NOTE:

This story is AU/OoC. Furthermore, I have chosen to create a world that is based upon several ancient civilizations. The most prominent similarity you will see is that of the Hime (here, a state/nation) to Ancient Rome. The Himean political structure is based almost entirely on the Roman one, specifically that which was in place prior to the empire, or Republican Rome. If you are a historical purist who dislikes seeing people grossly distort the Roman sociopolitical institutions for the sake of Yuri, please look away. Obviously, one had to change an essential thing about Roman society to make the story work: the patriarchy. This makes it possible for me to have women in significant offices/roles. Either that or I turn them into men—and risk having the readers flay me alive.

Most of the Latin terms are kept intact, as it is really quite troublesome to have to make up new ones when the old ones fit so well. I add the following notes that may be referred to before, during, or after the story, to help comprehend the details of the era. You are not obliged to read them now: the reader should simply refer to them as or if the need arises.


Vocabulaire:

1. A note on the Himean military – military structure for the Himean troops follows the Roman one and the largest tactical unit would be the legion. For quick reference: 1 legion = 10 cohorts; 1 cohort = vers. 600 men (noncombatants included); 1 cohort = 6 centuries; 1 century = vers. 100 men (noncombatants included).

2. Cursus honorum (The Way of Honour) – the classical Roma/Himean route to the top, or the formal sociopolitical ladder of governmental offices. Starting from the lowest political office, it begins at the office of quaestor/tribune of the plebs, then senator, then praetor, then consul. The consul is the highest position, and there are two of them for every term.

3. Decury – the Roman/Himean Senate was organised into groups of ten. Each group was called a decury, and as the old laws had it, each decury had to be led by a patrician (s.v).

4. Legates (in Latin, Legatus) – are the most senior members of a general's military staff. Typically members of Senate.

5. Patricians vs. Plebeians – an important but simple distinction: Patricians come from the original aristocratic families; Plebeian means everyone who is not patrician, and does not necessarily mean "commoner" in the way we use it today. Wealth does not enter the picture in this particular classification: there were a good number of impoverished patricians in Ancient Rome and so it is here.

6. Primipilus – the chief centurion of the leading century of the lead cohort. This is also the chief centurion of an entire legion, and often reports directly to the general.

7. Stibium – a substance based on antimony (the element). It was used as a cosmetic, as well as for writing, in ancient times. It is similar to the modern eyeliner.


Inter Nos

par ethnewinter


"Surely we'll reach Otomeia today," Chie Harada said, struggling with the ends of her cloak to wrap it more securely around her. She shivered, even with the cloth enclosing her. "This country's climate is intolerable."

"Piss'll freeze before it's even hit the ground in this place," came the sneering comment from her side. The speaker, Nao Yuuki, ground her teeth and scowled, bright green eyes narrowing with irritation. She brought a hand up to rub at a conspicuously red ear, visible even against her conspicuously red hair.

"My ears are about to fall off," she complained.

"I think one of mine already did, a few hours ago," Chie replied. "Either that or I'm just so numb I can't feel it anymore."

The woman on the horse ahead of them laughed and slowed her steed to fall in between theirs.

"Perhaps the two of you should stay in the carriage," she offered. "It is unnecessary for you both to be out here."

Nao bared her teeth in a grimacing smile.

"That's easy enough to say, Fujino-san," she said. "But when even the commander stays out with the soldiers on the march, it'd be poor of a simple centurion not to ride next to her just because the weather's colder than a Conservative's heart."

"Ara," the other replied, unable to help smiling. "I actually doubt they have ones to speak of, on occasion. And there is truly no need for you to brave the cold for my sake—after all, Nao-han is not just a 'simple centurion,' but a primipilus, and my chief one, too," she added, to soften the admonition. "Surely a little comfort is only deserved by such a soldier."

The primipilus snorted.

"You don't have to flatter me, General. It won't work, I'm staying right here." Nao gave her another sharp grin and continued: "Besides, I'll be damned if the soldiers tell of the day I couldn't stand a little ice up my ass, when a patrician senator and a letter writer could."

