In the Service of the Republic Chapter 3

North Window

By Tillman Oxendine

Flavius Pius rushed to the main command post as fast as his horse would take him. The beautiful white charger named Sica had been sired from some of the best stock of Altinum, his homeland, and showed his lineage well; within a few minutes Flavius Pius was in front of the main Dunan command post. He gave the password to the guards, dismounted, and hurried to the meeting.

The command tent itself was large and Flavius was always amazed at how the soldiers could easily assemble and disassemble it. Riou’s guidon was posted outside, fluttering in the early morning breeze. The sentry snapped to attention and saluted as Flavius approached; Flavius returned the salute as he strode inside. Some of the other unit commanders were already there with their subordinates, including Valeria herself, who was having a conversation with Apple, the young army vice-strategist. Shu, chief strategist for the Jowston Army, cleared his voice as Flavius took his place around the situation map beside Valeria.

“Well, now that General Flavius is here,” Shu began, “we can begin our final map rehearsal.”

Flavius remembered how he and Shu first met…

…which was a few days after the Toran contingent had disembarked at Radat. The transportation had gone well; no barges had foundered in the river on the way up from the Toran Republic. The horses of the cavalry squadron were unloaded first in order that the landing could be covered. An attack from Highland forces wasn’t anticipated but the fluid nature of the war demanded that every precaution be taken.

Valeria and Flavius Pius watched the unloading from the backs of their mounts. Soldiers and deckhands struggled to get the equipment offloaded to a cacophony of swearing non-commissioned officers; the junior officers inventoried the equipment as it was moved by dockworkers to each unit’s assembly areas. There, soldiers busily re-assembled the heavy weapons and wagons.

Flavius Pius was momentarily distracted by Valeria’s auburn mane as it caught a sudden breeze. She muttered something as she pulled a rubber band out of a pouch and tied her hair back, attempting to gain control of it. “Did you say something, ma’am?” he asked innocently.

Smiling that he caught her mumbled oath, she replied, “Nothing that’s becoming of an officer and a lady, I assure you.” She turned to face Flavius. “How far are we on the unloading?”

“We’re a fifth of the way done, ma’am. The logistics people at the forward support battalion have the men working in eight-hour shifts, since the docks can handle only so much traffic to begin with. That way, nobody’s unoccupied on the docks and work can continue through the night.” Flavius paused as he brushed a mosquito from his face. “We’ll be done offloading and re-assembling everything by mid-morning the day after tomorrow if we work at this pace.”

Valeria redirected her gaze back toward the docks. “Good. We can’t hang around here; we need to get to North Window castle as soon as possible. It shouldn’t take very long to march there, a day’s march at the most. Besides, our hosts have prepared quite a reception for us, I hear.”

Flavius saluted and turned his horse towards the docks. “Let’s hope the victory celebration will be as extravagant,” he said as he rode off to make further inspections.

All went according to plan, and indeed, the Toran Army was ready to depart Radat two days later. Valeria’s cavalry squadron led the movement, its unique blood-red armor glimmering in the sun. Out of all the former elite units of the old Scarlet Moon Empire, it alone had been allowed to keep its livery during the transition to democracy in Toran. The regular foot soldiers’ armor and uniform had remained unchanged as a matter of convenience, but elite units (such as Barbarossa’s Guard, for example) had been forced to disband and give up their colors to rid the new Republic of anything that smacked of the old monarchy. Every except this one, though; it was made up of survivors from Teo McDohl’s cavalry unit after the battle at Toran Lake, in which the Imperial Great General lost his life in a duel against his own son, the rebel leader Tir. The unit had been under the joint command of Teo’s lieutenants Alan and Grenseal for much of the Gate Rune War on the side of the Liberation Army. When they accepted staff jobs in the last stages of the war, command passed to Valeria. She led the unit in the final battles with great distinction and many of the soldiers developed the same intense loyalty to her that they once had for their deceased leader. The cavalrymen won such accolades from the rebel command, demonstrated such loyalty to the Liberation Army’s ideals, and had such a rich history anyway (having been carried on the Empire’s battle rosters for many years with a record of honorable service) that it was allowed to keep its former Imperial colors and uniforms. Flavius witnessed the fighting power of this unit firsthand; he had been part of it during the conflict and the police action against Jowston following the war. In every action, Valeria was out front, exhorting her troops to ferocity. Now, she was leading her army down the road to North Window.

