Chapter 2, Part A

(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014

The weather grew hotter as they pushed further north, and the train car was stifling. Whether from the heat or from the tensions in Tomasburg, Caryn felt tiredness wash over her. She was just starting to doze when she felt the train shudder and then grind to a halt. Nearby, she saw Janusz’s head jerk upward; Lana laid a bundle of papers into a briefcase and pressed her face against the window.

They had stopped in what appeared to be a small town, though the view from Caryn’s window did not allow her to guess which one. There were not supposed to be any stops before they reached the Fort.

Caryn glanced from Hans to Reimund. “A fighter almost as fierce as myself,” Hans had described the other guard when they’d met back in Tomasburg. “I would trust him with my life, and with things more valuable still, like yours.” Reimund rarely spoke, and Caryn had yet to get the measure of the man, but Hans had been her bodyguard for half a decade. If he trusted Reimund, so could she.

Just now, though, Reimund looked as confused and wary as any of them. Caryn took it as a bad sign. Hans’ face, on the other hand, was impassive as usual.

“Marwin,” Caryn said. The boy was sitting just in front of her. He wheeled around at the sound of his name. “Do you know why we’ve stopped?”

Marwin shook his head. “We’ve passed the junction at Czemers, which means we must be up in Gateway Province.”

“Has the Gateway been attacked? Or is there a problem with the train?”

“I’ve had no more word than you, my lady,” Marwin replied.

“Then find word,” Caryn said. The boy was clever, Caryn had discovered, but he lacked initiative. She needed to guide him by the hand. “Ask the conductor, and find out the name of this town. Go.”

A span had passed since her meeting with the president, and she could not recall hearing a shred of good news in all that time. The New Empire had pushed back a section of Deugan’s trenches in the east; the Wassians had stalled their offensive in the south; and in the north, Brealand loomed. Nobody knew which rumours about the Breas were true. Caryn could safely reject some of the more outlandish — that they had steel in their bones which could deflect bullets, that their airplanes could carry tons of explosives across long distances to drop on enemy positions — but whether they were planning an amphibious assault, a build-up in the northwest, or a headlong charge through the Gateway where Caryn was headed, was anybody’s guess.

When Marwin was gone, Caryn turned to Janusz and Lana. They were her team, such as it was, and they were not the team Caryn would have chosen on her own. “I had to be subtle about this, Caryn, you must see that,” the president had told her the morning after their meeting. He had become happier overnight, almost giddy. “I needed to find people on the political side who would still know enough about the military to be useful to you. They’ll be great. Trust me.”

Janusz was a tall man in his early thirties. He had the dark complexion so typical in Deugan, a shaved head and a closely cropped black beard. He was a big man, too. Janusz had told her that before his foray into political life he had worked ten years excavating oil in Deugan’s northwest. It made him more muscular than a political aide had any right to be.

Lana was the opposite, a slender girl several years younger than Janusz, who looked like a strong gust of wind might blow her away. She had long, straight brown hair with the bangs cut to curl around the top of her forehead. Her face was plain and her dress formal, but she fanned herself with a gaudy multicoloured fan that had no doubt been imported from across the ocean.

Caryn wished she had a fan. Since they’d stopped moving, the train was getting even hotter, if anything. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow. “Can you believe Amim had a blizzard last span?” she found herself asking. Amim, at the southwestern tip of the Continent, had been Wassia’s most prized colony until it declared independence at the outset of the war. Deugan needed what allies it could find, and with Amim, they could press the Wassians from north and south at once.

“I heard the storm broke up a Wassian attack,” Janusz put in. “They had to abandon thirty pieces of artillery when the Amimi countered. Thanks to the Gods,” he added, and Lana nodded, biting her lip.

Lana was always quiet in public. They had met three years earlier, when Caryn was the head of the Treasury Department and Lana had been assigned there on a college internship. Even then, years after Caryn and some of her contemporaries had broken the ground, Lana remained one of the few women in the Treasury, and she had turned to Caryn as a guide and mentor. As soon as she had a chance, Lana had transferred to Foreign Affairs, perhaps to follow her. In a way, Caryn was glad she had someone with her she knew and trusted, but she would have been far more comfortable had the girl remained in Tomasburg. The capital was well defended, and the Gateway … well, if the president hadn’t had serious doubts, he wouldn’t have sent Caryn on this inspection in the first place. Caryn had no idea why the president had assigned Lana to accompany her to a military fort and had a sneaking suspicion Lana had been foolish enough to request the opportunity.

