Ilsa and Blue have outrun the Red Lector’s forces, but war is nearer than ever.
They have arrived at a Dalite Manor on the steppe close to the central part of Tenlyres.
After an initial clash with overprotective guards, the lord of the manor decided to talk to them.
Ilsa’s coat hung draped over the back of an elegant chair, her shirt folded on top of it. The shoulders of both garments were torn where the bullet had grazed her. She sat in the small dining room of Lord Palend’s manor house. Blue, across a carved wooden table from Ilsa, drummed her fingers on the tabletop as a groundsmaid who worked at the estate quietly stitched the wound.
Behind Blue, Lord Palend kept his eye averted from Ilsa. His craggy face had gone pale when Ilsa had removed her coat. Evidently he did not like the sight of blood. And there had been blood, despite the relative shallowness of the graze.
What surprise Ilsa had felt at Palend’s open squeamishness was overshadowed by the pain of the needle and thread moving through her skin. She grimaced, having refused the pain medicine Palend had offered. No matter the pain, she could not afford to sacrifice any part of her clear head in this situation. She did not know if she could trust Palend or his servants.
She turned her gaze toward Palend where he stood, leaning on his blackwood staff. “Is Fort Sardul near here?”
He waved his hand through the air but did not turn toward her. “Yes, very near. Just a few kilometers away.”
Blue raised her eyebrows. “We didn’t see it.”
The needle moved. Ilsa gritted her teeth. How much longer?
The groundsmaid squinted through thick glasses, intense in concentration.
Lord Palend frowned at Blue. “If you are with the Unification why are you going to Fort Sardul?”
Blue sucked her teeth. Her eyes flicked toward Ilsa. There was a question implied in her glance. Blue didn’t need her mental powers to convey it. Should we tell him about the Red Lector? An obvious question, but not easy to answer. Judging by his servants he might actually support the Ayochian offensive.
Should we tell him about the Red Lector? An obvious question, but not easy to answer. Judging by his servants he might actually support the Ayochian offensive.
Ilsa started to nod. The needle moved. Sensation flared. She let out of a hiss of pain, then bowed her head toward Blue and Palend.
Through clenched teeth, she said, “A force from Ayoch is heading this way.”
Palend turned toward her with a gasp. “From Ayoch? Has the war begun already?”
She looked up at his face. Strands of hair, loosed from her once-tight tie, drifted at the edges of her vision. He paled further. She wasn’t sure which of them was swaying more. “Between Dal and Chogrum, not yet. But the Red Lector is leading these Ayochians, so it may be near.”
“The Red Lector?” Palend’s lips trembled. Gnarled fingers clenched around his black staff.
Blue’s hand flattened on the tabletop. “You sound like you know him.”
“I’ve met him. Unless Goji Haram has been replaced since I was last in Ayoch.” A scowl deepened the fissures in his face. “That man has never seen eye to eye with me.”
The needle came out of Ilsa’s shoulder. The groundsmaid used a fine-pointed scissors to cut the string. Ilsa gave a grateful sigh, despite the continued burn of the wound. The groundsmaid stepped back from her, carrying the needle and spool of thread, as well as the tissues she had used to soak up the blood.
“Haram.” She remembered the name of the leaders of the scouts, Yunn, and Kaij Haram.
“You know the name.” Palend met Ilsa’s gaze, face darkened. “You should, being that you’re with the Unification. Goji and his wife are known as conquerers in the west of Ayoch. She is a general, and he is the Lector who justifies her wars within their national religion.”
A chill ran down Ilsa’s spine, and it had nothing to do with wearing only a bra for a top. She leaned against the back of her chair. “I’ve heard of the Red General of Ayoch, but I never knew why she was called that.”
“It isn’t just her husband’s status,” said Palend. “My partners in the lands she has conquered have spoken of her tactics. She spills too much blood in the name of her queen.”
Be red. Be red. Cass, did you know what was going on in Ayoch when you told me that?
Ilsa frowned. “I didn’t see a female general back in Korlom.”
“They’re already in Korlom?”
“They were a few days ago,” said Blue. “We just barely outpaced them on the way here.”
“It was a close call.” Ilsa grunted. “They have war magi with them. Enough to send one with the scouts. Does Goji Haram have children?”
“Three that I’m aware of. Twin sons, and a younger daughter.”
Ilsa pressed her palm to her forehead. She brushed her hair back from her face. “I think his sons are riding with the scouts. Will they come here?”
