Thank you very much for the advice, reviews, and readers from last time. I am still inspecting alternative sites, but once I do choose one and it proves necessary, I shall simply note which site it is on my DeviantArt account. I myself am not taking this story off this site, however.
On another note, some persons have told me they were saving copies of the story. I responded to a number of these advising them not to do so: I had yet to go over past chapters to edit them to be more to my liking, after all. Please recall that many old chapters—especially those prior to Ch.30—were pounded out by a typist I would corral into taking down the text for me over a duration of one hour or so. Even the ones after that tended to be horrifically rough: I often uploaded them without reading through the text in order to make uploads faster. Some of the earliest readers shall recall I actually uploaded once or twice a week at the beginning of this story, in fact. The earlier chapters were thus rather dreadful. I finally managed to return to most of them (up to Ch.40) to make some necessary changes. To be clear, I did not "rewrite" whole chapters. I merely changed some parts, omitted others, and corrected the language and punctuation to be more in line with my preferences—again, recall that some of my poor harassed typists were American, which gave both of us problems over where I wanted marks to go and how some words should be spelled. They kept arguing with me over inverted commas in particular (chuckle).
1. A Reminder on Army Policies for Booty - material loot was generally split up amongst the members of the army and the state's Treasury (with bigger portions going to those higher up, naturally, and with the commander retaining the prerogative to increase or decrease booty shares for particular persons/positions as he or she saw fit). Captives to be sold as slaves, however, were entirely the general's: all profits from that went to him or her.
Inter Nos II: Inde Ira et Lacrimae
The commander of the Mentulaean army that had been pinned with the Fourth Legion was a baroness named Thorak, a noble of middling position in the Mentulaean Court's hierarchy. Her father had been more highborn than her mother, but the latter had been richer, and this meant Thorak came into a split inheritance: she got wealth and thriving partnerships in good businesses from her female parent; she got titles and lands accompanying them from the male one. The wealth allowed her to collect and fund the troops she used to face off the Fourth at the river boundary, and it was the aristocracy that allowed her to actually lead said troops herself. However, the same aristocracy only extended so far, as was seen in her assignment.
Had Thorak been higher up the Court's pecking order, she would certainly have been assigned a far better post than what she got. Granted, she was being given an important job in a way, one for a river crossing with a garrison of enemy soldiers on the other bank. But it was still one of the subordinate crossings and its bridge had already been torn down. Besides—and even more to the point—no one expected anything very exciting to happen in the south for this war. These were the backwaters of the empire, largely made up of mountains and agricultural plains and a few not-too-large cities and even-less-large towns in between. Thorak knew her army was stationed where it was for only two reasons: first, as a reserve force to be held ready for further movements along the border come spring; and second, for protection of a largely hypothetical nature for the region. Even the tiny Himean army they knew to have penetrated the border months ago was unlikely to come down from its defensive squat in the citadel of Trogum, far west of the Southern Frontier: it would be eaten up by the larger Mentulaean forces on the plains. So no danger was expected from there either. In effect, Thorak was little more than temporary warden of a rather unexciting ward.
Yet the baroness had no desire to inhabit some other commander's shoes in this war. While not actually a coward, she was of a sluggish temperament that meant she was pleased at least by the out-of-the-action location of her post. The appointment itself, though, did not initially please her. She had been hoping to winter elsewhere this year, and the king's declaration of war with Hime had already crippled her original plans to travel out of the empire for a nice vacation away from the fast and furious company of the Court. When she presented her obligatory tribute of war materiel and troops to the king at the capital, her hope was to at least be allowed to return to her lands for the cold months. No such luck for Thorak! Still, to be assigned to the sleepiest place in the country was some consolation to this sleepy aristocrat.
Thus expecting the military equivalent of a sinecure, she was considerably troubled by recent events in her area of concern. These included the sudden exit of the enemy force facing hers across the river and the strange reports of another enemy force running rampant nearby, on her side of the river. One was naturally more troubling than the other. When the first event had occurred, all she had been duty-bound to do was send a letter to the camp near the larger crossing, higher up the River Atinu and near Argentum. The letter bore warning to the commander of that area, saying another enemy force was heading nearer their post and possibly reinforcing the enemy camp defending the crossing there. That was the span of her obligations in that matter, and after the letter had been sent off by courier, she and her army had settled down again to enjoy a fairly cushy time, even more relaxed than before because the army fronting them was gone.
