The second part of my latest sample offering:
Plots and Plans - Part II
Mikhan Edric Annada, lately Marshal of Marka and now restored to his previous position as Marshal of Sandester, clasped his hands behind his back and stared out of the window across the city.
'Ranva's breath, but he had missed this view.
His office, despite being near the palace, looked towards the bone-white turrets of the South Gate, the most impressive entrance to any city he had ever seen. Sure, Marka had its massive and awe-inspiring pyramid, but its entry gates were nothing special.
Sandester's South Gate was also known as the Pauper Gate because of the old tradition of expelling beggars and ne'er-do-wells from the city through it. Not a tradition exercised today of course, in these humane and kindly times.
But seeing the gate reinforced the knowledge that he had come home.
"Two years, Paul," Mikhan said, still looking out the window. "Two years and it's gone in a flash."
Mikhan's companion in the room stirred as the marshal turned away from the window.
Field-Captain Paul Tennan shrugged. "At least you are back now," he replied, dark eyes thoughtful. Married to Mikhan's oldest granddaughter, he suspected that his promotion to field-captain was partly due to that fact. "Any more thoughts on who to promote general?"
Mikhan's blue eyes twinkled. "Think you are ready for it?"
"Me?" Paul gaped. "I'm much too young."
"And more use at your present rank." Mikhan laughed. "Age is immaterial, experience and skill are more important. I took overall command of the army before I reached forty. Only a couple of years older than you are now when promoted to general."
"Bloodier times," muttered Paul.
"And incompetent leaders," added Mikhan. He gestured out the window. "Marcus Vintner Elder managed to besiege the city for a year and it needed new tactics to break him. But break him we did, and the incompetents were cleared out."
"Or dead," added Paul. He did not add breaking that siege had sealed Mikhan's reputation as a poliorcetic.
"We nearly lost everything to Marcus Senior," continued Mikhan. Salin. I lost my beautiful daughter. Thirty years and the pain feels fresh every time I think of her. "Imagine Calcan gaining control over all the ships passing in to or out from the Bay of Plenty, owning both Horns of Ramte."
"I imagine those Vintners might have the Throne by now," said Paul.
"Very likely. But we threw them out of Sandester and they've never been back. The younger Marcus doesn't have the same fire as his father. More diplomat and politician than warrior, but no less dangerous for that."
"You worry that he might replace Zenepha as emperor?" asked Paul.
"He will replace Zenepha. And Nazvasta will rebel against him."
"And remove him from the Throne?"
Mikhan's shoulders slumped. "That is the stated aim," he replied.
Mikhan smiled again. "Very perceptive. Sure you're not ready for that generalship? Maybe I should offer it to Drecan, or Indelgar."
"Indelgar might be the wisest choice," said Paul, eagerly seizing a straw. "Not related to you and very experienced."
"My question?" prompted Paul.
"I don't think Nazvasta will be able to take the Markan Throne without fighting unless he moves before Zenepha steps down. And he won't do that, because he offered his fealty. Marka's Senate stands behind the sylph, but enough of them support Marcus should Zenepha fall. Marcus is there, in place, and ready. He's been politicking hard for two years. The best we can hope for is some sort of continued independence for Sandester, reinforced with military victories."
"Some will see that as defeatism," said Paul. "So many are tired of war."
"I know." Mikhan nodded. "But the reality is that war is inevitable when politics fail. Trouble is, I believe that Nazvasta agrees with me, even if he dare not admit to it openly."
"What is it you want me to do?"
"Do?" Mikhan's smile widened. "You carry on as normal, but we must help Nazvasta in any way we can. Kana is pushing Nazvasta hard to pursue the claim. She believes that it is his duty, especially since Verdin is standing by his father's renunciation. But whether Nazvasta has the drive and determination to win through is the bit we don't know. The last thing we need, if we must offer our lives, is weak leadership."
"So there is still hope that we can win?" Paul's dark eyes showed his renewed excitement.
"Of course we can win." Mikhan spread his arms. "There is always hope."
Three barrack blocks and a cookhouse surrounded the square. Men formed an inner square, watching the last two men fight with practice-swords. They might learn something while witnessing the fight. Among the junior soldiers, these were the best swordsmen.
Using both hands on the practice-sword, Egran danced. Swordplay and dancing were similar, though one of the two skills was a lot more deadly. His opponent boasted excellent skills, and a telltale line of red across Egran's side showed where a hit had been scored, and where a fresh bruise would soon swell.