Palend shook his head. “Likely they will camp by Fort Sardul. They probably radioed ahead and requested the veil be lifted. I bet that’s why you couldn’t see it on your way here.”
Veils produced by war magi usually formed as side effects of other magic and consisted of chaotic illusions that muddled reality’s appearances.
“A veil?” Ilsa stood up and walked to the chair where her shirt and coat lay along the back. “Does the fort have war magi too?”
“As far as I know they have a machine that replicates the illusory effect. It’s quite a new invention, only added this year.”
Ilsa’s scowled. “A machine the produces veils like a magus? Is that even possible?” She glanced at Blue.
Her friend shrugged. “It could be possible with digital assistance, but plant-piles definitely wouldn’t work because they don’t have muscles to control gestures. An animal-pile might be capable of that, though.”
Ilsa wrinkled her nose. Animal-piles could be used to store data, but they were difficult to feed and maintain because of their size and waste products. Plant-piles nourished only from water and sunlight captured by other plants connected to them. Animal-piles were like other animals. They needed to eat, drink, and pass waste. On the Plateau of Yr, they lived only in human captivity and were usually considered more trouble than they were worth by normal people. On the other hand, animal-piles could provide mobile databases and networks, the kind an aggressive army might find very useful.
She stopped by the chair and frowned at Blue and Palend. “If they have this kind of ability and share it with the Red Lector, our mission could get complicated.”
Palend walked to the table. The base of his staff thumped on the hardwood floor. “What is your mission, priestess?” He glanced at Blue. “And who is your traveling companion?”
“My name is Blue.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m a mind eater, but I fight for the Unification too.”
Ilsa nodded, still unsure if she could trust Palend though he obviously had no love for the Red Lector. “We’ve worked as mercenaries in Morhoi until recently.” She glanced at Blue. Her friend shrugged. Ilsa picked up her shirt and looked at the filthy, bloody garment. She turned toward Palend. “I’d like to know if you have a stance on the Unification before I tell you what we’re doing on the plateau.”
“Very well.” Palend bowed to her, then turned and dipped his head to Blue. “In all honesty, I admire the philosophy of Unification, despite growing old in the light of Vada.” He closed his eyes for an instant, as followers of Vada often did when they mentioned their deity by name.
Vada was one of The Three, so Ilsa was familiar with many of her related ritual gestures. “After all.” Palend turned to Ilsa. “A peaceful world would be a better world.”
Blue kept her eyes on Ilsa. She did not look convinced. But choice did the two of them have?
“Alright,” said Ilsa. “We’re looking for the Guardian of Tenlyres who lives among the nomads. If there is a war, the Oshomi could be caught in the middle, and we mean to keep the heart of their religion safe.”
Palend took his staff in both hands. He looked very old in the electric light above that made the lines in his face seem deep as the darkest rivers of Morhoi. “A worthy goal. Perhaps I can assist you. I have little reason to help Ayoch or the Red Lector’s family.”
“Your guard said Unification was worse than Chogrum,” said Blue.
“Raheb has my safety in mind. He knows I will act in the cause of peace, even if I risk this life of mine.”
“I believe you.” Ilsa looked up from the shirt in her hands, surprised to realize the words wore true. “Do you have any suggestions?”
“I can offer you a place to rest for now. And when the Red Lector’s army arrives, I can help you get into Fort Sardul to investigate things. My wealth and lands afford me special protections from the Dalite military.”
“We could use more information,” said Blue.
Ilsa reached for her shoulder and touched near the stitches with a ginger hand. “We could use real rest, no matter how little.”
“That’s definitely so.” Blue smirked.
Palend smiled. “I will tell my staff to prepare accommodations.” His eyes moved to Ilsa’s torn and dirty shirt. “And we’ll see if I can find you some clothes while we wash what you’re wearing.”
Blue chuckled. “Are you a dirty old man?”
“No. But I’m looking at two filthy young women.” Palend held his nose and grinned.
Blue laughed. “You know what, you’ve got a point, old man.”
Ilsa smiled. A chance to bathe almost made her wounded shoulder worth it. She dropped her shirt onto the back of the chair. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Thank you for your mission. But may I ask you one thing?”
“Why would servants of the Unification fight as mercenaries for money?”
“We have taken money from many commanders, but we only ever fought for one cause, our own.”
“That could be a good proverb,” said Blue. “Write it down, Ilsa.”
