The Depths of Neptune - Cover

The Depths of Neptune

Copyright© 2023 by Lumpy

Chapter 19


“The princess came back from Factorium today,” Medb said as she readied their room for the evening.

“I don’t believe the Romans, or I guess Britannians, call the Emperor’s daughter a princess,” Cormac said, watching her work.

He was still surprised at how quickly he’d found appreciation for his new wife. Any thoughts of her being too muscular or mannish had left his head after their first night together. Now, watching her work, he could already feel his heartbeat quickening. She was quite the woman.

He just wished he wasn’t so tired from watching worthless old men argue pointlessly all day. Llassar, under the Consul’s direction, had decided the best way Cormac could prepare for his future was to sit in on the Imperial Senate, listening to those fools, instead of out with the legions, leading men into battle.

Wounded legionnaires had begun pouring into Devnum for several days, bound for the Imperial Hospital. Word of the conflict had come with them. None of the men had been in a condition to be interviewed personally, but from what Cormac could gather, the victory had been stunning and the Carthaginian port had been left a smoking ruin.

“Well, she apparently rushed back, from what I hear. I also heard that the Consul was sailing in tonight as well. I guess that explains the rush,” Medb said, giving him a suggestive eyebrow wave.

“I’m sure that has something to do with it, but I overheard in the forum today that the Emperor has called for a new council of war in the morning. I understand the legates are all returning tonight as well, along with several others. I’m not sure what they are discussing, but whatever it is, it’s going to be big.”

“They didn’t inform you about it directly? I thought all attendees would have gotten a message telling them when and where to be.”

“I haven’t been invited,” he said, his teeth grinding. “Llassar has, I know, but I guess they still don’t feel I have enough experience to contribute to something like this.”

“And how do they want you to get this experience? Your father sent you here to learn how to lead. I know you like Llassar, but he isn’t one of us. Everyone here, even Llassar, has their own agendas. I think you might want to ask yourself why they’d want to make sure the future heir of one-third of the Empire remains inexperienced?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I understand what you’re saying, but it doesn’t seem right. They have been working with me, having me watch how the government is really being run. I know it’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.”

“Cormac, you’re a great man, but you have to stop looking at everyone as if they’re your friends. Of course it’s nothing. Not only have they kept you out of any of the real meetings, the ones about the progress of the war, but I heard a rumor that the attack on the princ ... the Emperor’s daughter was a trap. We don’t know, because you weren’t in the room where these decisions were made. Was Llassar, who isn’t even on his country’s list of successors, in the meeting? Hell, if anything, you should be on the same footing as Llassar. He’s his chieftain’s or whatever’s representative to the Empire, just as you are your father’s representative.”

“Except, my father told me to come here and learn from Llassar.”

“And he’s falling down on that job. You need to show that you can take the initiative and handle your own advancement. Decisiveness is the key to good leadership. I know this is getting old from me, telling you to make them include you; but I don’t want to see you pushed to the side. The more I’ve come to know you, the more I realize everything that’s happened, happened for a reason. Yes, I tried to rule and failed, but I think that was what the gods meant for me, because it was my path to you. I see in you the future of all of the people of Ériu. It’s why I refuse to let others convince you that you aren’t worthy of your place or are somehow subservient to them.”

Cormac listened as the passion in her voice ramped up. He wasn’t sure he agreed about the whole ‘ordained by the gods’ part, but he had to admit it felt good to hear those words. His father had always been hard, even before he became king. Good was never good enough. To his father, anything short of perfection was a failure, and he was quick to point out that failure.

“I appreciate your support, but right now, I don’t really have the ability to force them to do anything. We’re not in my father’s kingdom, and he gave Llassar specific instructions to take charge of me. How do I force their hands when I have no leverage?”

“By being smarter than them,” she said, coming over and sitting astride him, her legs going around the back of the chair. “Go around Llassar. Find your moment when someone like the Consul is there, and make it clear to him that you’re here as your father’s proxy and demand your place at the table. Don’t be a child, hiding behind Llassar’s apron, be the man I know you to be. Don’t ask for your place. Demand it. Be like Moccus, his tusks set to gore his enemies; be not like a sheep, waiting to be slaughtered.”

Her face was inches from his and he felt himself getting lost in her eyes. There was a fire and a passion there the likes of which he’d never seen before from anyone else, and it was directed entirely at him. His voice caught in his throat, so he just nodded, his head almost bumping into hers.

She smiled at him with that wolfish smile, the one where he wasn’t sure if she was happy with him or planning on eating him. As she kissed him, he knew he’d be happy with either one.

Ky had arrived early in the audience chamber, sitting on his small stool next to the Emperor’s high-backed chair which sat at the end of the table. It was unusual to have councils of war in the large audience chamber meant to hear proclamations and greet dignitaries, but this was the only room large enough for the number of people needed at this meeting.

