“Be careful with that!”
The box fell to the ground with a crash. Naevani winced.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the trooper said to her.
“I told you to be careful,” she sighed, kneeling down and fussing with the box. “These reagents are very delicate. If they become unsettled they’re useless.”
“And we still have another dozen boxes to check. I want you to bring all of them to the yard here, and for Dragons’ grace be careful!”
“Yes, sir. Won’t happen again, ma’am.”
The trooper didn’t seem to be particularly repentant. Naevani glared as he slouched out of the yard behind the merchant’s house, back towards the Scarlet Moon’s main supply dump on the village green. The cavalry troopers were the best fighters in the company, but they were terrible workers, regarding physical labor as beneath them and slacking off as much as possible. Every demand Naevani made of them was met with sullen looks and dragging feet, and it was a minor miracle if they performed even the most basic of tasks on time. Naevani longed for some solid, uncomplaining infantrymen to order around or, better yet, a talon of sappers. But the detachment in Onas was long on cavalry and short on everything else, so she did her best with what was available.
Which wasn’t much. Scarlet Scar and the other Exalts had ridden off with most of the cavalry a few days ago, leaving Naevani in command at Onas, bossing around a few dozen soldiers and a small mountain of supplies, supplies that she now had to catalogue and repack in preparation for the shift back to the capital. The cavalry troopers being what they were, the task was almost entirely Naevani’s to deal with, and it was boring, thankless, backbreaking work. Just the sort that she was used to.
It never seemed to change; the work was the same no matter where she was or who she was working for. Items had to be counted, boxes had to be packed, soldiers had to be fed. The Scarlet Moons used a slightly different accounting system than the Invincible Steel Legions of Calin and Pel Kan’s Ordinaries of Lookshy, but the principles were the same. A roll of paper with a column detailing what they were supposed to have, another column detailing what they actually had, and sums and signatures to back it all up. On rare occasions the numbers were the same, usually they were short, and sometimes the real inventory exceed the records. Naevani had ceased to be baffled by that last occurrence; it was just one of the inexplicable variables of military life.
Another mercenary staggered in under a heavy box, this one full of carefully wrapped jars of firedust. He knew enough to handle it carefully, at least, so Naevani only had to scold him for putting the box down in the center of the yard instead of by the wall on the far edge, where it belonged. As the soldier left he almost tripped over the next shipment – another box of firedust, this one carried by Tekana and Lanis. One child was holding on to each end of the container, and they staggered under the weight.
“Where does it go?” Lanis gasped, his face red, robbed of its usual enthusiasm.
“Here,” Tekana said, “next to the rest of the firedust.”
The container went down, but incorrectly, with its front edge away from the wall. As it was all but impossible to access the jars given the box’s current orientation, Naevani was about to ask the children to move it but Tekana spoke first.
“No, this end outward,” she said. “Come on, lift it again.”
“Do we have to?” Lanis whined.
“Yes, we do. See, the runes here, on the side? This way has to face out.”
“Alright,” Lanis said sullenly.
With another heave the box was twisted around into the proper position, and the children hustled away from it as if it was something poisonous. They sat down under the small apple tree that grew in the corner of the yard, where they bickered and chatted, trying to rest without it looking like they were resting.
Naevani watched them out of the corner of her eye as she did her cataloguing, thinking it unfair, or at least incorrect, to call Tekana a child. She was growing fast, and it wouldn’t be too long before her girlishness was replaced by the awkwardness of adolescence. Already she was leaps and bounds ahead of Lanis, who was still wrapped in the self-centered shortsightedness of childhood, and it wasn’t just her age that set her apart. There was an alertness to her, and a wariness as well, as if she regarded everyone and everything as an enemy, a potential threat to be confronted and overcome.
Acting on an impulse, Naevani called out to her. “Tekana, please come over here.”