The other two laughed, the sound hollow in the dead winter air. The "letter writer" grabbed a handful of snow from a low branch on a tree they were passing and threw it at the centurion, who dodged it with a hoarse cackle.

"Scribe, Yuuki. Personal scribe, the general's fellow senator and your legate," Chie said, not really offended. "That's the title, not 'letter writer'. Get them straight, you heathen."

"Sure, sure."

"And this scribe's been in as many campaigns as you have, so shut your mouth."

"Well, I don't see the other senator complaining."

"Shizuru-san's too well-bred for that."

"Which means you're not."

Chie laughed and cursed the centurion. This set them off on another round of friendly bickering as they plodded along, the soldiers marching beside them grinning from ear to ear as they listened. It was pleasant to the rankers to hear their officers being so warm and cheerful with each other: it made for a nice camaraderie in the army, which was why the commander encouraged it strongly. She herself said nothing more afterwards, content to just laugh and listen to her two officers as they continued making digs at each other.

The jokes were stopped by a galloping rider coming to the three officers from the front. He drew the horse up before them and saluted.

"General," he said, "we've entered the outskirts of the Otomeian plateau. The city walls are up ahead."

"Good," was all the general said. "Thank you for informing us, Soldier."

Another armour-slapping salute. "General!"

"How far, Scout?" the centurion asked before the man could go, squinting against the rising wind.

"Just past this valley, hidden by the bend, Centurion," he answered. "The other scouts we sent up to clear the tops said there were some archers on the promontories, but they were Otomeians, and they signalled to us."

"That's expected. Tell them to look alive. You can't be too sure with these barbarian places if you've missed something or not, and I don't fancy fighting off a damn ambush here."

"Understood, Centurion! Permission to return to scouting?"

All eyes turned to the commander, who nodded.

"Permission granted," she said simply.

He saluted again and rode off. Nao spurred her steed on as well and said that she would get word out to the other centuries' legionaries that they were near their destination. The other two waved her off and kept their pace, staying at the head of the century.

"Finally," Chie said. "Let's hope these ones are a little more civilised than the last 'allies' we had."

"Indeed."

"Shizuru-san."

"Yes?"

"Do you think the Mentulae know yet?" She turned her head towards her friend as they rode side by side. "That we're here to stop their expansion?"

"I think they may suspect it by now."

"How come they haven't even tried to get in touch with us? No attacks, even, and we're not carrying as many troops as I'd like. There are hordes of them, so I've heard."

They were speaking in low voices, their beasts close as they leaned towards each other.

"Certainly it is a curious thing," the general replied, sounding meditative. "I would have expected an envoy from them, at the very least, to probe for information as to exactly what our purposes are, here. But at least we shall not have to engage in combat prematurely."

"And that's good because of how outnumbered we are right now?"

"Not really," was the reply, given with a small smile. "Simply, it would be an annoyance at this stage. Numbers are not the end-all and be-all of the world. Even when we do reach our allies at Otomeia, we shall very likely remain heavily outnumbered even with the Otomeian military filling our ranks. No, it is that I would prefer to minimise any possible losses, frankly speaking. Whatever the case, I am entirely sure we would win."

"I see."

Chie smiled to herself as they rode on, reflecting on the calm but unselfconsciously confident manner in which the answer had been given. That's the good thing about being with Shizuru Fujino, she thought to herself. If her friend said they would win, they would. In all their years together, the general—even when she had not yet been a general, and even when she had not yet entered the military arena—had never been anything less than successful. Shizuru Fujino's brilliance came allied with a powerful lucky star, one that seemed certain to lead her to even more triumphs than she had already achieved. Which was probably—no, rather, surely—why she had managed to become a senator at such a young age. And head of a decury too, something Chie had never been, for all that she was the elder of the two of them. Not that it pricked her pride in any way, for she had grown too used to her friend's star for that. After a while of standing beside it, you simply resigned yourself into accepting that it would outshine any other star flanking it into insignificance.

In fact, she should be outshining everyone in the political arena back home right now, Chie ruminated, a small frown building on her forehead. If she hadn't spent so much time winning campaigns abroad, she would probably have already been a consul too. She had been expected to run for the office of praetor this year, then go on to the next rung up the ladder that was known as the Cursus Honorum, which was the consulship. By all rights that was what should have happened this year in Hime. Had it not been for this campaign, that is. But that would change after this, Chie was sure of it.

