Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 2
Part 2: The club that's made for you and me
A library, thought Marco, was like a box you might put a croaked unit in, and then burying it underground. And THEN, digging the whole thing up several hundred turns later and going in yourself. He knew he shouldn’t generalize, since he'd only been in Dis' library, and only once at that... but it had been enough. He’d gone there with Lucy for Erfabits lessons, and immediately found the large, silent, musty, echoing, darkly lit room -- filled to the brim with leathery books like so many unmoving uncroaked buried deep underground in neat little parade rows -- to be uncannily like being back in the decrepit temple head of Olmecca, with those horrid uncroaked Mummies. He'd whipped his head around so often --at a faint rustle, or a strange smell-- that he'd gotten a crink in it.
Lucy must have shared his opinion, because when he suggested it she'd readily agreed to have their next one some place else. And ever since she'd been teaching him in different parts of the city.
Which was why after the initial excitement of being promoted wore off, and the ramifications of their new Orders set in, that he was starting to have second thoughts about being in the Breakfast Club and having to eat rations there. The hallway leading down to the library wasn't helping; all moldy arches and dim Powerballs. The library of Dis may have appeared deep in the Dungeon Zone due to a lack of oversight during city upgrading; at least that’s what Lucy had said.
Zheng of course didn't seem to mind, or hid it well. «It's not too long past dawn, hopefully the rest of the "Breakfast Club" is still in the library. I wonder what they discuss?»
Walking between Marco and Zheng, Lucy seemed unusually quiet, even to be using the warlords as a personal guard. «Come to think of it» thought Marco «most of the places we had Erfabits lessons were in open spaces or big rooms. I guess all those turns trapped in Olmecca must have made her uncomfortable in closed-off spaces.»
So he tried to lighten the mood. «Oh, only the important things. Like whether the hangover from Fruitloop wine is better than Tarzale. Or the best way to season Tony jerky. Or whether the Banana Republicans traded brains for bracelets or are just popped that way.»
This got a chuckle out of Lucy and an eye roll from Zheng, who was probably thinking about the best way of making a good first impression with the club.
The library doors themselves were nothing special, just heavy mahogany in need of a good polish. Marco willed the lock open, and the doors screeched open as they pushed them open. Marco found the two story library much brighter than the last time they'd come for two reasons. The first being a good dozen new honey yellow Powerballs floating in the ceiling, and the other being the light, feminine and aristocratic laughter wafting out.
Right in the middle of the library were a few old looking long wooden benches and tables meant for reading, and seated daintily on one such table was a warlady in a Komissar uniform. She had the warm grey complexion and pointed ears typical of a Komissar, along with sparkling blue eyes and a head of blond hair in the typical bowl cut... Which while identical to most other officer's, she somehow made hers look cute. Marco noticed her uniform lacked the Komissar X-sash.
Seated impassively before her, idly playing with the food in front of him was a Knight in light riding armor, with his visored helmet off to reveal a head of straight short brown hair in a tight fade. Sky Captain Crunch sat above the pair from a second story banister, fearlessly dangling his legs off the side. With his new warlord senses Marco noticed the seated unit was a Jockey class knight, level 3, and she was a level 5, and Crunch a level 6. Interestingly both the warlady and knight had the Dance Fighting special.
The perky warlady hopped off the table and gave a skirtless curtsy «Well hello! And welcome to Dis' appointed chapter of the Breakfast Club! I'm Archduchess Shay, and this» she said, leaning casually against the seated knight «sullen looking sir knight, is the Jockey Larry Tea. He is rarely entertained, but I assure he is quite good at entertaining. And up above, as usual, is Sky Captain Crunch.»
The captain stood up with impeccable balance on the railing and flashed them a salute. «We've already had the pleasure, although in less than pleasant circumstances.»
Being the least weirded out and uneasy, Zheng answered for the three of them. «Greetings Archduchess, this is Lucy Charms, a Luckamancer, Marco Voyager, and myself, Zheng Voyager, both Warlords. I hope we're not too late to join the club.»
The Archduchess went back to sitting on the table regally, which Marco was fairly certain wasn't a Noble type thing to do, but what did he know? She replied with «Not at all, and please, we’re all equals here. You can call me by my first name, “Sa”, or Shay, at least while the doors are closed. Our discussions can run up to an hour or so, though you’ve just missed a couple of our clubmates. Doubly lucky for you, Larry is taking his time finishing his rations, and we three can loiter for a bit before we have to attend to our duties.»