Within a few hours they were passing the Cave of the Wind. Sure enough, a slight wind could be felt in the vicinity of the cave; Flavius thought that the force of the wind must be tremendous inside the caverns. The army turned north, and by dusk, they could see the fires from the watchtowers at North Window castle.

They say this city was destroyed from an attack by the undead, thought Flavius. I wonder how much of the citadel the Jowston Army has rebuilt.

He would not have to wait long for an answer, for within an hour they had reached the gates of the fortress. And although it was dark, Flavius knew that they were in for a tremendous reception indeed…for the Toran Army entered to the sounds of martial music and cheering crowds.

How different attitudes can change in the space of a few years! The only way an army from Toran could enter one of these cities before now would be by force, thought Flavius. And now here were soldiers and citizens of the Jowston City-States celebrating the new alliance between their country and their old enemies.

Quarters had already been prepared in anticipation of their arrival. After a brief meeting with Valeria to outline the next day’s activities, Flavius was shown to a room in the officers’ hall and settled down to sleep.

The men were given the next day off in order to rest after the last hectic week, and to familiarize themselves with their new hosts. Soldiers of the two armies fraternized with little effort, the bitter rivalries of the past forgotten. Flavius Pius found his old friend Captain Harrington in the crowded bar on the ground floor of the castle. Leona, a friendly, attractive woman, operated the busy establishment. Flavius ordered two ales and sat down with his friend, who had been fortunate to find them an empty table.

“Well Michael, I suspect Lieutenant Colonel Jones has been keeping you busy over there at the First of the Ninth,” said Flavius as he passed the man a mug of ale and sat down across from his friend. Harrington had joined the army after the Gate Rune War and the later action against Jowston, and never saw combat. Flavius had taken him under his wing when Harrington arrived at Pannu Yakuta as a lieutenant, and treated him almost as a little brother ever since.

Harrington nodded and grinned broadly. “Yes, sir. Since you’ve gotten yourself promoted out of your staff job, Colonel Jones has been occupying me with the things he wants done in the next few days. We’ve had precious little time to handle even the day-to-day work with the movement here to Toran and all.”

“Well, things should settle down here soon, as much as can be expected during a war of course.”

Harrington raised his mug of ale. “Well, here’s a toast then, sir, to normal times, if and when they return.”

Flavius raised his mug along with him. “I believe I can do you one better. Here’s to Michael Harrington, the new Alpha Company Commander, First Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment!” He laughed as Harrington’s face turned pale, and then turned red as if he would burst from excitement.

Harrington was speechless for a moment, then managed, “Sir, how do you know…”

Flavius waved his hand. “We needed a captain who had been in command to act as liaison with a Jowston unit to get down their procedures so that we can better integrate our forces with theirs. So we pulled Captain Malave from Alpha Company, and I suggested to Colonel Jones that he put you in that command slot. You’re more than ready for it.”

Harrington blushed. “Thank you sir. I’ll thank Colonel Jones at the ball tonight.”

Flavius raised an eyebrow. “A ball? The…social type?”

Harrington shrugged. “That’s what they usually are, sir. I’m surprised you hadn’t gotten word of it, you being second-in-command and all. Our hosts are throwing an officers’ ball tonight at 1900 hours. Hope you have something to wear.”

What to wear indeed, thought Flavius later on as he rummaged through his trunk. He had no dress uniform, for the principal reason that no officer had a dress uniform in the Toran Republic’s Army. As with the livery of the units, the dress uniforms were considered too rooted in the old order. The problem was, no one had gotten around to designing a new one.

So, he went with something that he once wore in his homeland on such occasions---the Altinan toga, a flowing white garment with a purple fringe. It started out as a length of cloth about nine yards long that wrapped around the body and draped over the shoulders and arms. It was a complicated thing for a non-Altinan, and even if one was of the culture, help had to be enlisted to get the garment on. But with the aid of one of the orderlies, Flavius managed to get it on and made his way to the Great Hall of the castle.

As he was rushing through the corridors of the fortress, doing his best to remember the way to the Great Hall, he caught up with a lady who was in an equal hurry. Although she had his back to him, he could see that she had a rather elegant figure, accentuated by a silver gown that shimmered with every movement. Her auburn hair was fastened with a silver brooch…

Auburn hair, wondered Flavius. No, this couldn’t be…

Valeria’s soldier’s instinct spun her around when she heard the footsteps behind her. When she recognized Flavius, she placed her hands on her hips and frowned. “Well, I’m glad you decided to attend this important function after all. Or did that Romanoi pride of yours dictate that diplomacy was beneath you? I waited in my quarters all day for you to set up a time to meet me this evening so we could walk in together. Unity of command, you know!” She crossed her arms, evidently waiting for a response.

