Chapter 15

A Case of Triage


“If that’s the case, then Istan is all but lost. We’ll never make it in time, nor should we expend the effort. We should focus, instead, on defending the main isle at all costs.” Kilgore said, stating his opinion as fact, and as if that fact carried with it the weight of dogma.

A murmuring of disquiet buzzed about the room at the bold proclamation, and the general received his share of unfriendly looks from critics, those who looked as if they were personally, deeply affronted by the declaration. Though, he paid them no mind, studiously maintaining the signature flat look trademarked by his superior.

Maddox thrummed his fingers against the hardwood, soliciting the others’ attention in the process. He appeared contemplative, which was an unusually docile state for the volatile man to entertain. Whether the action was intentional or not, it helped elevate him to the focus of attention, his audience listened, enraptured by the general’s uncharacteristic solemnity. “Kilgore’s assessment, while perhaps lacking in tact”—he shot the unrepentant general a look, which went ignored by its recipient; the irony that the general would lecture anybody on decorum was lost on no one; it was like the pot calling the kettle black—“is absolutely spot-on. Insofar as the island is concerned, it’s fucked, which is a damn shame, if you ask me.”

Muted rumblings rose, boiling over to fill the room with mounting disquiet. Some of the murmurings, colored by hushed tones, focused on the agenda while the rest were a running commentary on the generals’ own lack of tact. Subordinate and superior both took the unrest in stride, faces calculatingly blank.

“I don’t remember asking.” Charles said, sounding perplexed. “Did you?” he asked the man seated to his left.

“Hmm. I don’t remember anybody asking either.” Admiral Rolex said, responding to the question. The man was often flippant to the point of eccentricity, a behavior which he’d habitually demonstrated by wearing sunglasses indoors and, now, by tilting his head as if genuinely querying his memory.

“Fools.” Admiral Mustang shook his head, dismayed, but whether he meant the generals or the literalists was hard to discern.

Ramses cleared his throat, drawing the room’s attention. “For generations, that island’s proven pivotal to vanguarding Atreia’s defense. It may yet prove useful to the same ends. We should not consider surrendering such a strategic advantage so naively.”

“If one can be seized, you mean.” Maddox interrupted the wizard, reluctant to be lectured on history or any other subject. “Let’s not pretend that’s the case here, especially since it’s your intel that proves it not. Besides, that was then. This is now.” He upturned his palm, a shrug of the hand, as if it were obvious.

“Now, it’s become a noose around our necks.” Kilgore added. “Let’s not hang ourselves.”

“What a load of codswallop.” Admiral Trafalgar said. He wore a wide brimmed hat and shook his head, muttering to himself.

“Balderdash.” Ahmet coughed into his fist, hoping to muffle the word. He then cleared his throat, in an apparent ploy to try and sell the act. “Pardon me.” He smiled ruefully.

A moment’s hesitation passed, signaling the room’s collective indecision on whether or not to address the outburst before ignorance won out in the end and his pretense went ignored, though fooled nobody. As royalty, the king was entitled to his eccentricities as much as anyone else in the room, of which it would be easier to find someone of average proclivities.

Charles on the other hand, was already known to be eccentric. So, when he cleared his own throat while attempting to speak and his words came out sounding unintelligible, the room’s façade of artificially constructed ignorance went unchallenged.

“Your assessment is fucked, if you ask me, General.” Mustang said, parroting the man’s earlier vulgar phrasing while picking up the conversation and placing it back on track.

“Duly noted.” Maddox said stanchly, appearing for all the world to be as unmoved as a mountain is before a storm or, in this case, a summer’s breeze. “And yet, your opinion changes nothing.” His words were cutting, delivered flatly.

Mustang bristled, unused to hearing such rancor, yet lacking the immovability Maddox so casual flaunted.

“These are the facts as I see them, Admiral. Nothing more. So, unless you’ve been withholding some crucial information that I don’t possess, which perhaps changes things….” He trailed off. It was obvious bait. The man was fishing.

