Chapter 3, Part B

(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014

Although the general’s quarters were only one corridor down from her own, he maintained a separate office near the communications hub in the centre of the fort. Caryn set off well in advance of their scheduled meeting, hoping she would be able to navigate the maze of concrete corridors and tunnels.

The Gateway Fort was not a single structure, Caryn had learned during her tour that morning. There was a large main fortress, but just as important were the five satellite forts arranged in a semicircle to the north. Each of the satellites was connected to the main fort by underground tunnels. The satellites were armed to the teeth with an assortment of 100- and 150-millimetre guns on rotating turrets, as well as smaller artillery pieces and machine guns. The main fort’s gunnery housed even larger weapons, 210-millimetre howitzers as well as more conventional artillery with significant range. An army attacking any satellite could be fired on by at least one other satellite and by the large guns on the main fort. As if that weren’t enough, a dry moat protected by barbed wire guarded the northern boundary of the emplacement.

Inside the main fort, Caryn had been guided past barrack halls large enough to support a garrison of five thousand soldiers. She was told that the satellites could accommodate another thousand men each, for a total garrison of ten thousand. Captain Toppel, however, had said that only half that number was stationed there. “We will have new recruits within the month,” Toppel promised, “but the declaration from Brealand caught us by surprise, and the other fronts are being given priority.”

The tour had next taken them underground, where they’d passed vast storerooms of food, arms and ammunition that seemed to run on forever. Caryn was impressed at the extent of the refrigeration units the fort had acquired, extending from wall to wall across two long rooms, although the majority of the food was either tinned or salted or both.

Back above ground was a five-sided chapel overseen by a jovial old chaplain, and a medical bay staffed by two military doctors and a team of nurses, the only women besides Lana that Caryn had seen since arriving at the Fort. Finally, Toppel showed her the communications hub, where Caryn was headed now. It was a large room with rows upon rows of telegraph machines resting on wooden tables. Wires ran from the telegraphs to a large metallic board on the wall that contained a number of knobs and dials. “We are connected by wire directly to Tomasburg, and from there throughout Deugan,” her guide had explained. “We also have wireless telegraphy capabilities, but we avoid it when we can because it’s less secure. We do have encryption machines, but codes can be broken.”

When Caryn arrived at General Freed’s office, he was looking over a thick black dossier. He closed it when he heard Caryn knock on his open door. “Minister Hallom,” he said. “Please. Come in.”

The general was a tall man of perhaps sixty years. His hair had gone grey, but it gave him a stately, distinguished look. He stood behind his desk and bowed to her when she entered, causing his numerous medals to jingle softly. Caryn gave a quick bow in return, then sat herself in a chair across from him.

“General, let me begin by thanking you for your hospitality,” she said. “I trust we have not been too great an interference.”

“Not at all,” the general said, but his tone was cold and his eyes piercing. Caryn took a deep breath. In years past she had hoped that with enough experience, these meetings would stop terrifying her. As a girl she’d been great with people. Jayla had a way of putting everybody at ease, of mediating the fights between her parents, of drawing Brenner out of his shell. It wasn’t that she’d lost the skill, but she felt less at ease now when using it. Or maybe, she considered, there was just more at stake.

She waited patiently for her initial fear to subside. When it did, as it always did, she found herself perfectly on edge, the type of anxiety that would make her perform.

“General, as you know, the president has asked me to report to him on the state of the Fort. Not just our defences, but also anything else I might learn about the northern front.”

The general’s voice remained cold. “Northern Command sends daily reports by telegraph to Joint Staff Headquarters in Tomasburg. Headquarters reports directly to the Office of the President. The president is the president, and I’m not denying he can send his foreign minister wherever he wants, even if she doesn’t know the first thing about military tactics. But quite frankly, I don’t know what information I can give you that he doesn’t already have.”

“I realize I don’t have a background in military tactics,” Caryn said politely. It was a trick she’d learned many years ago when dealing with difficult bosses in the Treasury. Agreeing with your opponent would often throw him off balance, and sometimes that was just what you needed. “What I would like to know, General, are your personal thoughts on this war. The sorts of things that might not make it into your daily reports.”

“Minister Hallom, I don’t know if you politicians go around Tomasburg talking about your personal feelings, but I’m a soldier. What I think is irrelevant.”

