Chapter 1, Part B
(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014
It was dark when they left the prison, and Caryn’s heart was heavy in her chest. She had known for some time that the Steffians hated her but had thought it no more than rhetoric and propaganda. Knowing that her department had been specifically targeted, that the police had barely managed to stop it —
“Do not concern yourself with that man, my lady,” Hans said. He kept one hand on his rifle, as always. The other he offered to steady her steps along the cobblestones. She was not tall, but Hans had always been good about slowing his strides to match hers.
“I was a target,” she said.
“You’ve been a target your entire career. That is what makes you who you are.”
“It’s also what keeps you employed,” Caryn told him. They turned a corner and headed for a small square, less deserted than the area around the prison.
“The Steffians are like gnats,” Hans declared. “They bite at you and they pinch at you, and when you swat them away they come back. But they’re only an irritation. I would gladly take in a thousand Steffian terrorists to have Brealand out of this war.”
Caryn grimaced, though whether at the war or at the twinge in her knee, she couldn’t say. The mood in the capital had indeed been bleak ever since Brealand had declared. The war was supposed to be nothing more than a little skirmish with Wassia, they had been told. Wassia had already committed an act of war by closing the Amimi Canal, so really, Deugan wasn’t even the aggressor. Faced with no other choice, Deugan would invade northern Wassia, then trade its land back to it to get the Canal reopened. It would all be over in a matter of a few span.
Or so the nation was told.
Months had passed. In the south, Deugan was picking up chunks of Wassian territory, but the going was slow, far too slow. In the east, the New Empire had joined the war on the Wassians’ side, forcing Deugan’s army into an embarrassing retreat from its eastern border. Now Brealand had declared, opening up a third front in the north. And that changed everything.
That, no doubt, was why the president himself had asked Caryn to see him, tonight, after dark, and Caryn could only guess what he had in mind.
Caryn and Hans passed through the square into the Hall of Columns.
It was a transformation that continued to capture Caryn’s heart after all this time. While Villasud had its historic district and Carrak-on-Sea its fascinating mix of three cultures’ architecture, Tomasburg was the only city Caryn had ever lived in where the ancient world came to life before her, flowing and melding into the modern one. From the grey stones of the prison, the concrete of office towers and the polished wood-and-glass of merchants’ shops, she needed only turn one corner to be transported to the days of the Old Empire, immersed in its rows upon rows of sculpted marble pillars. The roof of the palace had long since collapsed, and the walls had been pulled down, but the pillars still stood just as they had so many centuries ago.
The Hall of Columns opened up onto Scheil Square. The garden in the centre was quiet, a testament to the mood in the capital. Tomas Scheil, clad in stone, towered over the garden as always, but while he was normally surrounded by boys playing and women chatting and lovers strolling, tonight he looked wistful to Caryn, and sad, and alone.
Across the square from the Hall of Columns was a building twice its age and twice its height. It mingled with the marble columns of the Old Empire and the glass and wood of modern Deugan so effortlessly that it seemed to be part of them, but it was not. It was a different beauty entirely.
The giant pyramid was a monolith, a testament to the culture of their ancients that the Old Empire had failed to crush. Its twenty-nine landings were an incredible foreshadowing — some even said a prophecy — of the twenty-nine chiefdoms, kingdoms and city-states that Tomas Scheil would later cobble together to create Deugan.
To the right of the pyramid stood Government House, a much smaller building but a beautiful one in its own right. Although it was built within the last century, it had been designed cleverly, to give the impression that it was made of the same ancient stone as the pyramid.
Government House was where Caryn and Hans were headed. They walked through a long entranceway lined with statues of Deugan heroes, then passed underneath a massive pointed archway. One did not, Caryn had learned long ago, build rounded arches in Tomasburg.
Once they had passed through the main security checkpoint, Caryn took her leave of Hans. “Double-check the precautions at Grunvell Block,” she told him. “That Steffian may have had others working with him. Thank you for your service, as always.”
Hans smiled and bowed. “A pleasure as always, my lady. I will return within the hour.”
And there was nothing to do but see the president.
She couldn’t understand why she was nervous. Caryn and the president had been friends and allies for years. He had helped get her the Treasury Chief post that had catapulted her to fame — or infamy, depending who you asked — and she had campaigned harder than anyone for his own election. It was the war, Caryn told herself. That was why nothing felt quite right, not even old friendships. It was the war.
She knocked on his door and bowed to him as he opened it. He gave her a terse bow in return and motioned her to a chair. She sat as he closed the door behind her.
The president looked terrible. There were dark bags under his eyes, and he grimaced as he walked to his desk, keeping a hand to his head. He’d been drinking, Caryn realized with dismay. He had gained several pounds, too, and it was starting to show in his face. Not a year ago the president had looked a fighter and acted that part too, but the war was tiring him, and the declaration from Brealand had hit him like a fist in the gut.
He sat down across from her. “You were right,” he said without introduction. “Out of all my advisors, all the generals — you have no military background. Only a couple years in foreign affairs. How did you know?”
“I have been giving you my reasons all along, Mr. President,” she answered.
“You know you don’t need to call me that, Caryn,” he said. He tried to smile but only succeeded in twisting his face sickly. “We’re friends. Remember?”