Mustang affected an air of impassivity which would’ve appeared for all the world to be as unruffled and indefatigable as he was known far and wide. However, to the occupants of the room, Atreia’s utmost elite, it was passable at best and minutely imperfect. All the upper echelons of the military—any military—were powerhouses in their own right, largely out of necessity. Most were mages, unparalleled in their respective arcana and devoutly worshipped by the inept for their aptitude. Under these circumstances, it was often challenging not to acquire a complex in the face of such prolific inequality, and arrogance was a trait they all shared as a result. The pressure within the room rose to nearly unbearable levels as they all sought to overwhelm one another with the magnitude of their individual presence, which they each exuded.

After a moment, Maddox leaned back, as if contented. And though nothing had definitively changed, Mustang felt like he’d lost their exchange. The general’s neutral visage might’ve been interpreted as impassive by others, but Mustang saw that there were hidden layers lurking beneath the surface, waiting to be excavated by those that possessed the prowess. Scrutinizing the man, the admiral thought he detected traces of smugness buried there.

“… then Istan is about to be steamrolled—with or without our intervention.” Maddox said, picking up where he’d left off. The first stirrings of dissent began to rise again, and he quelled them with a raised palm. “Even ifwe parted with the ships we have left—”

Our ships, you mean.” Rolex said coolly, reminding the general that the navy held all the cards in this engagement. Insofar as the admiralty was concerned, the generals were glorified spectators; it was a view unspokenly opined, but known by all to be covetedly held.

“Even so…” The general carried on with the minimal unease. Considering the man’s penchant and reputation for being outspokenly brazen, he could hold his own cards as close to the vest as anyone else when the situation demanded. “… they wouldn’t arrive in time, and you know it. Besides, even ifwe did this, we’d do so half-assed, half-cocked, and without half a plan. Thoroughly throwing away the only strategic asset we have remaining in our favor in the process.”

“Which is?” Mustang said, taking the bait against his better judgement.

“Forewarning: we know they’re coming while they believe we don’t.”

“We assume they don’t.” Ramses said. “That’s a lofty assumption to make.”

“And if I could turn an entire army invisible, I’d damn well assume the same thing. I’d sing and dance about it right up to the enemy’s front door.”

“Hmph. I’d pay to see that.” Mustang murmured to the man at his side, who was pouring himself a drink.

“We can meet them head on and crap all over our odds of mounting a successful defense, or we can be smart about it. Frankly, either way, it changes nothing for Istan. Else, very little; not enough to warrant a further—larger—loss of life for the attempt. Am I wrong?” The general was now openly challenging his contenders.

He wasn’t wrong, and it stung his detractors.

A hand crashed down to the table with a deafening bang. Ahmet immediately regretted the action, and shook it out afterwards with a wince, having incidentally put too much force behind the blow. His hand smarted.

“I am not abandoning my people. I need solutions, not sacrifices.” he said while massaging his stinging palm. The pain was already lessening.

One by one the occupants sought each other’s gazes, seeking answers, probing, mining for the aforesaid solutions. But when none came, they, as one, turned to Longinus for leadership, well used to taking direction from the man. It wasn’t a snub at the king, just ingrained habit. Even the monarch himself eyed the fleet admiral beseechingly.

Longinus rested his chin over clasped hands, squinting into the far corners of the room in deep concentration. Behind his half-lowered lids, a keen mind raced at lightning speed, calculating odds and strategy. The odds weren’t good, which hampered any subsequent strategy. In short, it was a bit of a clusterfuck in which to find oneself.

“General,” Longinus said finally. His words were received in with compelling silence, a token of the reverence with which he was held by the others. “You’re not wrong.” You could hear a pin drop. “But you’re not right, either.”

“Explain yourself.” The general barked. If anyone was surprised to hear him order the fleet admiral to do anything, they didn’t show it.

Longinus blinked languidly, a subtle rebuke.

“Any strategy we come up with would have to answer a very basic question first.” Charles said, interjecting in a rare moment of severity. “Which is, what becomes of Istan?”

“Charles is right.” Ahmet said, picking up the disguise artist’s cue in order to diffuse the tension. “There will be no further discussion on other matters until this one is resolved.”

