Chapter 80 – Specific Objectives

Red afterglow burned in Flik's vision as the light faded. He could hear Nina gasping for breath as she ran towards him. "What's going on, Flik? This is Lord Riou's room, right?"

"Get help!" Flik shouted. "Find Shu or Viktor, quickly!"

The hallway rumbled again. Grit from the ceiling rained down on Flik. Nina stumbled and shrieked, but regained her footing and ran on. Flik could only hope that aid arrived in time. Meanwhile, he had to get to Riou on his own.

He reached for the doorknob and tried to pull the door open. It refused to give. Flik winced as something wooden on the other side splintered. At least, he hoped it was wooden.

"Riou," Flik yelled, "we're coming in!" Maybe the lie would scare the attacker off. Maybe it wouldn't. Flik backed across the corridor, set his shoulder towards the door, and charged.

He whacked hard into the wooden door, nearly separated his shoulder, and staggered back in pain. He shook his head and remembered that he had a rune. Holding up his right hand, he called several bolts of lightning. The roars of impact drowned out the fighting on the other side of the wall, but when the smoke cleared, the only change in the door was several scorch marks. Flik sighed and set his other shoulder towards the door. He was just about to fling himself forward when a hand reached out to stop him.

"Let me handle this," Viktor said. He looked surprisingly sober for a man who'd come from a drinking contest. Behind him was Tsai with a spear gripped in both hands. "Be ready to follow me in," Viktor added, starting forward. "Here we go!"

Viktor hit the door with a big whoosh of escaping air. The frame splintered, but didn't fall open. On the other hand, Viktor didn't fall back either, but continued to strain. "Give me a push!" he ordered.

Flik and Tsai shoved hard on Viktor's back. The hinges on the door groaned and then exploded off the wall. Viktor fell forward into Riou's room, landing on his stomach with a grunt. Flik leapt over his friend and drew his sword, searching for the assailant.

The interior of Riou's room was a smoky mess, with charred furniture tossed seemingly at random. Flik brushed aside the smoldering ruins of a curtain and called out for Riou. Something moved at the far end of the room, visible in the moonlight coming from an open window. Flik caught a glimpse of a feminine form, blonde hair, tanned skin, and a white outfit before the figure jumped up onto the sill and disappeared out into the night.

Flik and Tsai sprinted towards the window, though Tsai peeled off at the last second, heading for the remains of Riou's bed. Flik got to the window and found a grapple embedded in the stone. Looking out, he could see the figure rapidly climbing down a rope. "Stop where you are, or I'll cut the rope!" Flik yelled. He tugged up on the rope for emphasis.

"Let her go."

Flik turned around. Riou was up, supported by Tsai. He had his tonfa in hand and was wearing a pale blue night robe. The robe had been slashed open in several places and was splattered with blood.

"She tried to kill you," Flik argued. "We can't let her leave!" He looked back out the window, just in time to see her leap off the rope, diving towards the harbor below. Flik stared in disbelief as she avoided the rocks and splashed safely into the water. He stuck his head all the way out and shouted down towards the lights of the distant dock patrol. "In the water! Don't let her escape!"

That had just the opposite effect that Flik wanted. The patrolmen heard his voice, but not his words. He could see them looking up at the tower, pointing their pole lamps in his direction. "Not up here!" Flik yelled. "In the water, in the water!" He jabbed down dramatically with his sword.

"Brother!" Flik pulled his head back inside so that he could see Nanami neatly step around Viktor and rush towards her brother. She reached Riou and grabbed his left arm, where the sleeve of his robe had been burned back. She was fresh from one of her nightly training sessions, her face plastered with sweat and concern. "Are you okay? Do you need me to heal you?"

"I can heal myself," Riou answered. He didn't try to push her away, though.

Voices were rising in the hallway as a crowd gathered. Flik saw that Viktor was having some difficulty getting up, so he walked over to lend a hand. "Damn, I thought being drunk would dull the pain," Viktor muttered.

As Viktor straightened up, Shu entered the room, walking calmly but briskly towards Riou. Eilie entered behind him, but was fast enough to get to Riou first. Shu exhaled sharply and shot a glance at Viktor and Flik. "Don't let anyone else into this room."

Viktor grunted but walked towards the door, where Rina and Bolgan stood at the head of the crowd. With a few words to the large performer, the two men blocked the way. Flik could hear Rina trying to calm the people on the other side. At the same time, Riou was describing the attack to Shu.

"She said the war would only end when I was dead."

Nanami was blinking her eyes as though she were about to cry. "This is my fault. I should've been up here to protect you."