Many of these men hailed from Egran's Re Taura, but the rest hailed from other lands. Even a smattering of Sandesterans, who had returned home from Re Taura and joined their own land's army.
Egran turned on his feet, feinted to one side, then whipped his flexible practice-sword against the other side of his opponent's chest, kept on moving and slashed again across the man's back.
"Enough!" The sergeant overseeing the session clapped his hands.
Both men stepped back and inclined their heads.
Sergeant Tresker, Blade Trainer for Sandester's army, came forward.
"An excellent display, from both of you."
Both men inclined their heads again, but remained silent.
"Especially you, Egran. I feel a promotion might come your way very quickly."
"Yes Sergeant, thank you Sergeant." By 'Ranva, but Egran hated this submission. He hoped that promotion would come quickly; he disliked starting again in a new army.
"Right, you shower!" called Tresker. "Dismissed. You've got thirty minutes to get cleaned up for your evening meal."
Inside, at the row of wash basins, Egran found himself beside another Re Tauran with the look of a grizzled veteran.
"Wasn't you a red-tabber?" asked the other man, voice little more than a growl.
"That was then," replied Egran. "Just an ordinary soldier now."
A quick grin and flash of strong teeth. "World turns in funny ways," grunted the other man. "Thought you lot would've been looked after."
Egran snorted. "Once the old mametain was back in charge, he had no need for us," he replied. "He doesn't trust us; we were Nijen's men."
"Not much left of Castle Beren, so I hear," chuckled the other man.
"All the mametain's quarters are gone," said Egran. "But the castle is still garrisoned, if no longer by us."
The other man rinsed soap off his face and dried himself. He buttoned up his shirt and stuck his hand out.
"Name's Kullin," he said. "Used to be a lieutenant. Like I said, world turns in funny ways. Yesterday I used the arse-rags, today I'm the arse-rag."
"I'm Egran." He shook the other's hand. "Like you said, the world turns in funny ways, but I reckon some of us can make something of what we've got now."
Kullin chuckled. "Like your attitude," he said. "We can make this our army, if we try."
The two men sat together for their evening meal.
"So what did happen at Castle Beren?" asked Kullin, while chewing on something that might even have been meat. "At the end I mean. It didn't just fall down."
Egran considered his words carefully. "Nobody is really sure. Some reckon a secret weapon, planted by spies. Others say sorcerers at work."
Kullin took another bite. "What do you reckon?"
Egran's smile looked more like a rictus. Nobody would believe the truth. He wasn't sure he believed it. "Spies," he said. "That's my favorite." Nearly the truth. He didn't dare add those spies were sylphs.
Kullin's gray eyes regarded his companion neutrally. "Spies with a secret weapon?"
"There's talk here about a secret weapon," said Kullin. "Reckon these were the ones who tried it on Castle Beren first?"
Egran shrugged. "So long as they pay us, I don't really care."
Kullin smiled. "Some of those who fought alongside Marka say there's a weapon that rips men to shreds."
Egran stared. "That sounds like it," he said, pleased for the diversion.
One of the cooks stuck his head into the dining hall, saving Egran from further questions. "If anyone wants more, he'd best come through now."
Kern Ranja Tulhern blinked myopically at Marshal Mikhan and gestured towards some black powder.
"I've managed to duplicate your sample, Marshal," he said, voice surprisingly deep for such an inoffensive looking man. "A question of getting the charcoal crushed finely enough and in correct proportion with the other ingredients."
"Excellent." Mikhan smiled. He recognized Marka's advantage as long as they held the monopoly for producing Aylos Jalan's firepowder. "It is now only a question of allocating resources for industrial manufacture. How long before you might arrange a demonstration?"
"Demonstration. Um. Yes. Well, er..." Kern blinked again. "Maybe in an hour?"
Mikhan laughed. "I feared you were about to say week after next," he replied. "It will take me a day or two to gather the right people. When I have, I'll let you know."
Kern smiled. "More resources always sound good, Marshal."
"I'm sure they do." Mikhan's deep-set blue eyes glittered. "Just don't let me down."
"Of course not, Marshal." The blinks came faster now and Kern dry-washed his hands. "You can rely on me. That you can."
Mikhan's smile warmed. "So glad to hear it," he murmured. He hoped the small man never saw his relief. Armies fighting without firepowder would be severely disadvantaged in future.
A modern army needed another secret weapon, and that was Mikhan's next destination.