Senwick had already figured out what Aru Breren had been about to say, but actually hearing it felt like a hammer to his chest. He looked to Ulf whose martial posture had given way to an unsteady bearing, as if he were about to collapse. His face was devoid of color and he looked on the verge of tears.
“How can you say this?” asked Ulf. “How can you be so sure that Basileus will fall?”
“The army of the south is vast, thus rendering Basileus’s erstwhile impregnable defenses decidedly untenable,” said Aru. “Trying to defend it would be a fool’s errand.”
“So we are just going to let them die, then?” asked Ulf, his manner becoming increasingly agitated. “All of the people in Basileus, our people, are we to let them starve as they are besieged?”
Aru turned to face Ulf and Senwick saw his friend quail somewhat under that austere gaze. Aru could have easily reprimanded his subordinate for improper conduct before a superior officer, he could have had Ulf stripped of all his titles, but he did none of that. Instead, he spoke.
“Basileus may well fall,” said Aru. “Defending that citadel is impossible, and thus something we are not going to even attempt. However, just because we are abandoning the citadel does not mean we are abandoning its people. It is the people that we care about, is it not? The people we promised to protect. Trust me when I say that no harm will befall the citizens of Basileus nor any other Free City.”
Ulf stared dumbstruck at Aru. He collapsed onto a chair and said, “Forgive me, General Breren. I… I don’t know what came over me. This was not conduct befitting the commander of a City.”
“Think of it no more, Commander Ulf,” said Aru. “These are difficult times, and you have never had to live through a proper war before. Now is the time to act, and act we shall. However, the situation must be handled delicately.”
“My I ask you something, General Breren?” asked Senwick.
“You may,” said Aru.
“Why did you not inform any of the other Cities? No matter what we plan to do, the Free Cities need to know that Basileus is under siege. If you feel like Basileus will inevitably fall, shouldn’t the other commanders know it? You have at least told Generals Bellator and Soturi, right?”
Aru gave Senwick an odd look that was a combination of exasperation and amusement. “Tell me, soldier,” said Aru, “how exactly is it that Ulf is commander here and you are his assistant?”
Senwick looked at Ulf and then back at Aru. “That, sir, is a long story for another day.”
Aru nodded and said, “As for the rest of your questions, well… There are a number of reasons why I did not inform Bellator or Soturi of what is happening. Perhaps the biggest reason is that we need a head start.”
“I see,” said Senwick, “you and the other generals don’t see eye to eye.”
Aru nodded and said, “Vangurheim is the only Free City that does not come under a general. The commander’s power is absolute here, he is answerable to no one, much like Eamus is answerable to no one but himself in Basileus. Such things are necessary because Basileus and Vangurheim need to be strategically independent in case emergency decisions need to be made. Because you, Ulf, are not answerable to a general, I know that I can trust you with the information I have presented, and I know that I can urge you to see reason.”
“What would Soturi and Bellator want to do?” asked Ulf.
“Bellator would want to muster the forces and try to fend Bazragah off,” said Aru, “as for Soturi… well, that’s a different matter. He believes that Basileus is not really a part of the Free Cities, and that its people are not our people.”
“Because of the Dianosi diaspora,” said Senwick, nodding thoughtfully, “and because it was the Dianosi that built Basileus, not our people.”
“Precisely,” said Aru. “If I had told them what needed to be done there would have been pandemonium. The problem lies with Eamus as well. The Lord Phoenix of Basileus is a proud man, and his pride would not allow him to retreat. He would want to fight to the last man, and in this battle he would end up having every man, woman and child in the citadel slaughtered.”
“So what are we going to do?” asked Ulf.
“My plan has two parts,” said Aru. “The second part I will elucidate at a later time. As for the first part, it involves evacuating all non soldiers to the inner cities. Using the main gate would be impossible as Eamus would not let any man above thirteen leave, soldier or not, and this would make a great many women and children end up staying as well. We are going to have to sneak as many people out as possible. Basileus is a labyrinthine citadel with many secret entrances and exits, and I know just the person that can help us find them.”
“Who would that be?” asked Senwick.
“Belinda,” said Aru.
“That criminal?” spat Ulf. “You would consort with that vile criminal?”
“To save the lives of innocent people?” said Aru, “Yes, I would consort with her a thousand times if it meant saving lives. This is not a game, boy. You have not seen war. You have not seen the carnage and destruction that is wrought. No, if we want to save the people of Basileus we are going to have to be a smart about it.”
Ulf scowled but said no more. Senwick looked at his friend and felt a surge of concern. Ulf was angry, and when he was angry he got stupid. Senwick just hoped that his friend would not end up doing anything that might end up harming their initiative to save the people of Basileus. Little did he know, it was far too late to stop him now.
Ulf had already made up his mind.