High Commander Rouvad made the lot of them wait in the hall outside her office for ten minutes while she conferred with Captain Dijanerad, doubtless about the documents the captain had just received from the Eserites. It was, to say the least, a tense handful of minutes.
Squad Thirteen held themselves at attention, which wasn’t comfortable, but was not especially onerous given their training. Far worse was the attention of the other two present, who stood off to the other side of Rouvad’s door. Private Covrin stood at ease, glaring suspiciously at everyone from behind Syrinx’s shoulder. The Bishop, for her part, seemed not particularly stressed. In fact, she regarded the assembled privates with a faintly smug expression. She did not taunt or try to provoke them, nor speak to them at all, but kept panning her stare slowly across the group.
Eventually, Principia turned her head slightly to catch Basra’s eye, and winked.
The Bishop’s stare hardened noticeably, and remained on Prin for the rest of their wait. The elf gave her no further reaction.
Fortunately, the door opened before this could progress further. Captain Dijanerad stepped out, her hand still on the knob, and jerked her head expressively toward the open doorway.
Syrinx nodded to her, expression faintly amused, and strode through, Covrin still on her heels.
“Do you need something, Private Covrin?” Dijanerad said pointedly.
Covrin slammed to a stop, eyes widening, and swallowed. “Ah, no, ma’am,” she stammered, glancing through the door at the Bishop.
“Then I’m sure you can find something to do,” Dijanerad said firmly.
“Wait for me in the hall, Covrin,” Syrinx said from within.
“Yes, ma’am,” Covring replied with evident relief, backing up to the far wall. Dijanerad watched her expressionlessly while Squad Thirteen filed past her into the office, then finally followed, shutting the door behind them.
High Commander Rouvad was leafing slowly through the contents of the Thieves’ Guild folder, and continued to do so, apparently ignoring her guests while they situated themselves. Basra planted herself in one corner, folding her arms; Dijanerad stood in front of the door, and Squad Thirteen arrayed themselves in a line on the opposite side of the room.
“I confess there’s an element of relief in this,” the Commander said at last, still reading. “It’s always disappointing, having to call down soldiers from whom I don’t expect misbehavior. But now, here’s almost the entire roster of everyone I fully anticipated having to chew out this week, right on schedule. It’s very nearly…gratifying.”
She finally shut the folder, pushed it aside, and raised her eyes. Her face was calm, but those eyes were iron-hard.
“Bishop Syrinx,” she said, “do you understand why you’re here?”
“Not precisely,” Syrinx replied, her tone unconcerned. “From the presence of this tragically underperforming squad I gather you have an objection to my handling of them?”
“Well, that’s as good a starting point as any,” said Rouvad, her eyes boring into the Bishop. “You have been given enormous leeway with the handling of the Ninth Cohort, above the objections of its Captain, and as of this moment I am bitterly disappointed with almost every aspect of your management, beginning with Squad Thirteen. Before we even discuss your handling of them, I want to hear an explanation for its formation and composition, which was entirely by your design. Not only is this squad unacceptably under strength, it is stacked entirely with undesirable recruits in defiance of all regulation and policy.”
“I was told,” Syrinx said flatly, “that I would be encouraged to produce agents from this cohort to train for interfaith and political operations. Everything I have done here has been in pursuit of that goal.”
“And so,” Rouvad replied, “when Legion policy is and has always been to disperse potentially disruptive elements through the ranks, so that their fellow soldiers could provide an example at best and at the least a counterpoint to any trouble they might cause, you not only clustered every yellow-flagged name on the roster into one unit, you then bent regulations even further in order to deprive them of positive influences. This looks very much like it was calculated to cause this squad to entirely self-destruct.”
“The use of pressure as a teaching tool is hardly my own invention,” Syrinx said, raising an eyebrow. “I understand there is some slight precedent in the history of military training.”
“Pressure,” Rouvad said flatly, pointing a finger at Merry. “And to pressure this group, you started with our resident ex-convict, here, and surrounded her…” She slowly moved her finger, indicating Principia, Farah, Ephanie and Casey in sequence. “…with refugees from the cults of Eserion, Nemitoth, Shaath—”
“Ma’am, please,” Casey whispered.
