The Inraline had a relaxed way of dealing with authority when in small groups, but became more formal as the group got larger and the rank of the official got higher. The fort commander, Orlin by name, stood in silence at the door while nobody moved or spoke. The idea of the commander walking in on the court was so shocking that many in the room scarcely breathed. Either someone was in serious trouble or there was an extreme emergency.
“Adjourn your court, Super,” said the commander. Then he listed several names, including Azzesh and Tlisli, and ordered them to his bridge.
Tlisli had no idea what the various ranks were or what a “bridge” might be. Later she would learn that the Inraline built their entire military around naval traditions. “Super” referred to their intermediate ranks, sort of like petty officers. Those in the regular ranks were called simply sailors, though they would be called soldiers when on duty based on land. Commanders came in junior, senior, and full rank, and served as officers junior to a captain. Then there was the rank of Captain-Commander, which was equivalent to a ship’s captain when not commanding a seagoing ship. Orlin was a Captain-Commander, but tradition denied him the title as his command included no seagoing ships. Riverboats did not count in Inraline minds.
To Tlisli, however, it simply seemed that she was surrounded by people who had titles of rank and knew where they were going, while she did not.
The reason a command center was called a bridge, even in a fort like this, was that Inraline officers tried to feel like they were on a ship. Orlin’s bridge was in the outer tower of his fort, overlooking the river. Azzesh thought the commander very foolish. The odds that an attack would come directly down the river were poor. Any reasonably competent foe would realize that the Inraline troops were much more prepared to defend from the water side. Indeed, those despised riverboats would be considered decent small ships by many navies. On the other hand, fighting in the jungle was not an Inraline strength. She had said as much to Orlin, but he didn’t quite get her point. Any real attack would come down the river, would it not? Thus obviously the best defenses must face the river.
So as they sat down in the room called the bridge they could look out windows over the river and see the confluence. One couldn’t look far to the west, because the bulk of the fort was in that direction. Azzesh and Tlisli couldn’t see the palisade that formed the jungle side wall. That palisade was largely designed to keep the animal life out, and not as a major defensive barrier. Across the river one could see the towers on the eastern shore of the river, as well as the one on the tip of land between the rivers. Again, Azzesh thought these were fairly foolish ideas. It was probably worthwhile to have forts there to watch river traffic, but these towers were not well equipped to defend themselves from land, and could easily be isolated.
On the positive side, there were regular towers or high points around the area, and the Inraline maintained a good signaling system, using mirrors in sunlight, flags in appropriate conditions, and lanterns at night.
Despite the seriousness of the way Orlin had summoned them all, when doubtless a messenger would have done, he seemed in no hurry to get them settled down and tell them what they were all here for. Azzesh was ready to resent being called in this fashion, unless Orlin got to the point quickly and offered her money or other advantages in exchange for her involvement. She didn’t work for him. Tlisli, on the other hand, was just bemused at being called. She had no idea what she was doing here. The very idea of being in a room filled with officials frightened her in a way nearly dying in the jungle had not. But Azzesh was busy greeting various people and generally ignoring Tlisli, as was everyone else.
Finally Orlin called the meeting to order. “We got news yesterday courtesy of Azzesh that there was a patrol of the God-Emperor’s troops with a boat up the eastern branch. Now this morning we get word that Sun-troops are actually holding a village to the north. One young man escaped and brought word. We need to decide what to do about this. I have already dispatched messengers to Tevelin to inform my superiors of this threat. We had previously known that there were occasional GES agents in the jungle around here, which was not surprising considering their ambition. But to have them around the area with boats is a new variety of threat entirely.”
Azzesh seemed rather taken aback by this speech, Tlisli thought. She was trying to understand the issue with the boats. If there were Grand Empire of the Sun troops around in the jungle, why would one be particularly concerned if they had boats. In fact, from what she could see, about the stupidest thing the GES troops could do would be to try to use boats to assault this outpost. On the other hand, from what she’d seen of the western side of the town, there was very little to prevent the GES troops from invading from that direction.