We'll finish this thing wreathed in glory, she nodded to herself, the confident thought bringing a momentary flush of warmth to her chest. Shizuru-san will do it again and we'll beat back those dogs, the Mentulae, all the way to their borders.

Yes, they would do that. Never mind that they were outnumbered. Never mind the dratted chill nipping at her ears. They would finish this campaign and show up those jealous dogs in the Senate that all their schemes to send Shizuru Fujino and her army to a situation she could not fix were for nothing! And perhaps, she would even manage to show up that snobbish old father of Aoi's who kept apostrophising her as unfit for his daughter, calling her blood too weak and new, her achievements too thin...

I hope I'm not being too optimistic, she told herself. But then again, being optimistic at the outset of a journey was surely the better way to begin it. There was no harm in being sanguine even in light of such conditions, as it could not hurt. Besides which, she had one of the best talismans of good luck at her side, did she not?

She smiled, watching as the talisman herself edged close to the walking soldiers and chatted casually with them, their tired expressions falling away as they laughed at her jests. She knew her friend did this every time they went on campaign, mingling with the army on the march to keep their spirits up. Still she found herself amazed by it each time. Remarkable. This was something no other general did, because it was considered unnecessary as well as uncomfortable, when it was possible to merely wait out the journey in a carriage or riding serenely at the head of the officers' group. Shizuru Fujino, in contrast, not only spent her time with the soldiers for the full march but usually walked with them too. But this time the army, through the centurions, managed to convince her to use her horse during the last stretch of their trail. They were concerned that the general would be overtired in the brutal climate, especially as she insisted on moving back and forth the column even more than usual, probably to keep up the rankers' spirits against the frigidity of the weather. She capitulated only when the soldiers themselves made direct pleas to her, saying that it would set their minds more at ease.

She's the only general I'd ever follow, thought Chie, sighing in contentment at her lot. True, there were some other good commanders back in Hime, but as far as she was concerned, none of them could even begin to hold a candle to her red-eyed commander, who simply dwarfed all of the rest. She was brilliant, kind, generous, and—most importantly of all—had never lost a single venture. All of the soldiers, Chie knew, would follow such a general to the death. Who would not?

"Chie-han."

She turned her head to her general, who had cantered back to her side.

"We are almost there. How are you holding up?"

She smiled. "Fair enough, Shizuru-san."

"Ah," was the only response, and a smile.

A while later, they heard the ripples of speech coming from the leading soldiers that told them the ones at the head of the column were in sight of the city walls. It was not long before they themselves could see it as well, silhouetted against the sinking sun. The sky, formerly a grayish blue, had now melted into a soft orange towards the centre of the dying light. The snow covering the trees and the land reflected the colours and bathed everything in warm shades, softening the earlier harshness of the landscape's cool monotone.

"For all its chill, this land is very beautiful," the general remarked, gazing at the sight.

Chie made a sound of agreement, busy trying to imprint the sight into her memory. She intended to make an illustration of it when she had the time. As they approached, however, she furrowed her brows and squinted at the outline of the city.

"Shizuru-san," she said. "Don't they seem seem a little… crooked to you? The walls?"

It was a while before the general replied.

"Ara," she said. "You're right. The line does seem highly irregular at the top."

"Does this mean they can't even build even walls?" the other said in dismay.

"Perhaps there is more to it than that," said the commander, her tone holding a touch of excitement. "Come, Chie-han, let us go to the front. I wish to see it."

They galloped forward, their horses complying eagerly with the release from the monotonous pace. When they were close enough to make out the sentries on the tops of the walls, they realised why the walls looked so odd.

"By the gods!" Chie exclaimed. "This is amazing."

Shizuru laughed, delighted at the discovery. "Extraordinary. You should make a note of it in the record you send to the Senate."

"Oh, you can be sure I will."

"Hey, General!" said a voice, one that had joined theirs sometime earlier. "Crazy, isn't it?"

"What do you think of it, Nao-han?" asked Shizuru.