“Well, I, ah, you see, ma’am, I didn’t know…” Flavius stammered.

“What do you mean? I had word sent to every officers’ quarters in the castle,” Valeria fumed. She sighed and lowered her arms. “Ah, well. I know you’re telling the truth, I’ve never known you to lie anyway.” She looked her second-in-command up and down and smiled slightly. “Besides, you look so handsome in that bedsheet that I can’t stay angry at you for long.”

Flavius laughed and replied, “Well, ma’am, thank you for that compliment. And may I say that your evening wear states that a Great General of the Toran Republic comes prepared for any situation…even when it calls for heels.” He paused and looked down shyly. “You, ah, also look very nice tonight as well, ma’am.”

Valeria’s features softened and she blushed, as if she was unused to receiving compliments. “Why…thank you. I had to borrow this from my old friend Jeane today…you remember her from the Gate Rune War, don’t you? I have to admit, this dress makes a girl from the rustic old Great Forest feel like one of those Gregminster cosmopolitan types.” She laughed and did a half-turn on her right foot, and the dress fluttered slightly. “Come, Theophilus Flavius Pius Vindex. We mustn’t keep our hosts waiting.” She proffered her left arm and he took it.

Flavius admired her beauty, and felt as if he was seeing the woman hidden below the no-nonsense exterior…until he looked at her hand and saw the imprint of the Falcon Rune. Then he remembered how Valeria used that rune in conjunction with her Conqueror Star Sword to smash whole battalions of enemies wide open. Her excellent figure was the result of years of hard campaigning and a Spartan lifestyle. By the time women reached twenty-nine years, Valeria’s age, in his native land, they were giving birth to their fifth or sixth child. They were certainly not leading armies.

Of course Flavius had no problem with Valeria’s leadership. Valeria was a soldier’s soldier and a superb general…but he found himself wishing that more of these dress functions would come up, at least while serving under this command anyway.

Upon reaching the Great Hall, Flavius and Valeria met the adjutant, Fitcher, who was waiting for them at the entrance. “Ah, General Valeria and Colonel Flavius Pius. On behalf of the Orange Army I’d like to welcome you to the banquet. Please, come this way. I’ll put you both at the head of the receiving line, Lord Riou and Lord Shu will be most pleased to see you.” He gestured with his arm theatrically towards the receiving line, where Riou and Shu were greeting the guests.

The Orange Army, Flavius remembered, that’s what they call themselves.

Flavius scanned the crowd as they passed through the hall. Many of the Toran officers were already there, mingling with their Jowston counterparts. Most of the Orange Army officers were in the dress uniforms of their native city-states, but some were in formal wear. Civilians from the refugee population had also been invited, and many of them looked relieved to have a respite, however brief, from the terror of the Highland invasion.

The throng of people around Riou and Shu parted way for Valeria and Flavius. Fitcher bowed and announced, “Lord Riou and Lord Shu, this is General Valeria and her second-in-command, Colonel Flavius Pius, leaders of the Toran contingent.”

Riou smiled and offered his hand. “It’s good to see you again,” he said as Valeria shook his hand.

“Again, m’Lord, we look forward to fighting side-by-side with you,” she stated. Turning to Shu, she said, “It is an honor to meet you, Lord Shu. During the Gate Rune War, Apple mentioned what a talented classmate you were.”

Shu smiled slyly and said, “Did she, General Valeria? I always considered myself a better trader than strategist. You, however, are a consummate commander, I understand. Your reputation precedes you and I know you will live up to it.” He looked over at Flavius, his eyes narrowing, as if he was scrutinizing some sort of antique. “And you, Colonel Flavius. You are from the Altinan Empire, I hear. May I speak with you later? I am curious about your home.”

Not quite sure what to make of the man yet, Flavius replied, “Of course, Lord Shu.” Valeria and Flavius then bowed in acknowledgement to Riou, who excused them with a nod. They stepped away from the receiving line, and began mingling.

Flavius accepted two flutes of champagne for himself and his commander from an orderly with a tray. He had just taken his first sip when he felt a hearty clap on his back, and he sputtered slightly. Turning around, he saw a bear of a man standing before him, the man who had slapped him on the back. He was well built with a thatch of black hair, and grinning madly. Standing beside him was a smaller man with sharp eyes and a confident air about him. Both were dressed in the Jowston dress uniforms. The large man looked as if he didn’t belong in the uniform, while his companion had added a blue cloak to his outfit.

