The theory of war is one that has been endlessly-refined by some of the keenest minds in history. More so than economics, engineering or the other sciences of society, it is war that lends definition to the machinery of state.
It is curious, then, that opinions on the matter differ so wildly. Generals and kings alike quarrel over whether discipline or training is more important, and on the proper place to draw the line between tactics and strategy. Definitions and categories blur into meaningless pedantry - and they are all doomed to dither onward without reconciliation, for they are speaking of wholly-incomparable things.
Each war is personal, unique. The men fighting it lend their character to it, the terrain as much a personage in the fight as any general. Culture, language, even food may render one war almost unrecognizable from another. Wars are as individual as any man.
If it is not too arrogant of me to add my musings to the infinite corpus of prior work, I would therefore submit that controlling a war is as easy as courting a lover. Know its character, its desires and proclivities. Observe it. Immerse in it. Befriend it. When you know it so deeply that you cannot help but love it, there is nothing left but to dance.
- Saleh Taskin, On Reclamation, 687
“I saw Emil today,” Sobriquet said, stretching her arm upward toward the cabin’s low ceiling. “He’s been stuck with the logistics division back at the Mendiko border, but he rode forward with the last convoy.”
Michael rolled over to look at her. “I bet he’s enjoying himself,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Sobriquet laughed. “They’ve got him in charge of half the perishables routing up to the front, every meal you eat has his fingerprints all over it.”
“That was not the mental image I needed,” Michael grimaced. “I’m glad he’s found a spot, though. Out of all of us that came north, he was the one who seemed most content with where he was.”
Sobriquet shrugged. “He’s a merchant at heart, he’s never content with being content. This is more of a challenge than he’s had in years of juggling mercantile and espionage in tandem. I wouldn’t be surprised if Antolin offers him a post when all this is over, though I intend to do the same. We’ll have a lot of mouths to feed when the dust settles.”
“When this is all over,” Michael echoed, lacing his fingers behind his head and leaning back. There was a silence that he chose not to fill.
Sobriquet rolled closer and draped her arm across his chest. “I think it’ll come sooner than either of us expects,” she said. “It’s hard to describe the - panic, the chaos I see on the Ardan side. They’re almost running back to Leik. Once they’re there, they may make a stand, but I can’t see them holding up against the Mendiko. The difference is too great.”
“I’m not so sure,” Michael said. “I can see the rank and file losing heart, but they depend on the officers and ensouled to take them back across the sea. They may fight if they think they’re cornered - and the ensouled have more to lose. They’ll have status to think about, back home, and position. I can’t imagine Sofia yielding, nor Friedrich.”
“I can handle Sofia,” Sobriquet said darkly, her eyebrows pulling together. “And I doubt Friedrich will show his face in Leik, not when he can hide among those sieging Imes.”
Michael raised his eyebrow. “You think not?” he said. “The man chased me down across half the country for the prospect of a good fight.”
“And then he got one,” Sobriquet grinned, sliding up to plant a kiss on his nose. “I don’t think he’ll be so eager to fight you again. You heard that other officer back at his camp, the potens - Friedrich ran from Leik the last time Leire came. Now it’s you and her both, and you’ve each humiliated him once. There’s no chance that he’ll leave Imes for Leik.”
Michael kissed her back. “If you say so. Amira seemed confident that he would seek me out, though.”
“You need to stop listening to crazy women,” Sobriquet said. “I don’t know how you keep finding them, but Amira and Sofia are both utterly unmoored from rational thought.”
“Yeah,” Michael said. “There’s something about the women among the Eight-”
Sobriquet punched his shoulder. “I can’t believe you’d say that about Leire,” she laughed. “Don’t worry about Sever, though. We’ve been lugging that scheming old woman along this far, and if he dares to show his face she’ll put the fear back into him with relish.”
“I hope it’s that simple,” Michael sighed. “We can’t afford for the advance to founder on the Ardans, not when Saleh is waiting for us afterward.”
