The temple complex extended for several blocks behind Imperial Square, taking up a large chunk of real estate in the heart of the city, but no one seriously contested that a deity of the Trinity had a prerogative to whatever space she needed. The Temple of Avei was the largest in Tiraas, primarily due to its walled and battlemented rear annex, which housed the currently stationed Silver Legion.
Within were a variety of parade grounds, training fields, gymnasiums, barracks, armories and other facilities. Supposedly the Third Silver Legion, that currently in residence, was understaffed, which suggested there should have been enough housing available for them to have their pick. Still, Merry couldn’t find it in her to be surprised that the newly minted cohort was housed in the Camp, a series of wooden longhouses built to hold a squad each, arranged around a central parade ground at the very end of the temple complex as far as one could get from the actual Temple and still be on Avenist grounds.
She moved quickly, lugging the backpack containing her meager possessions as she checked the numbers next to the cabin doors. Not even a proper barracks… They were clearly expected to work their way up from the bottom. Merry tried not to place any particular import on the fact that she had been assigned to Squad Thirteen. Nowhere in the regulations was it stated that squads were ranked by order of prestige or favor. The assumption had been whispered enough times, though, that she couldn’t banish it completely from her head.
Other women in light armor were doing the same song-and-dance on all sides, the whole group of fresh ex-trainees scrambling to their bunks; Merry was just glad she wasn’t the only person having to figure out where to go. She didn’t doubt their hustle was being watched and graded.
The buildings were arranged in a squared arch half-encircling the parade ground; Cabin Thirteen was at one end of the row, unsurprisingly. All it had taken was figuring out which way the numbers ran to locate it. Would have been easier if she’d had the chance to look over the place before being turned out of her trainee barracks and ordered to move in, but that had never happened. She hadn’t known (had suspected, but not known) where her cadet group would be assigned to stay, and while cadets were given a modicum of free time, they were heartily discouraged from poking about the fortress in places where they did not have specific business. So, she now had fifteen minutes to stow her gear, form up with her new squad—consisting at least partly of women she didn’t know, and assemble on the parade ground in formation for the address.
Sure, no pressure. The thought of complaining never even crossed Merry’s mind. The officers loved pressure.
She was not, somewhat to her disappointment, the first to find Cabin Thirteen, but at least she was only the second. When she stepped inside, another woman was busy stretching up to place her pack on a top bunk.
Merry stopped cold just inside the door, staring at her back. She was the slimmest girl Merry had seen in a while—Legion training had a way of broadening the shoulders and lining the limbs with lean muscle—but that was explained by the sharp ears sticking up on either side of her regulation braid. It was the combination of that and the fact that the braid in question was black that made her freeze.
Black hair was a rarity among elves, but “rare” had to mean there was more than one out there. Really, what were the chances?
Her new squadmate turned to examine her, and the elf’s eyebrows immediately shot upright. Then she grinned.
“Well, well! Pronounced tasleef! What a stiflingly small world it is, no?”
Impossible. Ridiculous. What could Principia bloody Locke, Thieves’ Guild ne’er-do-well and the indirect cause of all Merry’s tribulations, possibly be doing enlisted in a Silver Legion?
Possibly the same thing she was doing here, she thought bitterly.
Goddess, why do you hate me?
Aloud she only said stiffly, “My name is Meredith Lang, thank you.”
Principia chuckled, making Merry want (even more) to punch her. She sublimated the desire by tossing her pack onto a bunk more forcefully than was necessary.
The tension was alleviated by the arrival of another of their new roommates. She paused in the doorway, glanced around, then nodded to each of them. “Hi.”
“Hey there,” Locke said brightly, leaning back against the frame of her selected bunk in a decidedly un-military pose and eyed her up and down once. “Wow, any more like you at home?”
