“Finally,” the soldier groused, straightening and nodding a greeting to the two uniformed men walking toward him.
“Don’t start, they’re early,” his partner chided, rolling her eyes.
“Fine, fair enough,” he said, grinning. “I’m glad to see you. This isn’t the worst duty I’ve had by a long shot, but it’s not exactly exciting.”
“It’s a little exciting,” said one of the two approaching soldiers with a grin. “It’s a hospital, after all. You could catch a horrible disease!”
“Oh, good, a comedian,” grumbled the woman. “All right, we’re off. You have a great evening, lads.”
“Uh, hang on,” said the other new soldier, frowning. “You’re both leaving?”
“Um, yeah?” She glanced at her partner and then back at them.
His frown deepened. “It’s just… We’re both from the same barracks as Imadaan and Torkins, in there. Barracks is supposed to be under investigation because of what they did. It’s against regulations for us to guard them unattended.”
“Are you kidding?” his partner exclaimed. “You can’t possibly know that many regulations.”
“I read up on it, things being how they are,” he said defensively, before returning his gaze to the other two. “I know you guys are off, but can you please report this on your way out?”
“You want us to report you?” the man about to leave asked, his eyebrows shooting up.
“You want them to report us?” the new guy’s partner agreed in the same tone.
“Yes, and you should too. We’ve got the barracks under investigation, the darklings in Lor’naris stirring up trouble and Command looking for some poor bastard to scapegoat. I want everything going on to be squeaky clean, all by the book and aboveboard because I’d really like to not be the goat who gets scaped, yeah?”
“Well, you are early,” the female soldier said, “and we have to go back to our barracks anyway. Sure, we’ll find an officer and pass the word along.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Please remember to say that we asked you to make a report.”
“I will remember,” she replied solemnly, “the short one requested a report be made, and the cute one stood there rolling his eyes. Now, for the second time, have a great evening, lads.” With a final wink, she turned and strolled away with her partner.
“Well, at least I’m the cute one,” said the cute one as they went.
“I’ll settle for being the one who doesn’t get court martialed, Wesker,” his partner muttered.
“You are such an old lady, you know that?”
“I may be a short old lady, but I’ve got a career to look forward to. The last thing I need is to get caught up in someone else’s shitstorm because some idiot assigned me a duty I wasn’t supposed to have.”
“Oh, you worry too much,” Wesker said dismissively. “They gave you the assignment apparently against regulations; what are the chances any officer is even going to notice? If you hadn’t gone out of your way to get us reported, I mean. And even so, I’m not sure anything’ll come of it. Command doesn’t know where its own boots are most of the time.”
“Yeah, well, in my experience, Command may not notice the slip-ups they make, but they’ll spot and come down on any slip-ups we make like the fucking fist of Avei.”
“You’re a real ray of sunshine, Ravandi.”
The two soldiers broke off their discussion at the approach of a young woman carrying a folding stool. She nodded pleasantly to them, set it down directly across the hall from the door they were guarding, seated herself, and withdrew a packet of salted peanuts from a pocket. Then she began munching, staring at them.
Wesker and Ravandi exchanged a glance. “Can we help you, miss?” Ravandi asked after a moment.
“Nope, I think I have everything under control,” she said. She was strikingly dressed, her shirt and trousers in a very dark shade of blue; the pants were tucked into knee-high black leather boots, the shirt partially covered by a tight black vest. Her ears were small and round, but her blonde hair, angular features and slight build all hinted at elven blood.
“Well, you can’t sit there,” Wesker said more bluntly. “This is a room under guard.”
“Actually, I think you’ll find that I can,” she said with a grin. “According to the relevant city and Imperial laws, the hospital is a public space and the Writ of Duties grants me the right to be here if I wish. Now, interfering with soldiers in the course of their duty would be different. But I’m just sitting here.” She had another peanut, smiling mysteriously.
“Is there some reason you’re sitting here, then?” Ravandi asked, his hand straying near his sidearm. Soldiers on city guard duty did not customarily carry staves; all he had was a wand in a holster at his hip.