Her smile stiffened, then faded. “I do worry about that,” she admitted. “Leire and Saleh will be perfectly matched, she won’t be able to spare anything for the remainder.” She looked into Michael’s eyes, laying her hand on his shoulder. “They’ll rely on you and I as the spearpoint - and in honesty, it will mostly be you. They’ll ask you to fight. They’ll ask you to kill.”
“I know,” Michael said. “I won’t say that I feel ready for it, but it’s too late for me to turn away. The Safid know me as the heart-eater, there’s nowhere I can go that they won’t follow. It’s better to face them now, and try to put an end to it as best I can. There will be fewer people hurt this way, and a faster path to peace.”
He looked back at Sobriquet’s eyes, feeling the pulse of sorrow that came after his words; he smiled, and touched her cheek. “You always look so sad when I talk about the end of the war.”
“Only when you talk about ending it yourself,” she said. There was a lingering pause; she mustered a wan smile. “Come on. If we lay here much longer Antolin will send a search party, and Charles will never let us hear the end of it.”
Michael sighed and sat upright, reaching down to the deck for his shirt. “You’re right, of course. We have to be drawing close to Leik by now.”
“Only hours away,” Sobriquet confirmed. “Best get ready; we’ve got quite the day ahead of us.”
“Contact left,” an officer called out.. “Ardan scouts, two platoons.”
Antolin nodded in acknowledgement, walking over to the observation platform’s windows. “So they plan to make a fight of it after all,” he said. “Have the flanks pull in a bit. They’ll be concentrating their forces around the city.”
The officer nodded and ran back toward the bridge; Antolin turned to where Leire sat in her viewing box, her wrinkled face turned out to the landscape passing along below them. “I’ll need you on standby, but only as a contingency. We don’t know what preparations they’ve made for air defense, and this ship is a tempting target. If Kolbe is in the city after all-”
“He’s not,” Sobriquet said. “He has a weight to him, in my sight, and I can see every part of Leik at this distance.” Her eyes narrowed. “Sibyl is there, though. She noticed us a few hours ago, and she’s been relentless in her spying attempts ever since.”
Antolin turned to her. “I presume you’re able to ward her off adequately?”
“I am Sobriquet,” she scoffed. “The presence of scouts should tell you how well she can see us; they’d have no need if she were able to work unimpeded.”
“Fair enough,” Antolin said. “But we cannot discount the possibility of novel defenses, and even a brigade of Swordsmen could spell trouble.”
“You’re not afraid for the airship,” Leire said. “You’re concerned about the wrinkly hag it’s toting around. I can handle myself well enough to be of use.”
“Your safety is my responsibility. It’s not necessary to risk the airship in open combat when we have other options.” Antolin turned to look at Michael. “Other options that won’t turn the airspace over Leik into a raging storm, I might add. It’d be one thing if we were stopping here, but I don’t want to tie down our advance in mud and snow unless absolutely necessary.”
Leire crossed her arms, giving him an irritated look. “This will be a major action, as much as you try to diminish it. I can help, even if I’m not at the vanguard.”
“And I’m telling you that your talents are more essential for the Safid portion of our campaign,” Antolin countered. “We need you to neutralize Taskin, nobody else can do it as effectively. For that, if nothing else, I will not risk you this early in the campaign. Leik is only a stepping-stone on our path.”
“Bah!” Leire scoffed. She turned back toward the window for a moment, then glared down at Michael. “So you’ll be risking his life instead? The future of our country, and perhaps the world, to better preserve my dusty bones?”
“Michael will be quite safe,” Antolin said, his voice even. “The Ardans will resist, but we are Mendian; you know as well as I that we could take this city with unsouled arms alone. We would just lose more men that way - and that future you refer to will be much more secure if Michael is the one who keeps those men alive.”
Leire looked out the window once more. “I’m being unreasonable, aren’t I?” she asked.