“No,” the woman said more curtly, striding past her to select another bunk. She was taller than either of them, and more muscular. Also, despite the armor she wore, visibly more curvaceous. Plus, her hair was a rare shade of flame-red, and apparently natural (such indulgences as hair dye were not encouraged in the Legion), to judge by her pale complexion, mottled with freckles by long exposure to the sun. Avei’s followers weren’t supposed to care about such things, but it was impossible for Merry not to notice when she was in the presence of someone far and away more beautiful than she. She managed a mumbled greeting.
“I’m Locke,” said Prin cheerfully, seeming not the least intimidated by their new squadmate—but then, she wouldn’t be. “This is Lang.”
“Ephanie Avelea,” the new arrival said with a bit more warmth, even managing a smile. “Glad to know you.”
“Private Casey Elwick, glad to know you right back!” said an exuberant new voice as its owner practically skipped through the door. Merry almost did a double-take; the sandy-haired girl was nowhere near twenty years old. The Legions started recruiting at seventeen, but she frankly didn’t look even that. “This is Farah,” she added, jerking a thumb over her shoulder.
“Private Szaravid,” the newly minted soldier following said in a much more restrained voice. She was Tiraan, with a long face and hair a shade more chocolatey than Principia’s. “Oh, wow, we get an elf?”
“It’s a new weapons program,” Locke said lightly. “All squads are issued an elf.”
“For what purpose?” Merry demanded bitingly.
Locke winked at her. “Morale.”
“It’s not working.”
“You two have already met?” Ephanie asked the new arrivals as they went to a bunk bed. Despite the abundance of open bunks, they decided apparently without debate to share one, Elwick taking the top.
“Oh, yeah, we came up through the barracks together,” said Szaravid. “I’m actually really relieved to have a familiar face here; the sergeant talked as if we’d never see anyone we’d trained with again.”
“That’s not even numerically possible,” Locke said, grinning. “There are only so many cadets per class.”
“They try to mix us up,” Avelea added. “Some familiar faces for consistency’s sake, enough change to get us used to being mixed around.”
“You sound like you’ve studied this,” Merry noted.
Avelea shrugged. “I grew up in a temple, around Legionnaires. You pick things up.”
Merry looked at her more closely, noting she clearly wasn’t as fresh-faced as Elwick. In fact, she could well have been in her late twenties, possibly the eldest of them (except, of course, for the elf, who might predate the Empire for all she knew). She clearly hadn’t had a direct trip from an Avenist upbringing to the Legions.
“And you two know each other as well?” Elwick asked, looking at Merry, then at Principia.
“No,” Merry snapped, at the same moment Locke said “Oh, we go way back.”
They broke off, staring at each other.
The silence stretched out.
Avelea finally cleared her throat. “Well. We don’t have much time till we’re to assemble. Where is everyone?”
Szaravid went to the door, leaning out to look around the parade ground. “There’s…hardly anybody left outside. They all seem to be in their cabins.”
“That can’t be right,” Ephanie said, frowning. “Even if we’re under-staffed, there’d be more to a squad than this. We’re at less than half strength, here.”
“Maybe we’re the leftovers?” Casey suggested, looking somewhat worried.
Ephanie shook her head. “It’s against regulation. The only situation in which a squad may have fewer than eight members is immediately following the loss of soldiers and preceding the redistribution of personnel by the commander. A squad would not be formed with five troops.”
“Well,” Farah said, still at the door, “the rest of our squad is good and lost, then. They are officially cleared out and in their own bunks.”
They glanced around at each other.
“Well,” Merry said at last, “we’re here. Surely we can’t be punished for the others not showing up?”
“Right,” Principia said, deadpan. “because officers are extremely reasonable about these things. They’ll probably pat us on the head and tuck us in—”
“You don’t need to be snide,” she snapped.
“Guess I don’t,” the elf replied with a shrug. “Sorry. Force of habit.”
“We have a little time,” Ephanie offered.
“Not much,” said Farah, again looking out the door. “They’re assembling.”
“Should we go?” Casey asked nervously.
“Give it another minute,” said Ephanie. “We don’t want to be late, but…give them what time we can.”
