The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Thirty-Two

Never, before, had Olrick been in a meeting that was so tense.

It was really uncomfortable, to the point that Olrick could barely stand to be in the room. At first, there was the usual sound of side chatter before it started, albeit a little more nervous than it normally was. The second Raul walked into the room, however, the side chatter stopped entirely. There weren’t any mutterings under people’s breaths, jokes being told, nothing; Monbrandt didn’t even complain about the ever-tardy Admiral Kylar.

After about ten minutes of horrid silence, General Polain stood up and cleared his throat. He was wearing his finest silks, worthy of the highest-ranking members of Jotiese society, and he wasn’t the only one: he’d required every military commander that would be there to wear their finest military dress to the meeting, an order none of them challenged.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming,” he said. “I’m afraid that Admiral Kylar has some other business to attend to at the moment, so we’ll get started, and he can arrive when it’s convenient for him to.” Though Polain kept himself calm and composed on the outside, Olrick could tell that he was pissed about Kylar’s absence from such an important meeting: his posture was even more rigid than it usually was, and his face was emotionless as he did his best to cover up his emotions.

Polain looked over at Raul. “I would especially like to welcome General Raul to today’s proceedings. It’s comforting to know that the men of the Gisken army would like this conflict to end peacefully as much as we do.”

Bull! Olrick knew that Polain was just rehearsing the courtesies that had been knocked into his head in Jotai for most of his life, but it pissed him off to hear that, even if he knew that it wasn’t genuine. The Giskens didn’t want this to end peacefully; all they were doing was keeping up the image of being chivalrous enough to try and get a peace treaty to Mirinia, which, after nearly ten years, still hadn’t chosen a side in this war.

Raul acknowledged the rest of them with a nod of his head. Like the rest of them, he was dressed in his finer clothes: a dark blue doublet with silver buttons over a fine linen shirt, brown pants with the legs tucked into leather, knee high riding boots, and a fresh, white bandage over his eye.

“Pardon me if this is inappropriate, but why isn’t Queen Marion conducting this meeting?” Raul asked as he looked over at Marion. She was sitting next to Polain, quietly glaring at Raul as she drummed her fingers on the sleeves of her long, elegant, white dress. However, Olrick doubted that her anger was entirely meant for Raul; she’d been really pissed at Polain for making her wear a dress and not letting her take her sword to the meeting. “She’s of age to lead this country, isn’t she?”

“I’m afraid not,” Polain said. “Coronation age in Caitha is twenty, and she still has a month until then. I would much rather show her how these meetings proceed right now then have failure possibly be her teacher.”

Damn it, Polain! He shouldn’t have mentioned that to Raul; now, not only did he know that Marion wasn’t in charge of the country, yet, but that Polain was until her coronation next month. Raul now knew more about their power structure than they knew about the Giskens’, and there was no doubt in his mind that the Gisken bastard would try and exploit it somehow.

Olrick made a mental note to get more guards on Polain and Marion; knowing Raul’s track record with peace conferences, he’d probably send some of his men to kill them to decapitate the government before his men marched on Semata.

“Now, let’s get started,” Polain said as he sat back down. “How much have you considered a peace treaty, General Raul?”

“A lot, actually,” he said, scratching a place behind his ear. Olrick filed that away for later too; that was probably a tell of his. “My men grow tired of war, and I feel that, soon, it may become the only way to resolve this.”

He’s lying. Raul’s voice was stiff with false courtesies, the same ones that every noble he’d ever met had gotten pounded into their heads since birth. Judging by the looks on Silas, Eza and even Marion’s faces, they saw right through it, too. He was fairly certain Polain did, too, but his face remained neutral.

“Then, what terms are you willing to accept?” Polain asked. “Personally, I would like to see my men return to their families after this conflict is over.”

“I’m not sure that I can guarantee that, general; I’m sorry,” Raul said. “Most of the men in the invasion force are veterans of the Kurzhian campaign. They tend to see enemy soldiers as… less than human. I’m afraid that I’m not sure that I can take away that instinct from them, as your Commander Olrick sadly learned for himself.”

Olrick began to rub the shoulder Raul had ordered Blair to dislocate. Every part of him wanted to call him out on his lies, but he didn’t; he didn’t want to ruin this one chance they had to end this peacefully. Even Eza looked tense, like she was just barely hanging onto her calm demeanor.

“You’re their general,” Marion said as she continued to glare at Raul. Gods, that was a poisonous look in her eyes; Olrick knew her pretty well (he’d practically grown up with her) and even he was a little unnerved by it. “I’d think that your men would follow you to the ends of the earth, if you were half the general the rumors say you are.”

The blood drained from Polain’s face in horror when he heard that; saying things like that went against everything he’d been taught and had tried to pass on to her. “Princess Marion, please don’t make me regret bringing you to this meeting!”

