8-10 The New Deal
“Come out now!” the slim knight stood in the middle of the ramshackle village and shouted into the darkness. “We know there’re more of you. We already have your friends.”
The Captain watched this display and tried not to smile. Seeing as he was being held at gunpoint, he thought anything that looked mocking wouldn’t be good for his health. As the man shouted again, the Captain’s resolve was further tested.
The corners of his lips twitched. He couldn’t help it. The knight had been making a fool of himself for the past five minutes. The Newbie was a little bit of a lamb, so he might willingly present himself to the slaughter, but there was no way Cauliflower would let him.
In general, giving yourself up at this little provocation was foolishness. It only weakened your position. In spite of that, plenty of people would do it, propelled by their emotions. In Cauliflower’s case, she was completely unfettered by such restrictions.
Even now, she was probably hiding in the shadows of the forest, having a good laugh at the knight’s expense. Laughing between thoughts of how best to affect their rescue. The Captain was certain of that. Fairly sure.
Turning away from the forest, the slender knight made a sour face as he seemed to give up. Moving back towards the group that was encircling the Captain, his team, and the villagers, he called out, “We’re all heading back to camp. The Commander will tell us if you’re lying or not. Then he’ll decide what happens to you.”
The Captain smiled and gave an understanding nod as he said, “Of course.” Only half of that smile was fake. He other half was entertained by how the knight was pretending he hadn’t spent several minutes screaming into the void.
The slender knight, who was clearly in charge, narrowed his eyes before turning to lead his men out of the village.
As the rifles of the other knights provided plenty motivation to follow, the Captain’s smile faded. He couldn’t distract himself from it anymore. He had to think about how they’d get out of this when they actually reached the knight’s commander. Champ’s quick thinking had delayed their fight with the knights, but the lie was easily verifiable.
For a moment, he entertained the idea of trying to turn the table in transit. Only for a moment. They were outnumbered and had been disarmed. Even with Cauliflower to harass the knights from outside, they wouldn’t escape easily. If only a couple of his team died, it’d be a miracle. Not to mention the villagers.
The best they could do was ride this out for as long as they could. When they were brought forward for an audience with the commander, all thirty knights wouldn’t be coming with them. the tent wasn’t large enough for that. If they waited till the commander was passing his judgement, then moved, it’d probably be their best bet…
The Captain’s thoughts were interrupted by an ancient, creaking voice sidling into his ear, “Who are you working for, really?”
The Captain was still distracted as he turned a glance to his side and saw the gnarled village elder walking beside him. The old man must’ve recovered while the slender knight was busy shouting at nothing. Now, he was keeping pace with everyone else, moving his legs too smoothly for how little meat they had left. “
“That’s complicated,” the Captain attempted to dismiss. He had more important things to consider now. Like how to keep this disagreeable old man from being executed.
“I’m an old man,” the elder responded, narrowing his eyes to glare into the Captain’s. “Old enough to know that anything too complicated to explain is something that makes someone look bad.”
‘I guess your face is complicated, then,’ The thought filtered through the Captain’s mind. After it passed, he was left staring into the air in confusion.
He’d been spending too much time around the youngsters lately, he decided. That kind of response, in a situation like this, didn’t fit someone of his age. No matter how truthful it was.
Taking his silence for an admission of guilt, the elder’s face folded itself into a scowl that made its wrinkles grow even deeper. “So, you were from San Ranto. I knew all along. All that good will was an act.”
The Captain frowned and looked to the knights surrounding them. The men looked equally as preoccupied with the surrounding forest as they were with their escort targets. They weren’t attentive enough to catch a conversation. Not a quiet one, at least.
Leaning in towards the old man, the Captain hissed, “We have bigger concerns than that right now! Both of our people are in danger. You get that, right?”
“I don’t know if that’s true,” the elder responded obstinately. “I don’t know what strange strategies those from San Ranto employ for interrogation.” Even as he said them, he didn’t seem convinced by his own words. That was something the Captain could forgive, though, they weren’t very convincing.
