August 25th, the Year of our Fair Lord 10, Southern Border, Neutral Zone
Outside of Westfall, time continued on the normal calendar and it was 2031.
Also outside of Westfall, was an empire that had proudly taken the name Eastasia from Westfall, after its western rival had blamed it for its economic woes.
Eastasia contained such a large portion of the world’s population that they could wipe out entire island nations with a single deployment force. In fact, if every citizen held a gun with six bullets, the war against humankind outside their borders could be over in less than six rounds and a cross-country stroll. Eastasia knew it, and had worked hard, endured much, and bode its time, because everyone else knew it as well.
What everyone else did not know, was why it didn’t. It was an important strategic question, and the answer often surprised many a nation into surrender.
Every man of military age and any woman who volunteered for the Eastasian empire was prepared for active duty, even if chances were they’d never see battle. It was the idea of war that had united the nations into an empire, the thought of, finally, coming into their own. This ideology gave workers their pride when poor wages couldn’t. It justified anything the leadership did because, unlike Westfall, Eastasia didn’t have to pose in the end.
You could take pride in the fact that it was war done well. Eastasia had patience like no one else; they didn’t engage in battles they could not win. No war took more than a year. Sack the government, levy a tax, set up a new government (they had an entire branch of government devoted to making branches of government), train locals in how to run it, and move on. You never did more to the enemy than their citizens could take. They had to be on your side in the end, or you wouldn’t win. And you had to manage what you’d won, or it wouldn’t stay yours for long. Most people, when they realized their soldiers—their parents, siblings, and children—were just fodder for a stubborn government, looked at the previously conquered countries and decided it just wasn’t worth it to keep up the bad fight.
It was countries run by the lian—whom Westfall called the Fair Folk—that were the proverbial wrench in this well-oiled machine of conquest. Eastasia’s allies in Eurasia (also happily named by Westfall for the irony) said the same. There had been three so far between them, all large nations, run by governments unaffected by their people. The power of such governments relied on both the trancelike state of any masses that could change the status quo through legislation, and on the fear and ignorance of the poorer masses that might have overwhelmed it by sheer force in numbers. Such governments were difficult to cow into surrender because the bodies between them and their enemies were not a responsibility, but a shield.
In these cases, the battles were more ruthless, and two of these three battles had involved the infamous General Gao. Gao knew it was important to show the lian how quickly their mortal shield could be wiped out. It was all a game to the immortals; they wouldn’t play if it wasn’t fun. They would run, leaving their shadow congresses waking up from a political wet dream, blinking in the glaring light of reality, and staring down the myriad barrels of an unstoppable advancing forest of artillery. Surrender was quick after that.
General Gao had drawn a bloody line of casualties between Westfall and the southern hemisphere with his air, naval and ground forces. He had finished reconnaissance from well behind the potential battle lines with the help of his stealth drones before even hitting the shore. Small batches of Tenoan POWs were now on their way south to allied nations, but the governing powers had been obliterated, as had most of the towns that offered no strategic advantage. It had been a massacre, and Gao had let a few natives escape north to ensure Westfall knew as much, hoping gravely that all that death had been worth it. The states would either surrender or call to their capital for help next. The lian would have their first chance to cut and run.
Of course, if the government replied in great force, there was a chance they could wipe out the Eastasian detachment in the first skirmish, but they should know, if they paid any attention outside their borders anymore, that such an action would simply clear space for the next force on its way.
There were a few days of silence after the first raids on the border towns of Glitterford and Bloodriver. The news media of the lian would, of course, cover as little of the matter as possible. Those reports his people intercepted downplayed the extent of the attack, spoke of only good news from Teno with a few unfortunate losses for the nation which Westfall had generally ignored when it had nothing to gain from it. Such was the lian’s way. Consequences were always a conspiracy and truth was slander.
What was odd from the reports was that there seemed to be a growing tension between the powers of the bombarded states and those of the capital. The President’s response, when it finally came, was not as expected. It even angered his citizens to the point of protest—which was practically unheard of these days. The King wanted something he was loath to explain. He’d even stated that a man of a considerable name, one of his own advisors, would set out to make peace with the Eastasians—not because they were a threat, the King insisted, of course not—but for their own lives’ sake, because Westfall was a merciful, peaceful country even to those it belittled.
Gao found it interesting that the considerable name was one he recognized from his father’s stories of his time in Westfall. Eventually, more details were revealed: Then the word “hostages” was used, though Gao had made no demands about his recent prisoners. Something clicked that made the general smile. So, they were trying to start a new game?
Gao praised his informants and his cryptologists, who’d spent most nights copying down the matter in the chatter tent, and then went off in search of Pinyin Liu, his interpreter, to help him leak some very specific information to his father’s old friends.
Fair Lord and International Advisor Alfred Farthing was not the type of person to feel nervous, and so he didn’t.
Farthing had all the look of a respectable man, the sort who goes to bed promptly at nine p.m. and wakes up to go running at five, the sort who says no to dessert and yes to a salad bar; the kind who, if he ever had children, would teach them how to part their hair with a comb and how to give a firm handshake because anything more important would only need his example. He had worked hard for this appearance, even as Spade and Baton had for theirs, and he was dutifully proud of it.
