The sun had not yet risen, but Squad Thirteen was getting ready for their day in the near darkness, only a single tiny fairly lamp with about the output of a candle illuminating their barrack. The Legion did not encourage luxury or indulgence of any kind on principle. There were brighter lights in the building, but no one wanted to risk the conversations that would result from the window being lit up. At the very least, it wouldn’t improve their already-strained relationship with the other squads of their cohort, and there was always the possibility of more official disapproval coming down.
Early mornings were quiet affairs. Aside from the tension hanging over all their lives, none of the five were really on joking-around terms with each other, excepting Farah and Casey, and even they seemed responsive to the terse atmosphere of the squad. Evenings were more relaxed, but it had already become their custom to wake up and suit up in efficient quiet; any conversation could generally wait until breakfast in the mess hall. Everyone was awake, dressed and in the process of buckling on armor when the door suddenly opened.
They swiveled in unison to stare, Casey having to catch her half-buckled breastplate as it tried to slide off, then leapt to attention as Captain Dijanerad stepped inside and pulled the door shut behind her. She paused, glanced around, and thumbed the switch that ignited the overhead fairy lamp before speaking.
They relaxed, relatively, blinking in the sudden light.
“Morning, Captain,” Principia said warily. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“Orders, ladies.” Dijanerad’s tone was flat and her expression grim. “Today I took the precaution of getting early access to duty assignments, and I’m giving you advance notice. We have unconfirmed reports of women being abducted by Shaathist fanatics in Tiraan Province, west of the capital. Squad Thirteen is being sent to investigate.”
There was absolute silence. The fairy lamp overhead flickered slightly.
“Captain,” Ephanie said finally, “permission to speak freely?”
Dijanerad’s expression turned wry. “Granted, private.”
“That,” Ephanie said, “is a completely idiotic paranoid fantasy that doesn’t even make an effort to be realistic. No Shaathist sect has practiced wife-stealing in five hundred years, and if one were to begin doing some such backward thing, it would be in some remote province far from Imperial supervision, not a stone’s throw from the capital with both Imperial and Avenist forces absolutely everywhere. On that note, if this were going on, somehow, the Empire would have the culprits in chains almost the minute it occurred. And if we’re to stretch our credulity well past the breaking point and assume something like this even could be happening, despite all of the above, this assignment would be given to experienced wilderness scouts, not an understaffed neophyte squad without even a sergeant and no field experience. This is at best a ploy to make us waste a day stomping around the woods, and at worst, some kind of trap.”
“Are you about done, Avelea?”
Dijanerad nodded. “On paper, ladies, this cohort is on active duty, experimental mission parameters or no. The practical facts of our situation are that squad assignments come down from well above my own head. I am, until we are cycled out to a real assignment, basically an administrative convenience, much as it irks me to acknowledge that. You are none of you to repeat this, but Avelea is correct. This is pure nonsense with a transparent ulterior motive, and it’s beyond my power to put a stop to it as it stands. I will be working on that, and I frankly do not expect this ‘threat’ to stand up to even a cursory analysis by Field Command, but unfortunately, by the time this is done, you will already be outside the city and beyond reach of easy recall.”
“Captain,” Merry said cautiously, “are you… That is, isn’t it obvious by now that our squad is being targeted for persecution? And considering by whom, is this really tolerable? I mean, can’t someone…” She trailed off helplessly.
The captain sighed. “Ladies, the alleged purpose of your activities here is to gain proficiency in the world of politics. Here’s a free lesson in that very thing: do not voice accusations like that unless you can first furnish proof, and second, defend that proof all the way through the process of a court martial. Making such statements about any superior officer, or any ranking member of the Sisters of Avei, would have swift and severe consequences.”
Merry twisted her mouth bitterly, clenching her fists at her sides.
“In any case,” Dijanerad went on, “I am here for a reason. As you know, duty assignments are handed out over breakfast, with details usually given at that time. I have reason to expect that you are to be sent out under light mobility protocols.”
Principia narrowed her eyes; the others widened theirs in horror. Light mobility protocols were customarily applied to scouts and other soldiers for whom speed trumped all other considerations. It meant they would carry short swords only, with no lances or shields, wear leather rather than metal armor and carry no provisions other than canteens of water.
“I am sending you out early,” Captain Dijanerad said grimly, “before you have a chance to hear of this. You are to depart before breakfast, and first report to the south gate, where you will be issued your detailed marching orders, as well as provisions and equipment for this assignment. That is at my order, and there will be no question of you facing responsibility for this deviation from your mission parameters.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Farah said feelingly.
“Can we request additional personnel?” Merry asked sardonically. “There’s a certain Private Covrin who I think could benefit from a long walk in the woods.” She glanced at Casey. “That’s not meant to be an ironic statement. She actually could benefit.” Casey looked away.
Dijanerad stared at Merry for a moment, then glanced around at the squad. Then, oddly, she stepped over to the narrow window near the door and glanced out at the parade ground beyond. Dawn was only just lightening the eastern sky; it was dimly gray outside, with no sunlight having reached over the walls of the temple complex yet. Apparently satisfied with what she saw, the captain turned to face them again, folding her hands behind her back.
