Inefficiency and waste were not tolerated in Toman Panissar’s army. Inefficiency and waste were inevitable in armies in general, but at the very least, they did not occur where he could (or was likely to) see them. As such, the headquarters of Imperial Command ran like dwarven clockwork. Uniformed troops and formally-attired civilians moved constantly here and there, but briskly and in an organized fashion, with an absolute minimum of talk and zero loitering. Everything was spotlessly clean, everything exactly in its place, everyone clearly acting purposefully and on specific business.
It was sort of amazing that she made it that far.
The door to the outer administrative complex swung open, as it did a thousand times a day, and a woman in business attire strode rapidly in, clutching a thick folder of papers under her arm. That, in and of itself, was not unusual. Her pace was a touch too rapid, though, and the folder bulged with scraps and stray corners of paper, which did not suit the tightly ordered aesthetic of the complex. She made a beeline for the guarded doors to the inner offices, ignoring all activity around her. The guards saw her coming and shifted to face her directly, but she was intercepted before making it even that far.
“Can I help you?” a tall soldier asked, stepping swiftly out from behind his desk and planting himself in her path. She practically skidded in order to stop in time, which didn’t cause him to flinch.
“Are you General Panissar?” the woman demanded.
“No, I am not,” he replied wryly. “Are you attached to the Army?”
“I’ll speak with the General,” she said curtly, trying to step around him.
He moved to obstruct her. “If you have an appointment, you can proceed to the receptionist on the second floor and wait. Otherwise, you’ll have to make an appointment, and depart in the meantime.”
“This is not a secured space,” she shot back. “Public presence is allowed.”
“This is Imperial Command,” he said, unimpressed. “No one is allowed to wander around at liberty. If you have specific business and a reason for being here—”
“I am legal counsel for soldiers of the Imperial Army pursuing action against ImCom at the highest level,” she barked. “Per the Writ of Duties, they are permitted to present their grievance directly to the requisite authority, which in this case is the General in command of the Army entire, as adjudged by a Grand Magistrate of the Tiraan Empire, and I am in fact obligated to present said case to said individual in person at the earliest possible date and hour in order to protect my clients who are adjudged to face undue hardship and/or danger in the course of presenting themselves in person, also according to said Grand Magistrate. Ergo, I shall now see the General, and you shall shove off out of my way!”
He finally drew back slightly, staring at her in something like awe. That entire monologue had been delivered almost too rapidly to follow, and she had paused for breath exactly once.
“Be that as it may,” the soldier said stiffly, “this is the headquarters for the entire army, and security requires—”
“Sued!” she thundered, ripping a sheet of paper from her folder and slapping it against his chest, where he caught it mostly out of reflex. “Obstruction of justice and interfering with a duly appointed agent of the law in the prosecution of her sworn duty! I’ll see you in court, asshole!”
At that, he was finally too flummoxed to evade her, and she managed to wriggle past him with the aggressive slipperiness of a particularly hungry eel. By that time, the eyes of nearly everyone in the vicinity was on her. Seemingly unperturbed by this, she resumed her course at a rapid trot toward the double doors to the secured section of Command. Both soldiers guarding the opening had now stepped in front of the doors directly, with weapons lifted and aimed at her.
“All right, boys, you want a piece of this?” the woman demanded, stomping to a halt directly in front of them. “Cos I brought enough for the whole class!”
“What the hell is going on out here?”
Soldiers throughout the vicinity snapped to attention, saluting, and the intruder whirled to face the rather diminutive, silver-haired man who had approached from the front of the room, likely through the same doors she had used to enter.
“Panissar!” the woman exclaimed, thrusting a hand into her folder to rummage. “My name is—”
“Bird Savaraad, attorney at law,” he interrupted, expression skeptical. “You’re known around here, ma’am. I asked what is going on.”
Savaraad had found the object she sought, apparently, a thick envelope, which she now whipped out of the folder (dislodging a few errant sheets) and wagged at him. “We will discuss the maltreatment of soldiers under your command who have retained me to handle their case!”
“That’s fine,” he grunted. “There’s a department to handle that. Sergeant Traas will escort you there and make an appointment. Excuse me.”