The girl sighed and pushed off the ground, fixing her dress so it was just so, and glided across the yard, moving with well-taught grace, stopping in front of Naeavani where the older woman sat on the dirt in front of the boxes. “Yes?” she asked.
“I need you to help me with my sums,” Naevani said, looking up. “Would you double check my math?” She tried to hand a scroll to the girl.
“I…I don’t know…” Tekana said, looking at the loosely wrapped paper with distaste.
“Oh, come on now. It’s not hard, and I’m certain your tutors inculcated you with the basics of arithmetic.”
“Tutors?” Tekana said warily.
“Yes, tutors. The ones who taught you how to read High Realm, like what’s on the box here. The ones that all highborn girls have.”
Tekana blushed. “I’m not highborn. I’m not anything. I’m just a slave. Ex-slave.”
“Don’t worry about it; it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why, I’m well-bred myself. Just don’t tell anyone.” She winked conspiratorially.
“I know that,” Tekana snapped. She blushed again.
“Oh, you’ve heard of me?”
“But you’ve heard of my family?”
The girl looked away, twisting about in her thread-bare dress.
“Come on,” Naevani prompted. “I enjoy the ephemera of fame and notoriety: it satisfies my inflated notion of self-importance. You’ve heard of Gens Tsheteri?”
“I’ve, um, heard of Gens Tsheteri,” Tekana said, still not looking at her, “everyone has. It’s one of the great houses of Calin. Your father was shogun.”
“My uncle,” Naevani corrected her. “Once removed. Or something to that effect. They don’t bother much with the cadet houses in Calin; the players of the Great Game only care about those with a chance to inherit something important. But my uncle’s grandiosity aside, I bet most young women haven’t heard of Gens Tsheteri. Your tutors must have been very good.”
“Maybe I just listen to what people say. At the teahouse.”
“Did the gossip at the teahouse teach you how to walk like a lady? Or how to roll your ‘r’s in proper High Realm fashion?” Neavani smiled. “I’ve been underestimating the refinement of these beet farmers. They’re really something.”
Tekana bit her lip.
“Well, hey,” Naevani said encouragingly, “don’t let me get you down. My dad always said I was too smart for my own good. All I’m trying to say is that we’re not that different, and there’s no reason to hide who or what you are. So why don’t you sit down and help me with my sums? Sound good?”
She waved the scroll again. After some hesitation Tekana took it, along with a pencil that Naevani offered up.
“The way I see it,” Naevani said as Tekana sat down on the grass next to her, “us women of good breeding have to stick together. It’s us against the lesser folk, isn’t it? Now, what I need to you to do is check the numbers on this scroll against the numbers in the crate, and make sure everything is accounted for. Can you do that?”
“I… yes. I think so.”
“Are you good at sums?”
“No. I mean, Roven had me do some bookkeeping for the teahouse. From time to time.”
“Good enough. Ask me if you have any questions.”
They worked for a while in silence, Tekana searching through the open boxes while Naevani organized the supplies on the far side of the yard. The addition and subtraction didn’t pose any problems for Tekana, and she had graceful penmanship, the pencil resting gently in her hand and flowing effortlessly across the page. There was something about her writing that bothered Naevani, though, something she couldn’t quite place.
After the soldiers dropped off another load, Naevani came back over to help the girl open the boxes. It took a fair bit of effort to pry the lids off, and Naevani was sweating at the end of it. She dropped the crowbar and looked up at the hot sun, wiping the perspiration off her brow.
She grinned at Tekana. “Not what they teach you about in school, is it? The histories, the poems, they’re all about how great and exciting and romantic war is; they don’t talk about opening boxes and tying knots.”
“It’s okay,” Tekana said.
“Better than fighting, that’s for sure.”
“You don’t like to fight?”
“Not really,” Naevani said. “Don’t have the stomach for it.”
“Then why are you a soldier?”