Maddox eyed Charles with disdain. That a civilian would inject themselves into military concourse, and with the king’s blessing no less, struck a nerve. “Fine. Make your pitch.” He waved his hand across the table.

“While I do agree with the general that stretching ourselves thinly in haste would be inadvisable, I cannot help but point out that time is, in fact, on our side, as our gracious messenger has duly informed.” Charles swept his hand over Ramses’ form. His demeanor had shifted into that of an articulate man, at odds with the aloof demeanor he preferred to almost constantly don, artificially plastering it onto his form like the false face which comprised his countenance now. “We need not overwhelm the enemy in order to ensure the boon we seek, which is, if I’m incorrect, the preservation of life.” He paused as if seriously expecting an answer.

“Right.” Mustang said. His drawl belied the intrigue in his eyes. It was not often the Atreia’s spymaster opened himself up to substantial dialogue. Thinking about that gave him pause, and he went on before his expression betrayed his thoughts. “So, what are you suggesting?”

“A series.” He pointed to four spots on the table, each a couple of inches from the other. They formed a line.

“A series?” Ahmet asked.

Charles nodded. “Of steps, if you will, one after the other. First, I believe an evacuation is warranted.”

Maddox snorted. “Obviously. Did anyone actually think I was suggesting we leave the lambs to fend for the wolves without the decency of warning them to run for the hills beforehand?” He bristled at the challenging silence. “I wasn’t!”

Ahmet coughed into a closed fist, smothering a chuckle. “Of course.” He smiled placatingly.

“Hill, actually.” Trafalgar said, toying with the quill in his hat, which his thoughtful mien betrayed as contemplative gesture. “There’s only one hill on Istan worth a damn. The backside of which should be hidden from the bay.”

“How do we get them off the island?” Mustang asked, ashing out a cigarette.

Nobody was quick to answer; so, Maddox seized the initiative. “We shouldn’t bother. If they’re safely hidden from view, why expend resources we might need to repel this behemoth?”

“Hidden isn’t the same as safe.” Rolex said. “What happens when we repel the pack only for the wolves to spot our herd of lambs on their way out?”

“Then we evacuate them to the other side.” Maddox said angrily.

“Seconded.” Kilgore said.

“This isn’t a vote.” Longinus said.

“It’s a monarchy, isn’t it?” Charles asked, feigning perplexion once more.

The room looked at the king, who shook his head in negation. They would not be leaving the civilians on the island to fend for themselves, entrapped and alone.

“There exists a possible alternative, perhaps below the surface of the matter.” Charles said silkily, cautiously glancing over at the king.

Ahmet’s eyes registered recognition before understanding flitted over his countenance. He nodded his head in approval, motioning for the man to continue with a wave.

“Before lapis deposits were discovered off the peninsula, Istan was vastly mined for its rare earth gems. There still exist a number of mining shafts no longer in use beneath the island, magically fortified to withstand the elements, which could generously house the island’s entire population, if necessary. And I do believe it has become quite necessary. Don’t you all agree?”

Maddox stilled. He wanted to jump at the opportunity, but waited for the others to broach the idea before he championed it, knowing that his defense of it might be its undoing. Kilgore was quick to twig onto the man’s train of thought.

Uncannily, nobody agreed or disagreed. A silence of indecision pawed at the room, which spoke of the occupants’ unvoiced agreement in the face of an overwhelming desire to disagree. It seemed that everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When no disillusion was forthcoming, it was Longinus who broke the stalemate. “What is step two in your proposed series?” he said, essentially tabling the suggestion.

“Naval support.”

Mustang snubbed out a cigarette. Though he loathed to admit it, the crotchety old warhawk might’ve had the right of it all along. “I can’t believe I’m saying this…” he mumbled, “but the general has a point. If the island can be secured remotely, why expend assets we might otherwise need ourselves; since it goes without saying that if we fall, Istan falls.”

“Yes, it does go without saying, one would think.” Ramses said.

To the admiral’s consternation, the old wizard gave Mustang the same unease that the general had earlier provoked from him.