“Just don’t do anything rash,” the Captain gave a low caution followed by a sigh. “Not that you have many options now, anyway.”
“I’ll do what I always do,” the elder responded, still not dropping his stubbornly confrontational tone. “What I think is best for my village. As long as you haven’t proven that I can trust you, that won’t be listening to you.”
“Is there anything I could say, at this point, to make you trust me?” The Captain asked, turning to the old man with heavy eyes, filled with exhaustion. He hated these kinds of no-win situations. All he could do in them was flounder.
“I don’t suppose there is,” the elder responded, folding his nobly arms over his thin chest.
The Captain let out another sigh and removed his eyes from the elder. The ancient man was painful to look at anyway, and it was clear that pain wouldn’t do any good now. The Captain shifted his steps to drift away from the elder.
Once he’d freed up a dozen feet without signs of pursuit, it was Champ’s turn to sidle up to him. Though, in contrast to the elder, his attitude couldn’t be called anything, but sheepish.
“Umm… sorry,” Champ opened quietly, alternating his view between the Captain’s face and the earth beneath his feet. “I didn’t mean to act out on my own, I just did what came to mind…”
“It’s fine,” the Captain gave his honest answer with a wave of his hand. “It’s not like there was much else we could do to avoid a fight right there.”
“Even with the defensible position, that wouldn’t have turned out well for us,” Lotus observed, moving up from behind with Edge.
“We can still turn this around if we can keep the commander from ratting us out,” Edge added, his words carrying a hopeful prospect that his face didn’t reflect.
“Ratting us out?” The Captain asked, scowling at the term that didn’t seem to quite fit.
“What? Are we taking offense for rats now?” Edge responded, crossing his arms. His tone a bit too defensive to be convincing.
“As poor as his vocabulary might be,” Lotus began, forcing Edge to frown at her betrayal. “He’s right. Our best prospect is to prevail upon the commander’s vanity and need for achievement. Make this a success for which he can’t pass up taking credit.”
“You know,” Edge responded as soon as she’d finished speaking. “Ratting us out works… kind of. You knew what I meant.”
“Everyone else is already past that,” Champ replied with a shake of his head.
“Name a better phrase, that’s all I’m saying,” Edge declared throwing his hands up.
“Reveal our lie,” Lotus whispered, but somehow still managed to retain her prim tone.
“How is that better?” Edge immediately shot back in exasperation. “It sounds so stiff.”
As his team bickered in the background, the Captain mulled over the substance of their statements. She was right. The best way to avoid an unwinnable fight would be to butter up the commander. Convince him to accept their accomplishment as his own.
Of course, as the representative of the team, it was the Captain’s job to go about actually doing that. With the sounds of his comrade’s voices forming a pleasant white noise, he ran potential scripts through his mind until they reached the camp.
Once they crossed the border of hurriedly constructed tents, the knights visibly relaxed. Though, their slender leader showed no such signs. As they moved forward, they were greeted by two ordinary soldiers. Upon meeting the knights, they held themselves straight and gave a formal salute, but their eyes betrayed their lack of motivation.
The slender knight ignored that failing and simply waved them aside as he pushed forward to the center of the camp. When the moved into the much more ordered rows of tents that allowed the room to stand, the slender knight gave a signal. In response, half the escorts gathered together the villagers and led them away.
As the left, the elder turned one judgmental eye towards the Captain before fading from sight. For his part, the Captain’s heart quavered as he watched the villagers taken away. He wanted to say something, to keep them in his sight. Where he could at least object to any poor treatment. He said nothing, however. He knew he didn’t have that kind of freedom.
Once the villagers were dragged out of sight, the slender knight continued forward, moving towards the largest tent, which sat at the heart of the encampment. The slender knight held up a hand to stop the team and their escorts and carefully straightened his uniform. Then he stepped forward, hand poised to open the flap and let himself in.
Before he could, however, a commanding voice echoed from the tent, “What’s happening now!?”
Following the interruption of the voice, he tent’s flap moved aside and exposed the avian face of the knight’s commander. As he looked over the assembled group, the knights all bowed their heads and raised their left fists to their right shoulders respectfully.
