Master of the Loop - Chapter 196
A Proper Army
A week had passed since the induction of General Staun in the army, as well as nearly ninety thousand of his men. The rest left, alongside two constables who looked just about ready to explode. Even after Sylas declared his loss, the two were unable to persuade most of the young men to return with them, and those who elected to do so largely had families back home waiting for them.
And while folk cheered the first day, few were cheering now, even among those who came along with the General. Starting with day two, he set out to shape up over hundred thousand men into a proper army–drill into them the most basic military bone, as even those who came with him were hastily conscripted as only fifty thousand or so were an actual force, most of which either died, were wounded, or went back home to their families as they were on the older end of things.
From dawn till dusk, one could hear roar and shouts of the thousands of people as they ran through the course in the woods, did exercises, repeated formations and tactics, all while spurred by a beast with a whip bellowing commands in their ear if they slowed down even for a moment.
The more he watched the unorganized scramble, the more General realized that the reason they lost that battle weren’t these children. The few who are truly strong could not make up for the shortcoming of a force with barely enough discipline to line up and salute. Every so often he would glance at the distant building that remained wholly silent for a week, and think of an image of the beggar-looking man.
If there was a hand that played part in that battle going the way it did, it was his and his alone. Though he couldn’t recall precisely seeing the man in the scuffle, considering how easily he overpowered the General, it would have likely been a child’s play for him to help here and there and ensure the victory. The General always believed that an effect a one man can have in a war, in a grand battle, was minimal–even the extreme ends of such spectrum, men and women who could bend nature to the will and use the natural energies to their advantage. Numbers reign supreme, always–that is what dictates the victor. Numbers and the will of steel. If ten thousand is not enough to conquer a castle, throw bodies at it until it runs out of things to kill the invaders with.
But he was proven wrong. This tiny force that couldn’t even be called peasant militia would have bent over and died within half an hour in ordinary circumstances.
“DID I SAY YOU COULD RELX, HUH?!!” like a hawk, even while distracted by his thoughts, the General noticed a few groups easing up on the exercise, immediately roaring at them. “FIFTY SQUATS, EACH, NOW!!”
While the roars of commands continued to bellow out, Prince Valen sat in the commander’s tent and sipped tea while looking through the documents his advisors prepared for him. There were stacks and stacks of them, though he hardly complained. He, too, knew that the victory was unlikely and that Sylas probably, somehow, helped. That didn’t bother him, though–it was, more so than anything else, the sense of expectation.
The only reason he was here to begin with was the Prophet–the man who blindsided him in a library and sold him dreams he was too terrified to dream of on his own. Everything since that day felt like a dream–and though he lightly bought into it, doubts were always there, doubled when he nearly died. But the Prophet… Sylas never gave up on him. Never gave up on what felt like a childish, pointless dream to pursue.
Valen knew that without the strange man who was carving out a road for him to walk upon, he would have likely died north to one of many ghoul invasions, his fate to be have been sealed for all eternity, name erased from the books, a footnote somewhere in the chapter of history that depicted the kingdom that rose and fell without his input.
But that all has changed. And if he had to work twice as hard to help even the tiniest amount, he would work sleepless. A sound of footsteps caused him to look up from his table and at the front where he saw Ryne carrying a tray upon which two cups of still-steaming tea rested. Though she still struggled with many day-to-day tasks, she had grown remarkably self-sufficient in the short period of time.
“Oh, hey,” he called out, subconsciously fixing his hair. “You didn’t have to.”
“I know I didn’t have to,” she said, slowly putting down the tray on the table whereupon Valen hastily moved to clear out the spot of the papers. “I wanted to. Are you telling me I can’t do what I want?” she grew bolder around him since the two met, often chirping more courageously than everyone else except Sylas.
“I wouldn’t dare to,” Valen smiled lightly as he wheeled to the other side and helped her set up the chair.
“How is it going?” she asked. “If I brushed documents twice while setting down a tray, there must be a mound of them.”
“Try ten mounds,” Valen said, returning to the other side of the table. “But I have to do what I have to do. How about you? Have you gotten used to the pathways?”
“Well, considering you yelled at the builders to make sure there are clear markers I could touch to recognize where I am, yes,” she smiled lightly.
“If I didn’t yell, would they take me seriously?”
“Uh, yes? You’re the Prince, no? Or, well, a King-to-be. There’s not a man or woman in this camp that wouldn’t lick the dirt if you order them.”
“He’d probably force you to lick it if you ordered him to.”
“Ha ha, yes, I can imagine it,” the two laughed for a moment as the tea cooled down slightly. “Oh? Did you add some perriente stalk in it?”
“Yes. I noticed that whenever you drink tea with it, you perk up a bit after the fact.”
“… yes. It reminds me of home,” the Prince said, his expression mellowing out.
“Home?” Ryne quizzed.
“Hm. It’s the tea a maidservant who was close to my Mother used to make. She told me that it was how my mom used to make it and that Father loved it, too. As a kid, I figured, if I drank the same tea as my Father, I’d get to be closer to him.”
“No. Turns out the maid made up the story and my Father, in reality, hated tea.”
“Wasn’t the first time I realized just how… different I was from them,” Valen sighed, a look of melancholy appearing on his face. “But, oh well. Those nights and mornings when I’d have the tea before the whole house came crashing down… I remember them fondly. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You are awfully mysterious about your past.”
“There’s little to it, honestly,” Ryne chuckled slightly. “As far as I can remember, I was apprenticed to be an Exorcist and grew up in the compound with the others. There are few happy memories there as we always knew, eventually, most of us would die for the few to stand on the top.”
“You never knew your parents?”
“No,” Ryne shook her head. “Whenever I asked, Master would simply tell me I was abandoned.”
“…” heavy silence fell between the two for a moment.
“That’s until Sylas decided he’d adopt me, apparently, ha ha,” Ryne quickly tossed a joke to ease the tension.
“It’s alright,” Valen spoke softly. “Some demons need be spoken of, even if heavy on the soul.”
“I’m so lucky I can’t see your lying expression right now.”
“Hey, now! That actually hurt! I would never lie to you!”
“Oh, really? Mister ‘no Ryne, I’m not doing this path especially for you, this is for all the blind people we have!’.”
“We–we do have other blind people! There’s Penelope and Rod!” Valen exclaimed.
“Yes, and they tell me they really appreciate it. Funny how you learned they existed because you specifically asked Derrek to seek them out. After you built the road.”
“Ugh, I am going to kill Derrek! I ask he do that in utter secrecy!”
“What can I say?” Ryne chuckled, leaning back lightly. “I guess he has a soft spot for a blind girl. Would you deny a question to the blind girl?”
“… I want to be encouraging,” Valen said. “But you have begun relying on that for many things now.”
“Like you don’t?”
“Well, I do. But still.”
“Maybe we should both hush so they don’t hear us.”
“Yes, maybe that’s a good idea.”
In the meantime, just above them, suspended in a tiny hole between the roof and the columns holding it up, Sylas listened with a quaint smile on his face. This wasn’t the first time the two had a conversation similar like this–it was a perpetual thing, one that happened nearly every loop. And this was all without his input–he’d long since stopped trying to shove the two of them together, and despite that, they always found a way there. Perchance, he mused inwardly while closing his eyes in lieu of another nap, he did have an eye for couples, kind of like Cupid. And, perchance, it might become his career once this all blows over, though he doubted that very much. Still, it was always nice to dream.