Chapter Twenty-Seven

The room the Bodag brought James to was halfway up the great spire, in the curve of a narrow sub-tower, so that it was windowed more than halfway around its circumference. The windows that faced the rest of the keep were veiled with billowing gauze curtains. Those that faced away had the curtains pulled back to reveal a view of the river's lower reaches, where it widened its braid preparatory to becoming an immense delta several hundred miles downstream. Since Tarlach wasn't there yet, James was free to gaze out at it while servants set the table. Bodag servants, so they were probably set at ease by his turned back. Bodag didn't like being looked at.

At this altitude the breeze was refreshing. Much cooler and drier than at ground level. James could see the humidity of the jungle, a haze that dimmed the lush green. The slow river reflected the sky like a mirror. It looked clean and bright from this vantage. He knew, though, from training exercises among those braided channels, that the water was opaque with mud and algae, foul-smelling, infested with snakes and poisonous bugs and crocodiles.

And marsh people, who could be a little bit scary in their own right, though they weren't officially hostile. It was from their little stilt villages that most of the Zoo's freeborn citizens had come; they were technically wild men, like Blueface Frank, but weren't party to the treaties that kept the wild men of the Bearwood out of the rebellion's recruiting efforts. James would have been clamoring to go drum up some marsh men for his battalion months ago... except that he'd never yet seen one sober.

They had a thorough knowlege of every plant, animal, and fungus in the region that could be used to get high. Their religion revolved around altered states. Each substance, along with the state it produced, was considered a sacred spirit. For a marsh man -- or woman, or child -- to be sober was to be godless.

When squads of soldiers in training met the people of the marsh, there was no predicting the outcome. The marsh man would do whatever his current guiding spirit advised. Usually that was to ignore the soldiers and go on fishing. But you could never be sure. He might break out singing, he might attack them, he might try to join them, imitate them, mock them, he might concieve a sudden lust for their berets and attempt to take one for himself. It was very disruptive. Bad for discipline.

The only solution James had been able to think of was to make the marsh men a stand-in for enemy scouts. Spot them before they spot you, see without being seen, get away clean. Since the marsh men were far better at it than the soldiers, it made a good goal to work toward.

"It's lovely from up here, isn't it?"

James turned and gave Tarlach a proper salute. His days of trying to treat the General as an equal were over. He understood the purpose of protocol now. Tarlach returned it just as properly, and they both took their seats at the table.

Tarlach murmured a spell. James's ears popped, and the room was suddenly shrouded in perfect silence.

"What did you just do?" James half expected his voice to be muffled, but it sounded normal.

"I sealed the room. May I --?" He held out a hand for the roll of papers James had brought. James handed it over. Tarlach unrolled it, flipped quickly through the pages, and rolled it back up with a satisfied nod. "Well done. And quickly, despite distractions. Thank you."

James shrugged. "You said it was important."

"It is." He took a bowl and offered to spoon its contents onto James's plate. "Do you see anything you'd particularly like, or shall I give you a little of everything?

For a few minutes the conversation was confined to the topic of food. Servantless, they handed things to each other like ordinary people. Though the dishes were mostly composed of the greenery and fruit elves preferred, there were some human delicacies as well. Plenty of protien, albeit mostly in vegetarian form. The deep-fried tofu was particularly good. The steamed catfish wasn't, but James appreciated the gesture. He knew how much elves disliked watching someone eat dead animals.

Once James had had a chance to taste these diplomatic offerings, Tarlach got straight to business. "I believe you want to talk to me about a possible human conspiracy. I don't normally spy on you," he added quickly, seeing the first flash of anger on James's face. "But when a hothead like Corporal Malachy seems determined to engage someone in a shouting match, and possibly mortal combat, I like to keep an ear out for trouble. My spies have no interest in your personal life, I assure you. They don't even understand it. They listen only for matters which may require official intervention."

