Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 3
Part 3: The floor, the floor is on fire!
There was a moment after Larry spoke when the library was perfectly quiet. Everyone inside seemed to hold their breath, and even the nest of Mickeymice who had nibbled a home inside the book “Trade, Markets, and Acquisitions” by Wallace Treet made nary a peep. Then the moment beat a hasty retreat under the barrage of questions brought to bear by Lucy, Zheng and Marco at Archduchess Shay, Sky Captain, and Sir Larry.
Sky Captain (conveniently) picked that moment to excuse himself to go escort their guest into the city, and Lucy (reluctantly) decided to go with him to meet the arriving caster, leaving the Archduchess and Larry to fend off Marco and Zheng’s feral question-beasts.
How could the Komissars justify dividing the side into two classes of units, those in the know and in the dark?
It was considered the lesser of two evils. Risk of defection aside, knowing a ruler is permanently incapacitated is horrible for side morale and commander Loyalty. Not to mention, it telegraphs both a threat and vulnerability to neighboring sides; of which they had several opportunistic ones, without ignoring the risk of far off sides attacking by air or sea at the news. Until and if the side was ready to be open about its true nature, information security -- even within their own borders -- had to be maintained. Larry was against the secrecy, and the Archduchess for it. The split carried into the Komissar council, with a majority (at present) thinking secrecy was the better option. Though that might change if widespread Loyalty started to dwindle.
Did the Komissars lie to regular infantry and non-club warlords?
Yes. Constantly. The “official lie” was that the Emperor gave wide latitude to his Chief Warlord, and that the Komissars were his eyes and ears. He received direct reports from the Komissar’s and acted on them. Questions about the Emperor (his health, when he would make an appearance, if he could be seen) were deflected by saying his schedule and movements were handled by his personal office, which invariably was booked. The Archduchess defended her position by pointing out that most commanders and even some infantry were eventually brought into the club by means of education and persuasion, though the process might take several dozen or hundreds of turns. Marco had sheepishly noted he’d agreed to keep the lie alive before being fully aware what that might mean.
How bad were the defections, really?
While barely a handful, they were a bad Sign and could seriously undermine morale if widely known about. There had been four so far that they knew of, all by non-club members. Lacking a Ruler meant that they had no way of knowing if a missing unit was croaked in action or captured. The Scouts in the Tal Shiar had found the former Warlords thought croaked quite alive and well, but in Republican blue and yellow. They’d traced their movements back and found they’d been part of missions ferrying goods from the Tar Zhay colony of Fair Weatherfriend. From there, they’d found the colony’s court to be thoroughly infested by Banana Republican sympathizers and agents. The ruler, governor Vicky Collaborateur, was among them. She’d actually broken alliance with Tar Zhay once discovered, and gone over to the Republican side. The defection was short lived however since the entire colony fell the next turn (by means neither the Archduchess or Larry were aware of), and now both sides were picking over its three cities. Ultimately, several dozen units had taken part in these trade missions, and odds were at least one was now actively feeding intelligence to the BR’s and making offers on their behalf.
What did Tar Zhay’s neighbors know about it, the war, and (in the unlikely event they ran into another side’s units) what exactly could they say?
Very little, on all three counts. To all outside they were enigmatic isolationists, non-expansionist but aggressive if provoked. The Emperor had been incapacitated three thousand turns ago, and since then they had closed their border, lapsed all direct trade agreements, and their only active treaty was a Non-aggression pact with the eastward side Twister. It was a mostly pacifistic side far older than Tar Zhay and had long ago proved a defensibly uncrackable nut. They would routinely give Twister’s scouts limited access by escorts through Tar Zhay to the world beyond their western border, in exchange for Twister defending its eastward border and never allying with another side, or allowing any significant number of third party units through its territory.
