“Bring me the strong ale, boy!” A loudly laughing young dark elf, bellowed at Kevo-Grod.
Grod summoned a career enlisted orc’s vast reserves of ennui and despair. Both would be necessary for a hellish evening of dealing with young snots like this one without biting their throats out. “Apologies, sir but I’m not a waiter.” In truth Grod almost couldn’t blame the Ensign. A Banner Sergeant’s evening dress uniform was pretty much indistinguishable from a waiter’s.
The officer’s dining hall of the Columbianan Royal Imperial Pathfinder Regiment, was appropriately dark and funereal. Honestly it tried just a little too hard.
Hanging Tree wood so dark it was almost black, coated every wall. Grains that accented only the sharpest and coldest reliefs has been deliberately selected for the planking. Thick velveted ungainly curtains the color of dried blood submerged the high arching windows so deeply that no sunlight could enter. The wait staff was constantly stumbling around in the dark, dropping dishes. The dining tables were drastically over engineered, being built with three inch thick fire hardened oak. Which was going to make cleaning the place up a pointlessly back breaking chore in a few hours.
The Royal Colors of Columbiana were displayed behind the head table as was traditional. And as another “secret” tradition dictated, behind King Ronald’s colors, a false panel concealed the rebel battle flag of the Fallen One.
“If you aren’t bringing me anything to drink, then what the glutch are you doing here?” The prospect of staggering all the way to the bar himself, had made the junior company grade dark elf drunkenly belligerent.
Grod sighed and brought himself to attention. “Career Banner Sergeant Kevo-Grod, requests permission to dine at the Ensigns’ Table, sir.” Due to circumstances completely beyond his control, Grod was required to go from table to table asking for permission to dine until someone accepted him or (hopefully) no one did and Grod could happily proceed to the Career NCO-Club to eat and get hammered.
From the expression on the young dark elf’s face, Grod may as well have been asking if the newly minted officer would mind terribly if Grod could have sex with his horse.
“Wh-u-t?” he stopped to belch, then continued “What in the Fallen One’s asshole, makes you think for a second you can come into officer country and ask to sit at my table!” The young drunk’s eye’s bulged with class driven rage.
Lower middle caste, Kevo-Grod instantly surmised. Parents spent most of their lives barely above the poverty line. Knew what wines to drink but could barely afford Thunderwarg. Knew what fashions to follow but had to shop at the thrift stores in desperate unironic earnestness. Knew they were better than the orc plumber’s family down the lane but couldn’t prove it with their wallets. Lives spent frantically trying to cling to a lifestyle as good their parents and every year sliding a little bit further down the greasy pole. Terrified of one day slipping into the Orc classes.
And now one of them wants to squat down and eat next to him. Grod could have empathized, if the kid wasn’t being such a shit.
“Who the glutching fuck do you think you are?!” The Dark Elf had lurched unsteadily to his feet. “I’ll have the stripes off your shoulders and the skin off your back! You lower class bastard!”
“With due humility and respect sir,” Kevo-Grod smiled through clenched razor sharp teeth, as he recited the ritual preamble that would allow him to legally insult an officer. “I am a Banner Sergeant, only the Commanding General may bring formal charges against me, sir. Which you would have known if you had paid attention at all during the Officers Basic School…sir. “
“Cillian,” one of the other less drunk and apparently less stupid dark elves was plucking at the Ensign’s sleeve. He was eyeing Grods campaign ribbons and was clearly making some fairly accurate estimates regarding Grod’s life experiences, as well as his views on the bodily integrity of the dark elf castes.
“Answer my question, filthy Orc!” The Ensign snarled, hand now on hilt.
Well if that’s the way he wants to discuss it, Grod thought, as his hands found his own tomahawk and gladius. His choice. At least my evening is finally looking up.
“Ensign Cillian ab Deobath ab Rasoon-Kleaoopat,” a deeply annoyed voice of authority that was too low to actually boom. Boomed.
The Ensign’s Table suddenly rose and turned to face, that rarest of things, an ugly dark elf. Large and thick set with only one eye, a pug nose and scars on his face that accounted for the one eye. The middle aged dark elf also had the crown and crossed swords of a Horde-Brigadier on his shoulders . The dryly angered voice continued, “Banner Sergeant Kevo-Grod is a graduate of Bleached Skull college at Stumpclearing. He was born into the Drazazzadian Dark Elf caste himself, so as a Gentleman-Orcer I require him to mess with the officer castes at least once a week.
And no you cannot charge him yourself but you may challenge him to duel without any due loss of station.”
The drunk young dark elf looked delighted at the prospect.
“Cillian, this is not a good idea,” the Ensign’s friend was now officially worried.
“However,” Horde-Brigadier Rauoo added, “I require that the old laws be followed in such cases. So when Kevo-Grod bites your throat out, he will be required to enroll your woman into his own household.”
