“That’ll be all, Hilda,” said High Commander Rouvad, coming to a halt before her office door. “I’ll speak with her alone.” Thunder rumbled in the distance, punctuating the constant drum of rain on the temple’s roof.
Captain Strennan’s eyes widened, and her posture stiffened. “Commander,” she protested, her unhappiness with this pronouncement obvious in her tone. She took it no further; she was too on the ball to forget the person waiting in the office could plainly hear them despite the walls and thick door. Already, directly questioning an order from the High Commander was pushing things.
Rouvad had spent plenty of time in both the clergy and the trenches, as both superior officer and raw recruit, and all steps in between. Regulations or no, she knew when it wouldn’t be helpful to call someone down for insubordination. Hilda Strennan’s protectiveness toward her was occasionally annoying, but it came from deep loyalty, and she was too professional to cross the line.
“I’ll be fine,” Rouvad assured her with a small smile, reaching out to momentarily squeeze the younger woman’s upper arm, between her pauldron and gauntlet. “I am hardly in physical danger from one elf. Dismissed.”
Strennan saluted, as did the two Legionnaires flanking her, though the managed to keep their expressions more neutral. As one, they turned and marched back down the hall the way they had come. The Captain didn’t turn to look back, however she probably wanted to. Exceptions were exceptions, but discipline was discipline.
Farzida Rouvad treated herself to a soft sigh before squaring her shoulders and entering her office.
“Please, sit,” she said mildly when the woman waiting in the chair before her desk jumped to her feet. The Commander strode around and took her own chair, setting down the file she’d been carrying on one corner of the desk and folding her hands in front of her, studying the elf as she sat back down. The quiet patter of Tiraas’s ever-gloomy weather filled any awkwardness in the silence, a steady drum of rain interspersed by occasional soft thunder.
She wore a plain gingham dress in Imperial rather than elven fashion, looking like something straight from a frontier novel. Her blonde hair was tied back in a simple ponytail. The points of her ears aimed straight upward, marking her a forest elf, but her eyes were blue, hinting at mixed ancestry.
“I’m sorry,” she said hesitantly, “I don’t know, um…protocol. I really wasn’t expecting the High Commander herself to meet with me. I’m not wasting your time, am I?”
“That is what we’re here to determine,” Rouvad said coolly. “Ms. Stern, was it?”
“Yes—well, sort of. It’s an assumed name. I find the less elven stuff I have to explain to everyone, the easier it is to get along in Imperial society. Namaeia is my original given name, though.”
“I see,” Rouvad said, keeping her tone and expression fully neutral. “More than a few prospective Legionnaires come to us fleeing some trouble or other. If the law is after you, we will hand you over to them, but aside from that it makes little difference to us what name you go by. Be sure before you sign the contract, though; we’re not going to change it later.”
“That’s fine,” she said quickly. “Is this…usual? I mean, surely the leader of Avei’s faith doesn’t personally greet every prospective Legionnaire.”
“Elves make everything more complicated,” Rouvad replied, finally breaking eye contact. She pulled over the thick file, opened it and began leafing through the pages. “There are elves in the Legions, of course, and a fair number among our priestesses, but like most cults of the Pantheon, we don’t get very many. Integrating them into a human armed force requires special measures to be taken to bring them up to our required standards of physical strength and durability. Here; you’ll need to sign these. I strongly recommend you read them in their entirety first.”
She slid a few pages across the desk, continuing her explanation as the elf picked them up and dutifully began perusing them. “Your training period, and depending on how you respond to it, possibly some time after, will require a rigorous course of alchemical medicine to boost your physical strength and endurance. You should know that these effects will be permanent, which I understand makes this a serious commitment for an immortal. Nor are they without downsides; when the full program is complete, in addition to being as physically strong as a healthy human of your body type, you will heal more quickly, but may have less stamina than you are accustomed to, and the extra muscle mass can interfere with your agility. In short, you will become more human in all physical respects. There appears to be no direct cost to your overall health, but the availability of these techniques is too recent for us to understand how they impact the elvish lifespan, if at all. You’ll want to be very certain of what you’re doing before you sign those waivers.