“I didn’t say a word about feelings,” Caryn shot back. Men could be so predictable. “I’m talking about the shelling today and what you think it means. Is it a prelude to an attack on the Gateway? Is it a diversion for an attack elsewhere?”

“We are preparing for either contingency,” the general said, “but a full strength garrison would help us immensely.”

Caryn smiled. The general had started by trying to intimidate her, but now he was changing his tune. There were things he wanted, he was hinting, and he might be willing to help her in order to get them.

“I will certainly stress the need to supplement our garrison when I report to the president,” she promised. She still needed a way to push back at him, though. The president thought the military was being dishonest, but how could she test that? “General, in preparation for my current assignment, I read the reports from Joint Staff Headquarters going back several months. I don’t know if you’ve seen how Tomasburg edits your reports, but you would find it striking how little bad news we receive.”

“Perhaps you should thank your generals for doing such a good job.” For the first time, Caryn saw a hint of a smile.

“You have done an excellent job,” she assured him. “Northern Wassia is ours and we continue to make southward progress. The eastern front has stabilized and we have been throwing back the New Empire’s attacks at a fraction of our enemy’s casualties.” She smiled. “Or so we are told. We have no way to verify the military’s casualty numbers. We have no way to judge how strong our grip is in Wassia. Do you understand our predicament, General?”

“I do,” Freed snapped. “Your predicament is that you have a president who refuses to trust his advisers. With all due respect, the solution isn’t to send a former treasury chief to look over our shoulders. I suppose what the president really ought to do is fire the lot of us and replace us all with people he trusts more. You can suggest that to him in your report, if you’d like.” He took a deep breath, and when he spoke again, his voice was calmer. “Minister, our reports are genuine. I’m sitting on the front lines, telling him what I’m seeing and thinking and planning, and I get nothing back from Tomasburg but suspicion.”

Caryn eyed him carefully across his desk. Could she trust him? Was the president really paranoid? The two men were political enemies, after all. The general had publicly supported the president’s chief opponent in the last campaign.

But the general’s optimism just didn’t fit with all of the news that had been flooding Tomasburg. They were fighting a war on three fronts, for Lessandro’s sake, and most of their armies were in the south and the east. Who would they send to the northern front to fight the greatest threat of them all? Brealand had the finest navies on the Continent. Its armies were supremely disciplined. With so much of Deugan’s strength tied up elsewhere … the more Caryn thought about it, the more hopeless it seemed.

What would Jayla do? Ever since that vivid memory had come to Caryn back in Tomasburg, she had been asking herself the question more and more often. Jayla would do what Jayla always did, she decided. Standing up to bullies, refusing to back down from intimidation, that was the way of Caryn Hallom, the so-called trailblazer. Jayla Sullivan’s way was mediation. Calming two warring parties, whether they be parents or politicians. She would find a way to make the peace that they desperately needed.

“General,” Caryn said, “perhaps if you explain your opinion to me, I can take it back to the president and try to build some trust. You may not realize it sitting in the Gateway, but the mood in Tomasburg is grim. We need hope. You’re saying you can give it to us. I’m asking you to help me by telling me, how?”

The general thought for a long moment. Then he said, “I take your point. What you need to realize is that Wassia and the New Empire aren’t threats. They’re using old tactics, like we’re still in the Unification Wars. The Wassians just don’t have the technology we have. Sooner or later they’ll collapse, I promise you. The New Empire does have modern weapons, but no clue how to use them. We’ve developed defensive tactics that are as close to flawless as you can get. Double or triple trench lines, barbed wire, machine guns, heavy artillery. Their offensive is effectively over.” He grimaced. “But your president still doesn’t trust us.”

She ignored the last bit. “What about the north? What about an attack through the Gateway? I understand we have a whole string of forts in the northwest, but here there’s only the one. And it seems to me that with the satellites all arranged to the north, there isn’t much protection against an attack through the Gateway Well.”

Freed looked at her incredulously. “Have you ever been in a Well, Minister?”

“Of course not,” Caryn lied. She was so practiced at hiding her past now that her indignation was almost reflexive.

“The Well is not an open expanse of ground,” the general told her. “It’s a maze of ridges and caverns. It would be difficult to manoeuvre an army through and coalesce it into a legitimate attack at the other end. Bringing large artillery pieces along would be next to impossible. In any event, if an attack did materialize out of the Well, it would run straight into fire from the main fort and Seppina, at least.”