The woman shrugged. “I’m just inspired by how well the Army takes care of its soldiers, is all. Even the ones who’ve been injured in the course of committing crimes. With modern healing being what it is, you’d think they’d be out of there and into a proper cell by now.”
“It’s SOP for head injuries,” said Ravandi. “They were both knocked unconscious, so they stay under medical observation for at least twenty-four hours, and aren’t moved to another facility unless—”
“Don’t tell her that,” Wesker exclaimed.
“It’s not classified, Wesker,” said Ravandi, exasperated. “It’s common knowledge. I suspect she already knows it anyway. Isn’t that right, Miss…?”
“You can call me Grip,” she said, popping another peanut into her mouth.
“Grip?” Wesker frowned. “That’s an odd name.”
“What? I’m not trying to chat her up at a Sunday social. It’s a fucking weird name!”
“Well, it’s not properly a name,” Grip said lightly. “We get tags upon fully graduating from apprenticeship into Eserion’s service.”
Both soldiers immediately reached for their wands. “All right,” Ravandi said grimly, “I think you need to move along, now.”
“Mmm…nope, pretty comfortable right here,” Grip replied, crossing her legs. “Writ of Duties, remember? Of course, I’m not interfering with a soldier’s duty if they go out of line to interfere with me first. Then it’s self-defense.” She grinned wolfishly, and something in the set of her eyes was suddenly a trifle less than sane.
“I don’t give a shit what the law says,” Wesker started.
“Careful, boy, you so much as pull that wand out and it’s considered sufficient cause on my part. And you know what they say: Don’t worry about the Eserite you see, worry about the three you don’t.”
Both soldiers glanced nervously around on cue; the hall was apparently empty save for the three of them. Ravandi grudgingly pulled his hand away from his wand.
“That’s better,” Grip said approvingly. “I’ve a perfect right to be here, as do my associates watching that room’s windows from across the street. No reason we can’t all get along. Let’s get to know each other! How’s your mother doing, Private Wesker? Still trying to grow herbs in her kitchen window in the winter?”
“What the fuck—”
Ravandi grabbed his wrist before Wesker could draw his wand. “Don’t,” he said urgently. “She is trying to provoke you.”
“How does she know anything about my mom’s herbs?!”
Ravandi glanced sidelong at Grip. “Because she’s checked us out, obviously, or more of them have. She’s toeing the line, trying to make you lose your temper and give her an excuse for ‘self-defense.’ We can tolerate it for now.” He gave the woman another filthy look. “Command will deal with the Thieves’ Guild as soon as we report this.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find Command is aware of the situation,” Grip said merrily. “No one from the Guild is going to put so much as a toe over the line, I assure you. But one of you boys will, sooner or later.”
“Why are you doing this?” Ravandi demanded.
“You haven’t heard?” Her grin took on a distinctly sharklike quality. “The woman your two buddies in there tried to teach a lesson to, the one who warned the Hand of Avei about your barracks trying to firebomb Lor’naris, was a member of the Guild.”
There was a moment of silence while that sunk in.
“Oh, shit,” Wesker whispered.
“You’re not getting past us,” Ravandi said grimly.
“Past you?” Grip raised her eyebrows. “Now why in the world would I want to do a thing like that? That would be illegal. Shame on you for suggesting such a thing. Anyway, I have no need to cross an Imperial guard line to get at your pals.” She popped another peanut into her mouth and chewed contentedly, her posture utterly relaxed, face affable, but with something savage lurking in her eyes. “After all, it’s not like they can stay in there forever.”
The morning was gray and glum, an oppressive bank of clouds creeping over the city and suggesting rain—or, more likely, sleet. Tiraas was awake and active, but only just; people hurried about their business without stopping to chat, eager to get indoors before the weather made good on its threats.
Two people, a man and a woman, paused as they entered the square which abutted the outer ward known to its inhabitants as Lor’naris.
“What the hell,” the man muttered, but started forward again, his companion a step behind.
