Master of the Loop - Chapter 197
Their march slowed down considerably, Valen noted as he silently observed the open stretch of land currently being occupied by tents and campfires roaring smoke into the sky. It was in part because their army grew bulkier, tripling in size effectively, meaning that they could no longer maneuver as quickly as they used to.
Most of it, though, was entirely because of General Staun and his insistence on three-day-marching and four-day-training program. They’d usually stay still for two days at minimum while he tried to get everyone in relatively the same shape. At first, it was just physical–having them run and swing weapons for hours to build up stamina and strength, but now he also began training them in a variety of formations, both small and large-scale.
That was precisely what the large groups of nearly six hundred people were doing at the moment, spread out across the vast plains like a swarm of locust feasting on the land. Shouts and roars repeatedly rang out like thunder, the song of hard work playing out into infinity.
Deep in his heart, Valen envied it all–he, too, wanted to leap over and join them, swinging his sword and roaring alongside them. It felt at odds with who he was to be sitting back and simply observing, even if he always hid that part of himself away, fearful of what others might say. But there was romance, he knew, in war–as much as there was bloodshed and tragedy.
Sitting by his side, and seemingly unbothered by any of the thoughts Valen was having, was Sylas. The man had finally put on a shirt after many such requests, though still remained barefoot, his feet hung over the wooden fence surrounding them, a hat of bale and straw covering his eyes and shielding them from the sun. Every so often, he’d bring the cup of wine close to his lips and sip for a moment before going back to appearing comatose.
“What do you think of them?” Valen tried striking up a conversation, wanting to distract himself from the burning desires.
“Of who?” Sylas asked, pointing up with his index finger and lifting the hat, glancing over at the Prince.
“The army,” Valen said. “They’re getting better, aren’t they?”
“It’s the legs that you’re missing, not eyes,” Sylas replied. “Yet there are days where I have my doubts.”
“… I’m not missing the legs. They’re here, aren’t they?” Valen said with a smile. “What do you mean? Are they not improving?”
“Let me ask you something,” Sylas said. “If a fiddling army made up of novices and armed with weapons and armors on the verge of giving out could take over this Kingdom, why is it that no other Kingdoms ever conquered it?”
“Sometimes I wonder whether you’ve ever been in the capital,” Sylas said. “The Kingdom’s true army would never just walk out to meet the rebels. If they stretched their main force out this far north, it would leave them open to attack from everywhere else.”
“So, you’re… you’re saying that we can’t win?”
“Huh? No? When did I say that?”
“Just now!” Valen exclaimed as Ryne joined the two, carrying a tray of fruits and gently putting them down before sitting between the two of them.
“No. I said that the army can’t win, not that we can’t win.”
“… what the hell’s the difference?!!” unbeknownst to Sylas, to others he’d become the very thing he despised in this world for so long–a cryptic old man who never gives a straight answer.
“Because we don’t need to defeat the army,” Sylas sighed. “Seriously. If we go all out in a full-blown civil war, we may as well just give over our Kingdom to others. Didn’t you learn anything from hundreds of those council meetings or whatever that you host?”
“… alright,” Valen swallowed his frustrations. “Enlighten me.”
“You want the main army to accept your ascendancy to the throne,” Sylas said. “And continue supporting you. I’ve made a few… extraordinary claims, here and there, about burning down the Kingdom and build it anew, but those were mostly metaphors. We don’t want to literally engage in a deadly civil war that will leave us depleted of men and resources alike. Didn’t that kid basically say the same thing just like a week ago?”
“The Commander? You really should stop calling him a kid,” Valen said. “He doesn’t like it.”
“The boy’s got no pubes,” Sylas shrugged. “Forget pubes. His voice is still crackin’. If he ain’t a kid, there ain’t no kids left. Anyway, he said something along my lines, didn’t he? That now that we’ve broken the ‘wall’ of the anti-rebel forces, we’ll maneuver into a slow march as we go through the various parts of the Kingdom and obtaining their support. Logistics of it all escape me, to be honest, but that’s the gist of it.”