“—and Elilial,” Rouvad finished inexorably. A slight but distinct shudder rippled through the rank of Squad Thirteen, Farah, Ephanie and Merry all turning their heads to stare at Casey, who dropped her own gaze to the floor. Principia just raised one eyebrow.
“Attention,” Captain Dijanerad said curtly. The five of them instantly snapped back into position.
“Why them, your Grace?” Rouvad asked, her tone deceptively mild.
“I am surprised it even needs to be explained,” Syrinx retorted. “Their backgrounds have clearly predisposed the group toward maneuvering of the sort—”
“Two of them,” Rouvad snapped, “at most. The former would-be adventurer convicted of civil disturbance, vandalism and assault? The former Shaathist housewife? The librarian?”
“In my judgment—”
“Your judgment is very much on trial here,” Rouvad interrupted. “Let’s discuss what you did after gathering these miscellaneous reprobates into one apparently doomed unit. You spent an absurd amount of time chasing down Locke, even going so far as to try to put her loyalties in conflict, and frankly I can see no point to any of that except trying to get a rise out of her, which ought to be so far beneath you as to be beyond consideration. That is merely troubling.” She pulled the folder back in front of herself, placing a hand upon it, and stared coldly at the Bishop. “What I’ve just learned about the methods you were using to stalk Locke and the rest of this squad is a whole level beyond—and yes, Basra, I was aware of your borderline insubordinate manipulation of the Legion’s bureaucracy to move regulations and paperwork around. And now come the events of tonight.”
Rouvad drummed her fingers once on the folder, her stare growing ever more angry. “There is nothing—nothing—which excuses you sending Squad Thirteen into deliberate conflict with a group of Huntsmen of Shaath. You endangered everyone involved, beginning with a squad of soldiers whose safety was your responsibility. You intentionally disrupted an approved religious ceremony of another cult of the Pantheon. You employed a Vesker apprentice to do this, also placing her in danger—and without informing her of said danger. You abused your position in the Universal Church to first learn where the Shaathists would be operating and then do all of the above. And your eventual goal here was…what? To embarrass Private Avelea? I can’t imagine you actually thought I would allow her to be court martialed over this, any more than Locke would have been because of your similar antics toward her.”
“As I said,” Syrinx replied with some annoyance, “everything I have done with this squad was intended to train them toward the stated goals of this cohort. Despite their insubordination, they’ve done fairly well. I think some credit is due my methods, Commander.”
“Some credit is due to the fact that I now owe apologies to my two least favorite cults,” Rouvad snapped, “not to mention the Veskers. That is the sum total of your accomplishment with this squad. And honestly, Basra, you’ve been leaving a trail of destruction for the last week. Did you think I wouldn’t notice you manipulating the bureaucracy toward your own ends? Or that I was allowing it because I approved of this nonsense?”
Syrinx raised her eyebrows. “Of course. Why else would you allow it, Commander? Silence gives assent.”
“You watch your sly tongue, Basra,” Rouvad said icily. “For your information, I have been monitoring you since you first formed this cockamamie squad. You have been under examination as much as they. Do you imagine I am in any way pleased with what I’ve learned?”
“The Shaathists and Eserites will get over it,” Syrinx said with a shrug. “I don’t know why you’re concerned with their opinions anyway; we’re speaking of a gaggle of religious thugs. Squad Thirteen has learned quickly, thanks to the pressure I put on them, how to handle themselves in various crises. This looks like a successful series of tests to me.”
“I’ll tell you what’s been a successful test. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I accept you were actually trying to train these women and not squeeze them out of the Legion as every piece of evidence indicates. What I have learned from watching this unfold is that you, Syrinx, will sink your teeth into any foe who successfully resists your machinations and worry at them like a dog until you manage to break them. In so doing you completely lose sight of all surrounding considerations: regulations, ethics, you own well-being. Your penchant for obsessive behavior has been remarked on by everyone who’s worked with or trained you starting from your own first enlistment, but you began your career by making good progress at self-control. It seems too much power and privilege has undone all that work, Basra. And that leaves me needing to do something about it.”
“You could leave me to do my job,” Syrinx suggested sarcastically.