“I do remember,” Caryn said softly, but the feeling in her gut grew more intense, not less. She felt as though she was sitting across from the Steffian again. The president had called her here for a reason, and dread, unspoken, hung in the air.
“Do you remember when you first applied here?” the president asked. “The financial superstar? You had the reputation, all right, but they still called old Dieter crazy. A woman, in charge of the treasury.” He managed a real smile this time. “Dieter was brilliant, the way he spun it. If you’re against Caryn Hallom you’re against democracy, he said! You’re against equality, freedom! But I told Dieter, you can’t take a person whose every move is already being scrutinized and try to make her into some sort of symbol. It’s too much pressure.”
“I appreciated your concern,” was all Caryn said. Careful. An old friend he might be, but he was the president now.
“You proved Dieter right, damn you,” the president said. “You handled it. And maybe you never were a symbol. But you handled his trying to make you one. So now I have to give you a job that has even more pressure, because I don’t know anybody else who can do it.” He stopped, leaned across his desk and said softly, “or who I can trust.”
Caryn tensed in spite of herself. He had often said, since the war began, that she should have been president instead of him. Of course she never would have been elected. The president and his predecessor Dieter had had enough trouble making the public accept a woman in unelected positions. When Dieter first stuck his neck out to give her the treasury job, one of the religious parties had stormed out of his coalition, forcing an election that Dieter nearly lost. There had been scathing newspaper columns, mad ravings against her in Senate debates, even death threats. If the president did something rash, like appointing a woman with no military experience to an army oversight post, the people would rebel. She had heard stories of the front lines, of the trenches, of the artillery barrages that lasted days without pause, of the machine gun fire, of the step-by-step, position-by-position advancements in Wassia. The parents and friends of the boys on the front had no doubt heard these stories too. The president had to maintain their confidence.
Caryn took a deep breath and waited.
“You told me Brealand entering the war was inevitable,” the president said. “Maybe you were right. But all of my senior advisors and all of the top generals told me Brealand would stay out. Why? Caryn, hundreds of thousands of the New Empire’s soldiers are stationed within my borders, and there’s a fleet of Brea warships massing in the north harbours, but what keeps me awake at night is the thought that my own generals have been lying to me. If I can be crass, I wonder if they wanted to measure their cocks against Brealand’s and fooled me into letting them.”
“Do you really believe that?” Caryn forgot formality for a moment. She had been against this war from the start, but the president’s accusation was startling. Suddenly the Tomasburg dusk seemed even darker.
“The generals are fighting this war now for their own reasons,” the president said. “I don’t know what those reasons are, and at this point it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I am the commander-in-chief of Deugan’s armed forces, and I can’t trust what my own generals tell me about what’s happening on the front. But I do trust you.” The president sighed and looked away. “I need you to go to the Gateway Fort and see it for yourself.”
“General Freed’s turned the Gateway into his personal little fiefdom,” the president spat. “I need to know what’s going on.”
“And you’re asking me?” Caryn said incredulously. “To inspect a military fort? You know I don’t know anything about —”
“You’re intelligent,” the president interrupted. “You’re wise. You’re kind. You’re loyal. You’re the last person in Deugan I would want to send somewhere dangerous. Which is why I have to, may the Gods forgive me.”
Caryn stared at this man who had been her friend. Who was still her friend. Who was being killed by this war just as surely as the boys in Wassia.
“Mr. President,” Caryn said. “I’m your foreign minister. There is a lot of diplomatic work still to be done in the Fringes, to put pressure on the New Empire. The Wassians may be willing to talk now too. That’s where I should be. Not on the front lines.”
“I know that,” the president said. “Gods forgive me, I know that. But if I don’t know the facts, if I can’t trust General Freed, then how do I negotiate? How do I know what to demand and what to concede? Caryn, how do we build a peace if we’re at war with ourselves?”
The feeling in the pit of her stomach was growing. She felt herself tensing. But all she could think to say was, “I don’t know, Georg.”
He smiled. “Nobody calls me by my real name anymore.”
“I’ll help you, Georg. We’ll get through this. We’ll get Deugan through this.”
“Thank you,” the president replied. Then he paused, and the look on his face was sheepish. For a brief moment he was young. “I’ve already assembled a team for you. You can meet them in the morning.”
Caryn couldn’t sleep that night. She’d said yes. Why had she said yes? It was difficult to refuse the president, but all the same…
She sighed and tried to turn her mind away from the Gateway. She thought instead about her old memory, and Jayla, and how Jayla had invoked her parents to explain how she used the Well’s power. If Caryn rarely thought about the cavern and her life as Jayla, she thought about her parents still less. Funny, she now mused, how her father was always so busy and anxious, her mother so sad and lonely. Neither of them had seen any real problems in their lives; neither one had been trapped in a Well; neither one had been to a war zone. Her father with his fortune, her mother with her name and connections, they had nothing of any consequence to fight over. Yet they had fought constantly, and Caryn, even as a child, had understood why.
That was her real mission now, she knew, no matter what the president said. She wasn’t just meeting General Freed to see the defences at the fort. She was meeting him to try to understand why he was fighting.
She was meeting him to stop this war.
Next chapter: Chapter 2, Part A
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