“Well, this is off to a rousing good start,” Principia muttered.
“I really can’t afford to start my military career with a black mark,” Merry said to herself.
“None of us can,” Ephanie said flatly.
“Guys,” said Farah, “I really think we had better go. They’re forming up.”
“If everyone but us is in formation before the deadline,” said Casey, “we’ll be—”
“Yes,” Ephanie interrupted, sighing, “you’re right. All right, then, ladies… Off to face the music.”
“Bloody hell,” Merry groaned, but followed the redhead and Farah out, the rest of them falling in behind.
A cohort consisted of twelve squads of twelve women apiece, numbered two through thirteen. Squad One was a reserved designation for any special ops personnel attached to the cohort. The other eleven groups were already out, the last of them settling into formation. It was less of a hustle than would have been expected of them in training, but they were still under the watchful eye of officers. Squad Thirteen picked up their pace. They were still the last in position, but made it well before the stated time to assemble.
All five of them.
None of the soldiers standing at attention in the yard allowed their eyes to wander, which was their only saving grace. At least Squad Thirteen didn’t have to suffer being stared at. Merry couldn’t help being keenly aware of the eleven full squads arrayed in a line to her right, and their own comparatively pitiful group. Poor Elwick was alone in the second line, the rest of them having formed the front rank.
Time ticked by. The noise of the city could be heard outside the walls, as well as sounds of marching and shouting from deeper in the fortress. Nearer to hand, a crow called, probably from the roof of one of the long cabins. Just because the assembled privates had formed up ahead of schedule didn’t mean the schedule was in any way subject to change at their instigation. Sentries patrolled the upper walls, a few clearly off-duty soldiers watched from the near distance, and at the corner of the (empty) Cabin One, a robed priestess and an armored Legionnaire with a captain’s stripes stood in silence, studying the assembled privates.
Their gazes both lingered on Squad Thirteen. Their expressions were unreadable. Merry couldn’t decide if that was better or worse.
This was it. Barely enlisted, not even on her first duty, and it was already over for her. She hadn’t even done anything, hadn’t had the chance to. She’d be booted out of the Legion, which would mean prison time. Not much of it—a lot less than her three-year enlistment, in fact—but still. Prison. Why did this shit always have to happen to her?
And what about the others? She didn’t dare look around at them, but a sneaky suspicion was forming. She, who had enlisted because the other option the judge gave her was jail, had been relegated to Squad Thirteen. It wasn’t much of a stretch to conclude that Principia Locke was here for similar reasons. This really was the loser squad—apparently, half of them couldn’t even be arsed to show up. Had they all deserted straight out of basic camp? Were they drunk in a pub somewhere?
She had to wonder what had brought the others to these straits. Farah and Casey were unknowns—hell, Casey didn’t look old enough to have had the chance to get in any serious trouble, but on the other hand, she didn’t look old enough to carry a spear and shield, which she was clearly doing. And Avelea? The surname meant she’d been taken in as an orphan and raised by the Sisterhood. What had she been up to between then and now?
Occupied with her grim thoughts, she was actually startled when their new captain shouted, “Attention!”
Nobody moved a muscle. They were at attention. They had been for a good five minutes.
The captain paced slowly down the line once, then came to a stop and grudgingly nodded. “That’s what I like to see. You begin to give me hope, ladies. That may just be the comparison to the last batch of lackwits Command dumped in my lap, though. Whatever the reason, I have decided to expect good things from you.” She slowly panned her gaze up and down the front ranks. “My disappointment will be your suffering. Do I make myself clear?”
“YES MA’AM!” nearly a hundred and forty women shouted in unison.
“I am Captain Dijanerad, and if you girls thought your training period was over, I can only salute your optimism. We do things more briskly in wartime, ladies, but when the Legions have the luxury of time to work, we like to put you through your paces before deciding your final fate. Make no mistake, the assignments you are about to receive are active duty. You will complete them to the best of your ability, and your conduct will reflect upon the Silver Legions, upon the Third, upon all the Sisterhood and on Avei herself. If your performance in any area is lacking, you will long for the gentle touch of my mere disappointment. Understood?”