“The whole point of trying experimental training methods with this cohort was to produce women who can help the Sisterhood deal with the ever-escalating intrigues in this city, and beyond,” Rouvad said. “The situation grows more tense and more complex all the time. In this political environment, I cannot have my top operative acting like a rabid dog. It’s clear to me you need some remedial training of your own.”
The Commander folded her arms atop the desk, staring flatly at the Bishop. “There is a situation in Viridill with which I require your unique talents, Bishop Syrinx. You will report to Abbess Darnassy as soon as you can make travel arrangements, and remain at the Abbey for the duration of the problem.”
“What problem?” Syrinx demanded, her own stare sharpening.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Rouvad said with a tiny, humorless smile. “I will think of something by the time the paperwork needs to be filed. For the moment, I am assigning Captain Shahai to administer your duties to the Church in your absence.”
“You can’t do that,” Syrinx snapped. “Bishops can’t just be replaced on a whim. The Archpope has to approve—”
“Yes, and if I were demoting you, that would be a problem,” Rouvad said, still smiling. “Interestingly, Church law provides for situations where a Bishop is incapacitated, on leave, or otherwise engaged. Cult leaders may unilaterally appoint an interim Bishop, who does not require the Archpope’s or anyone else’s approval, for up to one hundred and twenty days. That is how long, Basra, you have to convince Abbess Darnassy that you’re still a good soldier who can do her job without haring off on a sadistic personal crusade. If, at the end of this period, Narnasia is satisfied with your progress…” Her smile widened slightly. “And if his Holiness hasn’t decided he likes your replacement just fine, you may return here and resume your duties. I suggest you put your nose to the grindstone, Basra. Narnasia does not share my lenient attitude toward unconventional behavior.”
Basra was fairly vibrating with tension now, fists clenched at her sides and her face a thunderhead. Commander Rouvad held her stare for a long, silent moment, then abruptly turned to regard the wide-eyed members of Squad Thirteen.
“With that addressed, let’s talk to the other individuals who have added to my headaches recently. I understand that was quite a performance you put on down in the courtyard, Private Locke. Now, under most circumstances, a raw recruit reaming out the Bishop would be headed right for the stockade, but I’m interested in the details of this situation. It defies belief that the great Principia Locke, master thief of two centuries’ experience, who doesn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow except in pursuit of three separate plans, would lose composure that way. I would like to hear exactly, in detail, what you were trying to accomplish with that little speech.” She narrowed her eyes slightly. “This is a good time for you to be honest, Locke, not clever. I advise you not to make any assumptions concerning what I do or do not understand, either.”
Principia cleared her throat. “Yes, ma’am. It was first a diversionary tactic. As I explained to Bishop Syrinx at some length, I am not particularly concerned with anything she attempts to do to me, but she was going for Avelea. I will not have her sinking her teeth into my squad.”
“How interesting,” Rouvad said expressionlessly. “Go on.”
“Additionally,” Principia continued obediently, keeping her own face blank, “there were multiple representatives present of the two cults who had been severely antagonized by the Bishop’s actions. I ordinarily would not show Legion internal division to outsiders, but in that situation where Bishop Syrinx’s affronts were unavoidably obvious, a display of opposition to her from within the ranks was necessary for the Legion to regain face. My words were calculated to appeal to Eserite and Shaathist sensibilities as much as possible, and leave those representatives to understand that Syrinx’s abuses were not acceptable to us and would not be tolerated. I apologize for overstepping my prerogatives, Commander. Aside from the benefit of taking that action immediately, I believe it gained considerable credibility coming as it was from a low-ranking soldier who was clearly taking a risk by speaking out, rather than a high-ranking one whose reassurances could be dismissed as politics.”
Rouvad gazed at her in silence for a long moment after she finished speaking. “Is that all, Private Locke?”
Principia drew in a short breath. “In…addition…there was the consideration that any public punishment which befell me after the fact would have undercut the credibility I regained on behalf of the Legion by speaking out.”
“Oh, you noticed that too, did you,” Rouvad said, deadpan. “Well, Private, that’s a lot of complex effects to have achieved with a two-minute speech. Quite impressive by the priorities of Eserites, I would presume. As it happens, I concur with your assessments. I’m even a little impressed with your results. Considering the training aims of your cohort, I’m actually somewhat pleased, and inclined to let the matter stand so as to be further leveraged in the future. So no, in this case, you have not forced my hand.” Abruptly, her tone was hard and cold as a polar ice sheet, and her stare furious. “And if you ever attempt to do so again, Locke, as Avei is my witness you will beg for treatment as gentle as exile to Viridill before I am done with you. Is that understood?”