Their neighbors to the west, the Clean-Gone Empire, were an aggressive, ideologically motivated bunch of royalists who utterly despised anything so much as vaguely ig-noble. In theory, they had no quarrel with imperial Tar Zhay, but they had a habit of trying to pass heavily armed “patrols” into their territory “by accident”. This was usually not a problem, because to the South West was the Fedora Nation of Punnets; the usual target of Clean-Gone zealotry. The Fedorans were an insidious overlordship that got by on naval piracy and mercenary work, raiding and razing far off sides and colonies. When attacked by the Clean-Gones, they liked to cede a city or two and feign meekness, only to punch back and give the Clean-Gones a black eye, and then use their Weirdomancer, Hippiemancer, and Carniemancer to just shut down all combat across several hexes to avoid reprisals. They would usually keep clear of Tar Zhay’s interests, a habit helped along thanks to Tal Shiar agents fomenting rivalry among its warlords and (went the rumor) a habit of regicide by heirs.
To the north, occupying a scattered bunch of nearly inaccessible city sites in a vast mountain range were the Moleock people of Achy Jewels. They had a unique, underground tunnel system connecting their entire side to bypass the nearly impassible High Mountain terrain they were surrounded by. In better times they’d been one of Tar Zhay’s trade partners, and while in theory Tar Zhay and the Molelocks had neither quarrel nor any great ability to attack the other’s strongholds, one disturbing report from the Tal Shiar involved discovering a collapsed tunnel leading from the mountains to one of their cities. The Molelocks claimed it was for mining only, but ever since serious resources had been put into bulking up bordering city’s dungeon zones, setting up underground listening posts, and bribing key Molelocks to get intelligence.
The few times these three had made designs on Tar Zhay they’d gotten smacked down hard thanks to preventive espionage and overwhelming preemptive strikes. However, if the war went on for very much longer, one or all three might get ideas, or become approached by the Banana Republic. For these reasons, they were to say nothing to foreign units, insist they leave, and (if necessary) croak them if they believed they had gathered crucial intelligence.
What was the plan to deal with the Banana Republic?
Up to now Tar Zhay had only had to deal with skirmishing neighbors and the occasional barbarian. This was the first major, all out war in most living unit’s memory. The BR had carved their way through their former neighboring side of Wharf Barrage to the North West in under twenty turns, completely blindsiding everyone (even the Tal Shiar) with the speed blitz of BR forces. They overwhelmed the Wharfers with two standard side’s armies worth of of troops, heavies, and a lethal combination of Cloth Golems and Dollamancy boosted, Dance Fighting and Jungle Capable warlords. Tar Zhay had been only barely holding them back with a third of their army, and taking some heavy losses for it. Now that it was evident the Banana Republic was croaking set on conquering Tar Zhay, and also posed an existential threat to its secrecy, the Komissar council had finally authorized full use of force. They were already tying up BR forces in and around the former colony of Fair Weatherfriend. With full war footing they could start popping units in earnest and spending money on Natural Allies. If they allied with the Guewilla Cheeses and Smackers, they’d use the former to counter the Navatari, and set traps inside their territory to fully halt any BR incursions; and the latter to do some infiltrating of their own through the W.W.W. (waterways, wetlands and wet works) that went all through the jungles in and around Tar Zhay and the Banana Republic. They’d secure Tar Zhay’s inner waterways, infiltrate BR via its rivers and raze roads, pillage farms, and assassinate any enemy warlords trying to cross rivers. Drowning in rivers was always a risk, and having a water-capable unit pull you down? Marco Shuddered at the thought.
With the BR resources and logistics tied up, they’d use Macheteers to beat paths for Gross-carts to move in the bulk of their army and surge into Republican territory, razing most cities and conquering only those needed for a capital strike. There was apparently a parallel covert operation under the Tal Shiar, but the details of that were classified.
Finally well past dawn, and after second bell, the Archduchess pulled rank (she was also a Captain) and Ordered that any further questions would have to wait until dinner. She and Larry had to go train.