“The villagers can be secured, but the island is a separate matter altogether.” Longinus said. “If we leave Istan unguarded, we lose it to the enemy, whereupon it will no longer be an asset and will, instead, become an albatross, or said noose, around our necks.”

“What do you mean by asset?” Trafalgar asked. “Are you vying for a pincer stratagem? Or are you worried about giving our enemies a foothold?”

“In addition to what you’ve just said, I’ll offer that if the enemy were to establish a presence on the island, it would only be a matter of time before the villagers’ presences were discovered.”

“Hmm. But isn’t that an ambitious worry to hold?” Rolex asked, tilting his head. “This is a blitz, isn’t it? All or nothing?”

“We assume it’s a blitz.” Charles said.

“When we assume, we make an ass out of—” Ramses began saying.

“Spare us the philosophical ramblings.” Maddox said. “We know the saying.” Indeed, the adage was quite widespread.

Ramses frowned, but refrained from comment.

“Blitz or not, wouldn’t it make the most sense to end this fiasco as soon as possible?” Kilgore asked gruffly. “And to those ends, by not stretching our limited resources unnecessarily?”

“Surely,” Rolex rolled the word in his mouth as if savoring it, “finishing this war as soon as possible would be what is best for Istan.”

“I agree.” Trafalgar said thoughtfully.

“… agreed.” Mustang said after a slight hesitation. No one ever knew what repercussions one’s decisions had in the moment, only after the fact. Hindsight was a cruel mistress, after all. He was not a gambling man by nature, but gambled now, out of necessity, betting on assurances he could only presume. Ramses had been right. He felt like an ass. People’s lives should not be weighed so flippantly, he mused. Yet while lacking the knowledge they would need to make a thoroughly informed decision, he feared that any decision they reached would be just that, flippant.

Maddox smirked, savoring the small victory. He opened his mouth to add his own assent, to reiterate, really, what would be the final nail in the coffin.

“Surely,” Charles said, interrupting the flow of conversation, “the fastest way to finish this war is by making use of all our resources.”

Stymied, Maddox frowned, closing his mouth without having spoken a word.

“What resources would those be?” Kilgore asked, eyes sharpened in suspicion.

“The island.” Charles said plainly.

Ah, so that’s his gambit. Longinus thought to himself, having far suspected as much, for it wasn’t in Charles’s nature to hold onto such gravitas for so long. He, himself, knew strategy, both ruse and feint, but it was the spy who truly knew how to deceive and manipulate. Charles had laid the cards out flawlessly, and seemingly without effort. Longinus realized that he was not likely to be the only one to reach such a revelation, but it unnerved him that Charles’s intended rubes likely had no clue as to his intentions. The man was dangerous, he reminded himself, and reiterated an old vow to never underestimate the spymaster. “The island itself is a resource.” He said, picking up where the man had left off, belatedly realizing that this, too, might’ve been Charles’s intention all along.

Charles nodded and slunk back into his seat, apparently content with having his time in the limelight come to an end.

“So, you say. But you’ve yet to prove how.” Maddox goaded.

“Our ships are limited. We’re too heavily outnumbered to consider spreading ourselves thinner than absolutely necessary.” Trafalgar said while swirling the contents of the glass tumbler he held, pausing long enough to take a draft. “And even then, I’d recommend withdrawing into a tighter formation, if possible. Probably, it won’t be.”

“I’m curious.” Ramses said. “All this talk about assets and resources. Exactly, how many ships would it take to secure the island?”

The question drew everyone’s attention with how straightforward it was presented. It was the crux of the matter after all. They looked to the fleet admiral, who seemed to be deliberating internally, for the answer. In truth, Longinus was berating the wizard for opening his fat mouth. He had been wrong, it seemed, and Ramses had not truly understood Charles’s gambit, because this was the wrong question to ask. He locked eyes with the spy who, by all appearances, appeared bored, clueless to undercurrents of the conversation at play. That the man pointedly stared in his direction at the opportune moment was telling of his real thoughts, Charles was annoyed as well.

