Two guardsmen on their knees, blowing into a fire pit outside Drogan’s tent. Brill had built the fire as best he could. Grass and small twigs at the bottom. Larger twigs on top. Bigger sticks atop those and more firewood at the ready for when the fire had burnt down. But the night was chill, the wood damp, and the sparks from his flint and steel flickered out in the kindling.
“Shit,” said Brill.
“Wha’ is it?” said his companion, holding the lamp that lit the mess of twigs and wood.
“Wha’ abou’ ‘im?
“Lift up your snout an’ have a look. It’s him, coming.”
Brill’s companion looked up and out into the dark at the dark figure approaching beyond the falling snow.
“Aye, mate?” said Brill, standing.
“Yes,” said the figure, simply. With both authority and lack thereof. With the assurance of being close to power yet not concerned for having any. “Commander Drogan,” he said. It was neither question nor request. It was a statement of fact.
“Ain’t here. Who wants ta know?”
“I’ve a message from the Governor.”
“I should like to deliver it directly.”
“Well ye ain’t gonna. The poor bastard’s got his jammies on already.”
“This message is from the Governor.”
“And my message’ll be from me boot to yer old boys between them legs. Fuck off, me sweets. Me sweetheart. I’ll take it.” And he smiled a broken-toothed, rancid smile.
A voice called from inside the tent, muffled and distant. It stated one word, sternly. Like a parent correcting a child. It said: “Soldier.”
Brill flicked his eyes back to the tent. Then to the ground. Then to Winstrop. “Sure, m’lady.” He reached for the front flap of the tent, pulled it out, motioned with his hand. “In yeh go.”
Inside the tent, one man hunched over a small wooden desk. He was wrapped in a heavy robe, studying the map laid out before him, flattening its folds with calloused hands. Another man stood beside him, arms crossed, rubbing his elbows for warmth. The oil-burning lamp on the table cast a warm glow over them, and long shadows.
The city-states lay hidden. Somewhere beyond the tent. Beyond the camp. In a place that ought to be locatable on this map.
They could not find them. Two entire cities. Not on the map, not on land.
Scouts went out and came back with reports of nothing found. Riders flew for miles and saw no signs from the air. They knew it was there, here, somewhere. It eluded them. Phantom cities, ruled by a Phantom Lord. This was the problem being discussed as Brill entered.
Brill jerked his thumb towards Winstrop, “Commander, message for you from the lady.”
Looking down at the map, Commander Drogan said, “Thank you, Brill.”
“Yeh, wha’ever. He’s a fancy lad, eh? Got a punch line for him, what?”
“Thank you, Brill,” said Drogan again, drawing a line with a straight edge across the map. “You may go.”
“All right, then,” said Brill, turning to go. He found himself nose to nose with Winstrop. They might have kissed.
Then he was gone, and the flap fell shut behind him.