Flavius’ eyes widened in recognition. “Viktor and Flik! You two really are alive!”

Viktor, the big man, let loose a hearty laugh. “Bah, you didn’t think those pukes that Rugner had working for him could put us down, did ya? I mean, I know you Altinan types are bred for war and all that malarkey, but come on. We non-disciplined types know a thing or two about handling a blade.”

Did he ever, thought Flavius. Viktor and Flik’s infantry unit had been one of the most effective during the war, charging pell-mell into the enemy.

“Yes, well, one or two things is just about right,” the man with the blue cape, Flik, laughed. “You’ve always relied on me to get you out of a pinch, Viktor.”

Viktor turned his head and harrumphed.

“I understand this is your home, Viktor,” said Flavius.

Was, a long time ago. Then Neclord came here, and...let’s just say it looks a lot better now than it did when I left.” Viktor looked down as if burying painful memories.

Flavius realized how rude he’d been and flushed with embarrassment. “Viktor, I did not mean to bring up…”

Viktor waved his hand and smiled, not quite as broadly as before. “Think nothing of it, Pius. Every time those memories come back, I’m reminded that he’s still out there, somewhere, waiting for me to send him where he really belongs.”

The three warriors spoke for a while longer, catching up on the past few years, when Flavius heard someone calling his name. It was Shu, waving him over through the crowd.

Flik saw Shu as well. “Bet Shu wants to discuss business, eh? That man works every hour of the day, it seems.”

Flavius shook his head. “He said he wanted to ask about my homeland.”

Viktor laughed loudly again, his spirits restored by the comradeship and more than a few drinks. “Well for gods’ sakes, don’t go spouting off about those hardscrabble farms and those ugly women you have there in Altinum. You’re likely to bore the man to death, which would be a great blow to our armies…at least according to some people, anyway!”

Flik smiled, shook his head ruefully, and patted Flavius on the shoulder. “It is good to see you again, Flavius Pius. You and your soldiers’ll be a great asset on the battlefield.”

“Thank you Flik. I look forward to serving with the both of you again. Pardon me, please.” Flavius then made his way towards Shu.

When Flavius reached him, he bowed slightly as a sign of respect. Shu returned the bow and said, “I am most curious about Altinum, Colonel Flavius.”

Flavius replied, “You may ask me anything you like, Lord Shu. I must tell you though, I did not see much of the world, including Altinum, before joining the Liberation Army.”

Shu nodded and asked, “May I ask where you are from in Altinum?”

Flavius replied, “My home was a village, Sabina, in the rolling countryside surrounding the capital, Alba. I left home when I heard of the freedom fighters in Toran.”

Shu studied Flavius’ attire as he spoke. “I see. Beautiful country, I hear. When I was trading in Radat I did quite a bit of business with an Altinan merchant, a Bibulus Procus. Do you happen to know him?”

Flavius shook his head. “No, I can’t say that I do. My family members are farmers, not traders.”

Shu walked around Flavius, drawing a bit closer. “Ah, yes. Procus once brought me a book of Altinan poetry, your national epic, in fact. One of my favorite stanzas is,

‘And the strong Altinans till the land
Their traders ply the seas
Their legions fight ever on
All under the blessed and watchful eyes
Of the Invincible God
And the conquering Romanoi Emperor.’

Roughly translated, I admit, but I think I have the meaning.” He came around Flavius’ right side and met his gaze. “Are you sure that’s all your family does, farming? No…public service?”

Flavius was getting uncomfortable at the seemingly innocent prying, and shifted slightly on his right foot. “I assure you. I’m but a simple son of a farmer.”

Shu suddenly drew in close. In a whisper, he asked, “Then why do you wear the toga of a member of the Imperial Altinan Senatorial class?”

Flavius blanched. He was speechless.

Shu smiled, that half-smile that Flavius would come to recognize when Shu knew he held all of the cards. “Or do you think that the purple fringe is just a fashion statement? A rather risky one for a farmer’s boy, I think, considering that anyone that doesn’t belong to the Senatorial class who is caught wearing it is put to death.” Flavius opened his mouth to speak but Shu held up a hand. “Don’t bother with explanations. Your secret’s safe with me, I don’t know if anyone else has been perceptive enough to pick up on it. It doesn’t really matter to me, or to anyone else here, anyway. Look around you—half the people in this room are émigrés from one place or another, all fighting together to free their homes from the Highland fist. What matters to us isn’t the past—your personal one or the one between Jowston and Toran. What matters is the future.”