“Additionally, this is not as simple as giving you potions to drink. The full course of treatment lasts several months and must be administered and monitored very carefully by professionals. That means daily sessions with clerics, alchemists and an elvish shaman. All of this, plus the rather esoteric potions themselves, make this a resource-intensive program. Like all cadets, it’s considered part of your training and will be provided at no cost, but should you leave the Silver Legions at any time before your contracted tours of duty are complete, you will be financially liable for what was invested in you.”
“I understand,” the woman said firmly. “I won’t back out. But in the worst case scenario, I have some savings tucked away.”
“I see,” Rouvad said dryly.
The elf laid the forms back on the desk and met her eyes. Her expression was open and earnest. “Do you have a pen?”
Rouvad watched her in silence for a few seconds before opening the top drawer of her desk and pulling out an old-fashioned quill pen and a small jar of ink. She set these on the desktop by her own hand, not yet offering them to the other woman. “And will you be enlisting as Namaeia Stern, or Principia Locke?”
Thunder sounded gently, a little nearer than before.
The elf blinked owlishly and tilted her head. “Pardon?”
“Don’t waste my time,” Rouvad said curtly. “There aren’t so many black-haired elves in the world that we failed to recognize the only one the Sisterhood has been actively monitoring when she walked into our own temple.”
Her expression of confusion deepening, the woman reached behind her head to pull forth a handful of blonde ponytail and hold its end in front of her face, as if double-checking its color.
“The alchemical dye you used is formulated for humans,” said the Commander. “It reacts with the magic saturating elven tissue, creating those subtle but distinctive silver highlights. Also, you arrogant turkey, I know what your face looks like. Elves only look alike to people who don’t pay attention.”
Rouvad held her stare. For a few more seconds, the elf stared back, obviously confused and nonplussed. Then, quite suddenly, her expression collapsed in annoyance and she slumped back in the chair, folding her arms mulishly.
“Ugh, fine,” Principia groused. “How is it you know so much about hair dye, anyway?” she added, her gaze flicking across Rouvad’s hair, which was dusted with silver.
“As I said, we get a few elves,” the Commander replied with a faint but genuine smile, not rising to the bait. “And it turns out a lot of modern alchemical products react badly with your race. My healers are under orders to keep me abreast of any such information as it arises, however seemingly inconsequential. Whatever you’re considering doing,” she added just as calmly, “I wouldn’t.”
Slowly, Principia un-tensed. She regarded the High Commander through narrowed eyes for a moment, then grinned insouciantly and thrust out her hands. “All right, then. Clap her in irons, I suppose?”
Rouvad raised an eyebrow. “Why? Would you like to confess to something that deserves punishment?”
“Well, I know you’ve had reports from Trissiny,” she replied, lowering her arms.
“That you infiltrated a Black Wreath cell and quietly neutralized a plot to corrupt Teal Falconer? Not long ago, Bishop Darling sat in that very chair and reminded me that when it comes to the real evils in the world, our two cults are on the same side.” She shook her head. “We protected Trissiny from your influence while she was a child, but in case you didn’t notice, she’s not, anymore. And the Sisters have no legal authority to bar your access to her…at this time.”
“So… I could just walk out of here and you won’t do anything about it?”
“That is one of the things you could do, yes.” Rouvad pulled another sheet of paper from the file and pushed it across the desk. “In addition to the standard Legionnaire contract and the extra issues involved with training an elf, I am adding a couple of further stipulations to your enlistment. First, you aren’t going near Trissiny until she or I tell you otherwise. You don’t approach her or attempt to communicate with her in any way, on pain of court martial. Second, you will not reveal to anyone, most particularly not your fellow soldiers, by word, action or omission, that you have any relationship to the Hand of Avei at all. So far as you as a soldier are concerned, Trissiny Avelea is nothing to you but a distantly glimpsed role model and superior officer, just as she will be to each of your thousands of sisters-in-arms.”
Principia was staring at her quizzically, now. “So…” she said slowly. “Wait, I’m confused. I’d have figured… You actually still want me to enlist?”