“Perfectly, Commander. It won’t happen again.”
Rouvad held her stare for a long moment before relaxing slightly and speaking again. “Needless to say, Bishop Syrinx’s role in this cohort’s management is over, and the experiment in question scrapped. Captain Dijanerad, how much damage do you believe has been done to your cohort by all this?”
“Minimal, Commander,” the captain said immediately, “and fixable. I’ll need officers and a schedule of more reasonable duty shifts, but it’s only been a week. That much more time without this nonsense going on should straighten out any problems. Not many have had time to form properly, yet.”
“Good,” said Rouvad, nodding. “I’ll assign you three more lieutenants to lighten Vriss’s workload. I won’t transfer anyone against their will, but you may have your pick of any candidates willing to take the job. Have their names on my desk in forty-eight hours, or I’ll pick some for you.”
“Will you need additional sergeants?”
“My squads were promised promotion from within, ma’am. No squads, in my opinion, lack a suitable officer candidate. I believe depriving them of that on top of this week’s events would be a serious blow to morale.”
“Very well, put forward your own choices’ names along with the lieutenants’.”
“With regard to this group,” Rouvad continued, returning her stare to the assembled privates, “whether by accident or design, Bishop Syrinx’s campaign of ‘educational’ pressure has yielded some results. The five of you do appear to function well as a unit. You even show some promise in the direction toward which your training theoretically aimed. As such, I’m not willing to discard the only possibly successful result of this debacle out of hand.”
She leaned back in her chair, which creaked with the motion. The High Commander’s expression was impassive now, her eyes slowly moving across the squad.
“Squad Thirteen is hereby disbanded,” she said abruptly. “It will be re-formed to bring your cohort up to full strength in the days ahead, Captain. You will be assigned new graduates from the cadet program, as well as several more seasoned soldiers, just so you have a few to work with.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Dijanerad said crisply.
“These five women,” Rouvad continued, “are to be re-assigned together under the designation of Squad One.”
Despite their being ordered to stand at attention, there came a sharp indrawn breath from the privates.
In the Silver Legions, “One” was the designation of irregulars and special forces. Depending on the unit in question, it could be a great honor, or a punishment duty. The Second Legion’s First Cohort consisted entirely of magic users of a variety of specializations—all except warlocks, in fact. Its Squad One actually had three holy summoners, and was overall considered equivalent to an Imperial strike team in versatility and combat effectiveness. The Third Legion’s First Cohort were scouts and rangers of great renown, and the only part of the Legion that had remained fully intact during its recent reorganization. By contrast, the Fifth Legion’s First Cohort consisted of diplomats, statisticians and other paper jockeys. Though these were necessary functions (or they wouldn’t have been kept around), it was widely understood that that unit was a dumping ground for women who had nominally useful skills which did not include forming a competent phalanx.
Officially, there was no First Silver Legion. Rumors had abounded for years that such an organization existed off the books, working Avei’s will in places where the Sisterhood could not openly show its hand.
“It’s for good and specific reason I permitted you girls to witness the dressing down of the Bishop,” Rouvad continued calmly. “Considering what’s in store for you, I want you to understand some things. There is room for all sorts in Avei’s service. Basra Syrinx is a mean, vindictive, duplicitous snake, and we all know it. So long as she’s one who acts in accordance with Avei’s aims, I can work with that. I can even extend some tolerance toward antics which strain tradition and procedure. There is, however, a limit: go off on your own with that kind of behavior and I will shut it down. You keep both of those things firmly in mind.”
“Yes, ma’am!” they chorused.
“And with apologies to Captain Dijanerad for usurping her prerogative,” Rouvad continued, quirking an eyebrow, “I am going to go ahead and make the obvious choice for your new squad’s leader. Congratulations, Sergeant Locke.”
There was a beat of silence, in which Basra’s right eyelid began twitching uncontrollably.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Principia said respectfully, “but it’s pronounced ‘Avelea.’ Common mistake.”
