The Bill -- A Tale of the Last Men Standing

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Davies
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The Bill -- A Tale of the Last Men Standing

Post by Davies » Fri Mar 06, 2020 5:49 am

Part the First

The whole thing, or so Draika understood it, had started with an elephant.

As a youth, Meckel Third Of That Name had been fascinated by the story of an ancient general who had used elephants to support an extremely difficult crossing of a set of mountains that served as a barrier to his planned siege of an enemy capital. That this strategem hadn't been nearly as effective as it was dramatic was not something that greatly troubled the youth; his eyes and mind were filled with the images of the great beasts moving through the icy passes. To his credit, once Meckel Third Of That Name succeeded his father as the Autarch, he'd waited a whole three years before inquiring of his Vizier about the possibility of purchasing some elephants.

The Autarch being who and what he was, he'd heard from many individuals who'd claimed to have an elephant for sale. With the wisdom for which his ancestors were famous, he'd passed over the offers from those who would produce the elephant if they were just given a little amount of gold, a trifle really, to go and get it from the remote part of the world where they kept the beast. His attention had been seized instead by the handful of sellers whom the Eyes of the Autarch could and did confirm as being in the immediate possession of an elephant, who generally wanted somewhat more than a trifle of wealth in exchange for the beast. The Autarch being who and what he was, he did not choose the lowest bidder. Rather the contrary.

And so the Autarch, Meckel Third Of That Name, had come into the ownership of an elephant. In the process, he came into the ownership of the need to feed the elephant several times a day, to have the elephant watered several times a day, and to have someone else clean up the shit of the elephant which could fill a small house. In the countries where elephants were less scarce, these tasks were performed by persons whose entire livelihoods were also supported by the elephant's owner, who did not have the option of finding other employment, and whose children would follow them into the profession. As such persons were not to be found in the Autarchy, it was thus required of the Autarch to employ contracted specialists for the task, who were able to obtain a rather impressive standard of living in the process.

Owning the elephant, the Autarch discovered, was actually quite a bit more expensive than purchasing the elephant. Still, the joy of fulfilling his youthful dream was such that he was more than willing to take out a loan to defray the costs, and found an individual more than willing to lend him that money. As an astounding coincidence, the individual was related by blood and marriage to the very individual who'd formerly had possession of the elephant, and asked a quite reasonable amount of interest for the loan.

And so the costs of purchasing and owning the elephant had, in the end, been passed on to the magnates of the realm, in the form of increased taxes on the sales of various goods and services, most notably those of horses. Six of the magnates of the realm had grumbled in varying degrees about this, but when the Autarch's tax collectors had come to them, they had each paid in their turn. Or so it had been until the tax collectors had come to the city of Losangue, which, perhaps not trivially, was one of the major sellers of horseflesh within the Autarchy.

The Lord of Losangue had met them with a saddened expression and tales of an extraordinary set of financial reversals. Not only could he not pay the increased tax bill they had been sent to collect from him, he would not be able to pay more than seven in ten parts of the much lower tax bill he'd paid the year before the Autarch had purchased his elephant. The wisest course of action would probably have been to accept this lesser sum and then, over the course of the following year, buy horses elsewhere and inflict genuine financial reversals to teach a lesson. But the Autarch's tax collectors were men of much the same stripe as their master, and had demanded the full sum regardless.

So they had been sent back with tar and feathers over much of their persons, and a single golden coin attached to the tar decorating each of their foreheads.

That was the point, or a few days after that event, where Draika, as the commander of the condottieres known as the Last Men Standing, had come into the story. And why she now found herself riding -- on a horse which, ironically, had been purchased in this region -- at the head of her army towards the walls of Losangue, to obtain through other methods that which sweet reason, or whatever it was that the first tax collectors had employed, had failed to obtain.

It did not, she thought, look like it was going to be a good day.