Shu's tone was all business. "We cannot afford such laxity." He walked over to the window and examined the grapple. "Security will have to be tightened, Lord Riou." Finished with the grapple, he turned to address Flik. "Did you see the attacker? I'd like to hear how your impression of her compares with Tsai's and Riou's."

"She moved like a trained warrior," Flik replied.

"That doesn't help me," Shu interrupted, looking annoyed. "Did she have any distinguishing features? Was she wearing anything in her hair? Did she have any markings on her skin?"

"Skin," Flik mumbled, making Shu stop and wait expectantly. "I'm not sure, because of the light, but her skin seemed…darker than mine, darker than anyone in this room's." He glanced to Riou and Tsai and saw the two of them nod in confirmation. "The combination of her blonde hair and dark skin was very striking."

"She was Karayan?"

All eyes in the room turned to Eilie, who'd blurted out the question. She blushed a little, holding Riou's left hand, but continued, "I mean, that's what it sounds like you're describing. I'm from the Safir Clan, and I've seen that combination of hair and skin many times on the Grasslands. The person you're describing has to be Karayan."

That sounded right to Flik. He and Viktor had traveled the Grasslands once before, a long time ago. The woman he'd seen tonight fit in with the memories of Karayans he'd seen in the past.

"Why would a Karayan want to kill Lord Riou?" Tsai asked, squinting out the window.

"I think that's enough conversation for one night," Shu said. "The important thing is that Lord Riou is safe. I'll have the dock patrol scour the waters of the harbor. Maybe they'll bring her back alive, or find her corpse. Meanwhile, Lord Riou, I'll have to ask you to move to another room, at least until this one can be secured to my satisfaction."

"Don't worry, brother, I'll stand guard over you all night!" Nanami added.

Riou wiped at a smudge on his face while regarding the ruins of his room. He looked remarkably unruffled about surviving an assassination attempt. "I guess I will have to sleep somewhere else." He nodded to Shu. "Let's go."

The crowd gave a hearty cheer when they caught sight of Riou. He waved back to them, then let Viktor and Bolgan clear a path forward. Nanami, Eilie, and Shu followed after him. Flik remained behind, watching as Tsai pulled up the rope from the window.

"This isn't a good sign," the spearsmith said gravely. "I fear that this war is about to enter a much more difficult phase."

Once Tsai was gone, Flik didn't linger. A pair of guards was already in position as he stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him. That seemed a bit silly, given that Riou wasn't there anymore. Besides the two men, there was no one else in sight. Now that the crisis was over, Flik suddenly felt very tired. He made his way back to his room and collapsed into bed. As he drifted off to sleep, he was vaguely aware of the purring coming from just above his head on the pillow.

Flik slept fitfully. Part of it was that his shoulder started to throb in pain. Part of it was that the cat wanted to leave. Yawning, Flik got up, shambled over to the door, and let the cat out, closing the door afterwards. Then he shambled back into bed. After what felt like a quarter hour, he could hear the cat meowing, wanting to be let back in. This time, Flik left the door ajar, so the cat could come and go as it wanted. The rest of his sleep was undisturbed.

That is, until he felt something lightly bonking him on the nose. He could hear birds singing and, though his eyes were closed, he could tell that it was morning. Something bumped his nose again, and Flik could hear the cat purring. He opened his eyes and found himself face to face with a mouse.

It didn't matter that it was a very dead mouse, held by the jaws of the tabby cat. Flik did the only thing that any sane person would do in that situation, he yelled and tried to swat the thing away. The mouse flew across the room and hit the far wall with a splat and slid down into a heap at the floor. The cat hissed, bounded off the bed, and zoomed out the door. Flik, tangled in his blankets, overbalanced and toppled onto the floor.

By the time he freed himself, he was chuckling. Getting up, he said, "I ought to call that cat 'Trouble,' since that's what he makes for me." He grabbed the mouse by the tail and absentmindedly flung it out the window. With that concern out of mind, Flik started to get into his equipment. He'd just finished with his leather armor when the screaming started from outside.

Frowning, Flik walked over and stuck his head out the window. About twenty feet below was a carefully cultivated garden filled with colorful flowers and sculpted topiary. Though Flik didn't spend much time there, he knew that the more refined residents of the castle preferred this place. In the center of the garden was an ornate table, occupied at the moment by the two nobles from Toran, Simone Verdricci and Vincent De Boule.

The mouse had flown through the air in a perfect arc and landed face first into Simone's teacup, causing the unfortunate noble to faint out of his chair. Vincent had rushed to his side and was doing his best to try and revive his friend, frantically waving a bottle of smelling salts under his nose. Flik managed to clamp down on his mouth and pull his head back inside before he started laughing aloud. It was a good way to start the day.

