Elsewhere, far from where a grand mareschal and a grand coronel plotted for a last, desperate chance to keep hope alive... There was a city. It was a nice little city as things went; it didn't have tall towers, and its rows of tiled roofs were picturesque, standing as they did amongst gently rolling hills and tropical grassland. Music rang out on the corners from streetside cabarets, and vendors hawked their goods with smiling lips. Girls in cabbie hats walked the sidewalk, thrusting the day's gazette at anyone who'd let themselves be parted from a few coins.
You might never know that it had only been half a year since the massacre.
There were ways to tell, of course. The blue-and-white of the Imperial uniform was a clue; there were a lot of those women here, even though they wore heavy outfits that had been designed for the frigid mountains of the homeland. The way that the vendors' smiles grew a bit larger and their eyes a bit deader when they saw a woman pass by in the old blue-and-white. Some of them would even switch languages to the Imperial tongue, if they knew a few words.
The glint in the eyes of the comeliest showed boys and girls who were well-fed... and used to being hunted. With the eyes rather than with steel, but a piercing weapon in their own right. There was no escape here.
If a native were to grab the front page of a newspaper, it would be like as gibberish to most of them; "Kriegsende in Sicht", no matter how bold or numerous the exclamation points, was not a phrase that held any meaning to them. But there wasn't any need for them to know the details, now was there? They understood the generalities. They cooperated, because that was how you lived. Or if you didn't cooperate, you at least didn't openly resist. And that was all that the Empire needed from them.
In the midst of all this, a pretty young man hurried his way through the flagstone farce that occupied Midbury's streets; he seemed to have nothing on him but the flattering culottes, tall boots, and shirtless vest he wore. Dressed like that, he needed no sewing kit for anyone in the town to know he was a member of the Tailor's Guild. Especially not when he walked towards the front door of the somewhat ramshackle building.
Even though it was yet daytime, libido respects little the clock; there were soldiers here already. That wasn't a surprise. It might even have been a boon, since he hadn't been stopped once on the way here. But the boy was a favorite of the guild's clients, and he hoped that that would not be a double-edged sword for him as he slid through the front door, past women whose uniforms he could smell even when they weren't wearing them, and then up the stairs. He registered every not-half-as-subtle-as-they-thought-they-were press against his body, but for the moment, he was grateful they were staying around his hips and chest.
You see, the boy was carrying the worst kind of contraband you possibly could have in an occupied town: Hope. Of a sort, anyway. And the other tailors knew it. His passing caught the eye of one boy after another, and if they were free, this elicited a strategic little smirk and the wiggle of some brows. No straight woman in her right mind would mind the boys a few moments together to do some... well. Whatever they did. The soldiers knew their imagination was probably better than the reality on this, and didn't bother to pursue too heavily. It was too early to be drunk enough for that.
And so it was that a handful of tailors with generously rippling abs piled into a small, unused room and turned to look at their message-runner.
He smiled at them and buttoned down his right boot, pulling a small envelope out. Inside was a rather folded photogram, and a handwritten letter. Both immediately caused a stir among the room.
"Is that him?"
"We got anyone that can read?"
"By the pits, I almost don't recognize him!"
"Shit! When did Bobbin learn to write?"
"He doesn't, someone helps him I think."
"I think he's getting a little taller."
"Yeah, Knickers usually does it."
"Knicks? Knicks is alive?"
"C'mon, we have no one who can read? At all?"
"That uniform looks so smart on him. He's a fifer now, right?"
"If it's so easy why didn't you learn?"
"Enough, enough," one of the younger ones broke in -- he looked to be even younger than the boy in the picture, Bobbin, who was somewhere in his late teens. "I've got this. Lemme see the letter... Okay. Uh, he says he misses all of us, that he has been promoted to mareschal, and that Jack is the handsomest--"
"Bobbin didn't say that!"
"You're holding the letter upside down!"
"Can you even read, Jack?"
There was, it turns out, no one who could read the letter at the moment. They'd have to find out the specifics later. But here their little brother was, the foundling. He'd survived the massacre, gotten down south, and now he was all suited up in a uniform. The war was lost in Midbury, but it continued on outside. Even if he was just a fifer, he was doing it -- he was keeping hope alive here in this city.
And, it turns out, he's about to be doing a lot more than that.