Shu offered his hand.

“Thank you for coming to our aid.”

Flavius shook Shu’s hand firmly, one ally to the other.

Flavius was making his way back through the assembled officers, still pondering Shu’s words, when he heard the strains of a familiar waltz, performed by a makeshift soldiers’ orchestra, fugitives from concert halls all over Jowston.

The musician Vasquez, who had lived two hundred years ago in Toran, composed the piece. His contemporaries as well as those in the present appreciated him as a truly gifted artist. This particular work was written to evoke the emotions one felt when recalling Toran’s beautiful hills, steep mountains, vast plains and shaded groves, and all of the Toran officers looked wistful, reminded of home and the loved ones left behind. Many of them paired off with a civilian lady, and some of the Kobold soldiers from the Great Forest even lined up and began to perform the long, delicate steps of a folk dance with their Two River cousins. Most of the Orange Army soldiers danced as well. They displayed such grace that Flavius thought there was a cushion of air between their feet and the hall floor.

“Kind of them to play this for us, wasn’t it?”

Flavius looked to his left, and there was Valeria. She spoke in soft tones, perhaps lost in some memory herself. “Do you remember the victory celebration after Barbarossa’s fall, Flavius? I can still see Tir hefted on a platform of shields, waving to the crowds. There was a soldiers’ band there, playing this song.” She took a deep breath and turned her eyes toward the ceiling. “Do you ever think about those days much? The battles, and then rebuilding the country?”

Her second-in-command smiled. “I think I remember people more than events. The fights are all a blur—you just yelled ‘Revolution and Republic!’ and charged and we all just followed. But the faces—our eager young soldiers and comrades—those will always be my sharpest memories. Fighting, and some dying, for freedom.”

Valeria nodded. “I see the same thing in the troops committed to this expedition. It’s so easy for a bad commander to simply look at numbers on paper without recognizing that these are people we lead. This morning I asked the sergeant of the guard what I could do for him, as his commander. He told me without hesitation, ‘Hurry and whip th’ bleedin’ Highlandahs an’ take us home, m’Lady. I’m missin’ me little girl’s sixth birthday in Rockland today.’” Flavius had to laugh as the general did her best imitation of the town’s unique brogue as Valeria chuckled despite herself. “I can only hope we, as officers, can do our best to grant that request.”

Flavius folded a length of toga to ensure his left hand was covered in the Altinan tradition—the aristocratic tradition, he thought to himself. He was still somewhat disturbed by Shu’s discovery of his patrician heritage. But could put this aside—Shu was his comrade now as much as any his comrades from the past.

“For their sake--those still living and those that have passed on,” Flavius muttered.

“Did you say something, Colonel?” Valeria asked, cocking her head slightly.

“No, m’Lady,” Flavius said, imitating the Rockland sergeant. “Nothin’ o’importance.”

The band struck up a lively Toran jig, another piece in honor of the guests. Hands began clapping and laughter filled the air.

“Very well then,” said Valeria, and there was mirth in her voice. “There’s also a rumor that the famous lady general Valeria is a prude that’s so wrapped up in her army that she’ll be an old maid before she knows it.” She grabbed Flavius’ arm. “Come on and let’s show them what they teach girls from the Great Forest when it comes to dancing.”

This’ll be rather tough in this toga, Flavius thought as he was dragged onto the crowded floor, but considering that my dance partner is one of the Six Great Generals of the Republic I’d best not decline the invitation!

That night, after the banquet, as Flavius lay in his quarters, he reflected on the events of the past few days. The soldiers of both armies had been strong enough to overcome the prejudices of the past, and the foundations of alliance had been firmly laid. Even the formerly cantankerous senior Toran officers were mixing with their Orange Army counterparts. We are all émigrés, Shu had said.

I wonder what he would think if he knew the exact circumstances of my own emigration, Flavius Pius thought, and he gazed over at the toga, now carefully folded and draped over a couch. Son of a disgraced Senator, scion of a renegade House.

Flavius shook his head as if it would clear away the encroaching memories and tried to focus on this new struggle ahead.

How strong would the new bonds of friendship be when it was time to finally face the Highland Army? When and where would Luca Blight strike next, for that matter? Flavius turned these questions over and over in his mind for quite a while, before finally allowing sleep to overtake him.

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