An hour later, as he stood in the great hall with the other freshly minted generals, he wasn't so sure. It wasn't that he was regretting his decision to accept the commission, but that he was certain the number of meetings he would have to endure was going to go up dramatically.

"Do the Karayans have any particular grievance with Jowston?" Apple was asking.

Lady Teresa frowned. "The people of Greenhill have always had a tense relationship with our neighbors to the north, but I don't see any reason for their intervention now. My father negotiated a border agreement with them only two years ago."

"It could be that they're trying to take advantage of the current war to make their own gains on the border," Klaus suggested.

"That doesn't sound right," Riou said. "The one who attacked me said she wanted to end the war, not expand it." He showed no signs from the assassination attempt, though Nanami at his side looked tense.

"Diplomacy with the Karayans can be difficult," Fitcher added. "They might've already considered themselves at war with us for reasons that we would find incomprehensible. Perhaps they no longer feel bound by the treaty because Highland controls the province."

Kiba shook his head. "Why attack Riou, then? I personally think that Leon Silverberg must've bribed them to join the war, probably to hinder our efforts at retaking Greenhill."

"Bah, it's not like they can stop us," Viktor groused. "They aren't known for fielding large armies. What do they add to the Highland side? Maybe a thousand warriors, two thousand at most."

"You have not fought them recently," Hauser admonished, crossing his arms. "Fighting one's way out of a Karayan ambush is not a pleasant experience."

During the whole discussion, Flik had been watching Shu. The strategist's face usually revealed little, but Flik had learned to read some signs. Shu's mouth had tightened just a bit when Lady Teresa talked about her father's negotiations. There was something important that had happened there that the strategist knew about, but wasn't likely to share, at least not at the moment.

"My point is that we shouldn't call off the attack because we're worried about a few thousand Karayans," Viktor argued.

Shu's head twitched in the smallest of nods before he cleared his throat. "I think we can all agree with General Viktor's sentiment." While no one objected, Hauser continued to look concerned. "Very good. Now, let's go over the particulars of the plan. The number of Highland soldiers within the province is small, but there is the threat of reinforcement from Muse. Therefore, our objective must be twofold. First, we must secure the border between Greenhill and Muse as quickly as possible. Second, we must take Greenhill City itself. If we can do this, the liberation of the province will be a matter of course."

"We're going to split the army?" Flik asked.

"There are times when broad strategic precepts must be violated in order to achieve specific objectives. This is one of those situations." Shu's attention turned fully to Flik. "We must act quickly and decisively, General Flik. I'm giving you the responsibility of opening the campaign."

Flik took the news in stride, speaking his thoughts aloud. "You want me to seize the Muse-Greenhill border."

"That is only partially correct." Shu smiled, momentarily sounding like a teacher and not a strategist. "You will also need to establish a cordon around the exit to Greenhill City. I need Yuber's army held in place."

"As we discussed yesterday, we're giving you all of the cavalry," Apple added. "That would be the Red and Blue Knights of Matilda, the Maximillian Knights from Toran, assorted cavalry companies from Muse and Highland, and finally your men, the scouts. It comes to nearly five thousand men total. Camus, Miklotov, and Max are all at your service, and Pesmerga has agreed to accept a commission as a captain of cavalry. We have no complaint with Rossgard commanding your former men and Kuno will remain in charge of your staff."

Flik let all the information flow over him, trying to pick out the essentials. He knew Camus and Miklotov well enough, knew that they would work with him. He respected Max and remembered the knight's work during the Liberation War. Flik figured he'd be able to work with him. Pesmerga was a mystery. Flik couldn't imagine the dark knight taking orders from anyone, but Tir had managed it somehow two years ago.

Plans started forming in Flik's head. A couple of days of joint maneuvers would help him work out the kinks and get him used to their personalities. With each passing moment, he could feel his confidence growing. He would make this work out.

Then Shu said, "You will begin embarking tomorrow morning. I want you to establish your command in Two Rivers no later than the day after. I expect you to have achieved your two goals within three days of establishing your base." He paused, perhaps waiting for some sign of acknowledgement. However, when Flik opened his mouth to ask a question, Shu started up again. "I have already told Amada and Tai Ho to put their ships at your disposal. The harbormaster knows that loading your men is the highest priority. After you have landed, the rest of the New State Army will arrive behind you. Therefore, speed is of the essence. Do you understand?"

All Flik could do was nod in response, his mouth still slightly open.