“Only a little,” Antolin said. She glared at him, and he smiled tolerantly at her viewing box. “I have long since learned to account for the unpredictable stressors of war; the predictable ones are easier still to manage.”
“As long as you don’t intend to shackle me to the reserve for our entire campaign,” she said. “I am still the Star of Mendian, I will not sit like some useless dignitary while we conduct the most important operation since the Fool’s War.” She made a choppy, irritated gesture at Antolin. “Not all the lives are Michael’s to save. I still have my duties - to the men, and to myself.”
Antolin fixed her with a look. “Once the tactical situation has been established, I will make appropriate use of you,” he said. “There will be no undue risks taken here, we have the men and firepower to keep the Ardans contained at every turn. Their primary advantage is Sibyl, but we should be able to substantially mitigate the threat she poses.”
“There’s only so much I can do once we’re actually at the city,” Sobriquet warned. “I’ve tried to veil against her at close range before and it’s very difficult. I can cloud her vision and make her work hard for what she sees, but I don’t know that I can stop her entirely.”
Antolin smiled. “The weakness of perception-based souls is never the soul itself,” he said. “It’s the bearer. She may see everything, but her mind can only focus on so much of it - and what she passes on to others will reflect that focus.” He tapped his foot on the deck lightly, then paced toward the broad windows. After a moment more, he turned to Michael.
“We will land once we have a clear picture of their outer perimeter,” Antolin said. “Michael, you will be with the ground forces attacking the city, slightly back from the vanguard.”
Michael blinked, then nodded. “I suppose I can do that,” he said, keeping his tone free from the sudden ice that had flooded his gut. “You want me to - ah.” He sighed. “You want me to draw Sofia’s attention.”
Antolin smiled, showing his teeth. “Fighting in the city itself is to be avoided at all costs; it’s dangerous for both our troops and the remaining Daressan civilians there. The Ardans know this too. They would need a compelling reason to bring their best troops forward.” He nodded at Michael, and the barest glimmer of glass dust swirled within his eyes. “It’s early yet, but we’re close enough that I can see a few things. The line between you and Sibyl will become a primary axis of this battle once she marks your position.”
“This all sounds excellent, except for the part where Sofia commands the entire Ardan force to attack me,” Michael muttered, giving Antolin an acid look. “This sounds suspiciously like another attempt to trap me into combat. I told you that’s not necessary.”
“You’ll be in a position to fight,” Antolin admitted, spreading his hands. “Your main role will be in diverting Sibyl, though; nothing else will turn solely on your participation. As I said to Leire, we can win this battle without relying on you. If you should make additional efforts, however, they would carry advantages both on and off the battlefield.” He met Michael’s eyes. “My intent is not to force you forward, only to clear a path.”
“A path to an Ardan bullet in his skull,” Leire scowled. “Really, Antolin-”
“He will be well-protected,” Antolin insisted, turning to Leire with an exasperated glare. “I do occasionally think about my plans before implementing them, you know. There is a team of fortimentes with the ground command staff already, and I will reinforce them once the fighting starts in earnest. It will take more than bullets to harm him.”
He looked at Michael and Sobriquet in turn. “I anticipate that the Ardans will have a few surprises in reserve for us. They should be obvious focal points of the battle, when they emerge - shock infantry underpinned by obruors and fortimentes, most likely, although I wouldn’t bet against a unit of Swordsmen showing their faces. Please intervene to disrupt or destroy these assets as they reveal themselves; they will be the linchpins of the Ardan defense and the greatest threat to our men.”
Michael nodded slowly, feeling Antolin’s words settle into his gut. Disrupt or destroy. Eventually, he met the marshal’s gaze. “I’ll do what I can,” he said.
Antolin smiled and spread his arms. “That’s all that I ask.” He gestured towards the door. “Now, come - we’ll be landing before too long to offload commanders for the ground crew, so you should prepare to deploy.”
He walked out, with Sobriquet close behind. Michael followed last; at a niggling feeling he turned his sight towards Leire. The old woman was watching him from within her crystal enclosure, her face pinched tight. Against the radiance of her soul Michael could not tell what emotion had gripped her, but in the moment it felt like worry.
