his instincts came from a larger voice than his own. We remember those days.”
Mendkovac’s lips almost disappeared behind his beard, crinkling around his deep frown.
“Why are you here, Lilywhite?” Mendkovac asked.
“It was time to come back, for a spell,” Lilywhite said. Something in the Garden War caught his eye. “I have business here.”
“Then you will leave again,” Mendkovac said, almost asking, almost ordering.
Lilywhite looked around, his smile lopsided. “Do you think you need to protect them from me and my subversive ideas?” He managed to indicate by the word them that he meant the entire population of Bone Jacks overseen in this part of the world by the Academy.
Mendkovac paused before speaking again, so that he could recover his patience. “Do you need supplies before you leave?”
“Fear not, old sir,” Lilywhite said. “I’ll be untangled from your beard before you know it.”
Lilywhite left the window. He set his tea cup on Mendkovac’s desk, and seemed ready to go. Before he did, he stared at Mendkovac for a while, his dark eyes and Mendkovac’s dueling a little.
“I have never said that something cataclysmic is coming down the pike,” Lilywhite said.
“Yes,” Mendkovac admitted. “But you think it.”
“Yes,” Lilywhite admitted. “Only you have ever said it.”
“Yes,” Mendkovac said.
“Why don’t you believe it?” Lilywhite asked. “Or…at least, why don’t you prepare for it?”
“Because it should not be so,” Mendkovac said with the force of a man used to understanding his world and how it worked. And with the force of a man unprepared to admit to the storm for as long as he thought he could withstand it, he said, “It will not be so.”
Lilywhite followed his smile to Mendkovac’s desk. He set down his empty tea cup. He paused, as if for breath, and looked at Mendkovac.
“When it’s time, will you support me?” Lilywhite asked. For a moment his shell cracked, and the lazy-confident, world-bored man disappeared, to be replaced by a man in his early twenties struggling with a calling he neither understood nor wanted.
“Do you doubt it?” Mendkovac asked.
Lilywhite’s long fingers fidgeted with a knot in the wood of Mendkovac’s desk. He must have found the knot interesting, because he didn’t say anything else to Mendkovac. After he got done picking at the knot, Lilywhite checked the dust on his fingers. Then he shook his hand.
“Thank you for the tea,” he said.
Then he left.
For a time after that, Mendkovac sat and tried hard not to brood.