“It’s quite alright, General Polain; I can’t think of anyone of noble birth who wasn’t brash at this age, including myself,” Raul said with a dismissive wave of his hand. It looked like he was trying to be the bigger man. “In Gishk, members of the military who surrender to their foes are not thought of well; they’re thought of to be less than dogs, really. Because of this belief, my men tend to behave quite barbarically when confronted with a surrendered force. As much as I would like to, I don’t think I can just remove something as deeply rooted as that. I apologize if you don’t find this acceptable, Princess Marion.”

Olrick could see Marion tense up. Raul oversimplified things for her, as if she were a child. She hated it when people did that, especially when people that were her equals theoretically did it.

Raul looked back at Polain. “What other terms of surrender would you like to discuss, general? I hope that there are some that would be possible for me to agree to.”

“If we do end up surrendering to you, we want you to leave our civilians alone,” Eza said. Her Kurzhian accent with its rolled r’s and dark l’s began to show through her developed Caithian accent, the way it did when she was really pissed. “No plundering, no razing, no raping, no killing; everything your men did to the Kurzhians won’t be acceptable here.”

“You speak as if what happened there was acceptable to me in the first place,” Raul said stiffly. “I swear on my honor, if I catch any of my men doing anything like that, they’ll be sent right to the stocks, where they belong.”

What honor? Just in that first week of the invasion, Olrick saw him order some horrific things: Milo’s and his father’s deaths, the burning of a small costal village; as far as he was concerned, any “honor” he might have had left after his other campaigns had been left on the southern coast.

The rest of the meeting went on in a similar fashion. Raul seemed cooperative and quick to agree with the terms Polain wanted, but Olrick’s instincts told him that there was something horribly wrong with all this. There was something in the way he said things and looked at all of them that didn’t sit right with him. It was almost as if, as he was talking to them about peace, he was planning all of their demises. He was imagining what Polain’s last words may be as he publically executed in Jotai in the political purges, the half-assed escape attempt Eza might come up with in order to keep herself from being sent back to Kurzh, how horrible of a way Silas would meet his end at the hands of his Mirinian country men, how long it would take Olrick to die in a labor camp. The smile in Raul’s eye told him that he would really enjoy seeing all of their deaths.

Once they were done and had scheduled another meeting for the next week, Olrick, Eza, Silas and Kylar, who was back from the military duty that kept him from attending the meeting with Raul, met in the lord’s alcove, waiting for Elise to come back with more intelligence for them. Kylar wasn’t in the greatest of shape: his clothes were cut, he had a bleeding gash over his eye that would almost certainly leave a nasty scar, his light brown hair was disheveled every which way; he looked like he’d been through hell and back, but he still had that boyish grin on his face and overwhelming confidence in everything he did, as if the Mirinian admiral had just gone on some sort of adventure in another town.

“That Raul is pretty nerve racking, ain’t he?” Kylar asked as he pulled a flask out from his pocket. He began to swig as Silas snorted.

“No shit,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. “Besides, how the hell would you know? You were off taking names most of that damned meeting!”

“Speaking of which, what happened in Jastan?” Olrick asked. “Was that tidbit of intelligence useful for you?”

“Useful?” Kylar scoffed. “That city’s still in Caithian hands, thanks to you bastards! I’d give whoever your source is a few extra drams; we wouldn’t want to lose them.”

“That’s good to hear,” Olrick said. “Our source should be coming, soon, actually. She’s been a little worried that what she’s doing might not be worth the risk; she’ll be glad to hear that.”

She?”

As an answer to Kylar’s question, the door opened and Elise walked in. She was wearing a simple, white serving dress with a white apron tied around her waist, just like the other female castle staff wore, and her blonde hair was tied in a tail behind her head so it wouldn’t get in her way as she was working. She had a small piece of paper in her hand, just like she had a few weeks ago, when she’d copied the letter that had saved Jastan down during the ball.

“So, this is your mysterious source?” Kylar asked. The sound of an unfamiliar voice nearly made Elise jump out of her skin. She quickly bowed when she saw Kylar; it seemed that, despite the fact that he looked like some vagrant off the street, she knew who he was, if just vaguely. “On behalf of the city of Jastan, thank you for what you did.”

Elise frowned in confusion. “Jastan?”

Olrick nodded. “It’s the second largest port in Caitha. That report you got from Raul’s room mentioned a possible attack on it, so we sent a few of our ships and troops up there to defend it. Thanks to you, the city’s still under our control, and we have a little over 1,000 lest Giskens to worry about.”

Olrick could see her swell up with pride a little. He knew that she’d be happy to hear that.

Silas nodded at the piece of paper in her hand. “What life saving information do you have, now?”

Elise looked down at the piece of paper in her hand, then held it out to him. “I’m not sure. I think it has to do with troop movements.” Eza took the piece of paper and began reading through the letter.

“You speak Gisken, too?” Kylar asked. Elise shook her head.

