Dance Across the Hungry Jungle, Part 7
Promoting an infantry unit to Warlord was a contentious issue. There were, of course, the Scriptural controversies about straying from one’s Number, and the Dittomancy double-trouble twin-sin inherent in a Ruler or Chief Warlord straying from their number by arrogantly condemning a humble infantry unit to forever live apart from their own. At one point in Erf history it had lead to a series of long, bitter wars between orthodox and heretical -- or “Irrational” -- sides. The Irrationals believed that Promotions Increase Effectiveness; and that there existed the possibility of changing one's number through the “additive” property of a promotion. The so called “Irrational Numbers” heresy lead to the P.I.E. Wars. (Even now, violent arguments would break out among Erf Historians over whether it lasted 31,415 or 31,416 turns).
Nowaturns, most moderate sides focused on the practical concerns of the strategic and Moneymancy cost behind promoting a unit as opposed to popping a Commander, with the added bonus of a chance at a Caster, or another surprise from Fate. Then there were the tactical issues. Could they wait the number of turns needed to Pop the extra Leadership? And of course the diplomatic ones: would their allies (and existing Commanders) continue to work with them if they made a habit of promoting infantry, or would the loss of Loyalty and esteem be ultimately more damaging?
Deep within this dank swamp of theological, historical, tactical, diplomatic and monetary debate was a small, dry-ish little island with a small hill on it. It was perfect for setting up camp, launching raids, had good sight lines, and was possibly the most defensible position in this argumentative little Hex. Any force contesting this debate Hex would have done very well to capture and fortify it, because NOT holding it would very well mean losing not just the debate Hex. But the debate war.
This dryish island with the little hill, nameless, could best be described with the following question: “How exactly do you help make sure your newly promoted warlords deal with having Leadership, and become good (lower case “L”) leaders?” After all, carelessly promoting infantry based solely on attractive Signamancy or a streak of good Luckamancy often resulted in Warlords entirely out of their depth. And even good candidates might get caught in the murky swamp waters and drown without help.
Zheng Voyager approached his newly gained Leadership Special like he would any other puzzle or obstacle he’d faced in the jungle. Logically, inquisitively, and with plenty of exploration and debate with his brother Marco.
Though he was confident in their adaptability, they were once again in uncharted territory.
They could use all the help they could get.
After the Dance Fighting training, Marco and Zheng had excused themselves to go wash up and change in their quarters.
They walked up several flights of stairs and down a mostly empty stone hallway, with Marco idly poking at a nasty rip where the sleeve of his underarmor shirt should have been.
«It will mend by start of turn.» Pointed out Zheng.
Marco sighed a bit. «I know that, it’s just such a shame; ripped up on the same turn we got it. And in plain old training!» And here he gestured at a nasty dent in Zheng’s own armor. Truthfully, he did feel a bit embarrassed to be walking around like this.
«I think it was worth it.» Ventured Zheng, looking for the positive. «You were really tearing up that dance floor. Though I’m not sure I’ll ever learn Dance Fighting, but Rhyme-o-Mancy… I think that’ll be really important for leading troops. Keeping up morale. Connecting with them.»
Marco thought for a moment, stroking his beard. A new affectation of his brother’s. Zheng hoped they’d be able to meet Chief Signamancer Amicus again, he had a lot of questions regarding their changed Signamancy. Somewhat embarrassingly, one of them was why he didn't have a beard.
In the space it took to cross two steps Marco finally answered. «You may be on to something. I remember the marching songs always made the training and jungle trekking more manageable. We’ve gotta be ready to lead the troops not just in combat but outside of it...» His eyes widened. «Titans, Zheng. I think it’s finally sinking in. We’re Warlords!»
Zheng let out a smile «Oh. That’s a relief. I was worried that I’d hit your head a little too hard during the Dance Battle practice. Or perhaps that I hadn’t hit it hard enough?»
Marco snorted and rolled his eyes. «Yeah well, looks like the promotion also upgraded your sarcasm. It’s so sharp! Careful you don’t poke your OTHER eye out with it, don’t want you going blind.» He snarked, pointing at Zheng’s black eye from the training.
They both laughed together as they rounded a bend in the hallway. He thanked the Titans for moments like this, especially with their imminent deployment separating them.
«But seriously though,» continued Marco «We used to be just like those guys, Danny and Jacen. I’ve been trying to sort out all the ways I feel different since we got promoted, but I guess I only just realized maybe we should also look for the things that still feel the same, you know?»