Part the Second

Draika's immediate focus, as they drew ever closer to Losangue, was on the walls themselves. They had been built in an earlier age, when magic-users had been half-crazed men and women who secluded themselves in remote towers, engaged in constant attempts to subvert the laws of nature, rather than the steady professionals who marched with armies such as her own. (Or rode, or were carried, or floated, in some cases.) The actual defenses of the city would be hidden from sight, of course, but she flattered herself as being able to suss out some of those secrets from just the sight.

Thus it was that the individual on the road leading to the city's main gates, flying the flag of truce, was pointed out to her by her chief lieutenant, riding on her left. She answered that with a wordless signal for her vanguard to halt, with orders being relayed backwards for the rest of the army to likewise slow and then stop. She herself rode further on, to meet this flagbearer and hear whatever lies they had to tell her.

'They' was a 'he', she soon saw, and a decade or more younger than she, garbed in a tabard over their tunic and hose that was every bit as white and featureless as the flag flying in the air above his head of black hair. Who wears a white tabard? she wondered. Defeats the whole purpose of wearing the thing. Shaking her head slightly, Draika pulled in her reins just a short distance from the young man.

"You are the one called Lady Dragonfly?" he called out a moment later, in a voice designed to carry.

"Among other, less polite names," she replied.

Before she could ask the quite reasonable question on her mind, however, he pressed on with inquiries of his own. "Commander of the Last Men Standing? Daughter of --"

"Let's just assume that I know my own biography and have done with that," Draika interrupted. "Who are you who stands in my way?"

"I have the honor of being Guardsman Tavid Baree, bid to address you by the City Council of fair Losangue," he answered, with a slight nod of his head.

"Honor," she repeated, as though tasting the word. It's going to be one of those conversations, isn't it? she asked herself. "The City Council, was it? Not Lord Cacarty?"

"It is as I have said," he answered.

There was really only one reason that a group of city elders with no real power would have sent someone out to greet the leader of an approaching army, of course, so the fact that no reference was made to the Lord who'd started this whole mess was really just a ribbon. For the moment, though, she would pretend that she didn't know what that reason was. "And in what fashion would they have you address me?" she asked, all innocence.

"With the news that they are prepared to throw open the gates of the city and give you the welcome of a liberator, in exchange for certain conditions," Baree replied.

Called it, she thought. "I see. And did they inform you of what those conditions might be?" she asked, once again knowing the answer.

"They did," he replied.

"I see," she said again, and waited.

It soon became apparent that she was not the only one waiting. And they both waited some more, for he said nothing in response.

At last, Draika shook her head. "All right then," she said. It wasn't as though the question was going to cost her anything she particularly valued, so why not humor the idiot? "I would ask that you speak of those conditions."

"Gladly will I do so," he said. "The first condition is the one of greatest consequence. The gates will open for the victor of a single combat between champions."

"... say again, sorry?" she asked after a moment.

"The gates will open for the victor of a single combat between champions. Should the champion of your army prove victorious, fair Losangue shall offer no further resistance, and indeed offer you all possible welcome. But should matters prove otherwise, we would expect your forces to turn away and return whence they came. Those would be the other conditions, of course."

"... you're kidding me," Draika said flatly.

"Never would I dream of doing so," Baree assured her.

She didn't really bother to listen to that. "Single combat between champions?" she repeated. "What century do you think this is, boy?"

"I am a man full grown, Lady Dragonfly."

"Good for you and whoever provides you with company, but the one who gave you that message was clearly some sort of jejune child who's spent entirely too much time reading unlikely romances. Single combat between --" This time she couldn't even bring herself to complete the phrase, and simply let out a disgusted noise instead. "Why in the world should I accept such terms?" she asked as her throat finally cleared.

"Because they are the only ones on offer, and it is well known that mercenaries always fight as few battles as they possibly can," he answered smoothly. "The single combat would be the most easy of all options."

