The others were waiting back at the dolphin’s head, deep in discussion that fell silent as she approached.
“Is everything alright, your highness?” Lorathor asked with a smile that didn’t quite reach his oddly shaped eyes. Tythel debated returning the expression, and decided it wasn’t worth the effort.
“I believe so, yes. Please forgive my outburst,” she said, addressing the assembled group with the most level tone she could manage, “but I have my limits, as I’m sure you all do.”
“We’ve all lost people,” Lady Von Bagget said, a statement constructed with delicate care that could indicate support or condemnation or even just a neutral acknowledgement that Tythel had moved her lips and words had came out. The other lords and ladies nodded in what Tythel thought was agreement, although since she didn’t know what Lady Von Bagget meant she didn’t know if that agreement was a good thing or not.
Only Nicandros and Lorathor did not join in the nod. Nicandros was giving her a deep frown, but it didn’t strike Tythel as an angry frown. She’d seen those, and thought that by now she had them down. This was one of the other frowns, and she still had no idea what it meant. Lorathor, for his part, was waving his hand as if shooing away an insect. “I believe we were getting ready to inform you as to what had happened after the initial conquest, yes?”
Lord Devos nodded. His face was also a frowning one, and there was a gleam to his eyes Tythel disliked. “They didn’t destroy a single flathing city or town. Just fortresses and armies. Even when an army holed up in a city, a bunch of flathing traitors in their imperiplate helped them root the army out without just blowing the town away.”
“It may be,” Duke d’Monchy picked up, “the least bloody conquest in history, from a civilian standpoint. The Alohym were…precise in their conquest.”
Lord Devos snorted. “Of course, the moment someone said a single flathing thing against them, they weren’t a civilian anymore. They were an enemy soldier, and they got hung in the town square for everyone to see.” He pantomimed a noose around his neck, tongue hanging out, to make sure there was no doubt what he meant by that, not that Tythel needed it.
Tythel bit her lip in thought. The lack of destruction, or even sieges of cities, was unusual. Interesting information to file away for later at this point, and she didn’t want to interrupt.
“Once they had control, they started to impose their Laws,” the Dutchess said, cooling herself with a fan she had pulled out of somewhere while Tythel was away. “Worship of the Light and the Little Gods was punishable by death. Curfew was imposed, and violating it was punishable by death without special dispensation. Theft and other laws we had before were still illegal under them, but now all punishable by death. Failure to worship the Alohym was, of course, punishable by death. Practicing magic in any form, moving to another town or city or even street without prior permission, selling goods without proper license…”
“Punishable by death, I assume?” Tythel asked when the Dutchess trailed off, and the older woman nodded.
“They control every aspect of our lives,” Lady Von Bagget said, spitting onto the sand as she did. “If you want to do almost anything, if you want to own property, even get married, you have to get permission from an Alohym or one of their appointed human Governors, and they dole it out based on how you are rated by some arcane system they use.”
“Not that it bothers most of the flathing sheep,” Lord Devos interjected, his frown deepening, “they happily baa their way into the lines, into the queues, and say ‘Thank you, your divinity, can I do anything else to prove how lucky I am to be controlled by you?’ It’s flathing pathetic.
“To be fair,” the Dutchess countered, “any opposition is met with lethal force.”
“Are there any trials?” Tythel asked, taking it all in. “Or are they just constantly executing people?”
“They do hold trials,” Haradeth answered from behind Tythel, and everyone turned to watch him as he walked to his seat. “But a Governor, or someone they appoint, oversees it. More often than not, there’s only one way to prove innocence.”
“What’s that?” Tythel asked, keeping her voice mild. Haradeth wasn’t scowling at her, wasn’t even looking at her, and as far as she was concerned that was improvement.
“Bribing the person who’s holding your trial. As long as whatever you did didn’t directly hurt the Alohym, their human servants are happy to line their pockets and let actual criminals walk away unharmed.”
“And I take it the Alohym didn’t make bribery illegal?”
Nicandros, for the first time in what felt like ages, spoke up in a low growl. “Oh, they did, but no one gives a flath. The Alohym rely on their Governors and their Despots to report crimes.”
Tythel tilted her head. If anyone found it odd, they kept it to themselves. “Despots? I know the word, but it doesn’t make sense in that context.”
Nicandros nodded. “It’s what they call their soldiers that work within the cities to maintain law and order. They split bribe money with the Governors and Judges.”
“I see.” Tythel tapped her fingers on the dolphin’s head as she thought. “So what actions have you been taking so far?”
“We’re trying to hit their supply lines,” Devos growled, in a tone that strongly suggested this course of action wasn’t particularly pleasing to him. “Steal what we can – weapons, tools, food. It’s a flathing battle of attrition, and it hasn’t gone well for us so far. We should have tried to take a city when we had the strength we needed!”
Haradeth’s scowl returned, although this time it was turned on Devos, “and if we did, we would have lost the protection of my mother’s forest far sooner than we did.”
Devos returned the scowl, and Tythel decided to speak up before words between the two became heated. “Is that the only reason no attempt was made?”