"Fair enough," James conceded grudgingly. "I don't know anything about those rumors except what she said, since I never talk to elf officers off duty, but --"

"I've wondered. Why don't you ever visit the officers' club? It might be wise to acquaint yourself with your peers."

James scowled. "It's not a friendly place for humans. I don't have time to be Rosa Parks."

"I'm not sure I understand. Do you imagine you'd be thrown out? There would be disciplinary repercussions if you were."

"So? That'd make them hate me instead of just sniffing like I smell. I'm already doing two full-time jobs, General. Get yourself another civil-rights martyr."

Tarlach nodded gracefully. "I suppose you're right. But then... isn't your plan to ferret out these hypothetical human secessionists a similar drain on your time?"

"I doubt it." James dipped a bit of bland fish in the spicy sauce from the tofu and munched it thoughtfully. "Maybe only one meeting," he said at last. "Maybe a handful. The people who came to talk to me down by the factory weren't very secret about it, and they were about bursting at the seams with everything they wanted to say. It was all they could do not to blurt everything right there in public."

"And do you really think they're separatists?"

"No. Honestly, I don't." He speared a carrot decisively. "I think they're small-town, small-time blowhards who want to be politicos but never saw it done. My father's run for Senate three times. I may not be any good at 'working the people' myself, but I know how to interpret what I see even if the schmoozer is a pro. Which these folks aren't."

"How convenient for us both. What, then, is your interpretation of what you saw?"

Another crunching pause while James organized his thoughts. "I think they have a laundry list of trivial complaints, requests, and proposals. I don't think they have a coherent agenda or cohesive leadership. And I think they approached me because I'm the only human who has any status among the non-human population. All the human guildmasters and whatnot only have power over their own."

"What do you suppose they expect you to do?"

"I'm guessing they don't even know. Their spokesman the other day... he was charming and kept his cool, but he was disorganized and didn't know me. He hardly even tried to play me. Just talked fast, smiled a lot, and hoped for the best. He's a used car salesman. There's no danger of a human revolt."

"Oh, I never thought there was," Tarlach smiled as he refilled James's glass with iced tea. "For one simple reason. I think you know what it is."

James opened his mouth to repeat what he'd told Etha about the rebellion being the humans' best hope, but that wasn't the level on which Tarlach made decisions. Somehow, he knew there would be something much simpler if Tarlach was so confident about it. And in a moment he had it: "Property. Their farms. Their workshops. They own them."

Tarlach smiled approvingly. "Precisely. A man with nothing to lose may let fiery ideals waft his life to ruin -- but a man with a mortgage won't break routine unless you put a knife to his throat. Sometimes not even then, if the knife is figurative. A knife of taxes, say, or dishonor, or social oppression. Not religious oppression, oddly enough, that they won't stand for long..." He trailed off, gaze distant, toying with his earring.

"And these guys aren't even close to being oppressed," James supplied. "That's something I did learn from my dad, for all I'm nothing like him: when the people are whining about stupid shit, that means they're happy." He mopped up sauce with the last forkful of noodles, chewed it contentedly, and sat back in his chair. "I'm sure they'll want to talk at me about the tax burden. It is fairly hefty, and they probably don't realize that even if you had the coin to buy supplies for the army instead of taxing it out of them, it'd be a bad idea to introduce more currency. This economy is a closed system. You'd get crazy inflation."

"Feel free to explain that if you think it'll take."

"I will. Do you want me to bring you their bitch list?"

"A summary, at most. I'm sure most of it's not remotely a military matter. Matters of civil governance, you can pass on to the Prince, if there are any worth mentioning."

James nodded. "And -- just on the offchance -- if there is some kind of conspiracy..."

"Encourage it," Tarlach said promptly.

James stared.

Tarlach repeated himself patiently. "Encourage it to blossom, Major. Don't embroil yourself in it, but listen and take it seriously and nod solemnly as if the conspirators are very important men. You can do that, can't you?"

"I... think I would have to know why," James said carefully. "I'm not sure I can look a guy in the eye and tempt him into a noose."