“What I am about to tell you is never to be repeated outside this room, nor to anyone other than yourselves. Is that clear?” She waited for a round of verbal assent before continuing. “I received forewarning of your assignment today from Jenell Covrin, who appeared at my door with the paperwork. I told you before that I intercepted Private Covrin carrying your court-martial orders when you failed to report for duty at the Guild ambush. The truth is that she brought word straight to me, instead of taking the papers directly to be filed as she was ordered. And Locke, when Covrin escorted you to that out-of-the-way interrogation room in the temple sublevel, her very next action was to find and notify me, which is the only reason you were down there as brief a time as you were.”
She paused, watching their startled expressions with a raised eyebrow.
“Politics is a lot like war, ladies. You should never make assumptions based on incomplete intelligence. Never initiate hostile action in a situation you don’t understand. Never summarily dismiss a possible ally, nor attack someone just because they are a possible enemy. You’re all fresh enough from basic to still have the Doctrines of War rattling around in the front of your skulls. Remember: the only battle truly won is a battle avoided.”
The captain drew in a deep breath, and let it out as a sigh. “Among the equipment I have requisitioned for you are arcane beacons keyed to a scrying array which I have in my possession. Their range should be sufficient to cover the whole province—much farther than you will get on foot in the course of one day. With those, as soon as I have gotten this foolishness struck down as it deserves, I’ll be able to send scouts out to retrieve you. Until that time, I have to handle this very carefully. That we all consider this assignment a waste of time is irrelevant; until someone sufficiently high in the chain of command does, we’re all bound by it. In the absence of solid evidence that this will place you in some kind of danger, I have no prerogative to order you to disregard the assignment. I’m giving you the best advantages I can. Beyond that, you’ll have to trust yourselves.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said quietly.
Dijanerad nodded, turning to grasp the doorknob. “I want you ready and at the south gate in five minutes, ladies, before somebody else can intercept you with any orders that will tie your or my hands. Goddess watch over you.”
With that, she opened the door and departed.
“This sounds like more than a minor set of inconveniences,” Sheyann observed as the two elves strode silently through the forest. “Does not the attention of this Basra Syrinx place her in real danger?” It was an old forest, but a long-settled one, regularly traveled by humans and home to relatively few animals, with almost no underbrush. Thanks to the Imperial foresters, the woods surrounding the capital more closely resembled parks than their wilder cousins in which elves made their groves.
Many of Sheyann’s kin and colleagues pointed to places such as this as evidence that humans could not be trusted, that they destroyed everything in their environs. In truth, she could not see this forest as damaged, but…changed. Environments inevitably reached a rhythm with their occupants, and this one reflected the power and dominance of humanity. They could reach an equilibrium with their surroundings, but only on their own terms. It both gave her hope, and made her even more fearful of them.
“If it were a simple contest between the two, I would feel no need to take an interest,” Kuriwa replied with a faint smile. “I don’t believe Syrinx truly comprehends what she is tangling with.”
“You sound almost admiring of the girl’s capabilities.”
“Principia has devoted her life to an ethically barren pursuit of frivolity,” the Crow said equably, “but it cannot be denied that at that pursuit, she is one of the best alive. No, the issue is not the contest between the two, but all the things connected to it. They each have strings tied to them which drag multiple influences into conflict. If anything, Principia is hampered by her need to accommodate her new responsibilities.”
“So,” Sheyann mused, “you wish to see whether responsibility will win out over the easy victory.”
“There is that,” Kuriwa conceded, “but when I spoke of strings, I referred to much more.” She frowned silently at the green depths ahead of them. The sun was only just above the horizon to the east, still partially hidden behind the hills which surrounded the River Tira’s deep canyon. The two elves, of course, had no trouble seeing their way. “Syrinx is connected to Antonio Darling, and to the Archpope Justinian’s ambitions, both of which concern me directly. Those connections involve other Bishops and their respective cults; Darling brings with him his eldei alai’shi, not to mention the tauhanwe he has gathered to his service. Or those working directly for Justinian, and the fraught relationships between all those. Then, Principia is linked to Eserion, and now to Avei, as well as to Trissiny Avelea, to Arachne, and to a few very interesting young women with whom she has been sorted into a squad. Aside from my personal interest in her, any manner in which she resolves her present difficulties will pluck strings whose vibrations I am likely to feel directly.”
“What a complex existence you lead,” Sheyann remarked.
Kuriwa shook her head. “I have been noticing something of late. Increasingly, in the last few months, matters which will affect the course of the entire world seem to hinge upon the actions of a relatively few individuals, clustered on this continent.”
“That certainly follows precedent. The Elder Gods ruled from here; the Pantheon have their own first temples here. Gnomes originated in this land, and the few elves to survive the Elder War had their groves around Naiya’s wild refuge. You know well how long we have assumed the next apocalypse would take place here.”