Nao brought her horse in line with the others'. She looked up at the walls they were approaching.

"Well, it's unusual, all right," she said. "But it's perfect for defence. Those sections look like they'd be impossible to breach with normal artillery. A catapult wouldn't even make a dent in that part."

"I've never seen such a thing," Chie said. "What are they?"

"I do not know," Shizuru said, eyeing the entire structure.

Imposing, she thought. And the primipilus was correct: the whole would be difficult to breach, if not for the sections of the wall that were actually man-made—although she could not be too sure that those other cliff-like sections were not man-made, even if they do not seem like it. What were they?

They seemed to be sheer slabs of rock that rose from the ground at a close-to-vertical angle, jutting out and ending in sharp peaks ranging from twenty to forty metres from the earth, Shizuru estimated. The rock appeared smooth, and there were hardly any regular crags or projections that a climber could use for purchase. The narrowest wedge appeared to be at least a hundred metres wide, and there were around ten of them that she could see from the side they were approaching.

The walls of Otomeia were made up partly of these slabs, with the more standard brick and stone sections built into the spaces between them. These were of an even height, about thirty meters tall. The irregularities of the city's silhouette were caused by the stone wedges rising from the regular height of the brick and stone sections.

Soon the Himean command was entering these walls, having sent envoys ahead to tell the Otomeians to open the gates. These gates, too, were quite formidable as they appeared to be made almost entirely of metal. Due to the weight, they also took a little longer to open and shut than others—or so Shizuru thought, as she studied the shape of the doors and entertained herself with imagining what kind of huge winching mechanism was on the other side, helping the keepers get the doors open. She alone was quiet among the officers as the doors creaked and groaned, her famous red eyes gleaming and taking in everything.

When the portals were finally open, she rode forward with her legates and several officers including Nao at either side, some other officers leading the other cohorts into orderly arrangement on the flat plane outside the gates. Accompanying the general's party were two of their interpreters who were familiar with the Otomeian dialect. The Himean command gazed around.

Seen from within, the stone slabs were also flat on this side. Shizuru and the centurions, who had been taking note of the thickness of the walls as they passed through them, knew that they had to be at least ten metres thick.

Truly impressive, the general thought, drinking in the sights with a calm eye that masked her excitement. I really must ask about them, these walls. And the charming buildings! Undoubtedly foreign in design, yet she found them wonderfully aesthetic. Even the Otomeian clothes appeared far more cultured than she had expected, and her expectations had not even been poor, by all means. She supposed it was her fault, permitting the usual archetypes to influence her expectations: a mountain people, known for being military, at that, was not usually expected to present such an elegant, almost Grecian atmosphere. White was everywhere—they obviously favoured it for their clothing—blonde hair seemed to predominate, and gold and lapis lazuli adornments seemed sprinkled liberally throughout the crowd, even the people on the fringes. Oh, and they were so tall! Long, lean people, very athletic, somehow very appealing in their Attic-looking wraps and robes. Yes, they were a handsome race.

Well, now, she berated herself. Don't just stand here, go forward and get the initial diplomacies over with. The sooner you do, the sooner your people can rest and get warm.

She dismounted and walked forward, her attendants and centurions doing the same. Several persons from the Otomeian line in front of them came up to meet her. They met in the centre of the square, bowing to each other.

"I believe I have the honour of addressing the General Shizuru Fujino?" inquired the man who was standing foremost, facing Shizuru. His eyes widened as he met hers, and she smiled, used to the reaction. She took the opportunity to study him, filing away as many notes as possible within those two seconds of silence his pause afforded.

He was extremely pale, as all the Otomeians appeared to be, and had very long, lank grey hair that went past his shoulders. There were several thin braids in the hanging mane, adorned with minute golden clasps and beads. His eyes were heavily outlined in black—stibium, Shizuru presumed—and his garb was entirely white, with trimmings of gold and brown. Like most of the other Otomeian elders, he was wearing a long robe-like garment that reached his feet, with a cloak of fur over it.

"I hear most of you speak our tongue?" she said, appreciating his use of Himean from the beginning.