“What?” Grod’s pleasant little fantasies were suddenly shattered. Rauoo lifted a single eyebrow and Grod hastily added, “Sir?”
“You heard me.”
“My sweet Arialliana would have to rut with that thing?!” Ensign Cillian pointed at Grod reeling in horror at the prospect.
Oooo. Awkward, Grod thought. Arialliana is your wife?
Women that good looking aren’t usually that good in bed. They tend to feel that having landed them is reward enough for any man. Arialliana on the other hand, clearly possessed a keen competitive spirit and a savage drive to excel that was sharply focused on the highest ranks of the Temple Masseuse’s Guild.
The horror of having such a woman suddenly assigned as his mate, not to mention just how well she would take the instant loss of status at finding herself in the orc castes made Kevo-Grod shudder.
Nothing for it, Grod sighed to himself and knelt before the Ensign.
Besides, the kid’s got worse problems than I do if he is married to Arialliana.
“I eat thy dung and lick the piss from thy feet, High One, I abase myself before thee and beg thy forgiveness.” And he’d better be willing to accept the token-words because if he demanded literal compliance with the formula, Arialliana or no, Grod was going to rip his…
“I-uh-the Ensign accepts the token-words of the brave Banner-Sergeant,” the kid swallowed in disgust before adding, “my forgiveness is granted and he may join this table for…”
“Grod, you will be eating with me,” Horde-Brigadier Rauoo turned and stalked toward the head table.
Grod sighed and followed. Honestly, he didn’t go looking for trouble. He really didn’t. It just seemed to come his way.
The officers at Rauoo’s table rose when he approached. Grod found an empty spot and waited for Rauoo to take his place.
Grod briefly surveyed his involuntary dining companions. It was the usual collection of brown nosing field officers, doing their time in staff hell with a couple of long serving dirt biters who were on drinking buddy terms with the Horde-Brigadier. Plus, unusually, a couple of well dressed but profoundly unattractive young humans.
Kevo-Grod was generally too smart for his own good. About ninety five percent of the officers found it intimidating and immediately pegged him as a smartass and a trouble maker that was too clever by half. The fact that this was a fairly accurate assessment didn’t help matters. The other five percent, like Rauoo, assigned Grod to the role of Pet Genius. Grod preferred being a smart ass.
Still these dark elves were at least somewhat less caste conscious and afforded him a few felicitous nods. Political gesture of course. They knew that Rauoo was a mustanger. Having risen from the Orc castes himself, he often invited a token Banner to his table. Career Hundred-Captain G’Jenn-Marow who knew Grod of old, favored him with a genuine smile. Although given how badly scarred his face was it was hard to tell when he did that. The humans ignored him completely, enlisted Orcs clearly being of no interest to people of their importance. Which suited Grod.
The evening began. The ritual toasts to the King, the Regent and fallen comrades were made. The evening meal was served.
It was meat, of course. The humans objected and insisted on devouring some manner of vegetation. An incensed cook brought out some sage and chives for them, threw them on table and stomped off in a psychotic rage. That was it. The cook was a civilian and was one of the few Orcs present that couldn’t cowed by Rauoo.
Grod was eating sparingly himself. Not that he was abstemious by nature. He just wanted to get glutched up as fast as possible, when he finally got to the club and it was way easier to do that on an empty stomach.
For the most part Grod managed to avoid taking part in the conversation. Silence was what was expected of him and he was happy to provide it. And frankly except for Rauoo and G’Jenn-Marow, they were all too aggressively dull to be of genuine interest.
The humans it appeared were recently appointed deputy-ministers of the MOD and they were displeased with their surroundings. The military was far too militaristic for their tastes. Their writ as far as Grod could tell was to oversee the implementation of enlightened pronoun usage; ‘xe’, ‘xyr’ and ‘zir’, displacing the grotesquely retrograde ‘he’ and ‘she’. They constantly corrected everyone at the table.
However, as the evening dragged on, Grod discovered that they were actually there to oversee the inclusion of trans-specied persons into the imperial army and oversee the sensitivity training for the orcs of the legions.
The enlistment of the capital’s latest pet freakshow into the army didn’t bother Grod. Training accidents happen and Orcs tended to think in terms of acceptable losses when going to the latrine. So the newest set of mutants being sent his way would be no problem. Grod knew what was expected of him. The sensitivity training on the other hand was going to test the outermost limits of everyone’s capacity for boredom.
Kevo-Grod had let his mind wander a little too far afield when he heard one of the staff weenies, begin praising, Salvation for Demons, Grod absentmindedly rolled his eyes at the thought of that very over rated historical novel.