In (technical) defiance of their order, Zheng asked «What kind of training?»
«Dance fighting» monotoned Larry.
The Archduchess cocked her head and smiled mischievously «Actually, why don’t you two come? What our branch of the Breakfast Club is in charge of is designing programs for talent scouting and unit improvement. There’s a bunch of us; we deal with teaching tactics, logistics, cooking, even basic infantry units to read and write as a means to get strategic advantages and find potential Clubbers. Larry and I co-teach a Dance Fighting class so Warlords and Infantry can gain the special. It’d be worthwhile to see if you have a knack for Dance-fighting or Rhyme-o-Mancy.»
Zheng seemed dubious, but Marco was intrigued. «Lead the way, Sa Shay.»
Larry picked up his plate and put it underneath the table, and in the same motion pulled out a rough duffel bag from underneath, opened it and willed the Powerballs to float inside. Once the group left the dimmed and silent library, the Mickeymice scampered out to eat the scraps, merrily having run of the “clubhouse.”
Outside the Library, Larry put on his helmet and lowered the visor to mask his face. And in a way, the Archduchess did the same. Her posture became aloof and commanding, befitting a Noble just a hair’s breath from Royalty. She barely acknowledged Larry, Zheng, and Marco and always walked at least half a step ahead of them. Marco wasn’t sure if she was issuing silent orders, a reputation, or had just that kind of aura; but every time a stabber, macheteer or other infantryman would cross their path they gave them a wide berth.
The Archduchess lead the group to another part of the dimly lit dungeon zone, past empty cells, an arena, and a Turning chamber, until reaching a large pair of double doors with a blindingly bright Sign above them. Blinding, both from the two dozen Powerballs framing the sign, and how jarringly cheerful it was given the dungeon in Dis’ concerted effort to seem menacing.
The Sign read, in peppy stylized letters, «The Dis Co-Teach».
Larry broke the silence, speaking with a slight, tinny filter as he moved to open the door for the group «We sometimes just call it the Dis-Co.»
The room on the other side was like nothing Marco had seen before. It was lit by powerballs underneath a translucent checkered floor in a slightly lowered pit, with blunted training weapons on two opposite sides, some seating, a liquor rack stocked to the brim, closets full of varied raiment for men and women, a raised dais with a podium and some musical instruments.
Most peculiar of all was a large, mirror-glass orb suspended from the ceiling. Sir Larry opened the duffel bag and moved the Powerballs around the room, where specially built sconces tinted the light and focused it into beams.
There were already a dozen or so units waiting and milling about, mostly knights, though there was another warlord (level 6 and Jungle Capable), and a smattering of stabbers, pikers, archers and a pair of macheteers. All of them had put on some fairly worn looking, but colorful, raiment. Half were in Tar Zhay Teal and the other in Tar Zhay Cyan.
«You’re late.» accused the warlord. He was standing, arms crossed over an exposed chest in a tight leather vest, in the middle of the chequered floor. By some quirk of Stageamancy he was standing just over a red floor light, making his dark skin, close cropped hair, and lean, powerful features look like nothing so much as a Lava Golem.
The Archduchess, for her part, sauntered into the room like she co-owned the place «Manners, my good Capo. “You’re late…”» she trailed off expectantly as she ducked behind a changing screen by the wardrobes.
To Marco, the Warlord seemed to fume. «...Archduchess Shay,» He said, somewhere between a reply and a recrimination, and segwayed into the next so quickly Marco wasn’t sure he was bowing to Noble protocol or openly defying her by ignoring her request. «the Dis Co-Teach cannot function if its teachers are not present. I did not request ten turns of leave to train here just to be kept waiting.»
Marco looked over to Zheng, and they both locked eyes. Their time in the jungle had helped them grow close enough to share whole conversations with just a look, and work seamlessly as a two-person stack. Being promoted to Warlords hadn’t changed that, and in fact, Maco had been itching to see if it might have helped. In the span of two breaths, they shared the following.