When Michael last saw Leik it had been a battered city, burnt and broken by the Safid assault and accompanying Ardan treachery. Little had changed since then; from within the Mendiko transport he saw the large stretches of burnt debris in the lower city and the crumbled facades of buildings on the northern ridge.
The difference lay in the edges of the city, where trenches and barricades had grown in a dirty fringe against the outlying buildings. Walls had been patched with blackened wood, sandbags and wire lain across boulevards. At this distance he could not see the forms of men - but Michael thought he could feel them, could feel the roar of acid fear pulsing out from the city.
Or perhaps the source was closer. Michael looked over at the driver of the transport, a young Mendiko man in an enlisted soldier’s uniform. Antolin had handed Michael off to one of his field commanders, who in turn had passed him to a lieutenant in charge of coordinating transport; that man had insisted that Michael should ride in the relative comfort of the cab rather than the dark, enclosed rear seats.
Michael appreciated the gesture, but the nervous energy of his driver was almost too much to bear. Sweat beaded on the young man’s brow, his eyes studiously locked on the road ahead.
“What’s your name?” Michael asked; the man’s hands jerked on the wheel. A muttered complaint in Mendiko came from the back, followed by laughter.
The soldier did not look at Michael, though his eyes darted sideways for a moment. “Estebe, jauna. Sorry, I - my Gharic is bad.”
Michael blinked; it was the first time he had met anyone in Mendian that had claimed a less-than-perfect command of his mother tongue. “Seems fine to me,” he said. “I don’t speak Mendiko at all, so you have the advantage of me.”
Estebe did not reply. Michael let his sight drift upwards as their transport slowed, driving behind a low ridge that blocked the city from view. Behind them, the tanks streamed forward to a different position; ahead, infantry were hopping out of the transports, unloading supplies and equipment.
“This is the command post?” Michael asked, pulling his vision back into the cab.
“Bai, jauna,” Estebe nodded. He drew the transport up alongside a growing row of identical trucks. It rocked as the soldiers in the rear stood and began to jump out; Estebe stilled the engine and let out a breath. After a moment, he turned his head hesitantly to Michael.
“I heard you got two souls,” Estebe said. “And the Star wants to give you hers.”
Michael met the man’s eyes; Estebe immediately looked away, his fear spiking. After a moment of hesitation, Michael sighed. “That’s pretty much right,” he admitted. “You hear anything else?”
Estebe’s eyes flicked back to him. “You fought a man, back - back north. Spoke him dead.”
“Also true,” Michael admitted, wincing.
“You do the same thing here?” Estebe asked. “Speak the Ardako dead?”
Michael pressed his lips together, letting the silence draw out between them for an uncomfortable moment. He focused his sight back on Estebe, who looked like he was beginning to regret asking the question. “I suppose we’ll see,” Michael said. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Jauna,” Estebe nodded.
Michael jumped down from the truck’s sideboard and into the trampled grass, turning towards the largest collection of tents. When he reached them he found a swirl of activity, one that he did his best to keep out of. Tables were being laid out on the packed soil, crates piled to the side. Grim-faced men stood at the corners of the tent, their faces pulled into expressions of concentration; Michael wondered at them for a moment before he saw the granite solidity of their souls reaching out around them, wrapping the tent and its occupants in their grasp.
He bounced experimentally on his toes, feeling a dimmer version of what Amira had given him during their travels together. He thumped a fist against his arm experimentally; the impact was muted, as if felt through a layer of thick padding.
“Baumgart!” one of the officers said. Michael snapped his head up, feeling vaguely ridiculous at being caught out in his reverie.
“Yes?” he asked.
The officer gestured up the hill. “Your position is at the top of the ridge, at the observation post. Etxarte, Zabala, berarekin joan.” At his words, two of the grim-faced fortimentes peeled off from the formation to stand near Michael. He felt their souls press against him, sinking into his flesh; he shrugged off the disconcerting feeling to nod to the two men, then turned to walk up the hill.