"Let me rephrase," said Draika. "Why shouldn't I accept your terms and then ride my whole damn army over whichever damn fool comes out to fight this ... duel, let's say?"

"That would a terribly dishonorable act," said Baree, shaking his head. Before she could express her opinion of that, he pressed on. "And it would be witnessed. On the walls of Losangue, there stand ready many who will employ their arcane skills to send images of the single combat between champions to the other cities of the Autarchy, so that, should a terribly dishonorable act occur, all will know what manner of poltroons the Last Men Standing have become. Or always were."

Setting aside that last bit, the whole thing was actually a fairly credible threat. Her army's reputation, and to extent her own personal reputation, was what got them contracts, and without such contracts they wouldn't last terribly long. However, the threat could be countered. "And what stops me from using my magic-users to screen the area so that no such images can go anywhere?" she asked.

"Bombards."

"Hah?"

"If your magic-users screen the area, they cannot also shield your army from the bombards which also stand ready on the walls of Losangue. You will suffer heavy casualties before you even reach the gates, which will be barred to you. The single combat," Baree said again, "would the most easy of all options."

Almost against her will, Draika found herself nodding. "Someone has clearly put a great deal of thought into this," she said, more to herself than the pallid-clad twit who was addressing her.

The twit offered no answer to that observation. Just as well.

"All right, then," she said, not at all enjoying the feeling of having been outmaneuvered before she'd even arrived. "Go back, tell them to send out their champion."

He offered again that little nod of his, and then declared, "I am already here."

Draika stared. "... say a-- no, don't say again, it will only aggravate me further. You're the champion. Who are you?"

"I believe my introduction was already given," replied Guardsman Tavid Baree, bid to address [her] by the City Council of fair Losangue.

"Not. What. I meant," she bit out. "Why are you the champion? Are you some famous blade in these parts? Winner of a melee? Best student of a famous school of swordsmanship? A supposed child of some god? What is your deal, boy?"

"I volunteered," he said. "Do not call me boy again."

"He volunteered," Draika muttered, closing her eyes as though she felt a headache coming on. "You know what comes next, right? You know who I'm going to choose to fight you?"

"I'm sure that whoever Lady Dragonfly selects will be a worthy representative of her --"

"It's me, dumbass," she interrupted. "I won't ask any of my people to do this for me. This whole business is that stupid. So congratulations, you get to fight me. Still want to go through with this?"

"More than ever," Baree replied. "It's good that you don't fear your fate too much."

That bit of poetry made her want to put a dagger through his throat, something she was fairly sure she could do even at this range, but she kept a tight rein on her temper. "I will need a while to prepare for this awesome deed of arms, however," she said.

"Three bells time?" he offered.

She did some calculations in her head, figuring in the latitude and a few other factors. "Make it four. Sunset seems the appropriate time," Draika said at last.

The nod this time was a bit deeper. "I will abide," he said simply.

She turned her horse around and rode back to where her army was waiting. Before her lieutenant could ask anything, she spoke quietly enough that it was guaranteed not to carry. "Assemble our rangers. I've a job for them."

Part the Third

The sun was sinking below the horizon, and the fourth bell had rung in the distance, and Draika was smiling as she rode towards where Baree had abided, as he'd said that he would. The day had started out looking very poorly, and it had taken a while to get better, but it had done so. And if she was being honest with herself, the white-garbed twit had played a role in that improvement, so she should thank him in person.

"The time has come," the Guardsman said, when she drew to a halt not far from him.

She swung down out of the saddle, set foot on the firm earth, and walked perhaps half the distance remaining between the two of them. "Quite a few other things have come, as well," she said agreeably as she stopped.

He blinked at that, suggesting that the phrase she'd used did not seem to follow whatever playbook his imagination provided for this encounter. But the momentary confusion passed quickly, and he moved on to his own lines. "Shall we then begin?"

"Ah, no, there's something that --" she started to say.