Marco: What is this?
Zheng: Social combat.
Marco: Or personal feud?
Zheng: Possibly both.
Marco: Why here, now, in public?
Zheng: Challenge the teacher, take her place?
Marco: No one’s surprised. Staged? Lets watch.
The assembled knights and infantry took positions around the chequered floor, with Cyan by the Capo and Teal by the Archduchess. Larry stood behind the dais and took position as the Dis-Co’s Jockey, directing the ensconced Powerballs to move their focus this way and that, with several aiming squarely at the mirror glass chandelier, which began to spin, filling the room in dizzying multicolor shafts of light. Marco heard-- and felt-- a beat begin to rumble beneath his feet.
«And what a pity today happens to be your tenth turn with us.» Shay whipped some raiment behind the screen so loud it snapped taut with a loud crack. «We will surely miss your amiable manner and the largesse of your wit. Such a shame that your time with us is ending.»
Around him, Marco could see the infantry units start to snap their fingers. Come to think of it, so was he. He’d gotten a silent order from the Capo to stack, and had reflexively accepted. His feet began to shuffle to an external beat, and he realized he’d have to work on developing instincts on when to reflexively accept Orders and not; he was a warlord now, no need to blidnly follow orders! A small consolation was the sight of Zheng twirl to the Archduchesses side of the floor, he must have gotten the same order from her and accepted reflexively too.
«Oh, you're so condescending» sang-spat the Capo, using the Rhyme-o-mancy ending / condescending to pick up the beat. «Well I’m not going to take it! No, I’m not going to take it! Anymore!»
Immediately several things happened: Larry started punching up with his hand in the air, the Dis-Co’s Jockey (Marco decided to go with D.J. for short) helped kick the music into high gear with a blast of guitars and drums, the checkered floor started changing colors, some hidden device started pumping out honey-nut scented smoke, the Capo struck a pose, and suddenly Marco along with all the Cyan wearing infantry and knights on his side started full-on dancing! Out of the corner of his eye, he could see D.J. Larry redirecting the lights to hit the dancers and stage, and doing something to control the patterns of lights underneath the chequered floor. He felt, on a new, subconscious level, that the lights were meant to guide his steps and movements rather than confuse him.
The Archduchess picked that moment to step out from behind the partition, dressed in a white sequined sleeveless dress with matching elbow length gloves that played perfectly off the strobing lights «Respect, Capo, I’ll show you what it means to me.» She said with a dramatic spin and strut to the stage; a flashing diamond in the dark as she drew birch wood rapier. From across the Dance floor he could see Zheng and the other, Teal colored infantry sway to a competing, compelling beat while jauntily moving to pick up prop weapons. His poor stackie looked incredibly confused, but was managing to follow most of the Archduchess’ rhythm.
«This must have all been planned, it’s training!» thought a haphazardly two-stepping Marco, as he dance-strut in acceptable synch with the rest of his stack to the wall for a training weapon of his own, before enthusiastically pumping the blunted pike he’d equipped up and down to the tune of the music. He did his best to keep pace with the quickening beat, and silently wished for the familiarity of wielding Polo, but would be happy not to cleave through any friendly units.
The Capo silently (well, non-verbally, the music was pretty loud, and he was starting to see the wisdom in putting this particular room underground) ordered his units forward, and they all air-guitared into the Archduchesses’ men.
Marco felt pumped! He felt the Dance Fight multiplier, the Capo’s warlord bonus, and his own bonus on top, and it was like being level 12! And that was without even wearing appropriate raiment! He thought he’d surely deck whatever unit was in front of him… and, of course, it was his stackie Zheng.