The room had devolved in chaos, as various people argued about recalling patrol boats, reinforcing the waterfront, and making certain that nobody could approach unseen via the river. She would certainly not attack this city (as she thought of it) from the river. But it would take less troops than her home town had had available (before the GES came) to isolate this fortress. And with the fortress isolated, commerce would come to a halt. Using the cover provided by the fortress itself, it would be possible to besiege, and eventually to take the fortress unless it was resupplied by river very early.
Azzesh looked at Tlisli, watching the girl’s expression change as the debate went on. Azzesh was of the opinion that these debates on his bridge provided the best explanation for why Orlin had been assigned to command this fortress. He simply was not at all decisive, and in his view, the river was the world. It wasn’t an ocean, to his great disappointment, but it was water, and water was the key.
“So you think they are thinking poorly,” she said quietly to Tlisli.
“I would not attack this town from the river.”
“I thought your brains were more functional than you ever allowed me to see. Tell me how you would attack this town.”
“I’d bring troops in from the western side, overrun the town quickly, and then besiege the fortress. A few simple siege engines could then take this fortress with relatively little problem.”
“Don’t underestimate the fighting capability of the Inraline soldiers.”
“No, I think they seem very skilled as fighters, but if the GES is nearby in any numbers, they’ll be outnumbered by as much as ten to one, and if there is any one thing that the GES is good at, it’s disciplined, coordinated attacks.”
“So you listened as your father and brothers discussed the military situation around your town.”
“And now things start coming together for you.”
They didn’t notice that things were getting quieter and quieter in the room.
“Lady Azzesh,” said Commander Orlin suddenly. Azzesh grimaced. When Orlin, or any of the other Inraline she knew, called her “Lady Azzesh” it usually meant that they were trying to get her officially involved in something.
“Yes?” she said.
“Did you and Tlisli have something to share with us?”
“Well, no, we were just discussing how we would conquer your outpost if we had the job of doing so.”
“And how would that be?”
Azzesh looked at Tlisli. “Tell him, why don’t you?”
Tlisli paused to gather he thoughts. The idea of a mere girl getting involved in such a council bothered her, and that feeling made her realize how much of her upbringing was still with her. At the same time, she was losing some of her exaggerated respect for people with official positions.
“Well, if I were your enemy, which I’m not, and I had anything more than a few hundred troops with me, I would simply attack your town from the west. It wouldn’t take any great master strategy. I think you’d be overrun in a matter of minutes. This fort would hold out, but with the town out of action, it’s days would be numbered. Even if the troops then withdrew, the basis of your commerce would be destroyed.”
“But we’d still have the docks and the forts themselves!” said Orlin.
I’m in it now, thought Tlisli. Aloud she said, “But the docks aren’t the basis of your commerce. I’m new here, but I’m guessing the reason people trade with you is that they have confidence in these fortresses and in your power to protect them. If you lose that sense of power and confidence–and the destruction of the town would accomplish that–then the basis of your commerce is gone.”
“But where else will people sell their goods?” asked someone.
“The GES will kill people who try to trade with you. They will then quit selling their goods to you because they are afraid. All this happened around my home city before they took over.”
Azzesh was nodding agreement. She was delighted to hear Tlisli using some of her knowledge. The girl had been so passive. Of course, she would never let Tlisli know that she felt that way!
An argument broke out again all over the room. It went on for another half an hour. When it was over, nothing new had been decided. It appeared that the staff of the fort and its commander couldn’t imagine anything except defending the fortress itself. They disagreed with Tlisli that the GES troops would attack from the land and continued to expect any substantial attack to come by river.
As the meeting broke Tlisli turned to Azzesh. “So why did they invite us?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s simple,” said Azzesh. “They want to make sure that friends of mine in the city know that I was at the meeting. Then if something goes wrong they can point out that I was at the meeting and hope nobody notices that I didn’t really approve of their plans.”
As she said this, Azzesh was leading Tlisli out of the room. She briefly acknowledged Orlin, who tried to act cordial. He was clearly hoping that Azzesh’s contacts in the city would not get a bad report. He did not believe that there was any real threat to the fort, or any long term or significant threat to their commerce.