Baree's expression of indifference collapsed, and she found what lay beneath it to be rather petulant. "For pity's sake," he almost whined. "You've had half a day to prepare yourself for this, what more could you possibly want?"

"So many things," Draika answered brightly. "But, first and foremost, the opportunity to tell you that there will be no fight."

"Hah?" he said.

"No fight," she repeated. "I cottoned on to what was afoot here almost immediately, and my people have taken the necessary steps. So this whole 'single combat between champions' business, that was just supposed to slow me down? No, I don't think that will be needed, today."

"We had an agreement," he said, no longer sounding petulant. Instead, there was more than a bit of outrage in his words.

"I didn't sign anything, so, no, we didn't."

He shook his head, but his eyes stayed fixed on her as he did so. "I thought you had at least some honor."

And there went that good mood, she thought. "A'right, that's the last I'm going to put up with that nonsense today. Honor? Honor is a verb. You honor someone else, or they you. Honor is not a noun. No one has honor, no one can win honor, and no one can lose honor. When you use the word like that, you're just prettying up the notion of vanity. And I'll be honest, I actually do have my share of vanity. But I'm not so vain that I need to have a fight that won't help me achieve my goals. And the people who sent you here did not honor you, dragging you into this scheme."

"I volunteered," he said again. "I don't know what you're talking about when you speak of schemes."

Draika prepared to answer, then paused as she considered the man who stood before her. "You really don't know," she said at last. "And you really did volunteer?" She shook her head, and her eyes did not stay fixed, but gazed past him to the walls of the city. "No, they didn't honor you. Rather the opposite."

"You're just trying to confuse me," Baree snapped. "This is all some trick to make me surrender without a fight. It won't work. You ... do you have any idea how terrified all of Losangue have been since we heard you and your band of cutthroats were coming? People have suffered because of you, and I'm here to hold you to account for that!"

"None of that has anything to do with the reasons that this is happening, though," she said, starting to move past the sense of pity that her new understanding had inspired, towards a renewed frustration. "Look, you, I'm not going to fight you. I'm not going to cut anyone's throat, and no one under my command is going to, either. Like you said, mercenaries always fight as few battles as we possibly can, and right now, that number is none. We are done, here. Turn around, go back to your city -- tell them you scared me off, if you think that'll help someone, boy."

There was a second in which she understood that she'd made a mistake, that a word she hadn't wanted to use had moved past her lips without thought. And then, so fast, his drusus was out of the sheathe at his side and he was moving towards her, so fast, he had to be truly more than just some guardsman out in the provinces, so fast!

So fast, it was all that she could do to get her falcata halfway out of its own sheathe, in order to slide the edge along the other's blade so that they shrieked together and the point of his went past the right side of her cuirass. "Stop, dammit!" she yelled as she slid a booted foot between his own finely spaced sandals and kicked at his nearest ankle.

Nothing doing, he was too well-balanced for that to work, but the twist of his mouth told him she'd bought a few seconds with his pain, and her falcata came the rest of the way out of its sheathe. A wild blow directed at his neck, never intended to hit, only to make him move in a direction where she could swing down with more strength at the sword in his hands, hit it hard enough that it would wrench out of his hands and leave him with nothing but his fists. But his hands stayed firm around the blade, and now he was striking up at her, the sharp side of the drusus angling towards the narrow space where her helmet stopped and her gorget hadn't quite begun.

And she stepped to the side, and, just like a word had left her lips without a thought, her hands moved the blade in the same way. Only when he kept going past her did she realize what she'd done, and she turned to see ... to see him still standing, for a moment. But only a moment. And then, as those who've taken wounds will do, he seemed to collapse in on himself as he dropped down to the ground, white tabard no longer nearly so white.

Smothering curses, she dropped to his side and rolled him over. He wasn't out. That might have impressed her, but all that it really meant was -- "You stupid kid, why'd you do that?" she snarled.