Seven Silver Legionnaires stood at the entrance to the district, in addition to the miscellaneous drow and ex-soldiers who formed the Lorisian neighborhood watch. Four of them, two on either side of the street, were stiffly at attention, unmistakably standing guard; the rest stood back from the square, their posture more relaxed, talking quietly with a drow woman.
The weather made them a rather intimidating sight. The Legionnaires rarely wore their helmets when on duty in the city; without them, they were individual women, recognizable and approachable. With their faces mostly covered, they became anonymous and inhuman, precisely the reason they preferred to forgo them outside of combat. Their much heavier cold-weather armor, however, removed the choice. People standing outdoors with their heads uncovered for any length of time in a Tiraan winter were at risk of losing ears or noses.
He nodded to the Legionnaires as he passed; one nodded back. So, on duty or no, they weren’t hostile. The two made it half a block before the woman nudged the man with an elbow and jerked her head significantly backward. He glanced behind, to see two of the Legionnaires not obviously standing watch following them.
Disregarding a hissed warning from his companion, then man came to a stop, turned and pulled down his scarf to speak without getting a mouthful of lint.
“Can we help you, ladies?”
“Orders,” said one of the Legionnaires, in the apologetic tone of one soldier explaining a commander’s silly notions to another. “Soldiers from your barracks aren’t to move in Lor’naris without escort.”
The man and woman exchanged a glance.
“And what makes you think we’re soldiers?” he asked.
“Now? Because if you weren’t, you’d have just said so.” She stood close enough that he could see her eyes and part of her mouth through the gaps in her helmet. The woman was clearly smiling. “Previously, we were told you’d be coming.”
“Told by whom, if I may ask?”
The Legionnaire’s smile turned into a grimace. “The kind of people we don’t ordinarily have any contact with.”
“Ah,” he said sourly.
“Fuckers,” his companion muttered.
“Not you,” he said hastily as both Legionnaires shifted posture. “We’ve been having trouble all morning with— Well, you probably know.”
“We hear rumors,” the second Legionnaire said noncommittally.
“Well, since you’re here,” said the woman, “there’s no sense in us wandering around like idiots. Could you take us to see General Avelea, please?”
The two armored women glanced at each other, then one shrugged. “Well, I don’t see why not,” she said.
“You’re not in any trouble, are you?” Toby asked worriedly.
“No, nothing like that,” Ruda grunted. “It’s just… Fuckin’ politics. Apparently the Princess of Puna Dara killing a Tiraan soldier on the streets of Tiraas is kind of a big deal under any circumstances. It was clear self-defense and him and his asshole buddies were obviously breaking the law, but… Politics. If anything, it makes the Empire look bad that I was placed in danger because of misbehaving Imperial troops. So I have to have brunch at the Palace.”
“Brunch doesn’t sound so bad,” said Gabriel, glancing over his shoulder at the kitchen. They were seated around one of the tables in the inn’s common room, sipping cups of tea. Tea was apparently the extent of what the kitchen here could successfully produce.
“Arquin, real people do not have brunch. Brunch is strictly the province of rich, poofy assholes who spend so much of their energy sitting around wasting time they have to invent whole new words and divisions of labor to describe it. But, I’ve gotta say it beats the alternative. I go and hobnob with His Imperialness and the little lady for a while and we don’t have to make a big diplomatic thing of it. Everybody wins.”
Toby winced. “I cannot advise strongly enough that you don’t refer to Empress Eleanora as ‘the little lady’ in any context where she might hear of it.”
“Yeah, I hear she’s kind of a hardass,” Ruda mused. “Actually looking forward to meeting her, a little.”
They all glanced up as the front door opened, and tensed slightly at the entrance of two Silver Legionnaires. Trissiny stood, stepping out from behind the table as they party approached. The Legionnaires were leading two humans, with Avrith trailing silently along behind them.
“General,” said one of the soldiers, saluting. “These two are from Barracks Four. They asked to speak with you.”