Britannia had reached a turning point, and what they decided today would either be the first step to ending the war, or open the door for Carthage to destroy their fledgling Empire and salt the ground left behind. Ky had brought a lot of advancements that gave the small Empire a fighting chance, but Carthage still hadn’t brought its full weight to bear against them. Ky had seen Ramirus’s reports. If they were even only half right, Carthage had a massive manpower pool that made the armies the Britannians had faced so far look minuscule. So far, they’d kept the Carthaginians off balance, but if they made the wrong move, allowed the Carthaginians to regain some equilibrium, they would be able to land armies so large that no amount of technology would be able to counter them.

He and Sophus had spent the trip back from Insula Manavia working on the problem and had some options, but Sophus’s databases and processing ability only went so far. One of the reasons ships in his former Empire hadn’t been made fully AI run was that no tactical computer, no matter how advanced, could make the intuitive leaps that a human could. War, both on a tactical and strategic level, was more than just cold analysis. There was a feel to it, a sense that someone with enough experience could recognize and use. In every simulated war game he’d seen, an experienced commander had been able to beat his AI counterpart by predicting the AI’s moves and making moves that, on the face of it, defied logic.

The men he’d gathered for this council had been fighting in this world’s conditions for years, some of them their entire lives. They would be able to see things that both he and Sophus would miss if the decision was left to the two of them alone.

He was just preparing to start the meeting when a commotion near the end of the room drew his attention. It wasn’t until he got up to the small group that he saw it was Llassar arguing with the son of the Ulaid king, who’d come over to observe and learn from the Britannians, in order to gain some experience. Ky had been unsure of the plan, but Llassar had endorsed it, which was good enough for Ky. Llassar had already shown multiple times that his judgment could be trusted.

“ ... supposed to be here. We don’t have time for lessons today. I promise I’ll bring you up to speed when we’re done and we can discuss it, but this council is important, and we don’t need the distraction,” Llassar said.

“Hearing about what is decided won’t teach me anything,” the prince said, clearly agitated but still under control. “From what I’ve heard, this is the largest meeting of this type that has ever occurred in any of our nations. I have this one chance to actually see it, and you want me to sit aside and wait for your summary. That isn’t what my father sent me here for.”

“Cormac,” Llassar said, his legendarily cool facade fading a bit. “We don’t have time for this. You need to go back to your rooms. I promise we’ll have this conversation when it’s over.”

“I can’t...” Cormac said, before he was interrupted by Ky clearing his throat loudly.

Ky could see they were going in circles, and this was becoming a distraction from starting the meeting. Llassar had dug in his heels and wasn’t listening to Cormac, and Cormac had the self-assurance only possessed by the young, and clearly thought any opinion but his was wrong on the face of it.

“Is there a problem?”

“My apologizes, Consul,” Llassar said, giving Cormac a look. “The prince wasn’t invited to this council but apparently heard it was happening and decided to attend of his own volition. I was just requesting that he return to his rooms until after the council was finished. I’ll get him out of your way.”

Llassar reached over and took a hold of the prince’s arm, apparently intending to lead him out, but the prince wrenched free of his hold and instead rapidly approached Ky.

“Consul, we haven’t met yet, but I’m Cormac Cond Logas, son of the rightful king of the Ulaid, Conchobar mac Nessa. I was sent here to observe your government and act as my father’s direct representative. I demand to be allowed to stay and take part in the council, just as Llassar, as his chieftain’s direct representative, is allowed to stay and speak for his people.”

“Cormac,” Llassar said, finally losing his temper. “You’re not in any place to demand...”

“Llassar,” Ky said, putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I appreciate your assistance and I apologize. Not inviting the prince here, as his father’s representative, was my oversight. I’m sure the prince understands the importance of this meeting and will listen intently and refrain from interrupting or causing any distractions if he stays. Isn’t that right, Cormac Cond Logas?”

“Yes, Consul,” Cormac said, grinning, although whether from besting Llassar or just being allowed to stay, Ky couldn’t tell.

Llassar, for his part, took the overruling well, simply giving a slight bow of his head and saying, “As you wish, Consul.”

“Now, that that’s settled,” Ky said, raising his voice so it was audible to everyone in the room as he returned to his seat. “It looks like we’re all here, so let’s get started.”

All eyes turned to Ky as he stood at his place next to the Emperor and across from his wife.

“We are at a turning point. We’ve done well for ourselves and gained a moment’s breathing room, but the Carthaginians are far from beaten. I know that may seem obvious, but I’ve already overheard talk that, thanks to our new weapons, our victory is all but assured. I want you all to understand that, as the person who understands the capabilities of these weapons best, that is far from true. We are still vulnerable and a misstep can still end with our destruction. All of you have a part in commanding our armies and contributing to our final success in this war, but only if you all take this seriously. Is that understood?”

All of the faces around the table nodded slightly when they realized Ky wasn’t going to continue until they agreed.