“Seppina?” Caryn asked, confused. Then she realized. “Oh, you mean the satellite fort that’s farthest east. I’d wondered if you chose five satellites for the five Gods. Let me guess,” she said in the sort of teasing tone Jayla might have used on Brenner. “The one smack in the centre, with the largest arsenal, is Armano. The fiery God of War leading Deugan’s charge against the atheist Breas.”

Freed’s reaction was not at all what Caryn expected. He pursed his lips and stared at her across his desk before softly saying, “Actually, Minister, you’re wrong.”

The general hesitated, and when he spoke again, it was with unexpected emotion. “No doubt you would have been right if this fort had been built by the Old Empire, the Orastan Empire, which scarcely knew a year of peace in all its centuries. The empire thrived on war and conquest — but Deugan grew out of its experience as a colony of Orastus. We may still speak the Orastan language to this day, we may still follow the old Orastan gods, but we do not believe what the Orastans believed. Our values are liberty, and equality, and democracy, and justice. Justice most of all. That is what Brealand threatens, those very foundations of our society. And that, Minister, is why the central satellite is named for Eolanis, God of Justice, and why Armano sits at his right hand side. Because power should serve the cause of justice, not the other way around.”

“I apologize,” Caryn said quietly when Freed’s speech was done. “I did not mean to offend.”

“No offence was taken,” Freed said. “The simple point I am trying to convey to you is that you and I should not be enemies. The only problem here, as far as I am concerned, is that the president doesn’t trust me. Only the Gods know why. We’re on the same side.” He pounded the desk with his fist to punctuate his words. “We have the same values. Justice. Freedom.”

“Peace?”

“No,” Freed responded frankly. “I certainly want peace, but not at the expense of our true values. Some things are worth fighting for. Besides, you and I both know that the only reason the president wants peace is that he doesn’t think we can win.”

“Excuse me,” Caryn said with indignation. The colour was rising in her face. She knew that the general would try to intimidate her, and she had weathered the storm so far, but suddenly she was furious. Sometimes Jayla’s way didn’t work. Sometimes bullies needed to be confronted. “In one single day at Japata in Wassia we suffered 30,000 casualties. In the last nine months we’ve lost more than 500,000 men on the southern front alone. Entire villages and towns were razed to the ground and their people slaughtered when the New Empire broke through our lines. These men are dying in the most horrific ways, explosions with shrapnel and machine gun fire. On the eastern front the New Empire has sent toxic chemical gas into our trenches, and the men have been forced to cover their faces with rags soaked in their own urine. And you dare tell me the only reason I want peace is because I don’t think we can win?”

“That’s not what I told you,” General Freed said calmly. “I said that’s why the president wants peace.” Caryn froze. As much as it pained her to admit it, that just might be true. “I know nothing about your own motivations, Minister Hallom, but your passion just now speaks volumes. You strike me as a very honest person. It’s refreshing in a politician.”

“I will take that as a compliment,” she said stiffly. She was still angry at the callousness of his response. The horror of the stories was weighing on her, and here she was on the front lines herself, the dull thud of the constant shelling still ringing in her ears. She was too old for this, Caryn thought suddenly. It was not a thought she often had, having spent just more than thirty years in this life, but sometimes she felt as old as her body was after its months in the Well, as old as the aches and the pains, as old as the tiredness that tended to come on faster than ever before.

It was flooding her now. Her burst of anger at the general’s words was subsiding, leaving behind only emptiness. Caryn wondered if General Freed ever felt the same way. His body was older than hers by half a decade, she guessed, though his transition to middle age had come far more gradually.

“If I am honest, General, perhaps you will indulge me with your own honesty,” Caryn said. She was certain that her exhaustion had come through in her voice. “No jockeying or politicking. We are on the same side, after all.” She thought about her conversation with Lana, and decided to use it. “Like you, I thought Brealand would be a threat before anybody else did. Like you, I urged the powers that be to pay attention and prepare, and to avoid any wars we were not yet ready to fight. Now I must know.”

The general leaned forward in his chair and looked her in the eyes for several moments. Finally he said, “You’re asking me whether the president is right. Whether we really can win this war.”

Slowly, Caryn nodded. “I am only asking, of course, for your honest opinion.”

The general returned her nod and ran a hand over his face. Suddenly he too seemed older than his years. “In my opinion, Minister, it all depends on what you mean by winning.”