Trissiny nodded to the woman before turning her attention to the Imperial soldiers. They were out of uniform, and presently busy removing scarves, hats and gloves. “What can I do for you?”
“Ah, General Avelea, it’s good to… I mean, it’s an honor. I just wanted… I mean, that is, we were going…”
“Maybe you could start with your names?” she suggested gently.
“Right,” he said, his face coloring. “Sorry, ma’am. I’m Corporal Carter Reichart. This is Private Lina Salvaar.”
“Just Lina,” she said tersely. “We’re not on duty.”
“Good to meet you,” Trissiny said, nodding again. “So, how can I help?”
He glanced over at his companion; she nodded encouragingly, and he took a deep breath. “Permission to speak freely, General?”
“You’re not under my command, Reichart,” she replied. “I’d rather you say whatever’s on your mind. Honesty won’t do me any harm.”
Reichart chewed his lip for a moment, Salvaar watching him closely. The two Legionnaires had retreated to flank the door; Avrith drifted over to a corner, from which she observed in silence. Finally, the Corporal burst out. “Why haven’t you ever come to talk to us?”
“Excuse me?” Trissiny said, surprised.
“It’s just… We’ve had these tensions building up for days,” he went on in a rush. “I mean, there are pretty obviously two sides to the issue, but right from the beginning you’ve been here in Lor’naris. You picked a side, but you never came to ask any of us at the barracks for our take. I just… We don’t… Why?”
Silence hung in the room for a long moment.
“From the perspective I could see,” Trissiny said slowly, “soldiers were abusing citizens. It was fairly clear-cut; I’ll admit it’s not in my nature or training to dig for deeper meaning in a situation like that.”
“What, so you just assumed we were all corrupt and drunk with power?” Salvaar demanded. “Everyone in our entire regiment?”
“Now, hold on,” said Gabriel. “You’re talking to the Hand of Avei. I dunno what stories you’ve read, but they’re not exactly the people you call for when you need diplomacy done.”
Trissiny sighed. “Thanks, Gabe. And… You’re not wrong, Private. As someone reminded me not too long ago, I have a tendency to think in combative terms. I saw innocents and attackers and acted accordingly; you have my apologies if I misjudged any of you. You’re here now, and I have time; I would like to hear your side, if you’re willing to explain it.”
“Well, that’s great and all,” said Salvaar, folding her arms, “but now just might be too late.”
“Private,” Reichart warned.
“Carter, we are not on duty, and we’re sleeping together. One of those things is subject to immediate change if you try to give me any of your crap.”
Reichart flushed and Trissiny carefully clamped down on a smile. “Late as it may be, I’d still like to hear it. Would you like to sit down?”
“Oh, that’s…no, thanks,” the Corporal said. Private Salvaar, however, immediately pulled over a chair and plunked herself down in it. He squared his shoulders. “Well, General, if… If you’d told me a week ago that something like this could develop, I’d have laughed. I mean, yeah, there’s always been an element in the regiment that doesn’t really like having all these drow in the city. The captain in charge of our barracks, in fact, has a real problem with drow. I’m not sure why, exactly, but, there it is… But we’re all professionals, and we all respect the uniform. Some of the lads, the ones part of Captain Ravoud’s sort of inner circle, would maybe question the neighborhood watch around here more closely than was necessary, but it never went further than that.”
“It did at least once,” Trissiny noted when he paused for breath.
Reichart nodded. “Yeah. I never have heard the full story of what happened there, but… That kicked it all off. A patrol came back furious because there’d been some kind of altercation with the watch, and you’d ordered them off. The next thing we knew, we had a surprise inspection from Imperial Command, and lots of heavily dropped hints that Lor’naris had better be hands-off. It… Apparently it rankled with some people.”
“Hence trying to bomb the fucking place, I guess,” Ruda snorted.
“For the record, I don’t believe Captain Ravoud authorized that,” said Reichart. “It’s just not in his nature.”
“And you don’t suspect he authorized the attack on the woman who warned me, either?” Trissiny asked quietly.