"Your word," he said. "You won't take the city now. Everyone heard --"

"I wasn't going to in the first place, idiot! Why, dammit --"

"Ten seconds," he said, and he was smiling, somehow. "Ten seconds against Lady Dragonfly. And I saved Losangue. I'll be a legend."

She stared. "Oh, you moron," said Draika. "No, you won't, no you won't, they'll write you out of whatever stories they tell of this day, they'll talk about how they sent the bishop and all his boys out to meet me and I was moved by their holiness or something and --" She realized, then, that she was talking only to herself. "Dammit all to Abzu," she concluded.

After a moment, she reached out and closed the boy's eyes.

After a few more moments, she heard hoofsteps nearby and turned to see that her lieutenant had finally joined her. "Are you hurt, captain?" he asked.

"No," she said. "I am pissed." Unsteadily, she got to her feet. "Take him to their gates. They'll be open. Give him to them ... and tell them to make sure he gets the works. The herbs, the songs, the sepulcher." Draika took a long breath. "And once you're done with that, follow me to the rearguard. We're almost done, here."

Part the Fourth

Several hours ride from the gates of Losangue, the road to and from those gates split in two, one branch leading to the Autarch's capital, one leading further north to the coast. The Last Men Standing had ridden past this crossroads on their way to the city, though they hadn't paused there. Of course, at the time, the huddled collection of slightly more than a score of people hadn't been present, nor their assortment of wagons and beasts of burden, and definitely not the tent.

Draika stepped down from her horse, handing its reins to one of her rearguard sergeants, and gazed at the people trying to give an impression of being wretched refuse, and not really succeeding. Even without the finery that could be seen beneath their humble garments, they all seemed far too well fed and unaccustomed to fear. The brutes she had guarding them were probably giving them an education in that latter subject though.

On that pleasant thought, she headed for the tent and stepped through the flap. It was sparsely furnished, just a pair of chairs, one presently occupied and one empty and waiting for her. The balding individual seated in the former was being held in place by a trio of brutes, which was probably about two and a half more brutes than were needed, but there were customs to be upheld.

"Lord Cacarty," she greeted her guest as she sat down to face him.

"The Autarch will hear of this abuse of my person!" he answered her greetings.

"Will he though," she said, not really making it a question. "Have you ever seen an elephant, your lordship?"

Whatever abuse he'd been planning to utter died in his mouth, leaving only a confused "What?" in its place.

"It's just that I thought you might try and excuse yourself by claiming to have a phobia of the beasts, and so not want to support something that terrifies you. I'd actually find that quite sympathetic," Draika admitted. "We were hired once to overthrow a city state just because one of the local gentry had grown a horror of the spiders they used to execute their convicts."

He stared at her, unable or unwilling to find words to answer that revelation.

"So it was just greed, then," she continued.

"I don't know what you're talking about," the lord finally responded.

"Not as convincing as the last time I heard that phrase. It was a fairly clever plan, all told, stealing out of the city through the escape tunnels, leaving instructions with the city council, waiting until we'd passed and then setting up camp here to see how it played out."

She held up the index and pointer fingers of her left hand. "Two ways it could have gone, by you, I should think. One way, your city's champion dies at my hands, and we ride in like liberators, lots of parades, lots of distractions, all to keep us from realizing that you've taken the whole of the treasury with you when you did a runner, and so we won't be able to actually collect the taxes we were sent to collect. Meanwhile, you're off on the road north, to the ports there, and then to parts unknown, never to be seen nor heard from again."

Cacarty attempted to answer that, but she spoke over him. "Then there's the other way -- a miracle occurs! I die at the hands of your city's champion. My men don't like that, and, since they don't even give as much of a fig about honor as I do, they ride over him and assault the city. The bombards probably account for quite a few of them, but they do eventually get into the city and start tearing it apart. Meanwhile, you're riding for the Autarch, intending to personally pay the whole of the tax and probably a fair-sized bribe on top of that. So you come out of it smelling like a rose, I'm dead, and those of my troops who aren't dead are outlaws."