“With that established, your performance will also be judged, by myself and others, to determine your various aptitudes as individuals and as squads. The Third is to remain in Tiraas for another eleven months, during which time this cohort will not act as one except for drill and the odd parade, if somebody gets an urge to throw one. Your squads will be given individual assignments, paired with senior Legionnaires from other cohorts, under whose command you will be. The first thing we will be deciding, within the next ten days, is which of you delicate little doilies show a glimmer of leadership potential. For now, you’re squads without a sergeant. No, this is not standard procedure.”
She paused, her face grim with displeasure.
“With regard to that, I have an extra special treat for you today, privates,” the captain announced. “Here to explain the reason for the disruption of our proven methods is Bishop Basra Syrnix.” She nodded to the priestess, who nodded back and stepped over to stand directly in front of the assembled cohort.
Syrinx was a woman of medium height and lean build; she was fit, as any priestess of Avei must be, but seemed a bit too slender to be an active Legionnaire who habitually wore armor. That only made sense, if she was the Bishop. She had sharp features, dark hair cropped short as per regulation (braids were permitted, but some fighters considered long hair nothing but an enemy’s handhold), and piercing eyes.
“Ladies,” she said, her voice echoing through the yard with the projected delivery of a veteran officer, “I regret to inform you that you have fallen prey to a soldier’s worst nightmare: politics. The situation, in brief, is this: The Universal Church of the Pantheon has received legal permission from the Silver Throne to establish its on military force within Tiraan borders. Some of you may have seen the so-called Holy Legion yourselves. You have permission to sneer.”
Captain Dijanerad rolled her eyes. Merry did not move hers by a fraction to see whether the permission was acted upon by anyone. She rather suspected not.
Bishop Syrinx continued with a darkly amused expression. “The Universal Church itself is an administrative entity which, despite its various presumptions, exists to foster harmony between the cults of the Pantheon. Its official doctrine, as such, while mostly benign, has absorbed some truly pernicious ideas from various member cults. You are undoubtedly aware that certain philosophical assertions of Shaathism are enjoying a spate of popularity.” She paused, scowling. “The Church must also pay lip service to the likes of the Izarites, and even Eserites. The resulting mishmash of dogmas is, as I have said, mostly harmless. Mostly.
“Avei stands for justice, for the welfare and equality of women, and for the just, effective and honorable prosecution of war. The goddess herself, like all deities, does not deign to enforce her will upon the world, soldiers. It is we who do so. The uncontested might of the Silver Legions is what keeps those ideals alive and in force. We enforce justice. We protect all womankind. We fight when fighting is necessary, with neither weakness nor unneeded brutality. And when our power wanes, so too do all those things which you have sworn, upon your enlistment, to uphold and protect.
“This is not acceptable.”
Syrinx let the silence hang for a moment before continuing.
“As is customary, your first assignments will be to patrol and guard various temples of gods whose followers do not practice violence. This is a time-honored duty of the Legions and a mark of the high regard in which Avei is held, even among other cults. However… You, soldiers, must remain aware that you are executing a sacred trust which some would see taken from you. Taken from us, and given to those who serve politics, not principle. That is the reason for the change in our procedures.”
“Normally,” she continued, “seasoned officers would be placed among your squads as commanders, with promising candidates from the cadet program fast-tracked toward their own promotions. The difficulty is that we are attempting to raise a new kind of officer corps, one able to address the threats of the new world that is developing around us. Our cadet program, unfortunately, is not equipped to teach the various personality traits which combine to form an aptitude for political savvy. We are reduced to watching you for innate gifts in that direction. This does not mean you will be encouraged to play politics within your own or other squads. On the contrary, such behavior will be tolerated less now than ever before. But we need women who can deal with politicians to lead the Legions of tomorrow. If those women are among you… They will be found.