What ended up happening couldn’t have taken more than a second or two, but as time slowed down several things seemed to happen. As he air guitared (really, a forward thrust of the pike meant to knock over an enemy) he locked eyes with his Stackie and seemed to hesitate. The mirrored discomfort on Zheng’s face quickly flashed to a «don’t hold back», and he put a hand on his hip for balance, then parried Marco’s thrust away with a sort of finger wagging “nuh-uh” motion with his own training pike, which flowed into a counter strike that hit Marco square across the face.
«Respect! This is what it means to me!» crooned the Archduchess. It seemed her bonuses were more than a match for the Capo’s despite her being a level lower. It didn’t help that Zheng’s own piker defensive bonus kicked in, having not been the one to initiate the engagement.
The Capo wasn’t finished though, he jeered / sang «If that's your best, your best won't do!» as he jammed on his training axe. He, Marco, and all the units on his side spin-jumped up and slammed their various weapons (prop swords, machetes, pikes) down on their opponents.
This time, Marco really opened his mind to the music, Rhyme-o-Mancy, and the Capo’s orders. Instead of trying to predict where to step or analyzing what was going on, or looking for patterns in lights and structure in the music, he let himself follow a… a wave of thought very similar to his old unlead stack connection. He grooved with it, and he along with most of them struck true. The bonuses they were getting were massive, and Marco hit Zheng rather harder than he meant to, giving his stackie a purple eye and knocking him down. Even the Archduchess seemed to have let out an «oof!» at a hit from the Capo’s prop axe.
However, she quite literally rolled with the hit, tumbling away on the ground before flipping back up and belting out «Sock it to me!» with a huge smile on her face. Then (rather eerily) all the standing backup dancers chorused the line over and over.
The effect was uncanny, their collective counter strikes managed to break the Capo’s rhythm and scrub their music. It was painful, but incredible. Without the Dance Fighting bonus, and despite knowing he was three levels higher than the knight engaging him, he managed to get three good hits in to Marco’s one, forcing Marco to the ground.
Looking up at a spinning ceiling and a static mirror ball, Marco thought «Titans, this is worse than Sargeant Nass Tay’s training!»
The Archduchess must have judged the rout complete, because the music faded away and the lights stopped moving and pulsing.
She walked over to the kneeling Capo, and met his smoldering glare with a cool smile.
«A little of my respect.» She said evenly. «You have it, Capo Ira Civil. I’m not lying.»
The Capo, Ira by the sound of it, looked up sullenly now «I’m not going to take it.»
«Well it’s yours, along with my congratulations. Look.» And she pointed squarely at his chest.
Marco got up unsteadily and looked at the Capo’sbare chest (really, he had a hard time looking AWAY from the well-muscled wall), but didn’t see anything other than a few bruises. Then he remembered to look, really look, with his new Warlord senses; and he saw that, whatever the Capo had done on that dance floor, it had worked. He now had the Dance Fighting special!
The Capo himself looked surprised. And a cheer went up from all the assembled units. Even the Archduchess herself was giving one of those polite Noble claps. D.J. Sir Larry opened his visor and yelled from the podium «Good show everyone, let’s take five and have a round of Tarzhale before the next set!»
After drinks, they did three more “sets” of Dance Fighting practice, and Marco and Zheng were even given special coaching to try and form a basic beat to dance to and Rhyme-o-Mancy to recite. Zheng seemed to have little trouble getting the lyrics down, but struggled with the dancing; Marco’d have to work on his memorization, though he had almost managed to start and keep a simple 4/4 beat going.
By fourth bell the Archduchess dismissed the class, and most of the infantrymen filed out, though a couple had stayed behind to chat up the Voyager brothers. Zheng and Marco had opted to relax a bit by the bar and share some drinks with the two macheteers.
Amazingly, the Capo and Archduchess were going for a set of personal training.
«I don’t get those two.» commented Marco, as he nursed his fruity drink with a little parasol, and a bruised rib with an ice pack. All in all he’d gotten four hits worth of licks in this training. «One minute they’re at each other’s throats, and now they’re training one on one.» A thought dawned on him. «They’re not… Seeing each other, are they?» He stage whispered. Much like whispering in the cacophonous jungle, the usefulness of whispering in the Dis-Co was probably nil. But still.