“That’s easy. I wanted to help my family, help Calin, and I don’t have the guile to be in politics, or the patience to be in trade. I like to work with my hands, and there’s a lot to soldiering besides the fighting.” To emphasize the point, she grunted and ripped off another box top.
“But you’re not with your family anymore.”
Naevani grinned. “Good point. Turns out they didn’t have much use for me. I’m…”
“…I’m not very good at taking orders. I wasn’t a good fit for the Invincible Steel Legions, but I’m much better off here in the Scarlet Moon company. It’s easier to speak your mind here and, what’s better, people listen to you. But I still respect my family and honor it every day.”
That last part was a lie, a dreadful, biting lie, but Tekana didn’t need to know that.
“See,” Naevani continued, “no matter what we do we honor our families, so long as we do it well. Even if they’re not here to see it we honor them, and they honor us in return. Family never leaves us.”
“Except for when they do,” Tekana said.
* * *
The order to move out came a few days later. The rider brought news of a battle at the fortress of Lavail, a battle against demons and fire that left the town ruined and the fortress gate smashed. That sounded too direct, too violent for Scarlet Scar’s normal style of command, which usually relied on subtlety and misdirection to win the day. Perhaps, Naevani mused, his new Exalted allies were affecting his decision-making. Granite Wolf wouldn’t like that.
In a hectic scramble that Naevani did her best to control, the troopers packed up the company’s supplies and made ready to depart. Half a dozen wagons and a long train of spare mounts assembled under her direction, just outside the walls of Onas, while Sergeant Yvenne kept a stern eye on the cavalry troopers in the village green. Naevani was grateful for the presence of the tough sergeant, a veteran of a dozen campaigns and much better suited to commanding soldiers in the field than the Calinti quartermaster was. Hopefully the march would be nothing more than that, a simple matter of travelling from Onas to the capital, which Naevani’s skill at organization would be more than adequate to handle. But if things turned sour she would rely heavily on Yvenne’s talent.
When they were ready to depart most of the troopers rode to the front of the little column with the remainder in the rear, tending to the spare horses. The wagons were in the middle, between the two bodies of soldiers, and Naevani took her customary place in the first wagon, the children beside her on the seat. With a slight twinge of guilt (the remnant of her schooling in the Immaculate Faith) she led the assembled company in a brief prayer to the god of the road and the god of season, asking for swift travel and clear skies. Then they were off with a flick of the reins, the wagon rattling and rumbling over the rough country road, kicking up a plume of dust into the dry sky of the season of Ascending Wood.
There was a clatter of hooves on loose stones as a horse was brought up next to the wagon.
“I thought we were going to the Farrenhill,” Nellens Haldas said, looking down at Naevani. Actually, his saddle was about the same height as the wagon seat, a little lower if anything, but he tried to look down on her.
“We are,” Naevani replied.
“But you’re taking the wrong road. The high road goes east to the capital; we’re going south.”
“Why? If our plans have been changed, I would like to be informed of it. After all, I am the most capable member of our company, so it’s only right that I know as much as I can so I can help as much as I can.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, it is,” Haldas huffed. “I’d like to think you had a little bit of respect for me. After all, we’re comrades in arms.”
“Aren’t we?” he asked, baffled.
Naevani shrugged. Haldas opened his mouth, closed it, then looked around for support from someone. Anyone.
“She means she’s your superior,” Tekana said, coming to Haldas’ rescue from her seat next to Naevani. “So you should listen to her. We all should.”
“Ah. Oh. I see.”
“And we’re heading south because the road is drier,” Tekana continued. “It’s smoother than the main road, too. Better for the wagons, I guess. It turns east in a couple of miles and runs to the capital.”
“I see.” Haldas pulled himself upright on his horse. “Very well. I apologize, ma’am, for my, um…”
“Insubordination,” Naevani supplied.
“Yes, my insubordination. Good day, ma’am.” He primly turned his horse away, spurring it up the road to rejoin the main column.