Farthing’s dark eyes were keen as they darted over a set of cards flashing brightly in his hands, as he read over one, then another, each with a perfectly written line of universal IPA lettering. He was aware that Eastasia’s common language was, as its name implied, as far different from Westfall’s as it could be. And since the Stand Alone isolation policies had been enacted a decade ago, up-to-date language references were difficult to find. Even these pristine little cards might be out of date or misrepresented, yet he trusted that the librarian he had consulted had done her best, and he trusted his own diplomacy.
There was a bump. The road was no longer paved. Farthing turned back his shoulders to brace himself better in the seat of the long, bulletproof limousine in which he rode. The vehicle flew the golden flags of the capital of Westfall. Its hood ornament was the trippant golden bull of the capital. A glance out either window told him there was still nothing for miles under the darting lines of General Gao’s surveillance drones, nothing but the piles of dead construction zones long since abandoned to the gathering dust and clinging, tangling grasses.
There was a sputter somewhere ahead, an engine whining. One of the military vehicles in his envoy was slowing down. He heard a gradual petering off of engines before the limousine’s, too, went silent. He saw his driver step out.
Hefting his cards to even their edges, Farthing shunted himself to one side of the car in time for the door to open. He stepped out into the glaring sunlight and windblown dust.
A jangling stomping told him of the approaching soldier from the lead of the caravan. He turned from his squinting at the desert.
“Yes, what is it?” he asked at the salute.
“There’s a messenger in the middle of the road, sir,” the soldier reported readily.
Farthing glanced at the name tag to remind himself. Titles were important. “What kind of messenger, private?”
“One of the Eastasians, sir.”
Obviously, thought Farthing with some distress. They didn’t train them for introspection on principle, and Farthing couldn’t help but wonder if Spade was missing something important there.
“Is he armed?”
“A pistol in a holster, sir.”
Farthing turned a few cards over, and tried to say, <You can ask he lay down his weapon and then we’ll talk.>
At that moment, a pitched, accented male voice called from somewhere up the road, speaking in Westron. It was clear, but where native Westron speakers’ words might brush with feathers or hiss like snakes, this voice scraped like aluminum foil.
Farthing felt his face twitch despite himself. He would have to seriously consider if someone was having a joke.
“Mista Fahding, do tell your friends to put the guns away.” A pause. “And, for the sake of us all, perhaps you can do it in Westron.”
The private motioned to Farthing and led the way along the convoy towards the front of the line, keeping himself and his rifle between the ambassador and whoever was literally mutilating his leader’s good name.
“Hello, Mista Fahding.”
The man was taller than Farthing had expected. There were too many old stories that said they were short. The man had a narrow chin and wide, brown eyes under a prominent brow. His hair was cut short. It was a strange dark, reddish brown tint and curled a little. He had a pencil mustache. His uniform was neat but he wore no hat despite the heat. He was carrying a sidearm, as the private had said, but his hands were out to his sides away from it.
He was smiling.
He said, “You do realize, Mista Fahding, that your men are aiming weapons of deadly force at the only Eastasian on this side of the ocean who can speak your language?”
Farthing made a quick decision. This was a situation where it didn’t matter if your enemy was lying because the stakes were too high.
“Lower your weapons,” he told the men around him. He nodded to the private. “With me,” he added, and stepped forward, squaring his note cards. They’d been a heartfelt effort and so he fought the impulse to throw them aside in dismay. Instead, he slipped them into an inner pocket of his jacket.
The Eastasian man waited as the guns lowered. He kept his right hand away from his weapon, clearly not eager to do more than talk at the moment.
“You know my name,” Farthing said in his best humble tones. “I’m surprised.”
“You are not nobody,” the man said with a smile, his words still crisp and painfully chipping. “You can call me Henry. It’s easier than my real name, yes?”
“I don’t know,” said Farthing. “What is your birth name?”
The man, “Henry,” smiled and shook his head. “I know who you are, Mista Fahding,” he said. “and what you are; and so I am the man who speaks Westron, and you are the one who does not speak Eastron, and that is all we need to know. Are you ready? My general is waiting for you.”
Ah, Farthing allowed himself a small pang of inner delight. It has been a long time since a human was cunning with me. And he wasn’t half bad at it, this “Henry.”
“Please allow my convoy to follow at a distance,” said Farthing.
“I’m afraid not, ambassador,” said Henry. “My general said to take you and one soldier as a kind of messenger, and that is all.”
Henry turned his head to one side, eyeing him as a bird might, a small smile still playing with his mouth. He gestured towards a set of tents set up past the barrier, away from the main forces but still over the border. Farthing frowned. Were they willing to put their leadership in such a vulnerable position? As he and Henry approached, however, he saw wooden stakes were planted in the ground every few yards, and nylon string of various colors was strung up between them, knotted with small tags of orange plastic to ensure they were visible. Here and there a man stood guard at a corner. There were signs, both in Eastron and handwritten Westron, which read: “Mines. Watch your Step.” Farthing paled a little at what seemed to be intentional understatement, and admitted (only to himself) that he’d fallen for the convention that the people of Eastasia had no sense of humor.
He had about twenty seconds to let it bother him that he’d been surprised by something. Then the general arrived and it was time to talk.