Now she looked scared. “Do you really think the Gateway’s been attacked, my lady?”

“I don’t know,” Caryn said. “Last we heard, Brealand was building up its forces in the west. But that might have been a ruse.”

“They’ll attack in the west,” Janusz declared. “Their strength is on the sea and they’ll want to hit our oil. Why would they come through the Gateway in the northeast?”

“What if they do both?” Lana asked uneasily.

“Let’s all calm down,” Caryn said. “It’s probably just a mechanical problem with the train.”

They sat in silence for some time, sweating in the northern heat, straining to make out the muffled voices that they could now hear from outside the train. Finally Marwin returned, dragging the conductor with him. “No attack,” the boy announced, breathless. “No train problems either. We’ve stopped here because our own soldiers have blocked us.”

“Our own soldiers?” Janusz demanded angrily. “Don’t they know the foreign minister is onboard?”

“They’re digging trenches,” Marwin replied.

“Trenches?” Caryn said, incredulous. “Why would we need trenches this far from the front? Unless we have been attacked?”

“The captain said there was no attack,” Marwin insisted hotly. Then, suddenly remembering, he added a mumbled, “My lady.”

“I can explain, my lady,” the conductor jumped in. He was a short, portly man. “This town is called Hermannsburg. It lies in the centre of the Hermann Gap.” He pointed out the window. “Do you see those mountains, my lady?”

Caryn looked. In the distance, beyond the train station, they rose in a smooth line, their reddish-brown peaks jutting toward the sky. “That way is north, so they can only be the Williston Mountains,” she said. “The Selliar range is to the southeast.”

The conductor nodded. “As you know, my lady, the Gateway is a path linking Brealand to Deugan, bounded by the two mountain ranges. The Gateway Fort guards one end of path, and the Hermann Gap lies across the other. A trench line across the gap is a precautionary measure. In the event the fort falls, we can still keep the enemy bottled up in the Gateway.”

Caryn looked back to Marwin. “Is that your understanding?”

Marwin nodded excitedly. “That’s what I was told. They’ve been ordered to set it up now. They say it’ll be impregnable.”

“Nothing is impregnable,” Janusz snorted.

“It’s on high ground and the Hermann Gap is tiny,” Marwin shot back. “Half of the trench is in the foothills of the mountains already.”

“You’re exaggerating. That gap’s a lot wider than —”

“Never mind all that,” Caryn interrupted. “How soon can we be moving again?”

“The captain in charge has given orders to remove the obstruction at once,” the conductor replied. “It will take some time, though.” He fanned himself with his hand. “There was a pleasant breeze out in Hermannsburg.”

“I want to see the trench,” Marwin said excitedly.

“Then go,” Caryn said. “I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs and seeing the town.” Janusz and Lana both murmured their approval. “Reimund, please remain here. Hans, come with us.”

Hermannsburg proved to be a larger town than Caryn expected. A grand cobblestone plaza spread before the train station. Large marble statues of men on horseback overlooked the square’s two main entrances. Townsfolk were milling about, some standing and chatting, some carrying baskets of fruits or trade goods, others leading horses or, in one case, a goat and a donkey that did not seem to enjoy each other’s company. At the centre of the square stood a large fountain, and Caryn heard the shouts of children splashing in it to avoid the heat. Gazing at the scene, she would never have guessed that trenches were being dug outside the town’s limits.

At the far end of the square stood the town hall, an elaborate structure of brick, clay and sandstone. A pair of stone tigers guarded the doors. From the edges of its roof flew a series of small yellow flags with a black device on them that Caryn could not make out. The banners were triangles, their points fluttering in the mountain breeze.

Janusz noticed them too. “Pre-Unification flags,” he warned in his gruff voice. “These people may not be happy to see politicians from Tomasburg.”