Zheng pondered this quietly for a moment. They were getting near their quarters, and crossing a hallway with open arches overlooking the Count’s grape-nut vineyard.
So far Zheng had also been focusing on adjusting to all the changes, but what had stayed the same? He felt the new Leadership special was making him think more tactically, feel more assertive and... kind of bossy, he realized. Aside from the new Leadership Bonus and ability to give Orders, the biggest change he’d noticed was he now factually knew how to lead a battle and deploy small and large forces. That knowledge had Popped in his mind like a new unit when he’d been promoted, and as he’d been remembering things he didn’t know before, he realized how... flat the knowledge felt. Untextured, devoid of context and experience.
Searching through his thoughts and feelings, he realized he still felt fundamentally himself. Though he knew how to lead battles, he had only thought of himself as a leader in theory, not practice. He still considered himself as a part of a two-unit stack, not a leader of men. Interesting.
Zheng nodded his agreement to Marco. «I still feel more Piker than Warlord. We need to adjust to our new roles, quickly... but I think we can use that. A lot of what the count told me about Leadership revolved around establishing personal connections to your troops. We’re both level 4 Warlord’s without leadership experience, which we desperately need... but we know what it means to be infantry.»
«Right. We just need to get training from some of the Komissars here or Breakfast Club. And, well, we already had a pretty decent role model of everything not to do.» Marco gave him a look at that. Neither had ever expected to be promoted, but they had both picked apart Lieutenant Fu Bar’s mistakes over many conversations during their journey. Leading had to be more complicated than “do the opposite of everything this banana-puncher did”, but they certainly had a healthy list of “don’ts” to fall back on.
He nodded back to Marco. The look they shared was a promise and a resolution: «We have to be better.»
And with that, they had reached the door to their shared room in the lower floors.
Marco and Zheng had been quartered in a modest two bedroom suite, the kind that might be used for a minor envoy’s Knight escorts, or a common member of the local court. It had painted walls rather than wallpaper, no rug, cold gray granite stone floors, a small slatted window with a view to the west, two mildly lumpy goose feather beds, a small writing desk with a mirror, two armoires and the usual toiletries like water basins and chamber pots.
But to them?
It might as well have been a Royal Heir’s suite in a level five Capital’s palace. Marco immediately flopped onto his bed, armor and all, sinking in and groaning out some of the aches from training. He pulled the Sleeping Lion skin he kept by the head of bed over him, and the pelt’s swirling star pattern over a black backdrop made it seem like he’d collapsed into some kind of black hole.
For his part, Zheng undressed slowly, favoring his left side because of a nasty prop sword strike to his right shoulder.
«Hey buddy?» Zheng heard from a Marco-shaped hole in the middle of his bed.
«Yes?» Answered Zheng, he’d finished putting away his armor in the armoire, and moved over to the water basin.
«Today’s been… Really, really crazy. Lots to process.»
Dipping in a wash towel, Zheng gingerly washed some of the bruises and grime off his face and chest. He didn't interrupt Marco. From long talks he knew when his brother was leading up to a point, even if slowly.
«And I was just wondering... I mean, we’ve got way too much to discuss, our promotions, shipping out, the war, but I guess the biggest thing on my mind is... how do you feel about our side now? After everything we’ve learned?»
There it was. Marco had Unveiled the Chameleophant in the hex. While on one level, he was a little worried of where the conversation would go, on another, he was immensely happy that whatever secrecy and paranoia gripped the leadership of the side, it hadn’t affected their relationship.
He recalled his earlier impressions and marshalled them into an orderly stack. «Honestly? I feel... a lot more committed. For one, I’m incredibly grateful at the trust they’ve show us. Not every side would promote infantry. And they’ve given us such important first missions! But...»
One of his thought-stabbers was missing from the formation. So he walked over to his armoire to look for the truant thought.
There wasn’t much in the oak armoire, just three pieces of clothing: a set of spare underarmour pants and shirt and a sleeping frock. Perhaps the most interesting garment in there was the captured Banana Republican dress uniform. They’d looted a pair from that stack they’d defeated, the one led by the bananarang wielding madwoman in the jungle. It was incredibly fancy, and though he treasured it, he’d offered it to Major Raquel in case it might be useful for the Tal Shiar’s spy work. She’ thanked him, and cryptically commented that there was “no need” for it. Though she had cautioned him that if he ever intended to wear it in public he should at the least claim it and change the colors, otherwise, be patient and display it as a war trophy.