Acknowledging the gesture with a nod, the Commander glared at the Captain and his team suspiciously before turning a questioning gaze to the slender knight.
The slender knight gave another nod before answering, “There’s been a small incident…”
“I could tell that much by the noise of two dozen people marching on my tent in the middle of the night,” the commander responded sourly. Again the commander’s eyes scanned the team before moving past them to take in their surroundings as a whole. Then he seemed to come to a decision and ordered, “Come into the tent, the lot of you.”
As the commander disappeared behind the canvas flap, the escorting knights looked between one another before prodding the team to move with them into the large tent.
Large, it was. For a tent, it was impressive. However, now holding around twenty people, it was a cramped fit. The severity of that problem was doubled by the expanse of space they had to leave at that back for the commander. Of course, the man in charge couldn’t simply be shoulder to shoulder with the men he was questioning.
As a result, he Captain was smashed between Champ, on his right, and a particularly burly knight on his left. No one was pleased with this and both the room’s temperature and humidity were rising by the second.
“Now, enlighten me,” the Commander ordered the group as the canvas enclosure slowly became a bog.
“We went out on a patrol and found an Aurorian village hidden in the forest,” the slender knight began, noticeably skimming through the beginning of his statement.
“I don’t remember ordering such an action, though?” The Commander interrupted before the slender knight could glaze over the issue.
The commander’s questioning voice made a visible ripple run through the gathered knights and the slender knight bowed his head respectfully before continuing. “I received some information and I thought it would be better to investigate its veracity before reporting it.”
“Is that so?” The Commander asked with an icy tone as he raised a critical eyebrow towards his subordinate.
The Captain felt a queasy knot building in his stomach, but he had to move now. He took a deep breath, he needed all the air he could get. He’d had to get through it all quickly before he could be interrupted. Then he stepped forward, as much as he could in this throng.
“He ruined everything,” the Captain declared, in as cool and natural a tone as he could manage. He honestly impressed himself with it. Maybe he should’ve gone into the theater, though, he probably wouldn’t look good in a wig. “We were only able to get through half of your brilliant plan before we were interrupted by his knights.”
“Is that so?” The Commander cut in once again, turning on the Captain with narrowed, suspicious eyes.
“Yes,” the Captain continued, hurriedly bowing his head to show as much respect as he could while being confined by this crowd. “Your idea to drum up a crowd of monsters and have the Aurorian village chased out by them to keep the Aurorian officials from growing suspicious of their disappearance impressed me from the moment I heard it.”
Letting out that beast of a sentence took all the air the Captain could gather in his lungs. He was forced to gasp for another breath before quickly continuing. “I’m sure the king himself would applaud your wise pursuit of your duties. Having the foresight to know that simply destroying the village would risk giving away your invasion path. Even ensuring that you can whittle down the strength of the capitol by forcing it to send out a series of subjugation forces that your men can easily overwhelm and destroy.”
The knight’s commander stared into the Captain’s eyes as he finished his pitch. Those cold eyes cut through the Captain’s core and sent a shiver down his spine. In the silence, he questioned every word he’d said, but there wasn’t anything else he could’ve done.
Around him he could feel his team tensing up, getting ready for the pronouncement. Ready for a fight. The odds were still stacked against them, but knights were rigid in their movements. The chaos of this cramped tent would give them a chance. The Captain clenched his fist until he felt his nails painfully dig into his palm.
“And how did this go?” The Commander finally asked. His tone was flat, reluctant, but not accusing.
“We got most of the villagers out before they realized it was anything but a monster attack,” The Captain answered swiftly, again bowing his head towards the hawkish commander. “However, we had to rush as the knights approached. The village’s chief and a handful of villagers didn’t make it to the evacuation.”
“And where are they now?” The Commander asked, doing nothing to hide his sour frown.
“In our custody,” the slender knight quickly answered, his tone noticeably irritable as his commander readily listened to some mercenary.