The lord seemed to have calmed down a bit, and so he was able to answer Draika's words in an insouciant tone much like the one she'd been using. "It's a fascinating tale, Captain, but of course, it has nothing to do with anything that happened in reality. My family and I were planning on delivering the taxes, yes, but I had already left when the council decided to play that bizarre game. We paused just long enough to watch what was happening with a scrying glass, and that's when your men showed up to arrest us!" He shook his head. "I'm sure you can't imagine the indignity I've endured."

"Probably not," she said, very quietly. "Probably not."

He smiled, then. "But, let's put the past behind us, Lady Dragonflight."

"Dragonfly," she corrected, still very quietly.

Perhaps too quietly, or perhaps he wouldn't have heard her if she'd screamed. "Considering your restraint in dealing with my city, I've clearly been misinformed about you. In light of that, I'd be more than willing to hand you enough coinage to let you fulfill your duty of delivering the Autarch's taxes, and a ... fair-sized gratuity on top of that, to borrow a bit of your phrasing."

"Hah," she said, nodding.

"Well, it's just the most easy of all options," Cacarty said, still smiling.

"Hah," she repeated. "But you know, I think I've come up with an easier one." And with that, she got up from the chair and walked over to the tent flap, lifting it up to poke her head out.

"Start cutting their throats," Draika called out.

"What?" said the lord. Then, "What?", as he heard the sounds of flesh being cut and blood flowing. "You can't -- you can't do this!"

"Just did," she answered, not looking back at him.

From outside the tent could be heard the sound of a young voice, gender indistinguishable from its high pitch. "No! No! Mommy, mommmy, no, make them stop, no, no n--" And then the sounds of flesh and blood interrupted the voice.

"The city!" the lord faintly shrieked. "They'll see what you're doing, and --"

"We're screened," she answered, still keeping her eyes focused on the affair at hand.

"No! No, stop this, you can have all the money, everything, but you can't do this!" he cried, almost shaking his way out of the brutes' grip.

"Sure we can. We don't fight battles we don't have to ... but this is just good, old-fashioned murder, and very, very easy," Draika answered, and kept watching.

Honestly, it was so easy as to be a bit boring. They screamed, and they pleaded, and they cursed her, and one-by-one twenty-four men, women and children left the mortal coil behind. The only half-way diverting moment was when a lap dog leaped off the cooling remains of one of the lord's daughters and ran towards Draika, barking -- well, honestly more yipping -- furiously at her. She gazed at the puppy for a while. "Well, all right then," she said at last.

Her kick sent it flying into the side of one of the wagons, from whence it slid off to the ground. It might have twitched a time or two after that, but she wasn't paying attention. The job was done, and her lieutenant was finally riding up. "So, now what?" he asked, as he took in the sight.

"Take care of cleaning this up. Have them all buried off the roadside. Face down," she added.

"Face-- uh, but doesn't that curse the one so buried to --"

"Did I stutter?" she asked mildly.

"No, no, face-down, a'right, I'll get on that at once."

Two of the brutes were escorting Cacarty out of the tent. (The third, from the sounds of it, was losing his lunch somewhere nearby. So hard to get good help these days.) His face was a mess of tears and snot, and his mouth kept starting to make the shape of sounds to address her, without anything coming out.

"Just a few more items for your bill," Draika told him, then focused on one of the brutes. "Put his eyes out, rip out his tongue, mess up his face more permanently than this, and then take off his arms at the elbow. Welcome to the gutter, your lordship." And abruptly the anger she hadn't let herself feel all this time was back in full force. "He was worth a hundred of you. I'm sorry I only got twenty-four." And then she spat in his face before the brutes dragged him away.

She'd been right at the start, she mused as the anger subsided, leaving only emptiness behind. Not a good day. Not at all.

The End

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