“No, no it’s not,” Valen frowned. “Nowhere in there did either one of you mention how I’m going to win over the army to my side. Every new conscript swears a Blood Oath to serve the King–it will take a lot more than fancy and passionate speeches to turn them over, Sylas.”
“That’s right,” Sylas nodded lightly. “In truth, there’s likely only one thing that will have enough impact to make any dent.”
“What is it?”
“Beating the shit out of your father.”
“Oh, geez. Color me awed–how did nobody ever think of just defeating my father?!” Valen grumbled.
“Well, that’s why I’m here,” Sylas grinned. “Was supposed to be everyone and he was likely to go easy on us… but damn. I have a feeling he’s gonna make me work for it.”
“Father will never voluntarily surrender or ‘make it easy’,” Valen said. “It goes against everything he believes in.”
“I’m as blind as you are to your father’s beliefs, Valen,” Sylas said. “But he will make it easy. He loves this Kingdom, for better or for worse, but neither he nor his Queen could see past whatever holy promises they were given when you were a boy. They canonized you virtually from the cradle, and worked with that thought in mind ever since. To them, you are the cure to the poison that’s rotting these lands. Naturally, they are quite stupid, but that’s irrelevant. The core of their beliefs, whatever context exists around them, is you. And so long as this army’s goal is to put you on the throne, they will create the perfect scenario for you to win the hearts of everyone.”
“… you sound like you have met my Father before,” Valen said. “As though you know him.”
“I know men like him,” Sylas replied simply. “Devout, dogmatic, yet almost evilly pragmatic.”
“And what if you’re wrong?”
“Well, all this would have been pointless, eh?” Sylas cracked a grin, glancing at him. “Are you having doubts, lil’ Prince?”
“No, no doubts,” Valen shook his head, facing forward. “Since the day I met you and when you promised me the throne… my doubts were equal to yours. I’m just curious, is all.”
“It’s no good to trust anyone that blindly,” Sylas said. “Should I beat it out of you?”
“You can try,” Valen chuckled playfully. “It will take an awful lot of beatings for me to have anything short of absolute trut in you.”
“You hearin’ this, kiddo?” Sylas glanced back where he saw Ryne smiling lightly.
“I’m hearin’ it, old man,” she replied. “What? Pressure getting to ya’?”
“Could you stop picking up my jargon?” Sylas grumbled. “If everyone starts talkin’ like this, I won’t be special no more.”
“You have plenty other things to feel special about,” Ryne said. “You can afford to share a few with us mortals.”
“Yes, indeed. You are a spiting image of a mortal,” Sylas said. “Too bad you can’t see it in the mirror.”
“Ouch. That was a good one,” Valen exclaimed softly. “Even I felt a faint sting.”
“You… you would tease a blind girl so?” Ryne mustered a fake whimper, though it was hardly a convincing one.
“I’ll have to introduce you to the Queen at least once,” Sylas said. “So that you can pick up on a few tricks for the future. You’re godawful at it.”
“…” strange silence befell the three as Sylas looked to the side where he saw two young people tossed in the fires of embarrassment. He missed the sensation–at least, he thought he did. The truth was that he couldn’t quite even recall what embarrassment felt like. Or shame. Time, as it turned out, has ways of simply grinding down a soul to its singularities. And shame and embarrassment weren’t there.
“She’s a fascinating woman, the Queen,” Sylas said, changing the subject somewhat. “Your father and she fit eerily well together.”
“How come?” Valen asked. Though he had seen his Father and the Queen together many times, they never gave the impression of a particularly well-fitted couple.
“He dreams, she executes,” Sylas said. “Were it up to your Father alone, he would have raised you into a weapon and protected you while you became the King. A fine way, indeed, but would simply perpetuate the same systems in place that led to this mess. This way, though, the whispers get flushed out, and the faces grow unmasked. It will be quite beautiful, I imagine, when that day comes. Anyway, I’ll take a nap now. Watch them be men or whatever, or you two can go and chat in private where you won’t be embarrassed so easily by an old man. Good day to you children! Sleep beckons!”