Reichart nodded vigorously. “Yes, ma’am. I mean, no, ma’am. He’s all about law and order. I’ve heard some of his rants about drow, and it’s full of them being untrustworthy and deceitful; he thinks Imperial discipline and justice is what makes us a better society. He would never have ordered that, or condoned it if he’d known about it.”
“Then you think the Captain might help bring the hostilities to an end?” she asked.
Reichart winced. “That…was before, General. Last night… Well, I mentioned the Captain has kind of a boy’s club among some of his officers? You just took out about half of them. The man you killed, Khalivour, was the closest to him. They’ve served together since basic training.”
“Excuse me,” Ruda interrupted, raising one finger. “Let’s be accurate, here. I killed him.”
“I’m not gonna argue with you about that,” Reichart said diplomatically. “From what I understand he pretty much brought that on himself. As did Torkins and Imadaan. But… Um, how to put this…”
“It’s like this,” said Private Salvaar. “Captain Ravoud is all about order and discipline most of the time. But over the last week, he’s been pressed heavily from Lor’naris and ImCom, and been digging his heels in. After last night, the hammer is coming down all over the barracks; it’s looking like he’s gonna lose his command, on top of losing his best friend. The man’s gone from defending what he thinks is right to having basically his whole life dismantled.”
“What do you think he’ll do?” Trissiny asked, staring at her intently.
Salvaar shrugged, her expression grim. “Dunno. I wouldn’t have expected any of this would have gone down in the first place. The Captain… I mean, I’ve never seen him like this. I don’t know what he might do, but he’s on the very edge, now. I don’t think I’d be surprised by anything he does at this point.”
Trissiny sighed and rubbed at her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut.
“What about the rest of your regiment?” Toby asked. “You’ve said they’re not all or even mostly in agreement with Ravoud’s ideas about drow.”
“Well, again, a lot changed after yesterday,” Reichart said glumly. “A lot of us are rallying around the Captain; there’s a general feeling that we’ve been a little put-upon in all this. What I’m afraid has cinched it is that we’ve all been followed by the Thieves’ Guild since yesterday evening.”
“Followed?” Trissiny asked sharply.
“Followed,” growled Salvaar. “On duty and off. They stalk our patrols, they show up outside our homes and just sit there staring. There’s a dozen of them loitering around the barracks; when we try to chase them off, they just quote Imperial law about how they’re entitled to be there, and some of them ask prying questions about our families. Hinting they already know a lot more than they should.”
“Holy fuck, that’s creepy,” Ruda breathed.
“Yeah,” said Reichart, his shoulders slumping. “I know none of that is your fault, General. Khalivour and his cronies roughed up a member of the Guild; that’s pretty much what you get. But the timing… Coming on top of everything else, the whole barracks is about ready to go to war.”
“Maybe,” Gabriel said hesitantly, “the Guild being around isn’t such a bad thing? I mean, they might be able to prevent the soldiers from doing anything…y’know, rash.” He shifted in his seat, wincing as he accidentally jostled his left arm, which was in a sling.
“That’s not how the Thieves’ Guild operates,” Trissiny said darkly. “They’re more likely to try to provoke a confrontation so they can take the excuse to dish out vengeance. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re doing. This is an old tactic of theirs, a favorite trick for getting rid of perceived enemies without stepping outside the law.”
“Peepers must be pretty popular,” Ruda noted.
“It’s not even about that.” Trissiny shook her head. “Eserites consider it their duty to humble the haughty under any circumstances. Guards abusing their authority tend to get their attention; guards abusing a Guild member, well… All bets are off.”
“Can… Can you do anything, General?” Reichart asked, his voice tinged with desperation. “We’re soldiers; we’re not trained for this kind of pressure. It hasn’t even been a day and a lot of people are about to crack. Somebody’s gonna do something hasty, and then… And then, I don’t know what’ll happen.”
“I’m not… I can try to speak with Bishop Darling,” she said. “I have no pull with the Guild, at all. Eserites and Avenists don’t exactly compare notes most of the time.”