"Of course not, you're an honorable man. We do have uses for those in the army, you know," Tarlach said with a crooked smile. "But I don't intend to set a trap. Not a deadly one, anyway. Rather... how shall I put it." His earring glittered as he twisted it with his fingertips. "Long ago, I prepared Ynyr to deal with dissent. To dance with it rather than opposing it, to turn its energies to his own ends. And then no one dissented! Morale has been higher than my most optimistic estimates. Barely a few grumbles, nothing a lesser ruler would be tempted to turn into a bloodbath."

"Oh, I get it," James grinned. "If anyone's mad enough to really make a break, you want them to work themselves up to being martyrs, and then end up having to explain themselves at a very polite meeting where Ynyr listens to their concerns and takes notes. And henceforth all counter-revolutionary activities look histrionic and juvenile."

Tarlach laughed happily. "Sometimes, Child of Iron, you delight me. Yes, that's precisely it. Rebellion, like a cockroach, lays eggs when crushed. Whereas treated gently..." He hesitated.

"I think your cockroach analogy is fucked, General."

"Ah, hell, I think it is." He laughed again, and James joined in. When they'd trailed off to chuckles, he said in a more sober tone, "So you understand what I want done?"

"Perfectly. I'll be a hobbyist at it, I can hardly spare the time, but when it comes up I'll stay on target, I promise."

"That will suffice." Tarlach made a gesture with his glass like a toast. "And now... have you any further questions?"

James had been expecting to hear that. Tarlach had asked him that each time they met for the past several weeks. He'd never known what it was Tarlach expected him to ask. That didn't seem to matter much anymore; he'd been taken into confidence, and could hope for explanations. He took a deep breath and nodded. "Lots of them. But since you're a busy man, I've prioritized them, so let me know when we run out of time --"

"No." The General's playfulness was gone, replaced by a kind of solemn eagerness. "No, we won't run out of time. I've been hoping this day would come."

Taken aback, James couldn't phrase his confusion aloud, only tilt his head and stare.

Tarlach stood up so he could pace. He seemed relaxed, hands loosely clasped behind his back, but there was a tautness in him, a readiness. It made James nervous. "Whenever I summon you to meet," Tarlach said, "I make sure I can spend the rest of the day at it if necessary. Because I knew that sooner or later you'd come to me full of questions, and on that day I would want to answer them thoroughly. I saw something in you the day we met. You were bloodied, exhausted, in a strange world among strange people, strange creatures, and yet you kept your wits about you and were not afraid. You were angry and let me see it, but with neither disrespect nor petulance. You retained your dignity though you had no way to enforce your status. And in the midst of all that, you listened and understood." He threw James a little curl of a smile. "Asked one of the most cutting questions I've ever been asked, too, and I've been asked a great many cutting questions in my long life."

Unsure whether this was admiration or calculation, James simply waited.

"In short, you're the sort of man I most want working for me. The sort of man our cause needs if it is to succeed. I wish I had a hundred more of you."

When Tarlach didn't go on, James finally replied. "So you hoped I'd ask you questions about the cause and the war, because that'd mean I was invested in it enough to wonder."

Tarlach nodded.

"I guess you're right. At least, if you offered me a ride home right now, I'd have to think about it some. Although that's mostly..." Mostly because of Eamon. Walking away from him would be hard. Tarlach probably knows, but that doesn't mean I have to put the information on the table. "Anyway, since you're not going to offer me a ride now, yeah, I care about this war. I'm curious about it. I want to understand it. I want to see if there's anything I can do to speed things up."

"Yes." The General stopped, leaning his shoulder against the stone pillar between windows. "So ask."

James poured himself more iced tea, drank, and set the glass down with a definitive thump. "Okay. Question one. Why are you holed up in the swamp, a thousand miles on the wrong side of Eriander? You can do anything you want down here except win."

After a moment, Tarlach made an inviting gesture. "Ask them all. It could be I have a single answer for the lot."