“Hold it right there!” she roared as he turned his back. “Per the judgment of Grant Magistrate Seluvid, I am authorized to present this matter to you in person!”
“Then make an appointment.” Panissar stopped, half-turning to give her a gimlet eye over his shoulder. “A Grand Magistrate’s order doesn’t authorize you to barge in here on your own damn schedule, or I’d be hearing of it from an Imperial courier, not you. You are disrupting operations in Imperial Command. Behave yourself, or be arrested. Your choice.”
The General turned back toward the exit and made one step before she bellowed again. “This matter will not wait on your bureaucracy, Panissar! Privates Andrew Finchley, Thomas Rook and Jacob Moriarty have an urgent case pertaining directly to treatment by a Han—”
“Take that woman into custody!” Panissar barked, whirling on her. Immediately, the two door guards stepped forward, seizing her by both arms. Two more soldiers smoothly rose from nearby desks to assume their position flanking the inner doors.
“Don’t even try it!” Savaraad shouted, not bothering to struggle except to tighten her grip on her folder. “People know where I am, General! You can’t hush up—”
She broke off as Panissar drew a wand from its holster at his belt and stepped forward, aiming the tip barely a foot from her nose.
“Ms. Savaraad,” he said quietly, “I strongly advise you to shut your mouth before you step in it and break something. You wanted my attention? You have it. Men, bring her to my office. You, keep the bellowing to a minimum. I am hardly going to disappear you from under the noses of hundreds of people, unless you create an unassailable pretext for doing so, which you’re about halfway to doing.”
The whole office was uncharacteristically silent, watching the soldiers ushering an also uncharacteristically silent Savaraad off after Panissar toward the stairs along the east wall of the huge chamber. At their foot, the General suddenly stopped and turned to glare across the assembled troops and attached personnel.
“Are you all bored?”
Instantly, there resumed a flurry of motion as everyone present rushed back to their work. Panissar grunted and continued up the stairs, followed by the lawyer and her guards.
The only man who remained still was the sergeant who had intercepted Savaraad in the first place, staring at the sheet of paper in his hand.
“Hey, Traas.” Another soldier leaned out from behind her own desk. “Did she actually subpoena you?”
Traas blinked at the paper bemusedly, then turned it so she could see its face. “This is a receipt from a housecleaning service.”
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Panissar said to the two soldiers. “Dismissed. Shut the door.”
Both released Savaraad, saluted, and quickly trooped back out, closing the office door behind them as ordered.
The lawyer herself peered quickly around the room through narrowed eyes. It suited Panissar’s reputation: orderly, utilitarian, and neither as large nor as grandiose as his high rank would entitle him to have. Any mid-level bureaucratic functionary might have worked out of this space, save for the room’s only decorations, which consisted of weapons both bladed and modern in glass cases hung along the walls.
“Your reputation precedes you,” Panissar said, stepping around behind the desk and seating himself. Notably, there was no chair in front. “I’m missing lunch with my wife right now because fortunately, someone thought to warn me when you came stomping into the building as if you planned to slay a dragon. So far, you’re every bit as annoying as rumor suggests.”
“Oh, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” she said grimly, brandishing the envelope at him.
“You are also reputed to be a damn good lawyer,” he continued, staring flatly up at her, “and to care in all sincerity for the outcome of your cases and the well-being of your clients. So I have to ask, Savaraad, what the hell were you thinking blurting out details about those three in the middle of a public space where anyone could hear?”
“I was thinking,” she said smugly, “that ImCom’s interest here is to hush up the whole affair, and threatening to poke a hole in that was the best way to motivate you off your ass. I don’t make idle threats or bluffs, by the way. This case will not go away if I suddenly do. In fact, I’ve taken steps to ensure it will get swiftly and dramatically more difficult for you to handle, should that occur.”
“You’re thinking of Imperial Intelligence,” he grunted. “Believe me, if I were in the habit of using wands and oubliettes on idiots who waste my time, this city would be significantly depopulated. So, those three boys are tired of cooling their heels in Last Rock, is that it?”