G’Jenn-Marow, caught it and was up for a bit of malicious fun, “the Banner-Sergeant doesn’t seem to agree the author’s assessment of the Battle of the Five Sea-Lakes, sir.” He said to a Major.
Thank-you G’Jenn, I owe you for that, Grod thought peevishly. Perhaps he could get away with playing dumb. He looked at Rauoo.
Nope, he couldn’t.
He sighed and prepared to lecture a rather cognitively rigid class. “Gentlemen,” Grod began.
“Gentle-beings,” The incredibly fat female with short hair dyed purple and green interrupted Grod, the tiny bell on her nose ring tinkling.
“It’s Gentle-beings, Sergeant,” She sniffed, “the preferred terminology is Gentle-beings.”
“Gentle-beings,” Grod ignored the fact that she had just “demoted” him and shrugged. He was not getting into a pissing match with highborn civilians this close to retirement. “The story of the Battle of the Five Sea-Lakes is well known. The Fallen One’s Legions were embarked on transports waiting on the Kidney Sea-Lake. We had just captured the port town Canalle were starting our portage to the Columbianen River, about thirty miles through a valley with very steep walls. After reaching the river it would have been a straight shot up to the heart of Columbiana itself. King Brian…”
“You must not say ‘we’ Sergeant!” The fat one corrected him again more sharply.
“Is there some new collective pronoun I’m supposed to use, uh, Xe? Grod could only guess at her preferred term of address although she was probably guessing at it herself at this point.
“It should be, “them”. They were the Army of the Fallen One. You are in the Army of Columbiana!”
Grod shrugged, “I stand corrected.” He continued.”Brian the Great by a good deal of luck, the lay of the terrain and one well placed spy. Caught them when they were at their most vulnerable. The ensuing battle of annihilation killed 100,000 of us, including the Fallen One himself.”
“Them Sergeant, THEM!” The skinny male was taking the woman’s lead. “Not us!”
“Apologies again, old habits sir” The skinny human was too pleased at cowing a military orc to remember that the Banner-Sergeant should have addressed him as ‘xyr’ or possibly, ‘zir.’
Grod saw a lot of scowls around the table. The officers may have been soft, staff side ass-sniffs but they were still orcs in their deepest hearts even if they did start calling themselves dark elves past a certain income level.
The Reconstruction Period after the war had been a heavy handed, one hundred year occupation. The fact that the Orcs reliably fought all of Columbiana’s wars now didn’t change the fact that there was still a lot of hard feelings on their side. For their part the Columbian nobility made no secret of their utter contempt of the orcs, which hardly smoothed things over. Backwards, inbred, unevolved, and weirdly religious with a taste for their own craft distilled whiskey and beer.
Which the humans were now craving for some reason.
Most of it was unfair but they were right about the bourbon and religion. The problem was that the orcs remained under a curse that forced them to worship the Fallen One. They still held Him in a state of agape but the truth of it was they knew that the Fallen One had been an asshole and an egotistical dickweed. But a curse is a curse. So all orc-kind continued to worship their hated god in secret.
Grod continued, “the narrative is inaccurate. The truth is that the Fallen One had been engaged in frivolous side campaigns that were being run concurrently. Big Cock Sea-Lake for example…”
“Don’t call it that!” The fat woman shrieked.
One of the staff officers ignoring her, authoritatively declared, “That was a diversion operation. Everyone knows that.”
“With humility and respect, no sir. Not according to the archives,” Grod semi-apologized. “All of those records indicate that it was just a defensive perimeter expansion that was being conducted simultaneously. There is no mention of it as a diversion operation at all.
Then there was Cloud Sea Lake.”
“We… They won that one,” another dark elf said.
“And it ended up tying down fifty thousand orcs who could have been used at Kidney Sea-Lake. That would have made all the difference there.
Grod had written his thesis on this subject but decided to boil it down to just the basics.
“Here is the big picture gentle… uh… beings. At the start of the war. The Fallen One had run the table for eighteen months. He was unstoppable during that time. He overran all of his objectives in weeks. The problem was he thought it was going to take him years and he hadn’t had time to build up his supply routes. All of his enemies were reeling but they weren’t going to stay reeling forever. And once they pulled it together they were all going to unite against him. He had start finishing them off one by one before they could begin a coordinated action against Him.
The long term strategic situation was bad. His supply lines were drastically over extended and His interior lines consisted of nothing but undeveloped forests.
Columbiana probably seemed as good as anything else to conquer first. Honestly, when you look at it, the Fallen One was just throwing some strategy at the wall to see what would stick.”
Kevo-Grod summed it up, “Operation Heart Devourer was over complex, over extended and under wargamed at staff level. Ultimately we had the Victory Disease.”
“Stop saying we!”
Grod turned about to apologize again but then he caught a deliberate and directed scowl from Horde-Brigadier Rauoo to the obnoxius human woman. He was signaling Grod.