"Question two. Why don't you have cannon? You knew the principle long before I came here. And it has nothing to do with iron, either. Bronze guns with stone cannonballs would do the job. Bronze mortars and grenades. Hell, you could manage bronze muskets, though they'd be a little unreliable. Why don't you have explosives for sapping fortress walls? You're never in a million years getting past Eriander without them. Question three. Why are you bothering with Eriander at all? Whatever your reason for coming down south, you're not getting back north again; you know it, the enemy knows it, everyone who's not stupid knows it. You've assaulted the place seven times and you never once came close to winning. I can't see the point of wasting lives there. Question four. Why haven't you cut a deal with the Bloodwood Three or the mermen for temporary passage? They hate elves because elves keep slave races, but you don't, and they wouldn't have to trust you very far to let you take a small force through to cut off Eriander's resupply." James paused, wondering if he ought to ask his last question. After a moment's thought he decided to go ahead. Tarlach probably wouldn't answer, but he wouldn't penalize James for asking. "And fifth question, what was Ynyr doing sneaking around where the enemy could catch him? He's the Prince, not a spy! You need your figurehead or the Bloods won't follow you! He's far too valuable to risk that way! Not to mention they were extra horrible to him because they blamed him for the war."

Tarlach gave a rueful chuckle. "Why, Carver, it almost sounds as if you care for his wellbeing."

"Much as I'd love to clock him one for kidnapping me, he's an extremely decent guy as royalty goes. Besides, even if he was a flaming jackass... I saw the scars." His brows drew down at the memory. "He was tortured for information, wasn't he? You don't put your high command in harm's way. Not just because they're hard to replace. Because they know so much. General, I would love to know what you were thinking."

"What he was thinking, rather," Tarlach sighed. "True, the strategy is mine, but now that he's a man grown, he commands me. He is my king, do you understand? There were... powers who would consent to speak to no lesser person. I advised writing them off. He chose to make contact despite the risks. It was a poor gamble, and we would've lost it but for you. Let me remind you that we're still in your debt, James Carver. I will reward you, whether you ask it or not. Honor demands no less."

James shook his head; not disagreeing, exactly, just unable to meet that one head on. "How'd it go?" he said instead. "With the 'powers', I mean."

"Classified, I'm afraid."

"Figured. Never mind. I'm just glad he wasn't doing something stupid."

Tarlach chuckled ruefully. "We may have to disagree on that point. It was nearly disastrous. I could push the rebellion through without him, but... well, an army whose commander hopes to die has poor prospects of victory."

It was a little embarrassing to hear that kind of weakness from the General, and more so to see the clouding of remembered grief behind his wry expression. James hurried to change the subject. "So -- my other questions. Can you answer them all at once like you said?"

"As it happens, I can. The simple, all-encompassing answer is this." He held up a hand like an orator. "The true battlefield of this rebellion is the elven heart."

James frowned, trying to see where that lead. At first, he could only think how odd it was to hear an elf say 'elven'. They never used the word. It was 'Trueblood' or nothing. Maybe that self-centered name was starting to fall out of use.

Which, he realized, was exactly the kind of change Tarlach was implying needed to happen. A revolution in perspective. Forest for the trees.

"I think I kinda get it," he said slowly. "A little of it."

"Shall I explain with specific reference to your questions?"

"Please."

"One. What we're doing here in the swamp is buying time."

"Yeah, I can see that, but what for? For this change of heart to happen?"

"Yes. Of course, I would've needed time regardless, since Ynyr was so young when I freed him from his prison, and had been out of the world so long. He had to be educated in the current situation, trained in combat and leadership, gain some maturity -- and of course if he hadn't embraced the cause I would've had to convince him, but fortunately he saw the right of it straight off. Now, I could have used him as a figurehead for a coup. I'd have won in a matter of months. He'd have been an obvious puppet, a mere mouthpiece for my will. And within ten years, my reign would have been brought down by a counter-coup. I would've been punished in hideously inventive ways, and poor Ynyr..." He gazed out the window, shaking his head slightly. "I only had to speak to the boy for an hour before I knew I couldn't use him like that. He wouldn't have cooperated, and I wouldn't have been able to face myself."