“If we call upon the captains I have in mind for this mission, five: three galleons and two escorts.” Longinus said, regretfully answering the question. That it, once it had been asked, would find an answer with or without his aid was of little consolation.

The resultant uproar was expected, but that nearly all of the admiralty were vocal critics was an unexpected turn and cause for concern. He made a point of scowling in Ramses direction when he was sure no one but the wizened man was looking. At least, the wizard had the decency to look properly abashed.

Mustang chuckled while shaking his head, drawing stern looks of disapproval. We’re so fucked, he thought, and if he weren’t fully aware of the kind of feedback he’d receive for voicing such mutinous thinking, he’d dare to utter the words aloud. He wanted to shout them from the mountaintop. Instead, still shaking his head, he worked to control his bad humor. We’re so fucked.

“I remind you that the strongest arm of our military is currently off waging a campaign at this very moment.” Trafalgar said defiantly.

“And with more warning, we might have been able to repel a fleet of seventy-seven warships with confidence, but that is not the case now. We’ve been soundly caught by surprise.” Kilgore added, eyeing Ramses with blatant insinuation, who, after his earlier indiscretion, chose to remain silent. The general noticed the behavior, but without understanding the underlying rationale, only found it odd.

“There is no point in thinking about what could’ve been, only what is.” Ahmet said.

“My point exactly, Your Majesty. Our harbors lay empty.”

Trafalgar huffed, crossing his arms. “I have my full contingent. Seventeen ships, not counting the Devanagari. Four were out on patrol when the reports came in, but they’ll make it in time, alright.”

“I brought five of mine to the table. They wait in the harbor. That makes twenty.” Mustang said, adding to the count. “The rest of my division has been recalled, but there are none that are close.” He jutted his chin out at Rolex, prompting the man to speak.

Rolex tilted his head. “Hmm. Twenty-three.”

“Twenty-four.” Ramses said, surprising everyone who believed the Wizarding Corps to be shipless. He nodded at the fleet admiral. “The Nyarlathotepis far from completion, but those are mainly aesthetic renovations. I am told she will sail as well as any ship and, in the meantime, I’ve taken the liberty of having her outfitted with a complete contingent. She’ll need a captain and crew, of course.”

Longinus returned a nod. “Admiral Ashanti should have the honors, as ownership falls to the shieldmaiden division, but I’m sure she’ll understand the reasoning behind commandeering her vessel. As a point of fact, I already have a crew in mind.”

“How many of those docked are actually sail worthy, then?” Maddox asked.

He was answered by a disquieting silence.

“Not enough.” Longinus eventually said.

“How much time would it take?” Ahmet asked seriously.

“An hour at the very least to captain every ship and, by that time, the enemy will be soundly knocking on our door.”

“You’ve convinced me.” Mustang said. “We need to cut the island loose. We can’t afford the distraction.”

“You’ve convinced me as well.” Trafalgar added. The brim of his wide hat bobbed along to the motion of his head when he nodded.

“I’m convinced.” Rolex said, shrugging.

Kilgore sat, arms crossed, and raised a palm, returning to his normal taciturn posture afterwards. Four, he thought, suppressing a smirk.

Maddox nodded. Five. That’s the majority. He surreptitiously eyed the king askance, gauging his reaction. Ahmet’s frown belied the turmoil tinting his eyes darkly, which he took as a good sign that the king could be swayed towards seeing reason.

Longinus blinked slowly, a gesture he’d unconsciously developed when looking at something distasteful he wished to wipe from his retinas. He remembered Charles had commented about it once, but the knowledge did little to alleviate the habit from occurring, and he often wished Charles hadn’t said anything at all in the first place. But he had figured, betted, on this outcome, because once Ramses had spoken, it became all but inevitable. “I meant to convince you of the opposite, actually…”

“By showing us how shitty our odds are?” Mustang said.

“By revealing how necessary it is that we stall the enemy for as long as possible.” Longinus eyed Charles for support. Perhaps the spymaster had another ace up his sleeve. He knew he was expecting a lot, but his well had run dry. The man’s silence was damning, but beneath the surface, he spied the gears of the demi’s brilliant mind at work, thrumming beatifically.

