Friday, October 2, 2015

A Song of Ice Cream and Pickles; Chapter Four


Duke Bryan was slumped down low on the high chair of the royal pavilion, in naked boredom. Almost giving the appearance of a man who was trying to learn how to sit on his shoulder blades. The Tournament was well under way and he had to stay through it.

All. Of. It.

It was both custom and law.

When his father the king, was a young man some forty years ago, a tourney consisted of a bunch of young thugs stylistically beating the living shit out of each other in interesting, athletic and excitingly creative ways. There was some money involved but mostly it was in the hopes of pretty girls noticing them doing it. The girls always did.

Now however...

The pageantry was incredibly colorful you could say that much for it. Large, in fact unbelievably obese field officers dressed as butterflies with matching face paint were dancing among the attendants blowing bubbles and handing out streamered pinwheels to the audience.

The competing regiments ambled aimlessly on to the tourney field. Their companies freely mixing with each other as they marched with a military precision that kept a very keen eye on the needs of the individual to remain as individualistic as possible, so that they would maintain the most positive sense of self of themselves imaginable. Serotonin reuptake inhibitor potions were administered as needed to maintain this glamour. Their sergeants tirelessly running back and forth among the troops with an unending stream of compliments and praise. Keeping an especially keen eye out for any private who might have a need for a safe space or just be feeling a little down that day. Not that it wasn’t alright to feel down but if a soldier needed alone time they needed some alone time. Self motivation came from a good self image and a good self image could only be issued by the state. That was obvious. It was a question of good morale after all.

The days long military pageant had begun with an obligatory liturgical observance on the evils of Sexual Harassment and Alcohol Abuse. Bryan was enough of a traditionalist that he would wait until that part of the sermon was over before getting drunk. He was the only notable exception.

Today’s events were well underway. There were loud non-arguments where the women of the regiments and the men who identified as women would consensus build positions on the horrors of the male patriarchy as fast as possible, frequently stopping to compliment each other’s groups as the contest proceeded. Team members constantly changed sides during this event. This would go on until one group argued itself into the majority. At an unspoken point when this group was sufficiently large, it would start screaming at the other groups to shut the fuck up and join them. Which of course they always did. Everybody always won.

There were a few exclusively male contests as well. These were limited to which man could poetically decry the horrors his sex and ethnic group had committed on the on the races of the world as virulently as possible. Bryan could almost take an interest, it was the only thing going on that was even slightly competitive. Although there was another contest vying for his flaccid attention; which man could be brought to tears the fastest by tales of misogynistic cisgenderd oppression. This one was usually a very tight race indeed but it was over too quickly for Bryan to take much of an interest.

The art contests were much less edifying.

The women of regiments endurance menses painting was underway and would take three days to complete. This year Bryan had demanded that the men of the regiments who identified as women be allowed to compete as well by slitting their wrists. With a special award to be granted to any gender identifier who died during the event. The Duke was fervently praying he would hand out many awards this year.

Bryan watched his father’s kingdom’s best and brightest young...not men, compete in passive aggressive contests of bitchy assholery, with a near to unblinking thousand yard stare.

Where did my country go? Bryan wondered as the days completely un-eventful events dragged on.

The other specied races of the of kingdom conducted their own contests as well.

The centaur regiments held their annual poetry and flower arranging competition. Which Bryan would have approved of wholeheartedly if A. it was fulfilling it’s original purpose treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And B. had demonstrated anything that resembled artistic talent. This year's newly lauraled grand poet master was a female who was so incredibly obese her belly was actually dragging on the ground. She was reading her magnum opus, “If You Were Land-Orca My Love.”

The dwarves honored the military traditions of their ancestors by not showing up again. So far they were getting away with vague claims about religious restrictions without being openly accused of racism. Bryan didn’t think they could be able to get away with it for much longer. Their publicly stated reason was that they couldn’t be there because the orcs would be present. Which was technically racism. However, there is racism and there is racism against an unpopular minority, it makes a difference.

Which neatly brings up the orc contingent of this grand military pageant. There was one of him.

There he was. One lone orc dejectedly gnawing on a fence post in absent minded boredom.

“Career Banner Sergeant Kevo-Grod! Please tell me you brought me something decent to drink!”

Grod did not appear to be happy about having been identified by name when he was good and deep in Indian country. But he apparently wouldn't leave one of his own to perish behind enemy lines either. Grod had been Bryan’s platoon sergeant during the happiest days of his life. Bryan's official rank had been full colonel but he had only had the duties of a platoon commander.

“I don't know if it’s decent your Grace but every fly within twelve feet of the bottle will die the second you open it.”

Duke Bryan snatched at the bottle greedily. Opening ceremonies were long over and custom did permit tyrants to get shitfaced at these things. He snatched at the custom greedily as well.

Bryan gestured and with a mild sigh of regret, Grod stayed at his side, Now in full view of the military freak show arrayed before them, Grod leaning negligently on the arm of the Emerald Throne itself.