He remained silent for a few minutes, and James was careful not to make a noise that might interrupt his reverie. Maybe he was remembering how he'd first met the boy who would become his lover and his lord. James wasn't curious about the details. That kind of thing, in James's opinion, should be private.

Eventually he gathered himself and went on as if he hadn't wandered. "However, Ynyr has been ready to rule for years now. The reason we continue to delay is to give certain changes, certain ideas, time to travel. The society we envision can't be imposed from above. It has to well up from below. We won't go north until it's time to take the lid off."

He'd shaken off the spell of memory now, and his tone was businesslike. "Cannon. Explosives. Again, the elven heart. We are so unspeakably arrogant that we consider such things cheating." He barked a laugh. His tone descended further into scorn with each phrase. "Yes, we've known gunpowder for centuries. Only, to us, it isn't gunpowder. It's 'that stuff that goes in fireworks'. Lesser races make it and light it off to give us a pretty show. Using it to kill people in big batches -- why, that would be cowardly. It would be missing the point. War isn't mass murder, it's an exercise in honor. Naturally, humans and Awended and whatnot get killed, but not us. When we're struck down on the field of battle, the honorable enemy packs the pieces up neatly, we're ransomed, we regenerate. Half the time the ransom's not even a real sum of wealth. It's just as often a poem, a joke, a smile from an admired beauty, something like that. We're just counting coup. It's not as if it's serious."

James gave a low whistle. "Me and my boys are going to teach 'em serious in one hell of a hurry."

"I have no doubt you will," Tarlach said with a nasty little smile. "This bloated parody of chivalry has completely blinded our culture to practicality. If I use artillery and explosives before that's changed, I'll simply be seen as a villain and a coward. So, too, would alliance with Sea Folk or the Bloodwood be seen as villainy and cowardice. Not to mention it'll take a lot longer than three decades to convince the mermen I'm not the usual sort of Trueblood," he added with a dry chuckle. "As for the Bloodwood Three, those creatures' oaths aren't worth the breath wasted to speak them. A ghost, a madman, and a monster..."

"... walk into a bar," James finished for him, putting on an expectant look. "And then what?"

Tarlach roared with laughter. His mirth faded quickly, though, as he followed the thought. "And then they murder my envoy, reanimate him, and send him back as a zombie riddled with spell-traps. Poor fellow. He was half aware as we destroyed him, but not enough to understand why. No, we leave the Bloodwood alone for good reason."

"And Eriander? What's the point?"

"Keep the enemy bottled up. Keep them from expanding south. We attack the fortress to pin them down while we plunder Halleward. They know it, but there's nothing they can do about it. And if by some miracle we do manage to take the fortress..." He shrugged, as if to say, The rest is cake and party hats.

James took out a cigar and lit it. He played with his matchbox while he considered, turning it over and over in his fingers. After several minutes, he shook his head. "Not good enough."

Tarlach's eyebrows went up. "Not good enough? What a strange thing to say. As if it's for you to judge my strategy."

"Your explanation's not good enough to account for your actions," James clarified. "That's... it's not a bad strategy, but it's still a stalling tactic, and you have no control over when it moves to the next stage. It's the kind of thing I might come up with. Not you. You're doing something slow and inevitable up there. But fuck me if I can see it."

Tarlach stared at him for a long moment. Then, slowly, a grin split his face. "By my name. By my good name. James Carver, where did you learn subtlety? From your senator father?"

"He never actually won a Senate race," James corrected absently. "But no. Uh. I'm not sure where. I guess I just understand the nature of materials. The strategy you described is a bandit's strategy. You're not a bandit, you're a glacier. So what are you really doing up there?"