As he crested the ridge he was rewarded with a panoramic view of the city. A broad, gentle slope separated him from its outskirts. He was barely close enough to make out the motion of men on the opposing lines. For a moment Michael wondered about rifle fire, but his fortimens escorts didn’t seem concerned; he followed them into an observation post that had been partially-dug into the slope.
He was able to identify at least two of the men there as spectors right away, their eyes characteristically-glazed while they stared motionless at the enemy lines. The rest of the post’s occupants appeared to be unsouled, either guards or radio men.
Michael looked around, then back at his escort. “Should I be here?” he asked. “The attack will fall hardest wherever I stand. If anyone else is nearby…” He trailed off, looking at the stony faces of his escort and wondering if either of them actually spoke Gharic.
“Never mind,” he sighed, turning back to the front. He focused on the city, letting Stanza fill him with the gentle breath of possibility. Lines of gold shifted in lazy sweeps across the field, blurring and splitting in turns. He closed his eyes, which did nothing to impede his sight; even so, Michael felt that it helped him to concentrate better.
A deep breath steadied him, and he began to listen to the city. It hummed with low fear, a tension and panic that spiked with every Mendiko tank and transport. From the Ardan perspective they must seem a shadowy menace lurking over the rise. The fear murmured its paranoia over and over, swelling, subsiding - stopping.
Michael opened his eyes, frowning at the distant Leiko perimeter. The murmurs had quieted, the terror sinking away to a distant whisper. In its place was a curious silence, almost tangible in its scope.
“Obruors,” Michael muttered. “They must have them across the whole line.”
“I’ve let Antolin know,” Sobriquet buzzed from beside him. Michael did not precisely startle at the sudden noise, even if his sudden half-step to the side was somewhat graceless; Sobriquet’s next words sounded distinctly amused. “We’re basically ready. I’m still holding what veils I can over the army, Sibyl doesn’t know precisely where you’re at. When I drop them-”
“She’ll see.” Michael nodded, his tongue feeling leaden in his mouth. “Antolin thinks she’ll order a charge?”
Sobriquet gave an indistinct laugh. “What? No, not likely. Even she’s not crazy enough to send her men on a suicidal charge; if she were, I doubt the commanders would carry out the order.” There was a pause. “Antolin’s saying our best shot is to tempt them to draw forward, to get their reserve units into the peripheral trenches - and that means driving away the current occupants. Are you able to break the obruors’ control?”
“From this distance?” Michael looked at the city, his brows drawing together. “Not likely. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to work my soul at this range.”
“Can you try?” Sobriquet asked. “If we can’t at least draw their ensouled combatants forward to the trenches then we’ll have no choice but to fight them in the city. Daressans will die.”
Michael sucked air in through his teeth, turning aside from the distant view of Leik. “Give me a moment,” he said. “I’ll figure something out.”
“Antolin’s going to-” Sobriquet’s words were lost as the line of tanks to their left began to fire at the trenches; even through the obruors’ dampening blanket Michael felt the sharp spike of fear from the city. Distant impacts marred the fortifications, the echoing report of the shells racing across the field just after.
The ache took hold in Michael’s chest, the old, familiar pain. Men were dying in the distance. He felt the pull of it as the explosions intensified, and its ebb as they subsided. He peered at the distant trenches, straining his vision to its limit - but he could see little more than motion amid the smoke, his preternatural sight still not enough to make out details.
Frustrated, he turned to glare at the spectors sharing the trench with him. Another wave of fire rippled from the tanks, another ache swelled in his chest. He felt momentarily tiny once more, insectile next to the scale of the destruction wracking Leik’s border.
The feeling dragged him back to the first time he had fled this city under Leire’s airship, the overwhelming awe that had gripped him when he witnessed her attack on the Safid. And - here he was, arriving beside her on the return trip.