“This is an experimental program, soldiers. We are placing a great deal of faith in you.” She swept her gaze across the front ranks again. “Do not disappoint the goddess.”
Syrinx paused a moment longer, then turned and nodded to Captain Dijanerad before stepping back to the sidelines.
“You will report to the mess hall for lunch, during which your squad assignments will be handed out. Squad Thirteen, remain in position. Everyone else, dismissed.”
Merry listened to the clamor of marching feet as the rest of her cohort streamed away toward the mess hall. This was it. They were done for.
“Ladies,” Dijanerad said in a marginally lower tone, coming to stand right in front of them, “to answer the question I’m sure must be on all your minds… No, there are no more troops currently assigned to your squad. With time, as the Third rebuilds its strength and more cadet classes graduate, Squad Thirteen will be bolstered with more recruits. In the meantime, I’ll expect you to make do with this irregular situation. You’ll be given assignments that take your position into account. Don’t let us down.” She half-grimaced momentarily as if she had something more to say, then just shook her head. “Dismissed.”
Ephanie managed to wait until they were most of the way to the mess hall, out of earshot of Dijanerad and Syrinx, before commenting in a low voice. “Every part of this is more insane than the last. Squads sent out with no officers? Placing us under the command of other cohorts? Trying to teach new soldiers politics on the fly? This is… I don’t understand anything that’s happening here.”
“And what about us?” Casey demanded somewhat shrilly. “What the hell are we supposed to do with five soldiers? We can’t even form a proper phalanx!”
“Why, she spelled it right out for us,” said Principia, who only looked thoughtful. “Politics.”
“Did you happen to notice,” Merry demanded, “that her explanation explained nothing?”
Locke grinned at her. “That, my dear tasleef, is the very essence of politics. This will not do, ladies. We’re going to have to get some answers to survive whatever is going on, and that means we’re going to have to find them ourselves.”
Merry was spared having to comment by their arrival in the noisy mess hall. Just as well; she had nothing positive to say.
Commander Rouvad was, as had unfortunately become her habit, reading a report while walking; nodding absently in response to salutes in passing, she opened the door to her office and stepped inside with her nose still buried in the damnable paperwork.
Instinct wanted to her to drop the papers and whip out her sword. Long-practiced poise won. She lifted her eyes and calmly surveyed the woman perched on the edge of her desk. For half a second she thought it was Principia Locke, in part due to the expectation she’d been carrying that that ridiculous elf would pull something like this any day now. It wasn’t Locke, though.
It was worse.
“Won’t you come in,” she said pointedly. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“Thank you,” Mary the Crow replied without a trace of irony. “I won’t take up too much of your time, Farzida.”
“Splendid,” Rouvad replied, not giving her the satisfaction of reacting to the familiar form of address.
“Not long ago, you received an item from the Hand of Avei, which she had retrieved from the Crawl. A golden eagle pendant with a powerful fae charm.”
“Yes, we did,” said Rouvad, holding her gaze. “Kindly help me to be annoyed specifically and correctly. Have you been stalking my paladin or rummaging through my storerooms?”
“Neither,” Mary replied with an amused smile. “I don’t keep track of every item I’ve crafted in all my long years, but that one was unique. It was impossible for me not to take notice when it suddenly reappeared. I’d thought it lost to the Crawl. Imagine my further delight when it did not find its way into Arachne’s hands!”
“Everything that doesn’t find its way into Arachne’s hands is a triumph for the world,” Rouvad agreed sourly.
Mary laughed. “Yes, well, I think it reflects very well upon young Trissiny’s judgment that her response to acquiring such a powerful artifact was to deliver it to safe custody rather than try to claim its power without understanding its source. I have known many Hands of Avei, and more of them than otherwise have been…unfortunately impulsive.”
“And you want your bauble back,” Rouvad said dryly. “Fine, I’ll have it fetched for you.”
“Oh, no, no, nothing like that.” Mary waved a hand languidly. “I made it to be of service to the warriors of Avei. Clearly, it is in the proper hands now. I simply thought you might like to know what it does and how it works.”