"A fair number of us, General," he said. "But mostly the elder ones—there was more congress with Hime in our time—and the nobles. With everyone else, those of your company who cannot speak our tongue can address them in Greek."

"Excellent." She swept the people behind him with a look. "The king is not in present company?"

"I am afraid not," he replied, courteously putting on an abject expression. "We apologise for this, but His Majesty has been feeling poor of late, Fujino-san. He regrets that he cannot come to greet you outside, as the present weather is contrary to his health. If you would be so kind as to follow us, we shall escort you to him. As for your army, we shall be glad to take care of their needs, if you wish. We have already prepared lodging and food for them—and all our interpreters are at the ready, although I doubt you shall have need of them very often."

"I am grateful for such thoughtfulness," she replied. "Please lead the way."

"Of course, Fujino-san. I am Hyodo, by the way, one of His Majesty's counsellors."

Accompanied by her senior legate, the interpreters, and a century of soldiers, they followed the Otomeian representatives through the city, leaving the other officers with the carriages and the soldiers. As they passed through the streets, Otomeians thronged by the road to watch the foreigners being taken to their king. Some of them even cheered at the sight of the Himeans, awed by their appearances. This prompted a low chuckle from the senior legate, who leaned over to her friend the primipilus—it was Nao's century Shizuru had chosen to bring with her on security detail.

"Nice to be welcomed, all right," Chie said, grinning. "I do get tired of dour looks for welcome, after all. What do you think?"

"Hm. They don't look as uncivilised as the Scurrae," Nao muttered quietly, referring to the allies they had worked with during their last campaign. "But I'll be damned if they don't look decadent."

"I know," Chie replied. "Look at all the gold. Dear me!"

"Filthy rich bastards. I bet the king's a greedy old fart."

The general interrupted silently by sending a humorous warning look at her chief primipilus, earning a grin.

"Right," said Nao, sighing. "I know. Be diplomatic."

"Indeed."

"Maybe we should've brought two centuries," Nao muttered. "I'd feel better with two hundred for a bodyguard instead of one."

A smile. "Do you suspect something, Yuuki-han?"

"If you're asking me if I feel they're going to try anything funny, no," the redhead replied. "But I always suspect something."

Shizuru chuckled and told her to relax.

"I am quite sure they shall not try anything," she said, looking at the buildings they were passing. "Enjoy the tour. Look at Chie."

The person in question laughed.

"Guilty," she said to them. "Look at their dress, the structures. Fascinating!"

"Is it just me or is it warmer inside their walls?" Nao asked.

"It is warmer. Amazing, isn't it? Probably since there's a denser concentration of people, and the walls pretty much stifle the wind."

"Well, I don't care why, so long as it keeps my ears stuck to my head."

They entered a compound and came up to the palace, a striking edifice that appeared to be made almost entirely out of painted stone from the outside. They entered and found that the inside was even more noteworthy, done with elaborate murals and brightly tiled floors.

Making their way through the rooms, they noticed the heat and made comments to that effect. One of Otomeian representatives explained that the palace was kept heated by continuous fires burning on every floor.

"Hypocausts?" Shizuru offered.

"Yes, General," an Otomeian responded. She motioned vaguely to the ceiling. "And we have fireplaces for each part of the structure, each positioned to maximise heating capabilities for every storey."

"Marvellous architecture."

The Otomeian nodded, smiling with pleasure. "It is the king's pride and joy, General."

"Nice and toasty," Nao commented as they entered the great hall, which was lit by several fires and lamps inside, giving a warm glow to the area. There were already a lot of people—judging from their clothes, mostly more counsellors and elders—waiting for them there. All were seated on cushions and fur rugs on the floor, at low tables that prompted many an odd look among the Himeans. The bizarre tables were laden with a veritable feast, however, ostensibly for the newcomers.

In the middle of the rows of tables and cushions was a clear path leading towards a longer table, this one set on a raised platform. The Himeans were led through this path as the seated people stood up in respect and made bows to them. At the end of the path by the platform was another group of Otomeians, who bowed slightly as Shizuru and her party came near. A tall man with white hair and a long beard braided with small gold twine stepped forward, his manner and the white ribbon of the diadem tied around his brow indicating his identity.