“The regions enjoy showing off their local pride,” Caryn said softly. “I wouldn’t think anything of those flags. They fly the Wheel in its rightful place, high above the others.”

It was true. The roof of the town hall sloped up on all four sides to reach a single point, from which emerged a tall flagpole bearing an enormous blue banner. In white print in its centre was a circle, divided like a pie into twenty-nine equal slices. The central point where the slices met was emphasized with a dash of red, giving the false impression that the device was meant to depict a giant wheel. In fact, Deugan’s flag was symbolic, the traditional triangular banners of the myriad pre-Unification states, all come together to form a unified whole.

Janusz was unimpressed. “Local pride is one thing in peacetime,” he muttered. “Those differences have to be put aside now.” He gave Caryn a strange look as he said it, as though challenging her to disagree.

Carefully, she rose to his bait. “I believe that if we suppressed our differences, we would be no better than Brealand. Or the Steffians.”

The big man shrugged. “Anyhow, I barely notice the breeze out here, and I think I see a temple down that street, past the statue. Perhaps we can move our explorations out of the sun.”

Lana nodded excitedly at that idea, fanning herself vigorously, so they took off in the direction Janusz had pointed. The cobblestones ended as soon as they left the square. The roads here were packed dirt, and narrow. Squat, single-storey buildings lined them, some made of brick, most of wood. Above the buildings the mountains towered. Their red-brown peaks formed Deugan’s border with Brealand, and where they tapered off in the west they were replaced by a vast, unyielding desert. Although maps showed that the two neighbours shared a lengthy land border, for all practical purposes the Gateway was the only overland route for more than three hundred leagues.

The temple was larger than any other building they had seen in Hermannsburg, with a lengthy antechamber leading into a wide five-sided hall. It did not look like much from the outside, but the interior had been decorated with polished wood and stone statues, with golden embroidery and muralled walls, high windows and stained glass.

The main hall of the temple was empty but for a handful of people kneeling on cushions that had been set below each of the chamber’s five walls. Janusz strode immediately to the wall painted for Eolanis, the god of justice. The god’s likeness itself would never be painted, but the gold and purple themes and the depictions of thrones and staffs left no doubt. She saw Lana hesitate, then turn toward Seppina’s wall and kneel.

Caryn wandered instead to the centre of the hall, where a raised platform stood, surrounded by rows upon rows of benches. She stood there for some time, gazing at the beauty of the temple and marvelling at its wealth. Her homeland of Wassia had no need for gods, and the Deugan obsession with their temples continued to fascinate her.

“Will your next career be as a preacher, my lady?”

Caryn started, but it was just Lana, grinning as she brushed her hair from her face. Caryn smiled back. “After years as a politician, it might be a pleasant alternative. I’d love to speak to a roomful of people and have them actually believe me,” she joked. “I don’t think this is my place, though.”

“Lessandro makes a place for everyone,” Lana said.

“Yet you knelt before Seppina just now.”

Lana shrugged. “I can’t go to Lessandro all the time. The others would feel left out.” She winked. Then her eyes settled on a wall painted with the silvery sheen of iron and steel, and the red-brown of brick and earth. “Truth be told, I usually visit Carmel. She’s an inspiration. The woman who creates. Who gets her hands dirty. The one who men fear, for whatever she builds, she may also destroy. The divine representation of a woman’s strength.” Lana grinned again. “I heard that somewhere. Can’t quite place it…”

Caryn laughed. “Yes, yes. Please, go on, quote me the wise words of Caryn Hallom.” She didn’t have to believe in their religion to see how useful its imagery could be. “You’re aware I don’t actually write my own speeches, right?”

“Well, aides have to stay employed somehow,” Lana replied lightly. Then her tone grew more sombre. “I will pray to Carmel tonight,” she said. “In the coming days, we may need someone who can destroy.”

“No,” Caryn said. “We have enough of those. We need one who can build.”

As if on cue, Hans appeared at their side wearing a dark look. “My lady, we should leave,” he said. “Now.”

 

***

Next chapter: Chapter 2, Part B

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You may also wish to read this sample together with the Map of the Continent.

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