“You bet your stars, bucko.” She slapped the envelope down on the desk. “In light of the immediate and significant threat to their well-being posed by their own chain of command, Grand Magistrate Seluvid has issued the orders you see before you, including that the matter is to be brought directly to the highest commanding officer of the Army, and may be kept classified in spite of your wishes if I, as their designated legal counsel, should deem it necessary. I want those men honorably discharged from the Army and relieved of all military obligation to the Silver Throne, effective immediately, with retirement benefits suitable for—”
“It’s no surprise you took this to the Grand Magistrate least sympathetic toward the military,” he interrupted. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you got this done so quickly, either. But much as I may frequently want to stuff Seluvid up his own overfed ass—and you may feel free to quote me next time you see him—the man is in no way corrupt. I could only wish he had something like that for me to hold over him. So I have to ask, Savaraad. Exactly what cock-and-bull story did you feed him to get this rushed through? That post may be career suicide, but it’s the cushiest one in the whole damn army. If those boys were in any danger from Tellwyrn or her brats, they’d have noticed it long before now.”
“Privates Finchley, Rook, and Moriarty have offered no complaint about their post, their hostess or their duties until the events of the last week,” she snapped. “Don’t try to deflect me, Panissar, I weave webs around savvier bastards than you before I’m properly awake in the morning. This is related to the sudden pattern of threats to them by the Hand of the Emperor on site.”
Panissar suddenly narrowed his eyes, his face otherwise blank. “What threats?”
“Everything is right there in—”
“Lady, it’s a slow day when I can be arsed to read the paperwork I actually have to read. You’re here, you know the case. Tell me what the Hand did to those soldiers.”
Savaraad actually blinked, taken aback by the sudden intensity in his tone. “He… Do I infer, General, that you are actually unaware of—”
“Do you want to go in an oubliette? Because I actually do have them. Might as well put the space to use if you’re just going to chap my ass.”
She sneered, but answered. “The Hand of the Emperor present at Last Rock, in addition to suddenly exhibiting a pattern of inappropriately aggressive behavior, has attempted to blackmail Professor Tellwyrn into complying with him by threatening harm to my clients. This is obviously a gigantic breach of—”
“So that explains the bluster and shenanigans,” Panissar grunted. “You have no case. A Hand of the Emperor can do whatever the hell he likes with Imperial soldiers, period.”
“Oh, I think you’ll find—”
“Unless,” the General said, “someone puts a stop to it. Through the kind of backroom dealing you came in here to try to pull.” He leaned backward in his chair, peering at her through narrowed eyes. “Hmm. All right, first things first. Honorable discharge with commendations for extraordinary service to the Silver Throne. In fact, I’ll arrange for the Golden Crescent for each of them. That’ll ensure an officer’s pension despite their brief enlistment and low rank. It’s not going to be enough, though.” He abruptly leaned forward, stabbing one finger down onto the desktop. “I assume you’ve got those boys somewhere secure? Tell me they’re not still at Last Rock.”
Savaraad snorted and folded her arms, cradling her thick folder in front of her chest. “Please, this is hardly my first case. Of course I have them safe. Why are you suddenly so accommodating?”
“Because I will not have my men thrown away,” he snapped. “I’ve stuck my neck out for those boys once already, and I didn’t do it so they could just run afoul of Imperial politics. They’re shitty soldiers by any reckoning, but they’re good men, and fiercely loyal to their Emperor. In my military opinion, the latter two traits are more important overall to society than the first one. And that’s our problem, Savaraad; getting them out of the Army won’t be enough. If that Hand has his eye on them, his authority will be only slightly diminished by them being out of the service, and his resources not diminished at all. Once they’re honored and discharged, there’ll be a trail he can follow right to them.”
She narrowed her own eyes. “This is some serious monkey business, Panissar. What makes you think a Hand of the Emperor would do something so petty, and why are you willing to work against him on behalf of three enlisted nobodies?”
“You have no need for those details, Savaraad,” he said curtly.
“Oh, no you don’t. My clients are already in jeopardy because of Imperial politics, as you call them. I’m not about to let—”
“Savaraad, do you have the faintest idea why those men were quartered at the University at Last Rock in the first place?”
“Omnu’s balls, do you never tire of interrupting people?” She let out a sharp huff of irritation. “And no, they only said the matter was classified.”