Rouvad held her gaze, blank-faced. “Locke, have I ever told you how much I enjoy your sense of humor?”
A few more seconds of silence stretched out before Principia was certain the Commander actually wanted a response to this.
“I don’t believe so, ma’am.”
“There is a reason for that.”
“This is because you are the most appropriate candidate for the job,” Rouvad continued coldly, “which says more about the available talent pool than about your abilities. Let me be frank, Locke: you are not being rewarded. I am giving you the opportunity to fail, and I more than half expect you to take full advantage. In that event, I can rid my Legions of five disruptive losers and be done with it. Or, alternatively, you might surprise me and prove that this squad can be a considerable asset. I win either way; only the five of you have a stake in the outcome.
“Because, make no mistake, after the events of this week, you girls have proved not only your potential in the political and diplomatic arts, but your willingness to play fast and loose with regulations to achieve it. Much like the good Bishop, here. The difference is that she has given Avei years of dedicated and effective service, and you lot have done nothing to earn a fraction of that regard. If any of you went as badly off the Rail as she just did, I’d have you flogged. Am I clear?”
“Yes, ma’am!” all five shouted.
“Those are your alternatives, Squad One. You will either succeed beyond anyone’s expectations and prove your utility to the Silver Legions, or be drummed out of them. Mediocrity is not an option available to you. Clear?”
Rouvad studied them silently for a few moments more, then turned her head and nodded to Captain Dijanerad. “All right. Make me proud, ladies. That is an order. Dismissed, all of you.”
Once again, Basra was first out of the office, this time stalking like an offended cat and still practically quivering with fury. The rest followed her in stupefied silence, with the exception of Captain Dijanerad, who actually looked vaguely amused.
Covrin was still waiting in the hall, as ordered; she took one look at Basra’s expression and paled. The Bishop strode past her, snapping her fingers and pointing to the floor at her side. Covrin swallowed and came to heel like a well-trained dog.
Just as the Captain pulled the office door shut behind them, Principia paused, holding up a hand to halt her squad, and spoke.
“Just a moment, Covrin.”
“I don’t have time for you, Locke.”
“That’s Sergeant Locke,” the elf shot back. “Do not walk away from me, Private.”
Covrin came to a halt, as did Syrinx just ahead of her. Slowly, the private turned, staring at Principia for just a moment too long. Then she came to attention and saluted.
“My squad has the assigned duty of politics and diplomacy,” Principia said, staring into Covrin’s eyes. “And we’re under strength. I need clever, motivated women who possess a certain aptitude for, shall we say, lateral thinking. I’d like you to join up.”
Covrin stared at her for a moment, then half-turned her head, glancing at Bishop Syrinx out of the corner of her eye. The Bishop was watching without expression.
“She just got her butt served up on a platter and is being shipped off to cool her heels in Viridill,” Principia said quietly, still gazing hard at Covrin. “Basra Syrinx is in as weak a position as you have ever seen her, Jenell. Right now, she can’t touch you if you choose not to allow it. This is the best chance you’ll have to get away from her.”
“Permission to speak freely, Sergeant?” Covrin said stiffly.
Slowly, Principia nodded. “Granted.”
“I still don’t have time for you, Locke. May I be dismissed?”
Prin sighed softly. “Dismissed.”
Covrin turned on her heel and stalked back toward Basra. The Bishop paused only to smile coldly at Principia before continuing on her own way with Covrin trailing after her. They were gone around the corner in moments.
Captain Dijanerad clasped Principia on the shoulder as she passed down the hall in the opposite direction. “Good try, Locke, but you can’t do a thing for someone who won’t be helped. Get some rest, ladies.”
Moments later, she, too, was gone, leaving Squad One standing alone in the hallway.
“What just happened?” Ephanie asked of no one in particular.
“Dunno, but I do believe,” Merry said thoughtfully, “that I have never been this tired.”
“Never thought I’d miss that little dump of a cottage,” Farah agreed, “but I wanna go back there right now and make love to my pillow.”
“Gross,” Casey muttered.
“Well, that’s too bad, girls,” said Principia, rolling her shoulders and straightening her spine, “because we’ve a ways to go yet before we sleep. Fall in, Squad One; there’s one more thing we need to do tonight.”