"General Shizuru Fujino," he said, addressing her in faultless Himean. "I am Kruger the Third of Otomeia. We are honoured by your presence."

Shizuru bowed as he did, although rather less deeply. "We are honoured by your having us as well, Your Majesty."

"Please, address me by my name, Fujino-san. It is hardly meet for one such as you to have to refer to me by such distant formal titles. Even we, far as we are from Hime, hear tell of your greatness. I would be ashamed to put on airs before the Red-eyed Conqueror," he intoned, pronouncing one of Shizuru's titles with almost comical gravity.

"Please do not say such things—I am but a servant of Hime," Shizuru said with her customary diplomacy. "As you insist, I shall address you as either Kruger-han or King Kruger. Is that satisfactory?"

"It is satisfactory, Fujino-san." He clapped his hands and the people at the other tables seated themselves. Some of the Himeans looked around curiously, obviously wondering if they were supposed to do the same.

"It is customary among us to indulge in a feast for any important gathering," the king explained. "Will you do us the honour of gracing our banquet with your presence, Fujino-san? Your entourage is included, of course, and we can provide for the soldiers accompanying you too."

Shizuru inclined her head. "As you wish, King. It is good to have a rest before more pressing matters are discussed."

"Then, please join me at the table." He made a motion to Hyodo, who stepped forward. "Direct Fujino-san's escort to a table."

After they were seated—an affair slightly comical on the part of Shizuru's group, since they were unused to sitting on the floor with rugs and cushions—the feast began and conversation resumed in the huge hall. All of the Otomeian representatives seated with the Himean officers spoke the Himean language, although with varying degrees of proficiency, and if that language failed, they all spoke superb Greek, which meant the Himeans could still interact quite comfortably with them even then. As for the king, Shizuru found that he spoke both languages flawlessly, with no trace of an accent at all. She commented on it, and he smiled with pleasure.

"The Greek is expected, but my pedagogue was a Himean philosopher," he explained. "So naturally, he taught me the language as he spoke it in his hometown. Which was Hime itself."

"Yes, you speak it as someone from the upper class or schooled parts of the city would."

"Quite so. And your accent is one of the older ones, I think? From which area was it again?"

She told him.

"Yes, I recall. Most distinguished. I have met people who speak as you do before. It is most pleasant to the ear."

He paused to quaff some wine, urging her to taste it as he had had it opened from his cellars for her sake. She did so and complimented the vintage.

"It is expected that I would learn your language," he continued. "No one denies the influence of Hime today, and any ruler of Otomeia must be aware of it. Besides, our dynastic line has long held client-patron relationships with Hime and its senators."

"Indeed, we have a long history of alliance," Shizuru agreed. "Although relations between our countries have been sparse of late, unfortunately. How came so many to speak our language here, aside from you, Kruger-han? I understand that it is indeed a well-known language, but I had no idea it was so common in these parts, so far up north."

"It is considered the language of civilised peoples, especially in several of the areas we walk and trade with, so it well befits us to learn it. We interact with your two Northern Provinces, Argus and Sosia, regularly, for example. It is taught to the upper-class families, and it is a requirement for gaining a position in our government," he explained, after a swig of wine from his goblet. "The lower classes speak very little of it, although most of them understand it quite well."

"I see." Her eyes went around the hall again. "I must say that I expected more people to be wearing trousers."

"Ah!" He grinned, his blue eyes lighting up with amusement. "Due to the cold, no doubt? Well, all the soldiers' uniforms are trousers. And as to the formal dress you see us wearing at this moment, there are in fact trousers underneath the long tunic. Some of the women wear leg wraps instead."

"Ah… now I see."

"Now then, let us have some entertainment," he said all of a sudden, signalling to one of the attendants behind him. Several musicians took up positions near the platform their table was on, and some people clad in colourful costumes began to dance in the empty space before the platform. Some of the diners clapped and cheered as one of the dancers, in a particularly smooth movement, flipped and twirled in the air.

"I hope it pleases you," the king said, seemingly very pleased himself with the performers putting on their elegant show of athleticism. He tapped his fingers on the table to the rhythm: the king, all of his subjects knew, adored music.