Sky Captain piped down, «I'm escorting an arriving caster, so I'll be leaving once the stable hands have the newly popped flying beasties sorted out, but I can spare a few minutes. Nice that you finally got the invite.»
The trio moved to sit at the table, and Marco answered up «Thanks! And speaking of that: so what exactly is the Breakfast Club? Major Raquel and Count Black didn't give a lot of details.» This had been a very fast, exciting day, which had left Marco brimming with questions. Though he'd wanted to blurt them all out, he decided to apply some restraint and stick to the big, obvious questions first.
Surprisingly, it was Larry who answered first. «Waste of time, all we do is talk and take forever deciding.»
For a brief moment the Archduchess looked annoyed at Larry, before turning it around and smiling. «Larry is a bit of a pessimist, I'm afraid, but not altogether wrong. In simplest terms, the Breakfast Club is made up of units with keen minds who aren't afraid to ask questions or break tradition. What we usually do is discuss issues affecting the side, all types, big and small. Whenever a major vote goes up in the Komissar Council, we discuss that specific issue and advise the city's Komissar on how to vote on it.»
Lucy seemed curious «Does the Komissar always follow your recommendation? How does that voting even work?»
The Archduchess puffed out a dismissive breath of air. «No, I'm afraid. Occasionally the city’s Komissar, in Dis' case Count Black, votes how he sees best. Though he usually votes in favor of our recommendation--»
«When we agree» cut in Larry. «Which isn't always.»
The Archduchess put a hand daintily on Larry’s shoulder. «On that, my dear Larry, we can agree. Isn't that just delightful?» And here she let out another airy laugh. Marco was beginning to wonder at their familiarity. As an Empire, he knew that Tar Zhay had Nobles and Royals, and had even seen a few. But he'd never seen a Noble and a common unit, not even a warlord, much less an infantryman, get on so casually.
Not missing a beat, the Archduchess went on in the same informal, yet aristocratic tone. «As to "how it works", it's part of the Signamancy contract at the heart of our Empire. Magic theory isn't my strongest suit, but as I understand it every Komissar gets a Vote. They decide on a decree or order, like unit production for a city, and agree on a turn and time to vote on it some turns later. They focus their attention on the act of voting, and some form of Thinkamancy gathers the votes and the decision becomes binding. That's the brief version, I'm afraid the contract is rather large and complicated, made by Amicus, our Chief Signamancer, linked with Jintao, and signed by our Emperor before he...» and here she trailed off for a moment, looking a bit pained. Marco briefly wondered if she'd known the Emperor.
«So» Zheng began, a look of excitement on his face «we... At least in part... Get to decide how the side runs? Simply amazing.»
Sky Captain Crunch had begun walking the banister to the stairs when he answered from above. «Aye, it's quite a feeling, knowing you've got this power, even if shared... And quite scary too. It's not easy to tell whether you're voting for a bad idea, or voting against a good one... Hard to tell sometimes which is which. Even with hindsight.»
Composed again, the Archduchess nodded and went on. «That's why some of the bigger clubs actually focus on specific policy to try and make more sophisticated recommendations and plans, like side finances, diplomacy, internal security, that sort of thing.»
Not one to have his sullen mood lifted, Larry answered while pushing away his plate. «"Internal security", ha! Banana Republicans have been turning some-a our units. Makin’ alliances right under our noses. Findin' out where we'll be before we're there. Heard you guys got the short end of that stick twice now.» He said while eyeing the new faces, then he looked up at Sky Captain. «Flyin' group just so happens to run into archers and a heavy in deep jungle? Not too likely. We dropped the ball on that one. Got really lucky we caught it on the bounce back.»
Sky Captain's frown was easy to spot, even from the second floor, and Marco's own frown wasn't exactly hidden either. Zheng and Marco had debated privately a few times over whether Lieutenat Bar had been captured and Turned, or had actually been leading them into that ambush at the start of their journey. In this new light, and along with the Count's secret orders... «How are they getting this information, or... Or approaching our units with offers to turn? We're heading out into the jungle tomorrow, do you mean we can't trust the units we're with or the plans we're given?»
Marco searched the trio's faces for answers. The Archduchess gave them a sympathetic smile, and Larry, realizing just what he’d said, suddenly looked a little abashed. It was Crunch who answered. While he talked, he hopped off the banister and walked down the stairs. «You can’t, at least, not entirely. You're new to the club, and in the interests of making sure you come back for a second breakfast, here's the unvarnished truth.»