For the first time since James had met him, Tarlach looked indecisive. He shoved both hands through his straight silver-blue hair, pausing when he cupped the back of his head, as if he needed to keep it out of his way to examine something. But what he was examining was in his mind's eye.

"If I swear you to secrecy, and Ynyr later commands you to reveal the secret, what will you do?" he said carefully.

"Stonewall clumsily," James answered at once. "Dig in my heels. I wouldn't be able to pretend there was no secret, I'm afraid."

"But you'd refuse him?"

"If I made you a promise, yes."

"He does outrank me."

"You're my boss."

Tarlach sighed. "Try not to be too obvious about that, will you? He's already going to have trouble with his Coedegar power base because he defers too much to me. Very well. I'll tell you something I haven't told him. Something I will outright lie to him about if necessary. Should you tell him, I'll deny it, and he'll believe me, not you."

James shook his head impatiently. "Like he'd consult me on anything strategy-related. Look, it's up to you, you don't have to tell me anything. I want to know, but --"

"There may come a time when you need to know. Anyway, it will be a relief to tell it to someone who understands." With a wry quirk of his lips, he sat down at the table. "Tell me: what's the disadvantage of a vast army?"

"You have to feed them," James replied instantly.

"Yes. And house and equip them as well. The enemy outnumbers us twenty -- maybe thirty to one. We could never meet them on equal terms. But that army is tremendously expensive. A war of attrition favors us, not them. What I'm doing in Halleward is farming the enemy's wealth like wheat. Every time the conditions are right for an assault on Eriander, we show up on schedule to hammer the wall, and while we do so, we also reap another crop of Cliodhna's gold. In the form of slaves, buildings, and so forth, mostly. The slaves, we free. The Truebloods, we strip of weapons and wealth, then ransom back; let the enemy feed them. Whatever they've managed to build, we destroy. And then we vanish away into the interior -- where they follow as best they can, until the jungle and the Shadow Brigade pick them to pieces."

"You're starving the north."

"Yes."

"Trying to create a popular uprising by forcing the Regent to overtax her citizens to fund the army."

"Yes."

"And Ynyr doesn't want to hear it because he feels responsible for those people's well-being."

"Precisely. How perceptive you are today."

"Then... why try so hard to take Eriander? No -- I get it. If you're not convincing, they'll catch on."

"I also use the assault to judge the enemy's condition. If I can't tempt them into a sally, it might be because they're short on horses -- that kind of thing. Anyway, I would very much like to hold that fort, so there's no reason not to make a serious attempt. Although, as you've noticed, the chances of getting it are vanishingly slim."

"Why does the enemy keep rebuilding in Halleward, then?"

Tarlach shrugged. "Cede us an entire province when she still holds that unbreakable fortress? The Regent would have some very upset nobles on her hands if she just let us have it."

"So you're creating a rift among her supporters as well as straining the people's patience." James shook his head slowly, admiring. "You know, come to think of it, that's pretty close to the strategy that brought the Soviet Union down in my world. Only it was raggedly done, because it's hard to keep a single strategy going for fifty years or whatever on a human timescale. Come to think of it, blue jeans and rock 'n roll did as much to undermine the Soviets as starvation and dissent. I bet you have agents up there speculating about how free and fun the southern life must be. It's not so hard to get individuals around the cape, right? You just can't move an army."

Smiling broadly, Tarlach gave James a sitting bow; a little mocking, but respectful for all that. "How glad I am that you work for me, not her," he laughed. "But then..."

"She wouldn't hire a human to think," James nodded.

"And you're much too tall to be pleasing as a chamber slave," Tarlach laughed.

[Continuity note:

- Retcon: it was Ynyr's mother, not his sister, who liked to make it snow

- Retcon: Tarlach's knows about camo after all

- Edit needed: the timing of Jared's arrival is kinda off

- Edit needed: either more time between James's segments, or factory should've come online earlier

If you notice something amiss that's not in this list, I'd appreciate hearing about it. ^_^]