"Interesting, isn't it?" Chie said after a while from Shizuru's side.

"Yes."

As everyone was watching the performers and falling to the repast with renewed vigour—dinner entertainments sharpened the appetite—Shizuru let her eyes wander throughout the hall once more, enjoying the looks of these foreigners. They were all so pale and fair, and because nearly all of them wore white, with the rest wearing shades of fawn and cream, she found them all the fairer for it. They rimmed their eyes too with stibium, she noticed, and with their pale skin, it made them look even more exotic.

She was about to put a piece of bread in her mouth when something caught the corner of her eye, and she turned, looking past the king. There, leaning against the far wall, was a female figure that did not appear to be Himean yet was not wearing white. She seemed to be in dark clothes of some kind—black, to all appearances—which Shizuru could not see perfectly because of the flickering light of the torches and the depth of the shadows in which the figure was standing. What she could see perfectly was the figure's face, illuminated in such a way that made her appear to be glowing.

Shizuru paused with her hand halfway to her mouth.

"Fujino-san?" inquired the king, who had noticed her odd pose.

Shizuru looked at him and smiled apologetically.

"Forgive me," she said. "I was just thinking of something."

"Perhaps you are anxious to begin our talks already?"

"It would be appreciated if we could do so."

"Then, if you have finished with your repast, would you like to join me in the council room? Or would you prefer to wait until the feast is over?"

Shizuru glanced at the wall and found that the person was gone.

"Indeed," she said. "It would be best if we could cover some of the ground now and adjourn to another room, King Kruger."

"Of course, Fujino-san. Your attendants?"

A while later, Shizuru and a few of her officers were with the king and several of his head counsellors in another room, this one much quieter but also quite large. There were two interpreters from the Himean side as a precaution, although the speech being used was Himean. Guards were posted outside the room as they held the conference, as was to be expected.

"So he has not yet stepped into your territories?" Shizuru was asking the Otomeians. "Or tried?"

"He has not," a female Otomeian said. "But he is getting closer and closer. Even now, he is making movements that tell us he plans to besiege Argentum, and that is already a Himean client-state, as well as an ally of ours."

"We shall have to engage him soon," Shizuru said. She looked up. "Your forces?"

"Quite good," said the other counsellor, a man. "Although we are nowhere near his numbers, ours are better-trained, I think. We have at the ready three thousand horse, fifteen thousand foot, and about a thousand archers. About seven hundred of the cavalry are archers—although the Lupine division's units are crack shots with arrows as well as spears."

"The Lupine division?"

"Our elite unit, the first cavalry division. They comprise about seven hundred warriors, all of whom can use nearly any weapon with remarkable skill. Sending them out often decides the course of our battles, so fearsome are they."

"How interesting," Shizuru said, lifting her brows. "An elite cavalry squadron? I daresay that would be most useful."

"I'd like to see this Lupine division," her chief primipilus muttered quietly to the senior legate behind her, eyes lighting up with curiosity.

"Why, one of them is just outside the door," the king exclaimed, clapping his hands. The door opened and he called for someone. "Here she is now. Come here, my dear."

As the person entered, Shizuru felt herself freeze again, the odd crystallisation going through her body as though it had been touched by some winter wind. The person the king had called in was the figure she had been looking at in the great hall.

The king beckoned to the young woman and said something in the Otomeian tongue to her with remarkable gentleness for a king addressing a subject: Shizuru noted it. The new arrival then stepped forward, bowing to the Himeans. As her hair fell forward, Shizuru realised why her face—and what a face!—had seemed so much paler than the rest of the Otomeians', even at a distance: her hair was dark as night, black with no hint of brown or red in the strands. The little gold-ornamented braids in it, relatively fewer compared to the others, looked like stars.

"This is Natsuki," the king explained. "She is captain of the Lupine division, as well as one of my personal attendants. She is one of my most trustworthy subjects and one of the most valued."

The Himeans took in the young woman, appraising her with great interest. Just a little behind her, Shizuru was conscious of her senior legate responding quietly to someone—probably the primipilus—digging her in the ribs.