“Just enough to recognize a military report from a diplomatic one, sir,” she said. She turned to Silas. “That’s the original letter, by the way; a soldier walked in just as I’d closed the door, so I couldn’t copy it down like I did last time.”

Red flags went up in Olrick’s head. Had Elise been discovered? “And he didn’t seem suspicious?”

“He thought I was there to change the linens and dust the room.” Olrick sighed, relieved as everyone turned toward Eza, who looked like she was finishing reading the letter.

“What does it say?” Silas asked.

Eza looked up from the letter, her face its usual, stony mask. “The Giskens are moving west from some costal town to join up with some Jotiese troops, who’ve been working on invading the eastern portion of the country.”

“So, the Giskens have invaded every inch of coastline we have?” Silas asked.

“That’s how it seems,” Kylar said, pulling a large, rolled up piece of paper from inside his coat. When he unrolled it and set it down on the table, Olrick saw that it was a map of Caitha.

“They’re using the same strategy they used in Chastia and Espa, both of which had small armies like us,” he continued as he began to trace the outline of Caitha with his finger. “They’re taking a risk by spreading their troops fairly thin, but by encircling us like this, they’re forcing us to spread our troops even thinner, if we want to keep them at bay.”

Kylar circled the lower part of Caitha, where Semata was. “We’ve been doing a fairly decent job at keeping them at bay down here, where we know exactly what’s going on, but the Giskens basically have free reign in the north.” He began to circle the northern part of the map. “They’ll probably be climbing through the Rayal Pass within a month.”

For a minute or two, nobody spoke. The possibility of a Gisken take-over had hung over everyone’s for almost a month like an executioner’s ax, but hearing Kylar’s estimate on how much longer Caitha had left to be an independent country… it hit Olrick like a fist to the stomach. Eza looked bitter to know that her adoptive home was about to suffer the same fate as her birthplace, Silas looked solemn to know that he would have to go back to Mirinia soon, Elise looked terrified by the prospect of living under Gisken rule; nobody in that room wanted to face life under the Giskens.

“What are we going to do?” Elise asked herself. “Is our army capable of fighting them off?”

“Not the way things are going right now,” Silas said. “They’ve got their hands full just trying to keep them bottled up down here; the way I see it, our best option is to get the Mirinians on our side within the next few weeks.”

“And let’s be honest: that isn’t exactly going to happen,” Kylar said. “Mirinia’s sitting pretty the way things are right now; being a neutral arms supplier in a war as long and massive as this one is quite profitable, as it turns out.”

“So, we’re screwed?” Olrick asked as a pit began to form in his stomach. Could they really be so close to defeat after all the pain and heartache they went through to keep the Giskens at bay?

“Don’t be such a pessimist, my dear boy,” Kylar said, giving him a hearty slap on the back. “Mirinia isn’t our only hope of survival.”

Silas nodded. “Technically, Abunaken is still neutral; the ones in the Gisken army are just sell swords.”

Olrick frowned, folding his arms over his chest. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”

“All we need to do is hire about 50,000 Abunaki mercenaries and import them over here,” Kylar said, as if it wasn’t that big of a deal. “It’s fool proof!”

“That’s not going to work,” Eza said flatly. “Not only would it take longer than convincing the Mirinians to help, but Polain would never go for it; it took long enough for him to agree to us training our mage recruits in their power, forget about an entire army filled with them.”

“Then we’ll just have to go over his head,” Kylar said. “We’re doing it with this whole spying on Raul venture; why not with this?”

“Keeping the activities of a few people secret is one thing,” Olrick said. “Keeping an entire army secret, though… that’s something else entirely. The only way this could work is if Polain were to agree with it, something he isn’t going to do in time.”

Kylar looked over at Eza. “Looks like you’re going to have to fire up those feminine charms of yours if we want to last the year.”

Eza looked around at everyone, then sighed, shaking her head.

“If the country really depends on my ‘feminine charms’, we really are screwed,” she said.

“That’s the spirit,” Kylar said, taking a few swigs from his flask. Elise gave him a weird look; it seemed that after just a few minutes of knowing who he was, she’d already decided that he was crazy.

“In the mean time, we need to get more intelligence in the north and the east,” Silas said. “I’ll see if I can’t recruit some of the boys at headquarters to do some more work for queen and country.” He looked over at Elise.

“Do you feel comfortable going back into Raul’s room any time soon?” he asked. Elise found herself nodding.

“When will he be out of his room, again?” she asked.

“As you probably already know, there’s been rumors going around the castle that he’s going out to explore the city with Polain,” Eza said. Elise nodded; she’d heard all about it from the kitchen staff while they cooked General Raul’s supper a few nights ago. “An awful idea on Polain’s part, but it at least provides us with an opportunity to gather more intelligence, ourselves. We’ll let you know if they turn out to be true and when he’s gone.”

“In the mean time, make sure you get this back to Raul’s room as soon as you can,” Olrick said. “Hopefully, it isn’t too late to get it back before Raul’s noticed.”
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