“No,” Nicandros said, watching Haradeth and Lord Devos carefully, “there’s also the fact that we can’t lay proper siege to one. Even if we had the manpower to hold off the Alohym, even if we could fund a proper army, the Alohym can just fly supplies over our head and drop them into the town and there’s not a single damn thing we can do about it.”
Tythel nodded thoughtfully. “I noticed Hillsdale didn’t have any walls,” she said, watching their faces.
“Why bother with them?” the Dutchess said, “Walls fall easily against Alohym weapons, and although they squabble amongst themselves, it’s never escalated to a full blown conflict. The Alohym tore most walls down to allow for more roads for their crawlers.”
Tythel focused on her. “Squabble amongst themselves?”
“Oh yes, dear. The Alohym have their own factions, and we’ve even seen small groups of their troops fighting each other. The only thing they fully seem to be unified in is their desire to keep us under their control.”
“What kind of things do they fight over, then?” Tythel asked, frowning. Up until now, she’d been seeing the Alohym as a single, monolithic entity, which in hindsight was foolish. No empire in history had ever functioned liked that. It would be foolish to assume that, just because they were strange and bizzare, such rules wouldn’t apply here. History happens in cycles. If we can find the right model for what’s happening now, I’ll know how to break it.
“We’re not positive – without the helmets and visors their soldiers wear, we haven’t learned to decipher their language yet – but every time one of those fights happens, there’s a change in the Governor of a nearby town, so at the very least we know they’re fighting to control the various towns.”
“And don’t think we’re stupid,” Lord Devos growled. “We’ve tried to hit them during those fights. As soon as we do, they turn around and make us their flathing priority, and we just end up fighting twice the force we would have otherwise.”
Tythel shook her head, “I wouldn’t dream of thinking you hadn’t tried to exploit that,” but her forehead was furrowed, and she was staring at the map. “They’re all red,” she muttered to herself.
“Yes?” Duke d’Monchy leaned forwards, “what of that?”
Tythel tilted her head at the map. “Do we have another map, and another set of stones? With more colors?” The Duke nodded. “I need to know where every one of those fights happened, and what territory changed hands afterwards. I think I can piece it together.”
They looked at each other, and to her surprise, Haradeth spoke up, “I’ll get what we need.”
It took the rest of the day, and into part of the night, working under arcstones that produced light without flame. At some point, someone brought her a fish, and she ate it as messily before. The Duchess had to fan herself while Tythel ate, and Tythel wondered if she found it as distasteful as Haradeth did.
It was unimportant, background noise. What mattered were the reports, being relayed to her by the Duke and Duchess and Nicandros as they sifted through every paper they had giving a time and place for battles between Alohym forces, and where the Governor had changed later. Some of them had come from other groups like theirs.
“It’s a case of the enemy of the enemy is my ally,” Nicandros growled at one point to Tythel while she was taking a break to drink. “There’s three main factions in the region. Us, the Sons of the Hawk, and the Yargomethi Kinship. We’re more locally focused, want to get the kingdom back on its feet. The Sons of the Hawk want to kick the Alohym out, but think the nobility were a bunch of bloodsucking parasites and want their heads on pikes. The Kinship wants there to be no kingdoms after the Alohym are thrown out, they want to have one great empire across the entire Yargometh Sea.”
Tythel nodded. “So they’ll help us, right up until it appears we’re winning?”
“Exactly, girl. Especially the Sons. Once they learn what you are, they’re going to want you dead.”
“Well, if they want to spend their effort trying to kill me, I can deal with that problem later.” Tythel finished the waterskin. “Now, what was that you were saying about the fight near Greystone?”
Nicandros turned back to his notes.
When she was done, the rest of the leadership was assembled. The map in front of her was patched with dots of yellow, green, red, and blue. “I’m not sure about a lot of these,” Tythel said apologetically, motioning towards the map, “especially since they don’t need coasts or physical connection because of the sky ships, but the areas that have outlines are ones I am sure about.”
They gathered around, nodding to each other. “We still don’t know what they flathing want,” Lord Devos said, frowning at the map.
“We don’t need to,” Tythel said, baring her teeth in excitement. “Look,” she pointed at the map. “Right between these two territories, red and green. This town has changed hands seven times in the last three years, from what we know. I want to test a theory. One of the….crawlers? Is that the right term?”
The Duchess nodded, and Tythel continued. “One of the factors that makes the crawlers is in this town, yes? If we damage it, and I’m right, there will be another conflict since the green faction looks weak, and we can see how that plays out.”
Haradeth frowned, “And if you’re wrong?”
Tythel sighed. “Then we still destroy a source of income for the Alohym, make them look weak to the common folk, and can pick up any artifacts we find while we’re there.”
Nicandros nodded. “It’s lightly defended, too.” He’d helped her formulate this plan, but was letting her taken credit for it. Tythel didn’t understand why he thought it was important, but he’d stressed it. “We could use a win right about now.”
Duke d’Monchy frowned. “This is excellent work, your highness. Perhaps we should all sleep on the specific plan, and discuss it in the morning?”
He got no argument from Tythel, who was feeling the drain from the day. Everyone needed rest, and they broke up to go to their respective bedrolls. As Tythel burrowed into hers, it occurred to her that the Duke had just called her “your highness.”
She hoped it was a good sign.