“Every year, I’m certain that this can’t get any worse then last year.” Bryan sighed in dejection. Popping the cap of Grod’s home brew with his thumb. He managed not to wince and Grod managed not to smile with pride at his former Ensign. “And every year I’m proven hilariously wrong. So what brings you to the capital?”

“Officially, I’m the official Orc representative at this damn thing. Unofficially I’m the official demonstration of contempt by the Black Legions for the Royal Army. Now on the officially unofficial side of things, I’m also here to talk to a few of the high ranking grand master magicians.

At Bryan's quizzical look Grod elaborated. "Something has our backwoods shamans pissing themselves and they aren’t telling the Army what it is. The Legions wants to know but won’t ask directly. Caste bullshit. But anyway whatever it is, it’s freaking the hell out the outland clans.

“Hmmm,” Bryan mused. “And Unofficially unofficial?”

“Will there be any particularly hilarious events this year your Grace?” Grod half smiled while he ducked the question.

Duke Bryan winced, “Archery contest.”


“Bran insisted. It’s the custom of his new species.”

“Oh. Dear. god.” Grod sighed slowly.

Half of the King's Royal Corps of Inclusive and Diverse Archers had broken down in tears at the news. The other half went on strike.

“I assume this is happening out of effective collateral range?” Grod asked.

“Why on Earth would I care if anyone here got killed?” Duke Bryan answered. “However, Branadoc is having them go by the old rules. They have to string their own bows on the line.”

“Oh well that’s safe enough then,” Grod granted.

“Yeah none of them will be able to manage that,” the evil Duke smiled evilly. “You want to go watch? They should be starting about now.”

Grod fell in, one step behind the Duke to the left and at pace, quite unconsciously.

The centaurs were at one time the most powerful cavalry force in the world. Swordsmen and lancers that couldn’t get knocked out of saddle and fabled as the deadliest of archers. They had long since replaced the horse mounted knight by the time of the Great War of the Fallen One. Which turned out to be a disaster.

As cavalry centaurs had one inherent weakness that the Fallen One exploited to their near extinction. No remounts were possible for a centaur. Once they were harried to exhaustion by a cavalry that had brought a string of remounts along, they were at the mercy of an enemy that was famous for not even having a word for it.

This near genocide may have accounted for a few of the things Bryan and Grod were now watching.

Branadoc had had no trouble with his bow. That made one of them. As expected stringing bow was an odd and frightening mystery to the rest of them.

Most of the centaurs present were there to brown nose the crown prince. Which meant they were either very thirsty or very stupid. Muscling the string into the notch was a favorite, although one of them had tried to imitate Brandoc by holding on to the top of the bow and crouching downward. It almost worked, right up until the bow slipped and broke his nose.

After applauding, Bryan finally asked casually, “So why did they really send you?”

“What do you mean?”

“What message do the orcs wish to convey to me via an old and trusted friend.”

“I’m trusted?”

“Sort of.”

Two of the centaurs hugged the one with the broken nose and encouraged to him to cry more. In the apparent belief that it would bring him all manner of solid mental health.

“You’re half right your grace. I am supposed to be a messenger but its from you to my people. Not the other way around.”

Bryan considered a moment and then decided to fish. “I don’t understand.”

“Gearshift! Hows your father the king?” Grod was not in fact changing the subject.

“Well enough for a man in his condition.”

“So he didn’t nearly die of pneumonia this spring?”

Bryan wasn’t going to insult his friend by lying. It was a state secret of course but it was hardly surprising that the military knew about it, It had been a very near thing. King Ronald still couldn’t leave his bed. Not that it was a good idea for him to do so when he was healthy. Alzheimer's is what it is. “What kind of message, am I supposed send?”

“I don’t know. Maybe something along the lines of when my father dies I’m seizing the throne. That sort of thing.” Grod was not a natural at the art of subtle court intrigue.

“Branadoc is the crown prince, not me.”

“I don’t understand,” Grod mimicked him.

“Nothing will change. Branadoc will take over the ceremonial roles and I will still run the country as his primeminister,” Bryan said with a conviction that even sounded hollow in his own ears.

“Will you indeed?”

King Ronald’s first wife, Queen Jayne had borne the king seven daughters and no sons. Each was named for one the feminine virtues. The eldest was Princess Perseverance. Bryan’s mother, Elizabeth was an exceptionally accomplished MaĆ®tresse-en-titre of the king. She took charge of his schedule, built up a network of supporters and became ferociously powerful behind the scenes. She had however always remained fast friends with Queen Jayne, who had made it clear that she didn’t object to her bearing the king one son, when Bryan unexpectedly came along. But she was not to bear him any more children. And for nine years Elizabeth didn’t. After Queen Jayne died bringing her last daughter into the world. Queen Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Branadoc nine months later. But the new queen’s first son, Bryan, had remained a bastard.

“Look dude just seize the throne. We will back you,” Grod was exasperated.

“Who is we? The General staff?” Duke Bryan snorted.