“Good. Now, I have the beginnings of a plan, but I wanted to lay out the issues and get your input on my thoughts. We all know our next step is to establish a foothold on the continent. Even with the new ships in Valdar’s fleet or under construction, we cannot hope to both land and supply an army in Africa from the Britannic Isles. The distances are just too far and the odds we’d face when landing are too great, even with our technological advantages. That means we need to set up a base, or preferably bases, to stage an invasion of Africa, preferably close to Carthage itself, since the challenges of fighting in North Africa make landing and marching along the coast equally as challenging. Most of the landing points closer to Carthage, however, are well into the Middle Sea, which also presents challenges. Sicilia is close, but without control of Italy, we’d be in constant danger of being overrun, considering Carthage’s hold on the peninsula. Sardinia and Corsica also present problems, as does an overland route to take Italy, which would stretch our supply lines and require a crossing over the Alps.”

“I’m not sure I’m clear how a foothold on the continent gets us any closer to our goal than marching straight across the continent to our homeland or sailing through to Sardinia would get us. We have the same problems of distance and supplying our men, which will require a lot larger force if we are to protect those supply lines,” the Emperor said.

Ky had actually discussed a little of this with the Emperor and Lucilla already, so he knew the Emperor was more addressing concerns that the other men at the table would almost surely have, but might be hesitant to vocally express.

“Are you thinking of using the continent, say southern Gaul, Italy, or Hispania, or were you thinking of using some of Sardinia, Corsica, or some of the smaller islands?” Velius asked, building off the Emperor’s point.

“Both, actually,” Ky said. “We’ve already established that we have to keep pressure on the Carthaginians to keep them from uniting their forces for a decisive blow against us, but to operate off of just islands in the Middle Sea we’d also need an extended amount of time to build our fleet enough to control the sea, the coast up to Britannia, and then run supplies and men along that route to somewhere like Sardinia. However, the islands ultimately make a better base to launch attacks against Carthage than somewhere like Hispania or Italy. With our new ship designs and cannon, we will eventually have complete control of the Middle Sea, making any island base we establish much safer than a base on the continent itself.”

“So we put pressure on the continent to keep them off balance and then, once our fleets are strong enough, we take Sardinia or one of the other islands and begin preparing for the invasion of Carthage itself?” Bomilcar asked.

“Yes,” Ky said.

“Doesn’t that stretch us very thin?” Ursinus asked. “We don’t have enough men to operate on the continent and prepare for an invasion, which means we’d have to pull all of our men off the continent once we secure Sardinia, or wherever, and begin preparing for landings in Africa, which just puts us right back to where we are now, with extended seaborne supply lines.”

“Yes. As always, the greatest limiting factor we have is manpower, and it’s one we have to solve to make this work, because I am not suggesting we abandon any gains we make on the continent; at least, not while the war is going on.”

“Perhaps you should just explain your full plan, then, now that we all understand the challenges,” Llassar said.

Ky could always count on the Caledonian to cut through the niceties and get right to the point.

“This will happen in several stages. Stage one: we attack the continent, with an eye on multiple goals. One: to keep pressure on the Carthaginians. Two: to control enough territory to allow for a land-based corridor between our side of the continent and the Middle Sea. The most likely option is along the neck of Hispania on one side of the mountains there or the other, although a long stretch across Gaul might be an option as well. There are several ports on the Middle Sea side that would work as a staging point for later stages, so our goal would be to at least control a corridor from the channel to whichever port we make our goal. Three, we need to build local allies. A lot of them.”

“The tribes on the continent control a lot less land than even we did when we joined the empire,” Llassar said. “Bringing those people into the Empire would mean adding a lot of voices with an equal say into our current structure, who bring comparatively small populations and resources as their contribution. I’m not sure my people would be happy with that dilution of our power in the Empire.”

“Ours either,” Cormac added quickly.

“I know, and we’ve actually discussed this before, although at the time both of you were on Ériu. I am not proposing we bring any of these people into the Empire, but instead set up an extended alliance, the details of which we will have to work out, that will give them some trading and technological benefits in return for their supplying us with resources and manpower. The problem of arming these people with some of our more advanced weaponry has been brought up as well, and that also remains a concern, but one we will have to deal with as the war goes on. We will give them some of our weapons, but probably none of the ones using gunpowder, which allows us to maintain a secure advantage.”

Ky looked to Llassar, to see if this addressed his concerns, which the Caledonian acknowledged they did with a tilting of his head.

“So where are you thinking of making our initial landings on the continent?” Velius asked. “The Carthaginians have had ties with Hispania for a long time, back before we were even pushed out of Italy. It might be our best location for establishing a corridor of control that gives us a land bridge between our side of the continent and the Middle Sea, but it also seems unlikely that we’ll find much in the way of allies there.”

“That’s true, which is why I’m proposing two landings,” Ky said, which elicited negative expressions from several of the faces along the table. “I know that will stretch our manpower thin, even with the new units in training, and is the main problem I wanted to bring to this council. My recommendation is that the bulk of our forces land on Hispania, where we set up a coastal base from which we can push out to the opposite coast, using the mountains separating it from Gaul as partial protection, where we establish another base on the shores of the Middle Sea. The goal of this force will be strictly military, since I agree it is unlikely many of the people still living in Hispania would be easily swayed to our side. Before those landings, however, I am proposing a landing along the Germanic coast, preferably north of Gaul, although not quite as far as the sea between the Scandi and Germania.”

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