“Hmph.” Maddox huffed. “Now who’s assuming? You assume the enemy can be stalled, and you assume that it can be done with five ships.”

Longinus had no more words to offer and a lull grew, nothing which could turn the tide of this conversation, except for Charles’s plan. He knew the timing was inopportune, but it was truly the only card they had left to play. He rued that mere minutes ago, it would have likely been very well received. How quickly the tide turns, the mused. “The island’s defenses—” But it was not to be.

“Cut the crap.” Maddox growled. “The defensive arrays are stronger on the mainland, and you know that.”

“Crap aside,” Charles said, latching onto the sole thread of conversation which might hold the weight they required, “we might require iteration. Magic is so… fickle.”

“Agreed.” Ramses said, breaking his silence. “No plan survives first contact. We should not assume it will.” He stared down Maddox, who snorted.

“You seem to be the one assuming—”

“Don’t presume to—"

“No, how about you—"

“Don’t pretend to lecture—"

“You’re the one who—”

“That’s enough!”

“Who the hell do you think you—"

“—dare to—”

“Don’t you—"

“Balderdash! Hogwash!” Charles sang gleefully, taking a perverse pleasure in stoking the flames of discord.

“Stop behaving like children. All of you.” Longinus admonished. “Charles, you’re not helping.”

“Oh, shut up. Stop pretending like your plan wasn’t—"

“As if your plan was—”

“—as shitty as—"

“—half as good as you presume—”

“—your mother would—”

“Would you two just stop—”

“The same to you three—"

“I’m warning you—"

“Shut up!”

“You shut up!”

“Can’t we just—"

“Agreed. I can’t hear over—"

“—this brainless oaf—”

“—quasi-magus—”

“—narcissist—"

“What’d you say?”

“—about my mother?”

“Okay, that’s it!”

A fist pounded against hardwood with a loud crack. “Fools, the lot of you!”

“Enough!” Ahmet’s shouting quieted the conversation. It was not often the king shouted but, when he did, it signaled that something had gone terribly wrong and, therefore, everybody listened, heeding his word as creed, for he was their ruler and sovereign. “This is not helping.” He gritted out, hissing each word through clenched teeth.

A contrite round of apologies to the king circulated around the table. Ahmet wished he could say that the heated exchange was singular, an anomaly due to the pressures they all faced, but that would be a falsehood of the kind the walls would strongly discredit, having borne witness to many such debacles throughout their tenure.

“Tsk. Tsk. All this bickering over what to do with Istan.” Charles said melodiously, reverting back to his bumbling persona. “Why not just let the king decide?”

“Charles is right.” Longinus said irritably. “Let the king decide.”

“I agree with the fleet admiral.” Ramses said. Nobody missed the insinuation, as it wasn’t often the High Wizard levied his, or anyone else’s, rank.

Maddox, palmed the table and rose. “I am a soldier, therefore, I follow orders, but not any of yours. However, in this instance, we finally happen to agree on something.” He looked to the king. “Your Highness,” he said, brusquely. “You’ve heard the arguments. What say you?”

Ahmet had his head down, hands clasped to his forehead as if in prayer. His elbows bore his weight on the table, revealing the fine red and gold meshed undergarment he wore beneath his robe.

“We cannot leave Istan to the enemy,” he said gravely.

“Excuse my impudence, Sire, but if the civilians are safe, then why in the—” General Kilgore caught himself before saying something unfortunate, “blazes not?” He rose behind the General.

Maddox didn’t register his subordinate’s presence, suddenly too enraptured in his own swarming thoughts. Something shifted within him then, changing his perception of all that he thought he knew. It didn’t quite click, but ground into place slowly, like a stone slab being dragged against rock. Fractured moments came to mind in vivid flashes and, with those memories, came suspicions, that of Charles’s uncharacteristic gravitas, Longinus’s dogged persistence, Ramses’ unorthodox adherence to the orthodox and, finally, the king’s own words and actions. Maddox was used to being the black horse at the table, but never the black sheep. Looking around, seeing the same confusion he felt etched on the faces of the others, he wondered when the better half of the flock had changed their coats to match his own? His mind worked to puzzle together the corners of a mystery.