“Of course not. “We” is Rauoo and few others. Easily enough to make up a JTF. It doesn’t take a lot at this point does it? Do you think for a moment they could stop us.” Grod waved his complete contempt at the tourney field “They couldn’t even slow us down in any serious way. The general staff will give their totally deniable blessing...after the fact of course.

“And then what? Rule by the axe for the rest of my life?”

“A crown of thorns is more comfortable, than a deathmask, your Grace.”

The young centaur Lord Trelvis stepped up to the line after Branadoc had instructed him on how to string his bow. Which he managed on the first try. The prince bellowed his laughter and slapped his friend on the rump. Trelvis stamped a hind hoof and giggled happily.

Grod treated himself to a few shudders as he watched the byplay.

“Regardless, Mom will support Bran’s claim. She told me to my face that she would swear before the bishops that I was some stable boy’s get. That I was not, in fact the King’s son.”

“What the hell did you do to her?” Grod asked.

“She just loves Branadoc and doesn't love me. That’s all there is to it. She had time to be a real mother to him. He wasn’t an embarrassment. I, as everyone knows, was an interruption in her busy schedule and had to be fostered out. And despite what the old queen said in public, she wasn’t happy I existed. So Mom got used to pretending I didn’t.

Bryan took a moment to sigh slightly in dejection as Branadoc stepped up behind Trelvis and guided his hands on the bow. The young centaur smiled shyly and blushed deeply.

“Prince Branadoc. Is. Insane.”

“Not according to the latest fashions in reality,” Bryan said lightly. “I was able to overthrow my sister’s regency with the aid of the church and my mother. Neither of those factors will be in play now. She won’t support me and the junior clergy Perseverance appointed during her regency are now senior clergy. They are in her pocket.

“There is still the military,” Grod stated the obvious.

“Which is famously neutral.”

“Times change your Grace,” the orc said lightly.

“That’s not a change for the better.”

“You are trying to save a dream, Bryan.” Kevo-Grod didn’t cross that line often but they were discussing treason after all.

Bryan had a sharp rebuke on his tongue and then forgot it completely. Instead he said, “ Holy shit.”

He and Kevo-Grod both stood in slack jawed amazement. Trelvis had hit the bullseye.

“Five bucks says he can’t do it again,” Grod said.

Bryan was nominally Trelvis' commander in chief, to his irritation he had to take the suckers bet. He held out his hand and Grod took it with a very toothy smile.

Trelvis did it again. Four more times.

Brandoc roared with laughter and hugged Trelvis around his human waist.

“Shit!” Grod barked as Duke Bryan gestured,.’gimme’ with his fingertips and wicked smile.

That attracted Branadoc’s attention. His highness came up the hill to investigate. “Problems Bryan?”

“None from me your highness,” he laughed. “But your...(*quiet sigh*) just cost the Banner-Sergeant five dollars.

“Like they are worth anything anyway,” Grod grumbled.

The prince’s eyes narrowed, “were you referring to the money or my troops?”

“With all due respect, if your highness feels I should apologize to my five dollars for implying they were worth less then your troops, I will apologize handsomely to my money,” Kevo-Grod smiled in a way that could be mistaken for being friendly.

The blood drained from the prince’s face. Oh shit, Bran’s about to do something very stupid. “Prince Branadoc,” his brother began formally. “Banner Sergeant Kevo-Grod won the Star of Columbiana at the Battle of Mount Elberra. Even our father would stand whenever he entered the room.”

Branadoc was startled by that and then he nodded acknowledgement. However, after a moment’s pause added, “They are my troops, brother. Their honor is my honor.” He threw down his glove at Kevo-Grod's feet.

Grod looked at for a moment a little startled.

“Grod!” Bryan growled a warning quietly. “I’ll have your head and I’m not speaking figuratively.”

This gave Kevo-Grod some pause. He stopped and appeared to be strongly considering something. Then he clearly committed himself. “This is probably for the best,” the orc said to his friend. He picked up the gauntlet and clenched it in his fist. Then he addressed the prince, “as we are already at tourney, your highness I see no need for seconds.”

Branadoc nodded to this as Grod’s hands drew his tomahawk and gladius. Branadoc licked his lips nervously as he pulled the slip knot that tied a buckler to his belt while he drew his own falchion.

Bryan had to keep to his face utterly frozen. The law was plain, he could do nothing. His mind quickly shot through several scenarios. The least disruptive involved his little brother killing a respected teacher and friend and it was also the least likely. While Bran was much younger and as best well trained as the kingdom could afford. He wasn’t remotely in the same league as Kevo-Grod.

They squared off. Bran with his buckler in tight guard and his chopping sword held high and well to the back. Bran kept the falchion in motion at all times, in an effort not telegraph his strike.

Grod only kept his weapons at his sides with his arms held loose, just quickly tight stepping in and out of the prince’s engagement range without crossing his gait. Getting a rough idea of Bran’s preferred menu of attacks but mostly taking up as much real estate as possible in Branadoc’s head. Establishing his complete dominance over the prince with each precise step.

Trelvis held hands with two other centaurs on each side biting his lip, the skin on his haunches quivering.

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