“Of course I don’t want you in my Legions,” Rouvad said with more than a little asperity. “You are the living incarnation of the term ‘pain in the ass.’ I see having you around as nothing but a giant nuisance in the best-case scenario, and all this is discounting the very high probability that you’re up to something which will imperil the Legions as a whole, if not the entire faith. I’m willing to offer you complete clemency on anything you have ever done that would earn the ire of the Sisterhood—and legal prerogative or no, there are quite a few—if you will just go away.” She pursed her lips together in annoyance, folding her hands again. “However, in this matter, I have been overruled. If you truly wish to enlist as a shieldmaiden of Avei, a place is available for you.”
“Wait, overruled?” Principia grinned. “How does that work, I thought you were the biggest cheese in the whole dairy. Who has the authority to overrule…” She trailed off, the smile faltering, then vanishing completely. Her face grew a shade paler.
“That’s right,” Rouvad said with grim amusement, “it seems you have sponsorship at the highest level. Whether she deems you worthy of a chance at redemption, or more likely has a use for you in one of her plans, Avei personally welcomes you, sister. She notified me you were coming and instructed that you were to be welcomed into our ranks. If you wish to take advantage of the offer.”
There was only the muted sound of the rain for long moments. Principia, wide-eyed, clutched the chair as if afraid she would fall off; for once, it seemed she had nothing to say. The Commander simply watched her.
“What are you doing, Locke?” Rouvad asked finally. “I know well enough this is some kind of ploy. For one thing, you’re too deft to have really assumed nobody in the entire Sisterhood would know your face. I can tell when I’m being manipulated, even if I don’t know to what end.”
Slowly, the elf shook her head. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Yes, I expected that much. You’ll note that I asked you anyway.”
Principia sighed. “Trissiny said that I’m… Not the kind of person she wants to know. I’ve lived a good while—not by elvish standards, but I’ve seen generations of humans come and go. I’ll probably live much longer yet. I can afford to take some years and…try to be someone different. For the right stakes…” She shrugged, avoiding Rouvad’s gaze. “If it doesn’t work, I can just go back to living the way I’m used to. And maybe if I… Well, maybe she might find reason to have me in her life, if I can make it work.” A soft, bitter laugh bubbled up from her and she finally lifted her eyes. “Yeah, yeah, I know how that sounds. I said you wouldn’t believe me.”
Rouvad snorted softly. “I don’t know whether you’re trying to con me, or actually think it’s that outlandish for a person to try to change for someone they love. I’ll have to assume the former; if it’s the latter, I’ll start feeling sorry for you, and that’s the sign you’re definitely putting something over on me. Regardless,” she went on more briskly. “In case you failed to put it together yourself, whatever game you walked in here intending to play, you’re not playing against the opponent you thought. Disappoint me and I’ll simply toss you out and be glad to see the back of you. Disappoint Avei…” She smiled slowly, but not warmly. “…and there will be nowhere for you to hide. I almost hope you try; it would be one way to put you out of my misery for good.”
Principia clenched her jaw, staring with an intensity that was just short of a glare, but didn’t reply.
“My offer still holds,” said Rouvad in a mild tone. “You may turn around and walk out of here with no animosity from me or any member of the Sisterhood. No one will chase you, or bother you at all. I’ll even refrain from informing the Guild of your whereabouts, despite the fact that I’ve agreed to a formal request from them to share information regarding your movements. Unless you do something else to specifically antagonize the Sisters of Avei, you can consider yourself free and clear of interference from us.” She let that hang in the air for a long moment before continuing. “If, however, you’re determined to do this… Then you’re mine.”
The elf held her stare for a quiet moment, then held out her hand. “I’ll need that pen.”
Rouvad offered it, as well as ink and blotting paper, and watched in silence while Principia signed her name—her actual name—everywhere it was required. She gathered up the forms, tapped them neatly into a stack, returned them to the file and flipped it closed…then smiled.
“Welcome to the army, Cadet Locke.”
The thunder rumbled even closer. Neither would have admitted it, but both women had the irrational thought that it sounded like laughter.