Grod quickly surmised the real reason he had been brought here tonight and had a good grasp of Rauoo’s desired endstate.
Fine. Whatever, sir.
“Still I will grant that Salvation for Demons, seems to have covered all the important points. The Fallen One fucked up, we lost and now we’re slaves,” Grod looked the human female dead in the eye.
Both humans splorked in outrage.
“You are not slaves!” The incredibly fat female snarled at Grod, while she dabbed wine off her nose ring.
“Honestly,” her male companion? partner? Her… anyway added, “it’s been two hundred years since Fallen One’s War ended. You’ve been subjects of Columbiana ever since. Why do you people hang on to this outdated, retrograde, unevolved view of the world?”
“Because we’re slaves,” Grod said. “Slaves tend to be pretty unevolved.”
The skinny male jumped to his feet, nearly shrieking at Rauoo, “General! I demand that that this swine be flogged for saying, he’s a slave!”
Hoard-Brigadier Rauoo lifted his one working eyebrow at Kevo-Grod.
The Banner-Sergeant rose, barely keeping a smile off his face and addressed the male, “I do not believe that ‘swine,’ is one of the newly approved forms of address, Xyr! In fact Orcs find it racially offensive and possibly sexist as well, although I’m not sure about that one. Regardless, under Colombian law I must interpret this as a violation of the hate speech code under Title: CXXXVII. Your words constitute a hate crime and therefore, under tribal law, you have challenged me to a duel.” The Orc then smiled which was almost literally shark-like.
The pale human turned much, much paler, raising his hands in desperate imploring supplication, “I’m not a racist!” He said in terror. “I. Am. Not a racist! Please! Please!” he clasped his hands together in panicked pleadingly. “I’mnotaricst-I’mnotaricst-I’mnotaricst”
The female human looked away from her companion-partner-whatever. The next soldier in line had clearly caught the golden arrow, there was nothing to be done for Xe.
“Doesn’t the whole, ‘my killing you thing’ bother you,” Grod whirred in abject confusion, “just a little?”
“I’m-not-a-raci… Kill me?!”
“He probably thought you were challenging him a dance off,” G’Jenn said helpfully.
“No, no,” Grod clarified. “Duel. Meet at dawn. Your family gets together later for your funeral. Possible blood feud ensues. You know, duel as in ‘duel’” Grod waved his hands for emphasis. ”My choice of weapons are fists and teeth. We fight. You die. That kind of thing. Duel.”
“What?” the human gasped. “Thats barbaric! That’s inhuman!” Then clasped his hands over his own mouth in horror.
“Henry!” The fat woman screamed.
“Great! Now he is calling me I-word too?” Grod could barely keep from laughing.
The skinny human looked unutterably miserable.
“Hmm,” the Horde-Brigadier appeared to be deep in thought. “This fortress is in on tribal reservation land,” Rauoo said dryly. “The Banner Sergeant, (please get his rank right, unlike you he earned his place), is well within his legal rights to take your head and your woman.”
Grod’s jaw literally dropped to his chest in horror.
The General paused for a moment appearing to consider something. “If you were to resign from the Ministry of Defense immediately, you would no longer be touring officials but simply my guests. I would have to afford you my personal protection under the tribal custom of guest-rite.
“Guest-rite sounds very ethnically authentic,” the man burbled.
“Doesn’t it just?” Raoo continued, “however you and your wife would have to be off the reservation before sunrise. By law and tradition my protection of you ends then”
The fat woman lurched turbulently to her swollen feet, large portions of her still sloshing violently upward after she had stood. Face puckered and eyes narrowed, “this was all a trick! All of it!” Her husband (apparently) plucked at her sleeve. She slapped his hand away.
“Do you think we are powerless? That we won’t see you broken?” She sneered. “We have friends at court! Good friends! Princess Perseverance will hear about this from me personally.
Rauoo, smiled unpleasantly (in truth he had no other way to smile.) “I believe you will find you have no friends at court whatsoever. I am informing the Regent that you and that,” He waved dismissively at her husband, pejoratives clearly and obviously failing him, “after being shown every courtesy, got drunk at my table and offered grievous and racially insensitive insult to an honored and wounded veteran.”
The soon to be former deputy minister was still trembling with rage but she was now just barely keeping her mouth shut.
“The Princess and the former regent won’t hesitate to throw you under the coach for that one.”
Rauoo pulled a prepared document out of his coat and tossed it at them. “Just sign it!” He said with terminal authority.
After a second’s consideration, they silently did. Then they made a dash for the door and out of the dining hall.
A moment or two of pleased silence ensued.
Which was ended by G’Jenn-Marrow saying to Grod, “wounded veteran? In twenty years no one has ever laid a scratch on you!”
“My emotional scars run deep, sir.”