A lone tent stood on a field between nations. Without, an emptiness watched by scores of hidden guards. Within, two of the most powerful names and four of the bloodiest hands in history. This was the first moment in generations for which the swords had been sheathed and the dialogue opened.
The two men were silent. They sat cross-legged, in the old style, separated only by a steaming bowl of mulled wine. For as bitter and fractured as their people had become, they still shared this tradition.
“It tastes like your people’s.” Sighed Ing of the North.
“Funny.” Said Lok of the South. “I was going to say the same.”
This struck both men as a fair exchange. The talks could continue. Lok was first to make his offer.
“I propose… I propose a mutual surrender. You keep your half of the valley, I keep mine. We leave it at that.”
“No. My people will starve.” Ing’s response was immediate. He was not wrong. Both North and South had grown beyond their means.
“As will mine. But the war is a heavier burden. Our peoples have slim prospects without it, none with it.”
The torchlight played across Ing’s sooty eyes. In this moment of calm, pensive tension, Lok could not help but ponder the hate that those darker irises stirred in his people. At last, Ing spoke.
“Let me tell you a simple nursery story from the north of the valley.”
“There was a village, its champion, and its cow. One day, a demon came from across the valley and took the cow. So, the champion left the village and went to the lair of the demon. They fought, and the champion was badly hurt, but eventually slew the monster. He was bleeding, and hungry, and he knew that he would die if he did not eat the cow. But, of course, the villagers would die if he did not return it. The choice was easy. The champion used all of his strength and led the cow back to the village. He was given a hero’s funeral.”
“And how do you interpret this tale, Ing?”
“It is simple. The meaning is that a true champion will make any sacrifice for their people.”
“Even however many more centuries of war against us demons?”
“You know, we have the same story in the South. Only the end is different. In ours, the champion dies halfway along the road back. The cow wanders off into the forest, and the villagers starve.”
“Typical of the South. Ignoble and depressing.”
“If you say so.” Said Lok, unfazed. “To us, it stands for discipline. It teaches that it is pointless to reach beyond your means, even for a good cause.”
“In neither tale do we allow the demon to eat the cow.”
“Correct. But here we must diverge a little from the realm of fable, and concede that what we really have is two villages – or two demons.”
“What are you getting at?”
“In the tale, we know who deserves the cow. In reality, it is both of us, or neither.”
“Both or neither being the same, of course.”
“Then make your point. I’m eager to hear the specifics of your folly.”
“That did not befit the occasion, Ing.”
“… I apologise. Continue.”
“In the story, for all our options we have the power to save only one thing – the village, the champion, the cow, or the demon. I argue that we must save the cow. Let there be no conflict, even if we both fade painfully from nations back to villages. We cannot determine which of us, if either, is the virtuous party, and so it is only equitable that neither of us be privileged. It is the only fair way.”
“You would lay down and die rather than believe in your own virtue?”
“Do not mistake me – I will fight for as long as you fight, and my sons for as long as yours, just as my father fought your father until the dying breath of both. But the time for virtue is long past. Perhaps one of our forebears was more aggressive, greedier, less noble. Who can say? Now we are just two armies, alike, at a stalemate, fighting for two nations that suffer equally. Let the land win, while anything still can. Let us both suffer in peace.”
“Your argument is sound, going from the southern tale.”
“But you have forgotten ours. The champion must sacrifice everything to bring back the cow. I will cast aside every moral. I will cast aside even reason itself. I know my role, and I know what it demands.”
“Typical of the North. Rigid and ill-conceived.”
“It is a fine argument, after its own fashion, but only if you can be certain of victory. You cannot. Rather, I would say that a conclusive victory is beyond either of us by now.”
“I see that you praise my argument without understanding it. When we lack certainty, it is only because we have failed to shed doubt. When we lack a path to victory, it is only because we have failed to shed weakness. One of us is a truer champion than the other. One of us can sacrifice one shred more, climb one hand closer to being the archetype. That man will win this war.”
“I would not be so sure.”
“Then you give me confidence even now.”
Lok sighed. Were he alone, he might have allowed himself a tear. He could not debate with a man capable of priding himself on the absence of reason. He would meditate on it, but he saw no path open to him but that of violence. Ing stared silently at his lifelong adversary – a fairer, slighter man than a northerner, but not by much. There sat a man, trusted to lead his people, who would choose mutual doom over any chance at victory. A man who would drag the North down with him no matter what path was chosen.
For a while, nobody spoke. Outside, the assassins in wait finished killing each other. A formality, really. They could have simply kept each other in check.
The wine-bowl ran dry.
It occurred to them in that moment that a single move could settle things, one way or another. But neither man would take the opportunity. Blood and wine don’t flow together – the unbreakable custom that both peoples shared. Guests at a wine-meet cannot harm one another until fully one day has passed. This tent was the one part of the land that was at peace.
“I thank you for your time, Ing of the North.”
“And you for yours, Lok of the South.”
“We will meet again, I think.”
And with that, they parted. In the nascent, twilit chill they turned their backs to one another and walked past the bodies of their men. Perhaps Ing is right, thought Lok. Had I been able to shed my honour, I could have cut off the head of the snake. Tried to subdue his followers in their shock. Perhaps Lok is right, thought Ing. Perhaps I can only be so strong. Perhaps my efforts will serve only to put more bodies on the pile and more grief on my people. Still, they shared a common certainty. The next time they met, there would be armies between them.