Looking at the uniform finally got the missing thought-stabber to reveal itself and fall in line.
Zheng took out the pants and shirt and started to carefully put them on. «I feel a little worried. I don’t really like all the secrecy involved. It feels like we’re protecting Tar Zhay from outsiders… And itself. Still, I think it’s the most sensible thing we can do as a side right now.»
«What, really?» Came the voice from the hole in the bed.
«I’m not thrilled about keeping all these secrets, but from a practical point of view, we need to. There’s at least one spy in the side, and we really don’t want to be fighting a war on five or six fronts. Why? How do you feel?» Zheng negotiated an arm through the undershirt, managing to poke it through with a minimal amount of pain.
Marco popped his head up with a small groan. «Well, yeah, it’s important we keep the secret-- for now.» He stressed. «But after the war? I think we should argue for opening up more, at least within the side. There’s way too many units in the dark, if we really want to promote peace and equality, we need to start at home.»
He loved his brother’s sense of fairness. It had been what allowed them to reconcile after Zheng's... shameful revelation. But now it seemed that idealism was misplaced.
«Marco, even without the Banana Republic snooping, there’s just way too many risks to opening up the truth. Panic, defections, and then war with our neighbors or the sides beyond. What the Komissars have been doing’s been working. I don’t know that we should change that.» Zheng pulled the shirt down over his head with a loud and painful pop in his shoulder.
Marco didn’t so much get out of the bed as roll off it and stumble to his feet before hitting the floor. «Yeah, believe me, I get that. It’s just we’re all on the same Side, and we’re fighting to give every unit a voice. Except most of the units on our side are really only a little better off. They don’t get a say in things; don’t know the score. They’re fighting and croaking out there thinking we’re just another Royal side, and...»
Marco walked over to his armoire and began removing his own armor, and carefully hanging it inside. «... and well, I just don’t think that’s fair to them.»
Zheng closed his eyes and sighed. Titans, why did they both have to be right? He really didn’t want to keep going on this debate, especially since what they’d heard over breakfast implied it was already a long, unresolved one. Still, they were eating rations at the big table now, so maybe they should figure out where they stood before they were asked. So, how to debate this?
Thinking back, Zheng got an idea «Do you remember that old garrison piker, Indy Saitzev? From Uppenup?»
As Marco turned his head to look at Zheng, his eyebrow went up to a full arch. «Not really…?»
«You remember him. Brown hair, kind of a lost look? He was one of the garrison pikers we used to play cards with after turn.»
Marco winced with the pain of recognition. Or maybe bruised ribs, it was hard to tell. «Oh yeah! I swear, guy just had no idea what he was doing half the time, he’d even forget what card game we were playing some nights.»
Zheng shook his head in sympathy. «Exactly. Do you really think the side, or him, would benefit by telling him the truth? He could barely handle a game of Go Fish, he’d probably be completely overwhelmed just being part of the Breakfast Club.»
Marco took his shirt off his chest and put on a frown on his face. «Well, is it really fair to say only a chosen few should know, just because some units can’t handle it?» Marco shuddered a bit as he splashed himself with cold water and toweled off. «We’re also shutting out a lot of bright units. Imagine how many more good officers might step up, knowing their side needs them?»
Marco had some very good points, but Zheng wasn’t about to drop the issue. «Marco, we’re not even two hundred turns old. Indy must have been what? 20, 30 hundred turns old? He’s had time to grow but hasn’t. And neither have most of the regular infantry in this city.» Zheng had almost finished dressing, and started fastening his belt. «We both talked about it after those Macheteers badmouthed us. We still understand what it’s like to be infantry, but we’d changed so much over our travels we were having trouble relating. Thinking about it, it might not be fair to them to thrust so much knowledge or responsibility on them before they’re ready.»
The crash of the water basin hitting the floor startled Zheng, turning rapidly to look over at his brother. Marco was leaning over a bit, as though he’d tried to catch the water basin before it fell. He looked over with a sheepish smile. «Sorry, it slipped.»
He got down gingerly and started putting the broken pieces into his damp washcloth.
Had Zheng said something to... oh. Maaaaybe he shouldn't have created a fairness paradox.