Seeing the commander’s relieved expression, a terrible premonition overtook the Captain’s heart and he spoke up before anything more could be said, “This could be a blessing in disguise. Having Aurorian prisoners could be for exchange. In case any of the common soldiers fail at carrying out your orders and get captured. Even if they don’t, taking prisoners while the other side fails at capturing any is another great achievement.”
The commander again looked deep into the Captain’s eyes. Then he broke into a subtle smile. It was a smile that made the Captain’s blood run cold. Giving two excuses for sparing them was probably too much.
“You make a fine point, but I fear we may not have enough men to spare in guarding them,” the Commander answered slowly, still carefully studying the Captain’s eyes. “Of course, if you would volunteer some of your people’s time to help in that, we could change that.”
The Captain could feel his face contorting into a frown, but looked towards his feet before that could be revealed. He knew what this was. His team was the greatest source of uncertainty in this campaign. By keeping them under observation as “guards” that uncertainty could be dealt with. Accepting would mean confinement for the length of the campaign, not just until the ranger finished his work. However, refusal would mean the execution of the elder and his family. As unpleasant as he might be…
“I’m sure we can arrange something,” the Captain answered, finally reclaiming his poker face as he raised it to look into the Commander’s eyes.
“Good, then I think this issue can be easily settled,” the Commander declared with a clap of his hands. “We’ll call this accident the fault of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing.”
The slender knight made a bitter face, but he wasn’t in the position to question his leader. The Captain felt the same bitterness welling inside him as he imagined spending the next few months locked away in the army’s camp. However, he didn’t show it on his face.
“Now, everyone can be dismissed,” the Commander declared, moving his sharp gaze over his gathered knights. “I wish to discuss the fine details with this man.”
As the commander waved his hand towards the Captain, the assembled knights turned gazes mixed with jealously and distrust towards the Captain and his team. They didn’t say anything, however, and left the room, freeing up enough space for everyone to comfortably breathe again.
“Your men can leave as well,” the Commander added, looking over the Captain’s team members with disdain. “I wish for some privacy.
Knot and Lotus both kept their faces stonily unexpressive as they turned to leave. Edge and Champ, however, carried a weight of frustrated defeat in their eyes. Seeing that, the Captain’s heart was overwhelmed with a sense of guilt. He’d betrayed his team, but he couldn’t make any other choice.
After the Captains teammates had left the tent, the hawkish commander took a few steps forward to stand face-to-face with the Captain.
The Captain met the man’s gaze and gave a humble bow, saying, “I’m glad we could be of service.”
“Cut the act,” the Commander responded with a dismissive wave of his hand. “If it didn’t risk souring my relationship with the rangers, I may have had you executed tonight. Regardless of how many pretty words you offered me.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” the Captain answered honestly, giving another bow of his head. As unpleasant as the prospect was, he knew the commander was well within his rights to give that order.
“Can you truly assure me that none of the escaping villagers knew of our presence?” The commander asked with a raised eyebrow. In the depths of his eyes, he might have been concealing a dim grain of insecurity.
“I can,” the Captain gave an immediate answer, filled with confidence. “My team took the utmost care in making sure that was the case. We knew the consequences if it wasn’t. On all fronts.”
“I don’t know why you were so focused on protecting those Aurorians,” the commander declared, spitting out the last word as if it were poisonous and its presence on his tongue could be fatal. “However, from now on, if something goes wrong on this campaign, it’s going to be your fault. Do you understand that?”
“I do…” the Captain responded with a nod made all too deep by the weight of his answer. He felt like he was selling, not only his soul, but those of his team as well. He couldn’t say anything else at this point, however.
“Then you can be dismissed,” the commander declared grandiosely, with a wave of his hand. “Gather your team, all of your team, and prepare to take on your guard duties tomorrow. Of course, I expect you to explain the details to your other client.”
The Captain gave another nod and finally turned to leave. He hoped he could get some good sleep with what little night remained, but he knew that was forlorn. The only thing he could do to subdue the rising tension in his gut was to pray that the nothing went south with the rest of this invasion. At least not till they had the chance to escape. He didn’t think his odds were good on that, either.