“Thank you, thank you all,” Valeria waves off the hangers-on. “The Electus isn’t taking any more questions today. We have lots of work to do, please move along. Refreshments are in the Grand Hall on the ground floor.”
The reporters groan in anticipation of the long stairway down. The descent is always harder than the climb.
Valeria shuffles me along a hallway to a small conference room. The table is already mostly surrounded by a collection of people in ill-fitting violet military uniforms cinched in with garters and dyed with crimson stripes. They stand to attention as we enter, saluting with three fingers on their eyes and foreheads. Spread out on the surface is a map like the one from the consul chamber, marked with topographical detail and festooned with figurines representing troop positions. I can see immediately that we’re in deep shit.
Fortuna is a coastal city, with the western side on the ocean. Some distance out to sea is an archipelago labeled Calix Shipping and Transporation. Further east expands a swath of farmland and forests, Pecunia Mills & Livestock. To the north, a series of small towns are dotted out amongst the mountains, dubbed Gladio Education and Professional Academies. The southern desert is crisscrossed with railroads between hills, mines and factories, titled Baculus Enterprises and Innovations. And all of them have sent an army to surround the city. We are besieged by land and sea,, stuck behind walls, trenches, imprisoned in our free city.
Does the public know any of this? Or are they so caught up in the honeymoon of victory that a break from reality is acceptable?
“As you were,” I finally remember to say after a few moments of generals staring at me. The medals on their chests jangle as they sit back down. Valeria stands to my right and leans down.
“This is the hard part,” she whispers.
Charlie, Calla, and Ricimer enter a few moments later, each taking a seat close to me at the head of the table. Charlie is at my left. “Alright, let’s get started.”
“I’m guessing,” I begin, “that our situation is much worse than we let on to the crowd.”
“Significantly so, Electus,” Charlie says. “Solara Baculus put out a bounty on all of our heads once word got out about Arius’ death. Fifty thousand crowns for everyone in this room.”
“That’s a tall order for just fifty grand,” Calla chuckles.
“Fifty thousand each. Two hundred grand for the Electus. No bounty on the Pro-Consul, unsurprisingly.” Charlie fixes Valeria with a glare. The generals murmur.
“My mother wants revenge by any means possible,” Valeria responds. “She’s trying to divide us, break us before we can begin the fight.”
“Does anyone else know about the bounties?” I ask.
“No, we intercepted the messenger before he reached the city,” Charlie says. “I’m holding him for further questioning, along with some other suspicious characters we picked up among the refugees fleeing the Consortium army.”
Ricimer snorts. “So it begins.”
“Come again, Consul?” I cut in.
“I hear there’s plenty of empty cells in the Snakepit, Electus.”
“How dare you!” One of the generals slams the table.
“Comrades!” Valeria says, in a voice both firm and measured. “We’re all on the same side here. I concur with Consul Sterling’s judgment. In fact, I recommend we increase personal security for everyone here for the foreseeable future. The Consortium Houses almost certainly have agents remaining in the city. Electus?”
“In any case,” Valeria continues, “the Consortium has surrounded the city, cut us off from the suburbs, farmlands, and any other states we might petition for help. We’re overcrowded with refugees, and food supplies won’t last long, especially if we’re keeping a closer eye on CASH dispersion.”
Charlie nods. “There are a lot of people who relied on CASH as part of their diet for years. They’ll all be in withdrawal if they don’t get enough calories.”
“But we also don’t want even more addicts than we can handle right now,” Calla adds. “We need food, and lots of it. PecMills should be our primary target.”
Some of the generals look surprised. Others look reassured.
“Are you sure, Consul Peck?” I ask, reading the room.
“Yes, sir.” Her jaw is set. “This is my family now.”
Peck. Pecunia. Got it.
“Alright, then,” I say. “We obviously don’t have the numbers to break the siege with brute force.”
“That’s never gotten in our way before,” Charlie says, lip curled.
“Yeah, but our main advantage over the Regency was mobility,” says one the of the generals. “Right now we’re stuck behind the city walls.”
“Consul Peck,” Valeria turns to Calla. “How’s it coming along with the wing harnesses?”
“Slowly,” Calla says. “The delicate bits on Alex’s harness were completely fried in the storm. I had to start from scratch on everything but the frame. It’ll take time, and more time to duplicate them for more fighters. But I was thinking: what about the tunnels?”
Everyone goes very still.
“Look, I know there’s a lot of bad memories down there,” Calla says, “but the tunnels gave us mobility, and that’s what we need right now. Some of them probably go beyond the city walls. We could get a small squad of soldiers behind the main siege lines and hit their supply line at the source.” She stabs a short finger on the map over a town labeled Turtleden. “The Consortium needs food as much as we do. We can steal some transport vehicles, load them up with food and supplies, sabotage their armor and workshops, and be back in Fortuna before they can bring reinforcements from the front. And once they do, that’ll leave a hole in the siege and spread the rest of the Consortium forces thin.”
The generals discuss among themselves, as if they have a real contribution to the decision. They turn to me for approval.
“It’s a good plan. Consuls?”
Charlie tentatively nods. Valeria nods. Ricimer rolls his eyes.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Let’s get to work.”