His eyes settled on the spectors once more; he grit his teeth and turned back to the front. Michael drew upon his own spector soul, seeking out the memory of Sibyl’s vision that had let him push his own beyond the bounds of eyesight at the northern trenches all those weeks ago.
It came more easily this time, although the effect was still nauseating. The field before him sprang into his mind in full detail, the Ardan soldiers in sharp relief behind it. His mind rebelled at the cacophony of death and tumult that pressed against it; he shut his eyes by instinct, though it did nothing. Shells continued to burst amid the Ardan lines. Men fell with shrapnel thrust deep into their flesh, blood spilling into the churned mud beneath.
Michael was on his knees, retching. His sight cared little for his weakness; it showed him more. Stone-faced men bled and died, their guts mingling with soil and rainwater - yet there was no fear, for the obruors had stolen that from them.
Anger stirred within him at the transgression. These men should be afraid. Fear would save them, would send them fleeing from their lines at the overwhelming force arrayed against them; instead, they were made to stand and die for no cause at all. These men should be afraid.
They should fear.
Michael barely needed to call upon Spark. He had done this before, and the howling injustice of what he saw banished all doubt from his mind. The soul was there for him, waiting.
“Run,” he gasped, his breath ragged. “Fly. Lest you die.” The tiny eddies of fear still lingering among the trenches stirred, but the great silence from the obruors snuffed them out. Michael clenched his fists.
“Run in fear, far from here.” It stirred again, moved by Spark’s insistent urgings; the obruors stilled it. Michael felt as though his fingers were scrabbling for purchase over smooth, slippery rock.
He struggled to his feet, his escorts standing nonplussed beside him. “Sera,” he rasped. “They’ve got them too tightly. I need an opening. Something I can build on.”
“A shock, to break their control?” she suggested, her voice humming close in his ear. “I can try, but I’ll have to drop my veils. Sibyl will see you.” There was another long pause. “Antolin says that once she has you in her sights, the battle will become very difficult to direct. Be careful.”
There was the sensation of a quiet, unnoticed noise ceasing. Michael took a deep breath - and froze.
The golden lines of Stanza’s vision began to bend, slowly at first - then rapidly, whipcords binding and catching as they pulled towards where Michael stood. They shone and flexed until all the world seemed to radiate outward from him, bending back around towards the distant city while their convergence blurred into a great burning disc - an eye, bright with furious rage as it watched Michael from across the field. It seemed to swell and fill his vision until he could see little else.
“Hello, Sofia,” he said, his mouth dry and sour with bile. The eye trembled; he knew he had been heard. “It’s been a while.”
The lines drew taut, quivering; Michael had the sensation of workings going on beyond his sight, of the paths weaving together in ways he could not discern. Fear bloomed in his chest. He had not really appreciated what it meant to go up against Sibyl bereft of Sobriquet’s protection, to know that the enemy could see every beat of your heart in minute detail. He was naked, exposed against her sight-
“Soldiers of Ardalt,” a voice boomed, echoing louder still than the gunfire; Michael wrenched his head upwards to see a titanic figure materializing in the air above the city. It blurred and twisted, defying his attempts to focus on it.
Sobriquet’s avatar formed and stood, towering over the cityscape below. The very air shivered when it spoke.
“You know me by many names. I am the Seeker, the Whisperer, the Mockingbird.”
There was a thunderous silence that followed, in which even the guns fell silent.
“I am Sobriquet,” she thundered, sweeping one great hand towards the coast. “And you are trespassing in my country.”
The silence took hold once more, an echo that rebounded from the ridges in a swell of deafening nothingness; in its depths, Michael felt the small stirrings of fear break through the lesser silence cast by the obruors.
“Fear, tremble, trust her word,” he rasped. He felt Spark surge within him reaching out to touch the soldiers on the front. “Flee before the Mockingbird.”
The fear built and swelled; Michael’s grasping fingers found a loose thread, and he could not help but smile as he pulled it.