“I try to assume as little as possible,” the Crow noted with a wry smile. “And there have been multiple apocalypses of a smaller nature since the fall of the Elder Gods. Most of them centered on this continent, in support of your point. That is precisely what caught my interest. I have seen this pattern before. A great doom is coming, and always when one does, those whose actions will tip the balance begin to cluster together. To combine, or clash. It is wise to monitor their actions.”
Sheyann frowned deeply. “Hm. Trissiny, Juniper, Arachne… All were present and heavily involved in the events at Sarasio last year. They rattled even the most hidebound of my grove to take actions some would have thought unthinkable. And no sooner did we reach out to other elders did we find similar awakenings taking place everywhere.”
Kuriwa gave her a considering look. “I was invited to participate in some of these discussions.”
“I’m sure they were devastated that you chose not to attend.”
“I have not so chosen. I’m busy, Sheyann, as you well know. But no, I don’t intend to let these events simply wash over me. How go these negotiations?”
“With a speed that both inspires and frightens me,” Sheyann said quietly. “It is the Narisians who are the greatest hangup, of course. They, if anything, are among the most accommodating of those involved, but many of our own kind take exception to their presence. Yet if matters continue apace, we may well see concrete results within another year.”
The Crow shook her head. “So quickly. You understand what I mean? The pattern. The strings. The same few people, over and over. I advise you to pay close attention to these young ones, including Principia. Their actions in the immediate future could mean everything.”
Sheyann stopped walking, turning in a circle to study the forest around them. To her ears, the evidence of civilization was not too far distant, but it was at least out of sight. That, itself, served as a reminder that she did not know these woods.
“Where, if I may ask, are we going? I thought you wished to observe Principia in action. Have you been snooping aggressively enough among the Sisters to know where, exactly, she is being sent?”
“In fact, I have,” Kuriwa said with a grin. “However, we are not going directly there. Interested as I am in seeing how Principia fares in her challenges, I remain mindful of all these threads. What she is heading into now is something she may be hard-pressed to contend with. That is, without causing a great deal of trouble that may spread surprisingly far, through the most ephemeral of connections. I feel this is not the time for such disturbances.”
“And so, you are going to discreetly help her.”
“By not going to meet her?”
Kuriwa’s grin widened. “I’m sure you know she would not welcome my help. No, Sheyann; be ready to fade into the background. I am going to pull another string.”
“Well, I’ll say it if no one else will,” Merry announced, staring into the forest. Behind her, the rest of Squad Thirteen clutched their lances, grim-faced and most of them pale. Only Principia seemed unperturbed, though her eyes were narrowed in apparent concentration. “This is Syrinx upping the game, exactly as we were warned she would.”
“Could she really have moved that fast?” Farah asked uncertainly. “I mean… Could the Guild have moved that fast? It was just yesterday we spoke with Darling. It’s hard to imagine she’d have reason already to be coming down harder on us.”
“He was vague about how fast we could expect results on that front,” Casey pointed out.
“Depends, really,” Principia mused. “Something like that, involving an inquiry within the Guild… It’s all a question of how motivated the Boss is. He could have the ball rolling in hours, get something together practically overnight if he really wanted. Or he could drag it out for months.”
“Months?” Farah whimpered.
Principia grinned bitterly. “I doubt it’ll be that bad. Truthfully, I’m not sure which side he’ll come down on. Tricks doesn’t much like me… But he’s an honorable fellow, in his way, and he’ll be feeling an obligation. I made a point, before enlisting, to arrange for the Guild to dangerously screw me over. They owe me a big one, and he knows it.”
“You are a piece of work,” Merry muttered. Principia winked at her, earning a sneer in return.
The fortifications of the border town rose behind them, but they were isolated enough here to speak freely. There was already early morning traffic along the road into the city, but the Legionnaires acquired only a few curious looks and no direct attention. The bridges extending from the gates of Tiraas landed in small towns clinging to the edges of the canyon; over the centuries of the Empire’s development, they had been built up, and heavily reinforced during the Enchanter Wars. Now, the border towns were themselves practically fortresses. This one sat within eyeshot of the protected forest rolling over the region’s low hills, though the trees were kept cleared well back from the walls.
Squad Thirteen stood on the edge of the road, staring gloomily into the silent green depths.
Ephanie sighed and re-folded the sheaf of papers containing their orders, tucking it back into her belt pouch. “Well, this is the starting point we’re given. From here, it’s just a matter of tromping through the woods toward the hills until we happen across the secret Shaathist extremists who unequivocally do not exist.”
“Safely away from witnesses,” Casey said darkly. “Anybody wanna take a bet what she’s got waiting for us in there? I’m betting it’s not gonna be anything as gentle as getting us in trouble with regulations.”
“Nobody ambushes an elf in the woods,” Principia said with a sly smile. Merry rolled her eyes.
“Syrinx will have planned for that,” said Casey, heaving a sigh. “She plans for everything.”
Principia shook her head. “She plans for everything she knows about. There’s a difference.”
“None of this is getting us anywhere,” Ephanie said. “We have our orders. The Captain’s given us the best chance she could manage. From here, we will have to make do ourselves, ladies.” She turned to nod sharply at them. “Remember your training, trust in each other and be ready to make the fullest use of your skills. Forward march.”