"I see," Shizuru said to what she now realised was still a girl, speaking a little more softly than she had intended. "We are pleased to be working with you in the coming months."

The Otomeian merely bowed and retreated to one corner of the room with the king's permission, saying nothing and receding into the shadows. The rest continued their conversation, speaking for a good while. Every now and then, however, Shizuru would flick her eyes surreptitiously to the figure standing in the dark, wondering what in the world would drive someone with a face like that to hide it in darkness.

"Now, I believe we have covered everything," the king said, at length. "The rest needs to be planned in detail, and perhaps it would be best to get some rest before that. I am sure you are very tired, Fujino-san."

"The idea is rather appealing," Shizuru responded with a wry smile. "How nice it would be to actually sleep in a warm room, after having spent so many nights in the chill of marching camp. Why, I am almost afraid I would fail to fall asleep if I do not see my breath misting above me."

"We shall paint it on the ceiling of your rooms if need be," the king laughed, the braids of his white beard waving. "I shall have someone take you to your rooms, honoured guests. We have rooms enough for each one of you to sleep in peace, as well as comfort."

The primipilus approached the commander when they stood up, which made the others turn towards her. Shizuru understood and looked as though she would shake her head.

"Pardon me, General," Nao said, setting her face into its most pugnacious lines. "But I think I'd better set some of my rankers outside your room, just in case."

Shizuru chuckled. "Unnecessary, I should say. We are clearly among friends here."

Chie added her opinion to the matter. "But it's par for the course even when in camp, Shizuru-san. Maybe Nao's right."

"In camp, yes. As a guest in the home of another, palace though it may be, it is shabby conduct."

Looking from one woman to the other, the Otomeian king took in what was being said and what was being suggested. And then, with the lightning-fast intelligence that was required to be ruler of his nation, he made a decision that he calculated would benefit him in the future, one way or another.

He gently interrupted the three women and offered the resolution he had invented.

"Fujino-san," he said. "Perhaps I can help set your worthy officers' mind at ease. Would you be willing to accept Natsuki as your personal bodyguard while you are our guest? It would set my mind at ease as well, for she is the best warrior we have, as well as the most reliable one. I myself would vouch for her, for I too feel exceeding calm when she is near."

It was clear that Nao found this intelligence even more cause to be suspicious, and she was about to protest when Shizuru cut her off with an unexpected response—at least, as far as her officers were concerned.

"I would be happy to have her as my guard," she said firmly, eliciting a curious look from the senior legate and every other Himean in the room. "Would she be willing, Kruger-han?"

"She will do as I tell her."

"I would prefer to hear it from her, I am afraid, to be sure it is no imposition."

The king called the young woman over from the shadows. She stepped close to them, her face shining in the yellow light.

"I want you to be Fujino-san's personal attendant, Natsuki." Again he spoke more kindly to his supposed attendant than he had with several of his counsellors, and again Shizuru wondered at it. "For as long as she is a guest of our country, guard her with your life."

The girl's eyes, which she had kept lowered all the while, flicked up and met her king's. They were a startling shade of green and the general, seeing the woman's eyes properly for the first time, had the impression of a glittering forest after rain.

Truly, Shizuru thought once more, what a face!

Natsuki nodded.

"There," the king said, pleased. "You have a bodyguard, Fujino-san."

Nao and Chie turned to look at Shizuru, still wearing bemused expressions on their faces. There was good reason for their confusion. Their commander had never accepted any offers of personal bodyguards before, and they wondered why she would do so now. Certainly both thought the young woman, this "Natsuki", cut an enigmatic figure—but why should that make a difference to the general?

The general, for her part, was locked in a staring battle with her new bodyguard. Her eyes twinkled mischievously as she realised that the young woman was not about to cave in to her stare, something fairly unusual. This was the first time anyone had even dared to take her on at first meeting, she thought with amusement, tickled by this interesting situation into which she had willingly walked.

A smile formed on her lips, and she was even more amused to see that spots of colour had appeared on the young woman's cheeks.

"Does this please you, Fujino-san?" the king of Otomeia asked her.

"Oh, yes," Shizuru said, still keeping her eyes on the young Otomeian. "I have a bodyguard."