Sun Tzu's Fourth Principle
When she was growing up, Gema had never had the patience for chess. Her hot temper had stopped her from appreciating the beauty and skill behind the strategy needed to win. Lucky for her, she had matured. A bit.
Circe White had been the one that had encouraged her to play chess, had spent hours teaching her the art of planning and execution. Once she had matched—and all but surpassed—his own skill, he moved on to battle strategy and statistics.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight... He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. Sun Tzu's The Art of War had been her first ever setwork book.
And now was the moment that White had unwittingly prepared her for. The battle to keep her friends in Hexia, when she knew that White wanted them somewhere in Colorado, or some other Noahide Realm state.
But she knew that this was not a war of swords and magic. No. One of the first precepts Sun Tzu had taught her sang in her head, a song of clashing war drums and army marches: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
And so Gema Aviyah calmed the fire in her so that the coals burned hot without making too much smoke, and she thought about what she would say to White.
The door opened and she didn't even look at the twins, because she knew what she would see, she knew what she was fighting for. She shut the door behind her and walked to the desk, her shoulders loose and her eyes hard. But what met her was unexpected and all of the thoughts that had been whirling around in her head came to a sudden halt, like a car halting at the edge of a cliff.
"You look like hell."
White's platinum eyes were heavy and dark around the edges, his hair was muffled and his lips tight. "I'm tired," he said. "We've invested so much to keep them safe, we're all so tired of this tedious game of cat and mouse. We've worked and traded years of our lives to keep them away. To keep them safe."
And for all of her tactics and wit, Gema didn't know what to say.
"And they're such good boys."
Her heart fluttered as hope surged through her, but she pulled her fraying thoughts together, smoothed out her frown, unclenched her fists and began her argument.
"Men. They're men now—not boys. And I know that they're good. We saw to that-"
"And yet," he whispered, more to himself than to Gema, "They were not enraged-"
"What? What does their temperament have to do with anything?" Gema cut in.
"This is not how it was meant to happen-"
"Circe please!" she gestured, exasperatedly. "Who cares how it was meant to happen? And how would you even know how fate deigned them to return?"
His face was resigned and worn. "It's warden White. Not Circe."
Her mouth opened and closed of its own accord while she tried to salvage the situation. Sun Tzu's words echoed through her head, Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak...
"You have to trust me," she said slowly. "I've been their protector for years now, I've been by their side since the beginning. All that we have been doing in the Noahide Realm was meant to be a means to an end—a temporary maneuver—until we figured out what to do with the twins. But now, their magic is getting stronger. We need to let them learn how to harness it, to give them a fighting chance against Blake. Like you said... they're good. Give them a chance to show you how good they are."
Gema counted sixty ticks of the grandfather clock before White responded. "What happened in Ashmere?"
She recounted the events of the night, beginning with the Shadow watching them from the bush and ending when the teleporter had come to take them away. She told the truth because when all is said and done, there is nothing else to tell.
Circe sat and blinked for another while. Gema had said all that she needed to: it was a waste of their time and resources to send them back, and she knew that White didn't really want to send them to their temporary home.
She watched him, trying to find clues about what he would do. Was he doing some sort of complex algebraic equation to figure out how best to handle the situation? Gema didn't know of such an equation. It would probably have made her life much easier, had she known it.
"I told them," the warden said with a sigh, "that they could have a day here—in Hexia—to discover what they wish to, to enjoy this world, and that by sunset tomorrow I'd have made my decision about their staying or returning." White blinked. "But I've made my decision already. They will return with Mayah and Derrick to the Noahide Realm and we will continue the way that we've been conducting the operation. Their memories will be wiped-"
"NO!" Screw Sun Tzu. "No no no no." Gema was out of her seat and before she could stop herself, she was crying. The next thing she knew, White was hugging her, was holding her in his arms as he used to do when she was a child. And it was when he had her at her most vulnerable that he delivered his final blow, winning both the battle and the war, and it was only now that Gema realised that he had been fighting it all along.
For Sun Tzu's fourth principle of war was: He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. And after everything, Gema was unprepared for what he was about to say.
With a voice so soft and gentle, he breathed, "But I will send another protector in your place." He smoothed down her hair. "You've become too attached... You would endanger everything..." But she barely heard him through her sobs. "They call you the Princess here. You have your own room in the guest quarters, you come and go as you please."
Circe White. Who had taught her magic and chess and strategy and how to be a good person. "For what you have done, risking the Solas's future as you have, your privileges will be removed."
This was not the man she knew and loved, and until he returned to who she knew she wouldn't treat him as such.
"You have the day to say goodbye."
So she stiffened and shook out of his hold and stood, hands on her hips, mouth hard but quivering, hand pressed to her heart. She tried one more time. For Brody and for Levi. "Circe. You can't do this. Please, it will break me."
The old man just stared at her blankly, "It's warden White."
They can't know that this is goodbye, she thought to herself over and over as she dried her eyes, splashed her face and made her way to her friend. It was still an hour or two before sunrise, but this couldn't wait. If this was truly to be her last day with them, she needed help.
When she reached Rose's room, she took a moment to compose herself outside the door. She summoned ice onto her nail tips and dug them into her palm until the pain and pounding in her heart lessened.
"Rose?" she sincerely hoped that Rose's room-mate was fast asleep. Gema shook Rose as gently as she could. Her friend opened her eyes groggily, but her smile was wide and her eyes were awake.
"I had no where else to go. I need your help."
At once, Rose willed on the light and gestured to the empty bed on the other side of the room. "My roommate graduated. Go ahead."
Gema made herself comfortable and shook her head clear before beginning. "I need your help," she repeated. She explained that the mission that Gema had told everyone that she was on wasn't real, but her real assignment was ending. "I can't tell you exactly what it was, but when you meet them, you'll understand."
Gema deflected the questions that Rose asked, and then sat waiting. Rose frowned and cocked her head, but nodded for Gema to continue. Gema explained that she was being reassigned and that her heart was breaking because she didn't want the twins to realise what was happening, that when they returned, she would not be returning with them.
"If I'm going to spend a last good day with them, I can't do it alone. I need you to keep me on track, to hold me together."
Rose, so unlike White, answered immediately. "Yes, I'll help you." Her eyes were now awake and she reached over to Gema, hugging her.
Gema knew that she needed it, but some part of her made her pull away from Rose after the girl fell asleep. She dismissed the lights and crawled into the spare bed with her clothes on. And although she knew that she needed it, she couldn't close her eyes.