Still shirtless, and without looking up, Marco asked «You know... Maybe waiting is the best choice. But what if that’s part of the problem? All Indy’s ever done is guard that wall and play cards. Badly. He hasn’t had a chance to grow as a unit. And up until we got lost in the jungle, neither had we. But that’s what got us here. The world is passing Indy by while we’re all waiting for something to happen.» He finally looked up with a conflicted smile.
The seconds dragged on.
Neither was really sure where to go from there.
Luckily for them, a loud thumping came from behind the door.
«Evenin’ lads! Anyone feel like getting dressed up and having fun?»
«I still don’t understand why we have to go wearing dresses.» Groused Zheng, as he tried in vain to walk without tripping on the heels and skirt. He was feeling grumpy at having been forced to change, again, this second time into a dress.
The diminutive Luckamancer had barged into their room with a dress in tow, and a larger caster helping her with a second one.
«It’s all in good fun! We ran into the Archduchess and got to talking, and decided it would be an absolute riot if everyone came dressed up!»
Lucy was, in fact, dressed as a cook. It must have been borrowed because it was several sizes too large, and Lucy had to occasionally pause to pull up the pants to mid-chest level as they walked.
Marco was holding up his skirt to avoid tripping on it. «Ok, I’ll admit that the skirt is is surprisingly more comfortable than I was expecting. But the shoes are killing me.»
Giving him the once over, the large caster simply said «Yeah, you look good.» Lucy had introduced him as Venice Beach, the side’s Dirtamancer. Lacking any clothing in the city big enough for him, he came dressed as a metal golem. Which boiled down to going shirtless with a LOT of silver body paint and a miner’s hard hat on his (even shinier) bald head.
Zheng was still concentrating on this whole walking in heels thing, but he noticed Marco blush out of the corner of his eye «Well, aren’t you a flatterer? *Ehem* Be a dear and lend me an arm?»
«Terribly sorry -- dear --, but I’m afraid Venice is already helping me.» Cut in Lucy, reaching up to take Venice’s right hand.
Marco arched an eyebrow like a taut bowstring and shot back «Really Lucy, Venice is more than gentleman enough to help both of us. Aren’t you?» and taking Venice’s left arm and walking just a bit closer to the steely statue man.
«Uh...» Concluded Venice, eyes swinging from side to side and with no idea what to do.
Zheng fought valiantly to keep a chuckle in check; Marco was usually shy around guys he liked, but either the promotion, Lucy’s sniping, or maybe even the dress made him hilariously assertive.
Zheng finally found himself losing the battle when he spied Marco and Lucy shooting hidden glares at each other, and finally let out a full laugh.
Okay, maybe putting on a dress would be a small price to pay for tonight’s entertainment.
The Bird Cage was nothing like what Zheng had expected. Yes, it was a large, cage like greenhouse. Yes, it had birds. But they had filled it up with Powerballs of every color and hung them from the branches of the Cocoapuff tree, with four circling the tree in a lazy circuit. The shifting colors on the singing and dancing units made everyone look like a unit from a different side, or trippy acid golems, and even making the ordinarily black shadows into ever changing half-shadows with prismatic undertones.
The Archduchess was there, dressed as a library scribe… And making it look good. She was leading the singing amid a throng of units Zheng recognized from the Dis-Co practice, even Capo Ira was (sullenly) here!
And the music! D.J. Larry was standing on a table playing trumpet, leading the partiers with the music to a bawdy song, when a quartet of rowdy knights actually lifted up the table and started turning it in a circle. Completely unphased, Larry actually started dancing on the turn-table!
A group of strong backed Macheteers had brought up three casks of Tarzhale for the night, and everyone had a mug in hand. Their group made their way over to get some booze, with Lucy and Marco vying half-cattily, half-playfully, over Venice.
«This ground is just too loose to walk in heels» Yelled Marco over the singing, and moving just a bit closer to the caster.
Lucy tisked «Watch your step Marco; careful you don’t step on Venice’s toes.»
To which Marco snarked «Oh go bake something in a tree.»
Oh Titans, Zheng hoped this night never ended.
They each got a pint of Tarzhale and mingled, joining in the singing and dancing with various hilarious degrees of clumsiness, enthusiasm, and drunkenness, but all in all with a full stack bonus’ worth of fun.