Seated to his left, Danny the macheteer just sort of shrugged. He had long, straight black hair, a tan complexion and a weathered face. He answered in a rough, accented voice «Nobles are weird, but they don’t love each other, ain't havin’ nookie either, ‘sfar as I can tell.»
He twisted off the cap of his bottle of Tarzhale. «Believe it or not, real strong feelin’s like hate, love, even fear helps focus the music, so maybe all this rival crap’s just for tranin’s sake. But my gut? Says they hate each other. But it’s not like you or me would hate ‘nother unit. Capo, he recanizes she’s got the goods and title, but not much else.»
Seated to Marco’s right, Zheng turned an inquisitive eye to Danny while holding a cold bottle of Tarzhale against his puffy eye. «It’s about their Leadership styles, isn’t it? They’re very similar, always competing for status, putting rivals down.»
Danny nodded and took a swig from his bottle of Tarzhale. «Somethin’ ta do with bein’ Nobles too I bet. We’re in the Capo’s column» he said, gesturing vaguely with his hand to his fellow macheteer, who was tending bar for them. «’an he just hates bein’ under her. Like, Capo ain’t much better than a Viscount, an’ she’s an Archduchess. Plus she gets ta lord over him durin’ training an’ outta training, on ‘count she’s a Captain an’ he’s an LT. You understand.» He finished, with a tone and look thick with shared experience.
A thought bloomed in Marco’s mind like a fresh bruise. He was on the other side of the Leadership divide now. Some part of his subconscious intuited that Danny was confiding with them because he and Zheng were once infantry. So he ventured «Do you hate the Capo’s style?»
The macheteer sort of frowned and rolled his eyes. «Danny don’t hate. Capo’s a hard commander, always makin’ sure we “know our place.” But you gotta be hard t’ survive in the jungle. Pulled strings ta get us inta this class though. Got a full stack now, enough Dance Fighters ta do tricky stuff & start teachin’ others inna ranks, it’ll be slower without all this here though.» He said, gesturing to the lights and props in the Dis-Co with his Tarzhale, before putting the bottle to his lips.
Marco’s eyebrows knit in confusion. «So then why are they still training now?» he asked, gesturing at the dysfunctionally dancing duo with his drink’s straw. «The Capo’s got the special, if he can’t stand her, why stick around?» He put the straw back in, and the slurping sound of his empty glass answered him. «Also, what’s this drink called? It’s really, good, umm...»
He struggled to remember the other macheteer’s name as he swiveled around in his seat. He was startled to find him waiting, standing stock still behind the bar, staring at him through his macheteer pinhole mask, and breathing loudly… and with another glass full of the fruity drink sitting between him and Marco. A thin stream of condensed water dripped down the side of the strawberry-red glass. Or was that a bead of sweat down Marco’s forehead? The macheteer finished the drink off by plopping in a red cherry with a miniature machete impaled through it. «Tch... Tch... Tch... Ah... Ah... Ah...»
«’s a Chocolate Cherry Cha-Cha. Ya gotta ’scuse my stackie Jace Son. He don’t talk much, always there when you need 'im though. Anyhow, love or hate, Dance Fightin’s a real tough Feral of a special to tame. If you can master at least one dance, ya get it, but there’s like, infinite dances. You can spend a whole life tryin’ ta dance ‘em all. The Archduchess may be a real Sandwitch, but she’s a pro, heard she’s never turned away a willin’ student. ‘An Capo’s probably tryin’ to learn ‘smuch as he can before we ship out.»
«Thanks, Jace.» Marco managed, as he gingerly accepted the drink and looked over from Jason to Danny. «So you’re shipping out? What company are you in?»
«Franco’s fifth column.»