As he came closer to the group, something about his tone made him sound more like a Komissar, less like a regular warlord. «Despite how wonderful the votes and discussion and club meetings may seem, there's what? Ten units in the city right now who can sit at this table? Yet there's over 1,701 others that have no idea we're here, or what we're doing, or how the side is really run. That's not exactly a recipe for high loyalty in your commander units.»
Marco blanched, and out of the corner of his eye noticed that Zheng was holding very, very still. They were both having the very, very uncomfortable realization that Sky Captain may as well have been describing their moments of doubt and suspicion when they were lost out in the jungle, seemingly abandoned by their side. Marco sighed and said «Or infantry units.»
Crunch nodded. «The count or major Raquel probably told you that you've been chosen because you can understand the mindset we're trying to promote. And that's all good and true. But in the interests of internal security we've left out units who are traditionalists, or whose loyalty is in doubt, or who we simply haven't had time to vet. Well, unless we're careful, keep our lies straight, and treat them with respect, what they "see" is an invisible Emperor and bossy Komissars who treat them with suspicion. Put simply, the Tar Zhay system can mistreat and shut out units. We're practically creating a low-loyalty environment for the Banana Republicans to exploit.»
«It's a necessary cost!» Cut in the Archduchess, with a bit more vehemence than she'd probably meant. «Look at the recent defections: Bea Tray, Beck Stabber, and Solon Suckers. You’ve seen their profiles; they would have probably turned anyway, and by not inviting them into the Breakfast Club, none of them had worthwhile intel to take with them because they had none to take! The system works, it's--»
Larry put his hand on Shay's. She paused for a moment, and though he spoke in a remarkably kind voice, there was a wall of honesty backing up his words. «Fu Bar wasn’t your fault. But you don’t have to shut everyone else out just ‘cause of him. Those four were bad Applejacks, sure. But we gotta at least give units a chance to earn our trust.»
For the second time that day, Archduchess Shay seemed overcome with feeling. Finally, she took a breath, and admitted. «It's… not a perfect system. But secrecy is our best weapon. Both without, and within.»
«Hold on,» went Marco, his mind going a hex a minute. «You personally tried to recruit Lieutenant Fu Bar?» Some subconscious part of his mind noted that he’d managed to keep his tone even, but that his hands were now balled into fists underneath the table.
Archduchess Shay seemed apologetic. «Yes. It’s part of our duties, to look for new club members and build up a profile, try to educate them in the side’s philosophy.» She brushed a strand of blond hair behind her pointed ear, and looked into some dark corner of the library. «I oversaw his initial recruitment process. He seemed bright, eager, always looking for an opportunity. In hindsight he was probably a little too opportunistic. When he asked about meeting the Emperor, I used one of the standard lines: that he was indisposed and would be for some time. Whatever offer he got from the Banana Republic, he probably realized that the Emperor’s being “indisposed” made for perfect cover to defect.» She turned to look at Marco and Zheng then. «And I... regret that now. I realize an apology isn’t much good after all you went through, but you have mine.»
Remembering their fallen Stackies and all the lives Bar had ended, Marco felt a few choice words welling up inside of his throat, when a hand covered his balled fist. He looked down and noticed Zheng’s hand was gripping his tightly.
«You acted on the information you had available. And regrettably, so did he, though it... caused us much pain. We’ve discovered it’s better to learn from mistakes and forgive each other, rather than carry resentment and suspicion. We need to be able to trust each other out there, in the jungle, if we’re going to survive.»
«What the flip?» thought Marco, was his stackie seriously going to let her off the hook this easy? Without missing a beat, Zheng went on.
«You come to realize things like this after the fact, tactics an enemy uses, and wish you’d thought of them yourself beforehand.» Zheng squeezed his hand twice before letting go.
«Oh. OH.» Thought Marco. It was moments like this that he wondered where he’d be without his stackie.
Oh, right. Probably inside a Sleeping Lion’s stomach.
Zheng wasn’t letting the Archduchess off the hook; maybe his sentiment was sincere (Zheng’s stoic delivery certainly made it seem that way), but he was hiding his suspicions in case they were true, to avoid tipping his hand. Clever.
For her part, the Archduchess smiled soulfully, touched by the apparent forgiveness.
Lifting his eyes off the table, Larry looked at Zheng, Marco and Lucy. «All this? It's a choice. We can be ruled by tyrants, become like them, or be crazy in our own way.... We just gotta be careful our brand of "them-or-crazy" is the kind worth fighting for.»