“Sealed to the Throne, in fact,” he said grimly. “So is the matter you are now trying to butt into. I told you, I don’t disappear people for irritating me. I am, however, fully capable of getting rid of someone who is presenting an authentic threat to Imperial security, which you are in danger of doing. So let me warn you right now: any business pertaining to Hands of the Emperor is not to be discussed outside the details of this case, and then only with your clients and with me. Test me on this, and I will immediately hand you off to Lord Vex, and I can’t honestly promise that he doesn’t disappear people who annoy him. For now,” he added in a less intense tone, relaxing back into his chair again, “I’ll need to be in touch with Intelligence anyway with regard to those boys. Vex isn’t going to consider this a priority, but I will ride his ass in whatever way necessary to get it done.”
“You plan to have Imperial Intelligence hide my clients?” she asked skeptically.
Panissar shook his head. “I mean to have them put a watch on those men’s families.”
“Surely you don’t think they are in danger.”
“I don’t think that, no, but I’m also not ready to rule it out, and in no mood to take risks with this business. And I’m serious, Savaraad—you need to stop asking questions about this, for your sake and that of your clients. As for them, they’ll have to be hidden through non-governmental means if they’re to be kept safe; any other means will leave a trail for…whoever may be after them. If you’re confident of your own security, they may stay where they are till this matter resolves itself, which should be soon. However…” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “As I recall, the privates in question tested as high on devotion to their Emperor as they did low on overall competence. That’s more or less the starting point of all their problems. Does that agree with your own impressions?”
“They’ve made quite a point of it, in fact,” she said pensively. “Moriarty insisted on having affidavits affirming their loyalty to the Emperor included in those documents you’re so determined to ignore. They make a point of emphasizing that taking this action is a last resort, and that they mean no reflection against the Emperor or the Army by it.”
Panissar looked at the envelope lying on his desk, then back up at her. “Of course, you could draw up something like that in an afternoon.”
“Please, there’s no need to be insulting,” she said scornfully. “Ten minutes, and that because I hadn’t had my coffee yet.”
“It’s still a legal service, and it brings up a valid question. You don’t come cheap, Savaraad, nor does anyone in your firm. What it would cost to have someone like you kick up this kind of fuss is more than those three collectively make in a year. Who’s paying for this?”
She raised a supercilious eyebrow. “I’m sure you are aware, General Panissar, that such details are kept strictly private. You will require the order of a Grand Magistrate to have them divulged, and even then, the matter is subject to appeal by both my clients and their financier before it can be executed.”
“So they do have a financier.”
“Oh, please, don’t act like you scored a point,” she said disdainfully. “Of course they do, you said it yourself. Those three definitely don’t have the money to engage someone of my caliber.”
He grunted. “Fine. As I was saying, then. We’ll need to have protective measures in place before putting their discharge through. Before we do that, though, I want you to take a message back to your clients; the answer will determine how, exactly, we proceed.”
“I’m listening,” she said warily.
“If they just want to be hidden, I can arrange that, or they can stay wherever you’ve got them, if you’re certain it’s secure. However, right now there happens to be a need for men loyal to the Throne who are engaged through no agency that the government itself can trace. This work is directly relevant to the mess that’s put them in this pickle: I want to make it very clear up front that it will be dangerous. That’s the question you need to put to them, Savaraad. There’ll be no condemnation from me if they just want to hide, all things considered. But.” He folded his arms on the desk, gazing seriously up at her. “Just because the Army doesn’t need them does not mean their Emperor doesn’t…if they are still willing to serve.”
“You want to put those three into some kind of…secret service?” she asked skeptically. “Far be it from me to belittle a client in good standing, but I think it’s a matter of record that none of them are particularly impressive specimens.”
“I don’t need them to march in formation or shoot straight,” he replied. “They’ve already proven their ability to keep their mouths shut and survive ridiculous catastrophes. In fact, that’s pretty much the point.” He smiled thinly. “There are well-trained, powerful people already working on this, but we can’t all be heroes. Even in the darkest hours, when extraordinary efforts are demanded of those who can offer them, somebody needs to fetch and carry.”