Zheng eventually excused himself to sit down and massage his feet. He wasn’t usually much of a fan of booze; while he liked the pleasant early buzz, he never really cared for the full blown drunken haze or the hungover status you’d get next turn after a particularly hard night of drinking.
D.J. Larry had changed the beat of his trumpet playing to something a little slower and quieter, looking around, he saw Captain Crunch and Lucy talking over by one of the casks.
Heels in one hand and ale in the other, Zheng got up and walked over to the pair.
«Lucy, Captain...?» Zheng half-asked, half-greeted. He almost didn’t recognize Crunch, dressed as he was in a gardener’s overalls and apron.
Lucy smiled and gave him a hug, and the Captain nodded and raised his mug in greeting. «Zheng! It’s good you came! Partying before a deployment’s a rare treat. Helps you “hydrate” and loosen up!»
Zheng smiled «After the pounding we got in today’s Dance Fighting training, this might actually end up “hydrating” us into mushy cereal.»
The Captain winced and smiled sympathetically «Archduchess Shay took you to train at the Dis-Co? Oooh, if I’d have known I would have warned you she’s a believer in learning by doing.»
Lucy grinned. «Here’s to mushy cereal, then!» toasted Lucy, raising her mug.
«To mushy cereal!» Toasted Zheng.
«To mushy cereal!» Solemnized Crunch, clinking their mugs together.
After knocking back his mug, Zheng turned to ask Lucy «Where’s Marco and Venice?»
She smirked and raised her hand, waving it in a dismissive circle «I gave them the slip. Giving the lad a hard time is fun and all, but they’ll only have tonight, and they deserve some fun.»
She took another hefty swig of her mug. For such a small woman she could really put the booze away. «’sides, I like Venice, and with us four shipping off tomorrow, I’d rather avoid the trail drama.» She finished with a stage whisper.
Oooh. He hadn’t considered that.
«Anyway!» She bellowed, signaling a change of topic. «Cap’n and I were just talking about the miss’n. Maybe you can help.»
« “Cap’n?” » Zheng raised an eyebrow skeptically, and Cap’n smiled and shrugged in his overalls.
«Lucy here says our man Venice has some overdue Luckamancy. Thinks the jungle’s a huuuuge carnival full of prizes. Wants us to follow her Luckamancy senses to these… hot spots. But.» The Cap´n paused for effect.
Lucy rolled her eyes «Everyone has a butt, Cap’n.»
And Cap’n just flew over the speed bump with only a smirk to show for it «Given these insights led to a dangerous run in with a bird-- and yes, it was dangerous, I saw your wounds--» And here he pointed at one of the Two-cans flying overhead, one with a violet tag tied to its foot. «and that the jungle is swarming with Banana Republicans, I don’t think we can justify the extra risk.»
Her ashy cheeks were starting to blush «It wasn’t that bad of a run in. And we need this! Venice needs this! It’s not just about the probable mineral deposits and golems; poor lad’s hurting to get in touch with the land of his popping, he’s just passing the whole world by without a chance to stop and look!»
Maybe it was the Tarzhale, but something about the plaintive and heartfelt way Lucy said that struck a chord in Zheng. And what had she said? That the whole world was passing him by? No, he was passing the whole world by...
«And who's to say one of the paths you find isn’t to a “lucky” chance to ambush some BR’s? Useful as that’d be, I can’t justify exposing you two to so much risk. I actually have half a mind to actively AVOID the paths you find. Once the war is over, then we’ll have the time and resources to go treasure hunting.»
«Why not do both?» Cut in Zheng.
They both turned to look at Zheng, just as a yellow Powerball zipped by overhead accompanied by a surprised trill from DJ Larry’s trumpet.
He felt a bit flush from the ale, but kept his cool. «Well, we have three full stacks going out: eight Red Bullseyes and riders, and sixteen Red Spots. Lucy can spot a path, and I can take a stack of red spots to scout the hex for threats. If it’s already in our flight path or within a hex’s distance, then it costs us nothing to investigate. Might even be sensible regardless. And if it is a path for a Lucky ambush… well, then I can take the shot and attack them, and if there are too many Bananas, split off and high tail it out.»
Cap’n Crunch laughed and gave Zheng a slap on the shoulder. Fortunately, it was the uninjured one. «Nicely thought out. I think we’ll make a Commander of you yet.»
He raised his mug «Here’s to Banana Splits!»
«To Banana Splits!» They all toasted.