As each member at the table, those whom featured in Maddox’s recollections, shared surreptitious glances, meeting one another’s eyes before averting their gazes, as a silent conversation unfolded before him, Maddox felt the stone slab sliding farther, dragging, being pushed further and further until, finally, it clicked into place.

Betrayal can sting, like the most potent poison, burn, like the whitest fires, or chill, like the coldest winter. Maddox had seen and expected enough betrayal in his lifetime to recognize it as a seedling, before it could sow roots and reap minds and hearts. He had even hardened his heart to the potential of it, expecting it everywhere and sundry, yet remained unprepared for when he met it in the flesh and it stared him down, gunning for the last vestiges of his unguarded mind. He felt his breath leave his chest and, with it, his heart, too, was overtaken.

Gradually, it dawned on him, oozing, seeping into his bones, sending ice through his veins while scorching his heart into the hardened carapace he had long believed it to be. How wrong he’d been. His face must’ve shown something, a burgeoning realization, an accusation, because the king’s own countenance dropped in shame. Then he knew for sure. He’d been betrayed.

A malicious cone of hot rancor bore a hole deep in his chest, taking residence, eviscerating his insides while searing flesh and rending bone. He stood petrified, frozen in place by indecision and shock. He stared a moment longer, waiting for a denial to surface, but none came. He swallowed back the bile building in his throat.

The king was avoiding his gaze, he noticed. Hadn’t he served faithfully? His entire life, he had only known duty, and no other way of living. And now, to be told, not in so many words, that it hadn’t been enough was crushing.

“Because…” Maddox said stonily, finding the stamina to continue from reserves he didn’t know existed, “… there’s something on that island. Isn’t there?” he accused. And was met with a damning silence. “And it’s something that we can’t let fall into the enemy’s hands.” he said confidently, stating a fact.

The surprised looks of Kilgore, Mustang, Trafalgar, and Rolex assuaged his fears that he’d been singled out, but the unmoved visages of the king, Longinus, Ramses, and Charles fucking Bathwain himself drove the point of the spear home to roost. He sat down, suddenly exhausted.

The admirals, those kept in the dark, admirably recovered, concealing their surprise beneath masks of indifference or nonchalance, but their pointed stares mutely demanded the answers to questions their minds were still formulating.

“Hmm.” Rolex tilted his head to the side, peering over the lenses of his glasses. He gazed directly at those individuals Maddox had accused. Those who, so far, hadn’t denied the accusation.

“Is that right?” Mustang asked, eyes narrowed.

Trafalgar sighed, long, loud, and tiredly, but otherwise remained silent, crossing his arms and choosing to stare up at the ceiling. He knew this world could be unfavorable, unfair at the best of times, but he had never expected it to plague this table. He blamed himself for not having done so, for not anticipating this, for… getting too comfortable, too complacent. His eyes slid shut of their own accord, and he felt unmotivated to open them again, suddenly feeling all too weary.

Kilgore stared ahead, unfazed. He had been the sole exception as the newest member of the inner circle and, as such, had expected as much. Internally, he was still rankled, but to a lesser degree.

Longinus and Ramses met the accusations unflinchingly, but the king shied away from them, averting his gaze. Only Charles seemed genuinely nonplussed, constantly shifting his head from left to right, from king to subordinates, as if waiting for the outcome of a riddle to be revealed. Longinus supposed that, in his own way, it was Charles’s cue to the monarch, a message delivered in plain sight. Not for the first time, he envied the man’s deftness.

Ahmet raised his head after losing himself in a moment of internal deliberation. Finally, he looked around the table. Afterwards, he turned towards Longinus, and nodded, then at Ramses, who was already in motion. The wizard turned around, walked towards the double doors, and cast a silent spell against their walls. The secrets that were about to be revealed, could never leave this room.

Maddox kept his eye on the four seemingly in the know, noting that they practiced such secrecy as if it were routine. But then, he figured that it might be, which was a surling thought.