Naevani hummed thoughtfully. “You know quite a lot, don’t you?” she said, glancing sideways at Tekana. “It’s taken me most of a season to a get sense of the land and figure out the geography, and I know what I’m looking for. Either you have a very good eye, or Roven took you travelling a lot.”
Tekana hesitated. “My mother taught me,” she said, finally.
The next few minutes passed in silence, save for the clatter of the wagon.
“Iselsi,” Tekana continued. “My name is Iselsi Tekana. My mother was from House Iselsi. She was a Magistrate, and she took me on trips, once or twice, on the road. The Great Eastern Road, the one that runs from Greyfalls to the sea.”
“The road passes through here,” she said. “But it’s not as good as it is further south. I’d like to go on the road again. Away from here.”
“After we’re done,” Naevani said, “when I can spare the time, I’ll take you to the sea again, if you want. Back to your family.”
“What family? I never had a family. It was just mother and I.”
“But Iselsi is a Great House; you must have relatives with holdings in the Threshold or back on the Blessed Isle. I’ll get you back with them, where you belong.”
Tekana shook, holding on to her knees. “There isn’t anyone,” she said in a quavering voice, tears forming in her blue eyes. “It was just mother and I. And Nak. He was always there, even when mother had to go do the Empress’ work. And they’re both dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Naevani said lamely. Doing the only thing she could think of she reached around the girl’s shoulders, giving her a hug. That made things a little better.
“Nak was good with horses. Like you. He wasn’t nice to them; I don’t think he liked them. I don’t think he liked anything. But he was good with them.”
The girl drew in a ragged breath.
“He ran away with me, after mother died. We rode off on a horses, on Aethon. But they caught us. The men from House Peleps caught us. They said Nak had to die, that Archons can’t outlive their Magistrate. I always thought he was so brave, but he screamed and screamed and screamed while they killed him.”
“Hush now,” Naevani whispered. “Don’t think about that.”
“I do think about it. All the time. Every day. I think about so I won’t forget their faces.”
“You shouldn’t trouble yourself. Think about the good times, not the bad times.”
“There are no good times,” Tekana said. “Not since mother died. Not since they killed Nak. Not since they made me help them, help that pig Roven.”
“Being sorry doesn’t make it good.” She mumbled something
“One thing,” Tekana murmured. “One thing will make it good.”
“A talent of jade.”
* * *
“And they’re up ahead?” Naevani asked.
Sergeant Yvenne nodded. “In the bush alongside the road.”
“That kind of bush is called bocage. Or a hedgerow, if you want to be vulgar.”
“I see. Ma’am.”
Naevani clambered up the embankment on that lined the road, motioning for Yvenne to follow. The heavyset sergeant slid down from her saddle with a grunt and climbed up after Naevani.
“There?” Naevani asked, pointing down the road. From up here they had a good view of the countryside, a mostly flat plain divided into innumerable fields by high stone walls and the even higher bocage. There was a particularly thick patch of it that lined the road, about a mile in front of them
“Yes ma’am,” Yvenne said, panting a little. “On both sides of the road.”
“How many did your scouts see?”
“A couple dozen. Fairly well-armed, no real armor aside from a few helmets and quilted jacks.”
“And you’re certain they’re bandits?”
Yvenne nodded. “They’re from the Uplands, north of here. One step away from barbarians. They don’t come south, unless it’s to raid or to complain to the king. And Haldas didn’t see any petitions.”
“Haldas? He’s on patrol duty now?”
“Yes ma’am. He’s alert and, while he’s not trained to be a soldier, he is blessed by the Dragons, which counts for something. And, uh, I thought it would be better for morale if I stationed him away from the rest of the troops.”
“Not the most popular? Well, he’s gained my approval now. Good work.”
“What are we going to do? I could send out scouts, find an alternate route.”
“There’s a path north of here, I know, that runs closer to the river… but, no.” Naevani shook her head. “We won’t leave them behind to ambush the next poor travelers who happen to pass through. We’ll take care of them now.”