“That’s…considerate,” Rouvad said carefully.
Mary grinned. “And you are mistrustful. Good; your caution is a virtue. What I have to tell you, however, you can have your own witches verify; it will be easier for them with a hint of where to look. The amulet draws power from an extremely powerful fairy creature, and converts it to divine energy.”
“That much we knew.”
The elf held up a finger. “Did you know it also bolsters’ the user’s capacity to channel that energy?”
“No,” Rouvad confessed, frowning in thought. If that was true…it would make that amulet one of a mere handful of such artifacts in the world. Each of the four schools of magic imposed barriers upon the power of spellcasters, forcing them to expand their strength with time and practice. The arcane was stored in the user’s aura, a capacity which had to be flexed and grown much like a muscle. Accumulating fae power was a process of acquiring sources, powerful items, fairy thralls and relationships with high-ranking fairies, a process which took nothing but time. The divine and infernal, however, could be wielded with phenomenal strength by the rawest neophyte; the difficulty was in wielding them safely. It was better not even to think of what happened to people who called upon more infernal energy than they could handle, but the divine simply burned. Overuse could easily trigger mana fatigue, but in more extreme cases, it could also cause permanent nerve damage or actual combustion. Even complete incineration. Items that permitted one to “cheat” at this were vanishingly rare.
“The fairy to whom the amulet is attuned is named Jacaranda. You have heard of her?”
“I’m afraid so,” Rouvad said sourly.
Mary smiled again. “She has tremendous power being mostly frittered away; it makes her a very useful energy source. However, that wasn’t why I made the amulet. Jacaranda is utterly demented; mad as a jackalope and frankly rather stupid. I have long forseen the eventual need for someone to do something about her… And my position being what it is, I cannot risk antagonizing Naiya by putting down one of her daughters, however estranged.”
“So you handed that responsibility to some hapless future Avenist,” Rouvad said coldly.
“Hardly hapless,” Mary replied, her smile not wavering. “I have met few who are. No, I’m sure you can find a suitable soldier upon whom to bestow the amulet. I can think of a couple of very suitable candidates myself.”
“Mm hm,” the Commander grunted. “I can do research on my own, you know. I’m well aware that black hair occurs in only one elven bloodline.”
“How very clever of you,” said the Crow, her smile broadening just a hint. “I might mention in passing that anyone related by blood to the amulet’s creator would be able to use its power to a somewhat greater extent. Greater still if they had any connection to Jacaranda…even one as tenuous as a friendship with one of her pixies.”
Rouvad indulged in a sigh. If the Crow’s description was accurate—and she would be having it thoroughly tested to check—that necklace could make a priestess of a common soldier. What it might do in a paladin’s hands…
“Since you are here and we are dancing around the subject,” she said, “I do not go easy on any of my Legionnaires. The life is occasionally hard, and often quite dangerous. Soldiers die.”
Mary tilted her head thoughtfully. “I have been anticipating Principia’s death in pursuit of some selfish foolishness or other for years. Now… She appears to be doing something worthwhile, whatever her motivations.”
“I suspect you know her motivations.”
“Of course, of course, but do not underestimate your goddess. The right artist can create wonder from even the most inferior clay. Regardless, Commander, you need have no fear of retribution from me. Principia’s fate is her own. She has already profited by her association with your cult. I’ll look forward to seeing what else develops.”
“Oh, you’ll see, will you,” the Commander said sourly.
Mary grinned outright. “It’s not my nature to intervene unless I deem it needful, Farzida. But I always watch.”
Rouvad had to dodge aside as the little bird fluttered right past her face, through the open door and out into the hall. Not for the first time, she mentally celebrated her decision to leave the traditional High Commander’s office, with its enormous plate windows, for a more secure one deep in the heart of the temple. Not that it had done much good this time.
She stepped over behind her desk, the report now hanging forgotten from her hands. There were more important things to for her to think about.