She shrugged. “It’s the truth.”
“That’s what’s so good about it.”
Ilsa rolled her eyes but Blue’s praise still felt good.
Palend looked from one of them to the other. He nodded absently. “I will have my people draw each of you a private bath.” He left the room for the larger adjacent dining hall. His staff thumped on the floor as if he were forcing it down with every step.
Steam still rose from the bath as the water drained. Ilsa had carefully avoided getting her stitches wet. She walked to the sink by the door, still trying to dry her hair with a towel, and looked down at the clothes folded under the mirror beside the basin.
The shirt was pale blue, almost gray. It looked a little small for her but was finely woven. Ilsa found herself grateful for fresh clothes, regardless of either of those facts.
Light streamed through the high window in the wall over the tub and shined off the mirror in front of Ilsa. Her reflection looked tired, even to her own eyes, despite being newly clean. Her eyes moved down to her shoulder. The stitched wound looked so small with the blood around it washed away, but the residual pain went deeper than the surface.
Ilsa finished drying her hair and folded her towel beside the basin of the sink. She took care as she dressed in the warm clothes left by Lord Palend’s servants. The day had been strange so far, and replacing her worn and battered clothes with oddly comfortable new garments did not make it feel any more normal.
She fastened her old belt around the waist of a pair of dark-colored riding pants. The belt carried two magazines of pistol ammunition in the pockets on either side. She slipped her black hair into a fresh tie to keep it back from her eyes. She buttoned up her new shirt and it found it was indeed a bit smaller than the last old one. She left the top button undone, pulled on a light jacket and then left the steaming bathroom for the hallway that led along the first floor of the house.
Somehow, Palend’s estate had been off her radar when she had been thinking about crossing the plateau. At the moment, it was a stroke of luck, a gift from Hathani perhaps.
A short woman, blond hair tied into a ponytail, stood in the hall with her arms folded. She leaned against the wall opposite the bathroom door. “Priestess.” She bowed her head. “Forgive me.”
Ilsa took a deep breath as she looked at the woman with her head bowed against her gray-green camouflage shirt. “For what?” She had suspicions, but it would be better to know for sure.
“I shot you.”
Ilsa’s stitches were too fresh for her not to feel an instinctive flash of temper. She controlled the feeling and nodded. “You were doing what you thought was right. I can forgive you for that.”
“Thank you for sparing my husband. I don’t know what I would have done if…”
“That man out front?” Ilsa thought of Raheb and remembered her weapon under his chin. Words from Hathani’s ancient book returned to her mind.
“Always fight alongside those you love. Those you love are those you trust.”
“Thank you, priestess.”
“My name is Ilsa.” Ilsa held out her branded right hand, sideways to not threaten with the marks of her weapon bonds.
The woman looked up at her face, surprised. “I’m Jia.” She took Ilsa’s hand cautiously. “Still, Jia Suel, thanks to your restraint.”
Ilsa frowned. While some Dalite women returned to their maiden name when widowed, she had thought that tradition might die out. If there were children in a marriage the combined name almost always stuck. She pulled Jia close and clapped her on the back with her free hand. “Good to meet you, Jia Suel.”
Jia pulled back, tears in her eyes. She dabbed at her face with a white handkerchief. “Thank you, Ilsa.” She took a deep breath. “Lord Palend sent me to ask if you would be ready to go to Fort Sardul this evening.”
“I should be, as long as Blue is.”
“Blue.” Jia’s shoulders slumped. “The mind eater.”
“Yes.” Ilsa met Jia’s damp gaze. “She’s my partner in the Unification, Chogrumian or not.”
“Do you think that’s wise? Going to the fort with her, I mean.”
“She can find things I can’t.”
Jia touched her forehead with her fingertips. “I think I know what you mean.”
Ilsa nodded to Jia. “I’m sorry she had to hurt you. Tell Palend I’ll be ready.”
The woman bowed her head. “I’m a hunter. I thought shooting people would be the same as shooting animals. I guess I was wrong.”
“The action is the same.” Ilsa closed her eyes. “The consequences are different.”
Jia did not reply, but turned and walked away. Ilsa let her go. She thought of the people she had killed, with her bonded weapons, and by other means. In war, such actions were encouraged. Thoughts about the consequences were punished by one’s own mind. Those were memories not even someone like Blue could devour completely, not that Ilsa would ever ask for that. She had to remember her own actions to forgive others.