“Anything you can do would be appreciated,” he said fervently.
“What about those two you sent to the barracks?” Gabriel asked. “They helped you yesterday, too, right?”
“Yes, but Flora and Fauna just…show up, when they decide to. I can at least get to Darling through the Church, though I’m not sure how fast. We have no way of contacting the girls at all.”
“Excuse me, what?” Salvaar straightened up. “You sent Eserites to the barracks?”
“Ah….” Trissiny winced. “I guess you didn’t hear about the missing paperwork.”
“Paperwork?” Reichart frowned.
“Just documentation of where the incendiary materials used in the firebomb came from. I took the liberty of having them acquired.”
“There was paperwork?” he said, frowning.
“I suppose only the quartermaster would have heard about that…”
“I’m the quartermaster!” Reichart dragged a hand over his face. “But… General, I don’t know how things are in the Silver Legions, but Army paperwork… I mean, it gets done, I see to that. A form has to be filled out for pretty much everything. Because if there’s an inspection of any kind, the quartermaster’s pretty much a sitting duck, but they can’t exactly chase down everyone who might have ever needed anything. So I make sure the papers are filled out and filed, and to be honest with you, it’s less than half of them are ever seen by anybody whose job it is to know what the hell is going on. Um, pardon my elvish. They just sort of build up in the files till we run low on space, and then I have to fill out and submit another form requesting a records transfer, and then someone comes to cart it off to a place in ImCom called Central Filing, which I suspect is an incinerator.”
“So…” Ruda grinned. “You’re saying Captain Rouvad doesn’t even know we took his incriminating records?”
“Ma’am, I didn’t even know it. And the Captain isn’t one to spend time reading paperwork that isn’t brought specifically to his attention.”
“And it’s Ravoud,” Trissiny said firmly. “Commander Rouvad leads the Sisters of Avei.”
Gabriel snorted a laugh. “Well, that’s not gonna be confusing or anything…”
“What a mess,” Toby muttered. “If only people had talked to each other before it came to this… I should have been paying more attention to this situation instead of Juniper.”
“Yeah, you really should have,” Gabriel agreed.
“Gabe!” Toby looked at him in something like shock. Gabriel shrugged, his expression dour.
“Bro, I love you, but you fucked up this time. As the designated fuckup in our relationship, I’m the expert on this. In fact, this doesn’t make any of us look good. We’ve got two skilled diplomats in our group, but Toby’s been on a counterproductive self-imposed dryad watch, and Shaeine has been off making time with her girlfriend all week. We’ve pretty much left Trissiny in charge of diplomacy, which, come on. Someone should have seen this coming.”
“Thank you, Gabriel,” Trissiny said sourly.
“Come on, Boots, nobody doubts your skills,” said Ruda. “But there are areas in which you don’t have ’em. That’s true of anybody.”
“Wait, stop, hold it,” said Salvaar. “There’s a dryad?!”
“That’s classified,” said Trissiny. “Seriously. All right, I will start trying to get Bishop Darling’s attention, but I doubt he actually spends much time at the Church…and I’m not at all sure what he’ll think of the way events are playing out. It’s the best thing I can think of.”
“I’ll come down to your barracks, if I may,” said Toby, rising. “It might be too late for talking to succeed, but it’s never too late to try.”
“Excuse me, and you are?” Reichart asked.
“That’s the Hand of Omnu,” said Ruda.
The Corporal blinked. “Oh. Um. Yeah, actually, that’d help.”
“Where the hell have you been this whole time?” Salvaar demanded.
“We’ve been over that,” said Gabriel. “Spilt milk and all; let’s worry about the present. If I understand the situation, we’ve got an agitated populace in Lor’naris that thinks it’s under attack, a city guard regiment under fire from all sides and on the verge of going rogue, a very pissed-off Thieves’ Guild, and a Silver Legion standing in the middle, and we’ve got hours at best to calm this down before somebody gets an itchy trigger finger and all hell breaks loose.” He sighed heavily. “This is gonna be a long day, isn’t it.”