When the wizard returned, Longinus, at last, opened his mouth. “As per your line of inquiry. No, that isn’t quite right.” he said, blanketing the conversation by addressing everyone in the room. He paused, expecting another outburst but, to his surprise, none came. The other occupants, those outside the loop, were watching him hawkishly, raking his form over intently as if they could pry the secrets loose with guile alone.

“There exists a facility on the island,” he continued. “It is an asset that cannot be compromised. It either needs to be protected or destroyed.”

A deaf knell swept over the room as they waited for more. But none came. Longinus had, apparently, finished speaking.

“Is that it?” Trafalgar asked, querying a brow. “Is that all you’re going to tell us?”

“It’s all you need to know.” Longinus replied smoothly.

All the protracted silences were wearing thin on the generals’ nerves. Unsurprisingly, it was Maddox who was the first to break decorum by slamming his fist down on the table. “That’s bullshit, and you know it!”

“I know what I need to know. So, do you.”

“And yet you seem to know more than me. I’m a fucking general,boy.” he snarled, reminding the man of his tenure. “There’s nothing I shouldn’t know, and yet you and he—” He tilted his head towards Ramses while keeping his eyes fixed on Longinus, “seem to know more than I do, as well. And don’t even get me started on that one—” He jutted his chin out towards Charles.

Longinus seemed to sense that Maddox was standing upon a precipice of repressed anger, and inherently knew exactly how closely the man toed the line before he would irrevocably cross over the edge, because as the admiral fell into another moment of silence, which he feared would be the last, he was forced to speak before the other man took the plunge, lest they all fall. “It’s not my call.” He regarded the general, then looked pointedly towards the king.

Ahmet met his stare coolly, having regained his composure while everyone’s attention was directed elsewhere—not on him. He knew the admiral was neither advising nor condemning him, merely stating a fact. The king weighed his choices, not liking where they were adding up. He considered the reasons for his secrecy and if recent events changed things. In the end, he was left uncertain, but realized that the time for secrecy had ended.

“Beneath the facility on Istan, lies the entrance to a chamber hidden beneath the sea, connected between the atoll and the main isle. This is the housing for a research and development project, code named Halcyon.”

Kilgore’s eyes gleamed with intrigue, the only part of his anatomy that reacted to the news. For all that their personalities were unique in character, the generals’ bodies betrayed nothing of the individuality they expressed through vernacular.

“What in the Hell is Project Halcyon?” Maddox demanded to know, unthinking or uncaring of his vocal insolence towards the monarch, which no one, wisely, commented upon.

Ahmet broke his silence, casting away all traces of subterfuge, and told. He explained everything. And, in so doing, revealed secrets that would change the face of things, all things, forever. Atreia would never be the same after today, one way or another.

The meeting adjourned after several startling revelations had come to light. As they rose from their seats, the faces of each man mirrored the others, grave, the severity of the situation impressing the gravitas the situation demanded. Even the generals, though severe in countenance, seemed appeased with the knowledge, if for the moment.

In the back of his mind, Longinus knew that Maddox would’ve made the same call and, thus, expected that the man would respect the decision, no matter how much it stung and even if he neither cared for it or its makers. That being said, he doubted the man would be content to let sleeping dogs lie. He expected that the general would not be satisfied with being left out from any future involvement in the project or any others. That, at least, was tolerable; but the sly look of piqued intrigue on the brigadier general’s face, which he hadn’t quite hidden fast enough, was of note, if only because the man remained stubbornly elusive to categorize. Seemingly, only Maddox had the man pegged, but that wasn’t an absolute, nor was it much of a reassurance. Longinus would be watching.

As they exited the chamber, the wards washed over their bodies. It would take a moment for their timeline to catch up to reality, but the cohesion was always flawless and inconsequential. The warding really was exquisite. By his estimate, only sixteen minutes had passed outside the room, from which the wards required two minutes to activate, and thereafter, the rest of the twelve-hour meeting had blurred by, beyond the limitations of time and space. The manna expenditure was ungodly, but the gains far outweighed the losses.

They were exhausted, but they had a plan. And barring that, a contingency.