“Ma’am? With all due respect, it doesn’t look like this road gets much use. Apart from a couple local farmers, it doesn’t hardly see any traffic at all. I can’t see any harm with us skirting around, and it would save us a bunch of trouble.”
“Our duty, sergeant, is to kill the enemies of Vasaan.”
“Yes ma’am.” Yvenne did not seem pleased.
“Take the first squad along that northern path and take the bandits from the rear. I want you to hit their positions at a gallop, frighten them, and chase them out into the open. I’ll stay with the second squad and finish them off once you flush them out. Any comments? And I mean that – I value your advice.”
“No, ma’am, it seems like a sound plan. I’ll bring the trumpeter with me and have him sound out the charge. That way you’ll know when we’re engaged.”
“That sounds wise. Move quickly Sergeant, and be careful.”
Naevani returned Yvenne’s salute and slid down the embankment, back towards the wagons, trying to display more confidence than she felt. She had never led men into battle before, save for a few times while she was in the Steel Legions and her platoon of engineers had strayed within bowshot of the enemy. This was different, though; it was a small fight, to be sure, nothing like a proper battle, but the risk was real, to her and to her men.
And what if she died? What if she caught a stray arrow in the throat, or if she was sloppy and didn’t parry a spear thrust or an axe swing? What if her horse lost its footing and she fell into a ditch and broke her neck? What would she leave behind?
Not much. A little bit of money to go into the company’s pool for widows and the disabled. Letters to her parents and her siblings that she’d written in advance. Another letter to her husband – her ex-husband – that he’d probably tear up and throw away without reading. That was all.
No children, she thought, looking at Lanis and Tekana sitting on the wagon. No legacy, nothing to carry on her name or her memory. Not for lack of trying, but it’s hard for a mere mortal to succeed at the impossible. And if she couldn’t do that, if she couldn’t perform the most simple, basic function of life, what good was she? What was she other than failure, a pathetic, misbegotten failure?
Naevani wrapped her fingers around the reassuring weight of her sword. No good came from that, she chided herself. No one ever got anywhere by lingering over things past. The soldiers needed her to lead, needed her to command, needed her to focus on the here and now. With a snort of annoyance, Naevani wrapped the sword belt around her waist and across her shoulder, pulling it tight. It was time to fight.
Before she left Naevani motioned the children to come over to her. Lanis skipped over, excited by all of the action going on around him, while Tekana came more cautiously. She knew that the trooper’s hurried motions and whispered words meant that danger was near.
“Listen up,” Naevani said, “I want the two of you to be safe, do you here? Stay here by the wagons with the corporal, and if anything goes wrong, if anyone comes near the wagon who isn’t one of the Scarlet Moons, I want you to run and hide in the bocage over there. Understand?”
“And Tekana, in case I get hurt in this fight, I want you to promise that you will go and speak to the captain or to Dex and tell them everything you told me. They need to know. Do you promise?”
“Yes, I promise,” Tekana said.
Naevani drew up her braid and pinned it into place on top of her head. It made a good cushion for her helmet when she pulled it down on her head and tightened her chin strap.
“There,” she said, “I’m all protected now. Even thicker than your silly head.”
She rapped against the steel with her knuckles, reaching out with her free hand to knock on Lanis’ head as well. The boy laughed.
“Don’t get hurt,” Tekana said. “Please.”
“I won’t. Well, I probably won’t. But I’m not much of a prognosticator, so I need you to talk to the captain, just in case.”
“Just don’t get hurt.”
Naevani laughed. “I’ll try my best. I promise.”
“Promises aren’t worth much.”
“No they aren’t,” Naevani said.
But, then again, what is?
You can dare to do anything and succeed in anything, provided you never forget that two and two do not make four; in clumsy hands, they often make three or even less; but they can make five or six. - Louis-Herbert Lyautey