Caryn smiled. “A politician’s answer.”

“Yet an honest one. If by winning you mean that we will dominate Brealand and force the king to sue for peace, then the answer is no. We cannot win that way.” He sat up taller in his chair. “What we can do is to defeat Wassia and the New Empire, while stalemating the Breas and negotiating a peace with them that’s fair for both sides — and that recognizes the facts on the ground in the south. Amimi independence. Access to the Canal. Some practical concessions from the New Empire. I would call that a win.”

“How likely is that?”

“Likely enough,” Freed said, the harshness back in his voice. “How many times do I need to tell you that I’m being perfectly honest with you? I can deliver this victory, but I need the government behind me. I need Deugan behind me.”

“How do you expect me to get behind you when after all this talk, you still won’t give me straight answers to the simplest of questions?”

“I can deliver this victory,” the general repeated. His voice was a blade. “I can deliver it with trenches and tactics, with the defensive schemes we’ve learned from fighting the New Empire. I can deliver it with submarines, to harry Brealand’s food supplies and distract her navies. I can deliver it with men to staff this fort, and all of the forts of the north. And I can deliver it with Givanno.”

Caryn started. “Givanno?”

The general smiled, a full smile, and his face was transformed. For that split second he was no longer grizzled and angry, but kind, almost grandfatherly. Caryn found herself wondering whether he had grandchildren back in Tomasburg, or in the south of Deugan, or out by the coast. Whether he had a life he hoped to return to once this war was over.

General Freed opened a drawer, pulled out a leaf of paper, and slid it across his desk to Caryn. “I only received it this morning, so don’t tell me the military’s been hiding anything from you. I am pleased to report that as of 0900 hours, Deugan has a new ally.”

Caryn grabbed the cable and read it quickly, then read it again slowly to make sure she had gotten it right. As the words sank in, it was as though a weight the size of the Gateway Fort had been lifted from her shoulders. Givanno was the smallest of the New Empire’s colonies, the fringe of the Fringes. Largely ignored by the rest of the Continent, it was a beautiful stretch of fertile land that separated Deugan from what used to be the Old Empire. “Givanno has declared independence.”

“Indeed,” Freed replied, “and its first act as an independent state was to issue a formal declaration of war against the New Empire.” Caryn smiled. Givanno itself was barely significant, but if its bold move could convince the other Fringes to follow, then maybe this war wasn’t hopeless after all. “Minister,” Freed continued, “you may know that I was a vocal critic of the Hallom Doctrine. But now it seems that it might actually be starting to pay off, and not a moment too soon. So I’ve decided to give you something to help you celebrate.” He opened another drawer in his desk and pulled out two bottles of wine. “A fine vintage from northern Wassia, or as I now refer to it, southern Deugan.”

“Thank you,” Caryn said, taking the bottles from him. There was no point arguing about the Hallom Doctrine, she decided. She had come as close as she was likely to get to a true appraisal of their war efforts, despite the general’s hostility. Freed’s optimism and his plea for trust were genuine, Caryn realized. He truly believed that they could win.

She rose from her seat and turned to leave, and Freed bade her farewell, but for some reason she would never understand, she turned around to face the general again. He had reopened the dossier that he had been examining before her arrival, and front and centre on his desk was a full-page photograph.

A lump rose in Caryn’s throat and she struggled to keep calm. Her stomach felt like insects were crawling around inside. She moved slowly, deliberately back to Freed’s desk. The general looked at her with annoyance. “Is there something more I can help you with, Minister?”

Caryn nodded. Those cheeks. Those eyes. That jawline. And then, as if there could be any doubt, there was the birthmark —

“Who is that man?” Caryn asked weakly. She already knew the answer, of course, yet the answer shocked her.

“He is a Steffian. His name is Brenth Nono.”

It can’t be, Caryn thought, it can’t be. From Brenner to Brenth was not a great stretch, but a Steffian? Caryn had heard Nono’s name several times, but there had never been a photograph before. “What does he do for them?” she found herself asking.

“He is one of their highest-ranking members and has a seat on their governing council,” Freed replied. “I am told he is their Master of Secrets.”

“Secrets?”

“Energy. Power. Wells.” He gave Caryn a strange look, as though he was seeing her for the first time. “Sorcery.”

 

***

Next chapter: Chapter 4

If you enjoyed this sample, please consider purchasing the full novel. Thank you!

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

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