"Very good. You are dismissed from the remainder of this briefing. I suggest you use this time to meet with your new subordinates. You have a lot to do in a very limited timeframe." With that Shu turned away from Flik and started speaking to the others. Flik stood in his spot for a few moments, though, trying to recover his bearings. Only Nanami was watching as he shook his head, bowed, and walked quickly from the room. She had a sympathetic smile on her face.

The urgency in Shu's tone goaded Flik on. He took the stairs several at a time and was jogging as he crossed the entrance hall. Outside he ignored the late summer heat and held his pace on the city streets, weaving his way around wagons and bystanders, until he arrived at his own barracks. He sprinted across the mustering ground and burst through the doors of the command building, panting heavily.

"Get me some messengers!" He stopped and gulped down a few breaths of air. He could hardly hold up his own head, he was so exhausted. "We've got a lot to do!"

"Is something the matter, General Flik?"

Flik glanced up to find Camus walking towards him. To his surprise, the other generals that Shu had mentioned were also in the room, all looking his way. Kuno was also waiting, holding a tray with a drink on it. "I believe the general is just a little winded from the meeting with Lord Riou. Would you care for something cold to refresh yourself?"

By reflex, Flik took the glass and started drinking, using the opportunity to collect his thoughts. The fact that all of his sub-commanders were already gathered showed that Kuno, and by extension Shu, had planned things out long in advance. It irked Flik a little that he couldn't keep ahead of their strategy. He set the empty glass down on the tray, ignored the headache between his eyes, and smiled in greeting.

"As I was saying, even though we've got a lot to do, I wanted to take this time to thank each of you and welcome you to my service."

"I think I can speak for all when I say that I am honored to serve under you, General Flik," Miklotov said, bowing formally. Camus, Max, and Rossgard all bowed likewise. Pesmerga gave a simple nod of his head.

Flik forced himself not to let out a relieved sigh. "Well then, for the sake of time, let's set formality aside. I trust that Kuno has briefed you on the situation."

It was Kuno himself who answered the question. "We have discussed the planned invasion of Greenhill in your absence. Your captains are aware of their responsibilities."

"I see." Flik hoped his eyes weren't wide in surprise. "Are there any questions or concerns? I'd rather hear them now than in the middle of the campaign."

"This plan's going to have us all strung out if we're not careful," Rossgard commented. "Where will you be, sir, if we need to communicate with you?"

"I intend to take to the field and not remain behind in Two Rivers." Flik's mind worked, trying to figure out something smart to say about a plan he hadn't even seen yet. "I'll alternate between the units and send messengers to stay in contact. I grant you the authority to command your men as you see fit, as long as you stay within the parameters of the plan."

"Does that include authority to initiate combat?" Max asked, his eyes eager.

"I'm hoping that major combat will not be a factor, at least until we reach our objectives. The goal here is to move swiftly, not get drawn into set battles. If your units meet resistance that can't be swept aside, fall back and make contact with me."

There were no further questions, so Flik dismissed the captains, telling them to be ready the following morning. Once the office was clear except for Kuno, he turned to the aide and quipped, "You seem to have anticipated the situation. Care to show me the plan you've drawn up?"

Kuno spread a map on the table before answering, "I hope I haven't caused any offense. It just seemed logical that Greenhill would be our next target, so I drafted a plan."

Flik regarded the arrows on the parchment with amazement. "But I haven't even told you what Shu expects of us. How'd you know that he wants us to occupy the border there?" He pointed to the road leading to Muse.

Kuno shrugged. "Simple logical deduction. The bulk of the enemy army lies to the east. Who else would you send to interdict their movement but the cavalry?" He coughed discretely. "Did the Lord Strategist give us any further goals? Did he mention anything that might change the situation? If need be, we should adjust the plan now."

Gathering himself, Flik thought back to the briefing and looked at the map more closely. "Yes, we also need to hold the defenders of Greenhill in place."

"That seems doable," Kuno said. "Control the intersection here." He pointed to the south of the city. "At least until the main army moves up." He thought for another moment. "I'll have to draw up a schedule for your movement among the men."

Flik stifled a laugh, earning him a confused look from the aide. "Where did Shu find you? You seem to be able to lead my men better than I can. Perhaps I should just stand aside and let you lead them into battle?" He added the last part jokingly.

Kuno, however, shook his head vehemently. "That I cannot do. I have no skill in battle, General Flik. The Lord Strategist picked us to complement each other. I can manage your men and marches, but you must judge the battlefield."

Flik extended his hand towards Kuno. "I can live with that arrangement. You make sure my men get where they need to go, I'll do the fighting when we get there, and together we'll send the Highland Army packing!"

Kuno accepted Flik's hand, smiling slightly. "Let us hope that it goes so simply, General Flik."