Art Pact 253 - Colours


There were old gods in that place, dry old gods who spoke with cracked voices and whispered in the dark so that the green soldiers who were set around the place grew nervous in the night and almost scurried from their posts when they were relieved. The few blue men who were left unharmed by the unholy storm assured their captors that there was nothing to fear, that those who had inhabited the temple before the war had been driven off long since, and without their help the gods could not be roused, but still the green men slept uneasily, tossing and turning in their beds and crying out with horror when they were selected for their detail on the guard roster.

Meru-shin had no patience for such histrionics.

"Remind them that they are warriors," he told his captains. "And that such displays are unseemly in front of the prisoners. If they see weakness, they will strike. You know how these blue men are."

Sul and Pen nodded their assent and swore that they would drive the fear of the old gods out of their men by replacing it with a more solid terror, but Ashi merely nodded her agreement, and Meru-shin saw in the woman's eyes a sort of contempt for her fellow officers - and beyond that, hearing with his inner ear he could sense that the captain was dubious about his plan.

Ashi was a dark green, but in her skin there was a tone that was almost blue in itself - not a true cyan, for such people had not existed since the days of heroes, but a tint that sometimes caught people by surprise when they saw her from the corner of their eyes.

"Remain," he ordered her, dismissing the others. When they were gone, he nodded to the seat at the foot of the dais on which the throne rested. "You have misgivings about the temple."

"Misgivings might be too strong a word," she said.

"Might it?"

"Then again it might not."

"Tell me."

Ashi pursed her lips, and nodded towards the map of the wheel that hung on the throne room wall. It was embroidered silk, the sort of art that the purples of Meru-shin's home city called a "catch the fool", drawn carefully so that it appeared to be solid if viewed from the right place in the room. From the throne it looked oddly distorted. His interest piqued, he rose from the chair and took a few steps down until he was in the optimal position to view the illusion. From here he could see it clearly - although the wheel was in its normal arrangement, it looked as though it were rolling up until the blue section was uppermost, and the solid sides of the wheel were themselves blue, as though the colour surrounded all others, encompassing the entire world.

"Interesting," he said.

"General?"

"What am I looking at?" he asked, realising that the captain had not indicated the map for the sake of the blue imperialist illusion that it represented, but for some other detail.

"The position of the city," she said.

"What of it?"

He examined the wedge carefully, tracing the route his troops had taken from the green wedge out across the border into blue territory. It seemed so simple: he might place his thumb on the city of Geridor and the tip of his little finger would rest upon the captive city. Geridor was close to the border, of course, and close to the holy city so that the journey had happened at the small insides of the wheel, but it was still something to be able to stride the world in one hand. He imagined the move forwards into purple territory. Not so far, to be sure, but it was likely to be considerably better guarded than the blue border.

"It's not in the same position as on our map," Ashi said.

"What?"

"The map that we have shows the city of Bronze as being here," she explained. "Where we found it."

"Of course it does. It's the same map that everyone uses, why would it say anything different?"

"It doesn't - it agrees with all the other maps. But it doesn't agree with that map," she said, pointing. "Look."

She brought out a copy of the great map of the siege, a scroll that she had tucked into a horn cylinder that rested against her thigh. The scroll itself was lamb-leather, fine and new - not the one that Meru-shin had given her, he knew instantly. She must have seen it in his eyes, because she dropped her own and apologised immediately.

"Your map was too precious to risk during the fighting, general," she said. "I had this copy made. But I have checked it against others, it is a perfect reproduction of the official map, and of the map you gifted to us. This can stand as an example."

She moved in front of him, unrolled the map and pointed out the points of interest. It was obvious at once that she was right - every city shown on the silk map was in the same position as its equivalent on the vellum map, except for one. Bronze. It was perhaps half the width of his little finger to the edgeward-spin on the smaller map, the length of two knuckles of that same finger on the silk wall-hanging. Given how perfect the rest of the map was, it could have been no mistake.

"What does it mean?" he asked.

"The blue priests of Bronze were always very careful," Ashi began. "And their silk-workers were very precise. If they did not put the city on the map here where it is in real life..."

"It can only mean that the map is correct, but that every other map is wrong," he said, the thought dawning on him.

"It had occurred to me," Ashi said, letting her map roll up under its natural spring.

"So then this place is somewhere new," he said.

"A decoy city," she told him, returning to her chair. Meru-shin sat down himself, and dragged his ragged fingernails across the bald space at the top of his head. "Imagine that you wished to defend yourself against attack. You could put up walls, send out screens and scouts, of course, but such measures can be overcome, particularly if you face a brilliant enemy who contrives to take you by surprise."

"I am already impressed, captain," he said. "The flattery is unnecessary."

She laughed.

"So how do you solve this problem? You allow your enemy to attack - you provide him with false target, though, something of no actual strategic worth and little economic worth that he can dash himself against. When he overcomes it, your enemy transforms from conqueror into a governor. He turns his assault troops into guards, he begins to concern himself with food gathering, he believes that he has nothing more to fear. You leave him to the poor pickings available around the territory he has won. You let him sit on your throne and scorn you, deriding the poverty in which you must have lived if there is so little food to feed his army. He grows weaker, he grows softer, he grows more arrogant, and then-"

"You strike," he said, cutting her off angrily. He wanted to yell at her for her insolence, but everything she had said was true. He had done all that she said. "One thing bothers me," he said. "Why leave this map here?"

"That is a question, certainly," she mused. "Arrogance of their own, perhaps? Everyone makes mistakes, after all."

"True. People say that. But what they do not say is that everyone does not make all the mistakes at once. We must be cautious with this knowledge."

"Ay, General."

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