When news of the second event came upon them, though, she knew she would have to actually bestir herself from her camp. Part of what troubled her so much about this matter was the difficulty of ascertaining truth from rumour: at the time, all that was for certain was that two Mentulaean towns had already been razed by this phantom foe they kept hearing about. Of the foe itself, though, they had only garbled and confused accounts from local witnesses too panicked out of their wits to deliver anything more reliable.
Some claimed the enemy to be the force that had been holed up in the far southwest, in the mountain fortress of Trogum. Others alleged that it was actually a different army, one that had been just been hidden in the region and lying in wait for the right time to come out. Some even claimed that it was an army that had come to the area by—and here was an unbelievable rumour indeed!—crossing the Great Southern Alps, also known as the Alps of Caledonia.
Obviously, one account was more plausible than the others. Thorak was hardly about to credit something as fantastic as an enemy force passing through the great massif in wintertime. Far easier to believe that it was the army that had been holed up in Trogum Citadel—which the Himeans knew as Kenji Nakamura's group. That explanation was made more believable as the few reports commenting on the enemy's size said it was just about the same as that western army had been reported to be months ago.
Ah, but that little western army had a daring leader, Thorak thought: first he had managed to seize the supposedly impregnable fortress of Trogum, presumably by some treachery from inside the citadel. His army had been left alone even after Trogum was taken because the Mentulaean command believed, from what was known of his army's size, that it posed little threat, especially given that it was separated from all its allies across the river. Furthermore, Trogum was generally held to be impossible to siege, owing to its rugged mountain perch. Everyone had thus been pleased to leave alone the Himean army settled in that citadel for now, choosing to focus on the forces across the river that were the bigger threats. Yet here this tiny, ignored army was proving itself a worse troublemaker than its fellows across the border, its commander taking his soldiers out for a romp through enemy lands and acting as though the Mentulaean Southwest were his own damned garden.
It intrigued Thorak that anyone could have such audacity. That said, she was certain she could trounce this audacious army even so, since all the accounts did agree that she had the far larger force. Thorak was a typical Mentulaean commander, so this was typical Mentulaean thinking: numbers determined the battle. Besides, this was also her home turf, so to speak, and the enemy was an outsider. If anyone knew the place well enough to get a tactical advantage and would be getting support from local peoples as well as nearby garrisons, it would be she.
So when Thorak marched out of her camp at the head of an army twenty thousand strong, she had few misgivings rattling about her mind. The only ones that did ring a clatter every now and then were the uncertainties she yet had over the precise identity and origins of the enemy. Well, all in good time: she would find out more once she saw them for herself, was her philosophical position on the matter.
Thorak's army traced the footsteps of the enemy force and followed a path taking them farther and farther from their origins at the river border. They picked up more bits of information as they went, talking to locals who had escaped their foe. Overtime, they managed to solidify to near-certainty several of the rumours: the enemy was indeed Himean, judging from the armour and speech; the enemy was certifiably fewer in number, possibly only half their own size at most; and the enemy had already burnt down a third town and now seemed to be on its way to a fourth.
Hence it was to the fourth town that Thorak marched, taking a straight route from her position instead of tracing the Himean army's footsteps again. The plan was to try to catch the Himeans there before they ran off and had to be tracked down once more, so Thorak made her troops go even faster than they had already been moving, almost doubling their pace. By the time they were only about ten or so days' march away from their goal, however, something happened that compelled them to speed up yet again and with even more purpose than before.
One dusky evening, as Thorak and her soldiers settled down in camp, two weary riders were rounded up by the night's watch. The watch said that the pair claimed to be from Thorak's very destination: the city of Asterion. They were servants of one of the city's magistrates, said the male messenger, who also brought with him a brief letter bearing what looked to be a Mentulaean aristocrat's seal; it was supplied as proof of his and his companion's identities. The letter also served as support to the pair's tale, which Thorak and her officers digested with fascination.
It seemed that while Thorak and her army had been marching to save Asterion, the city's leaders had decided to capitulate almost instantly to the Himeans parked outside their walls, deeming it the wiser ploy instead of trying to resist what had thus far been proven to be an irresistible force. The Himeans had proceeded to build camp outside the walls and then used the city's facilities and fare as they saw fit after that, greedily sucking up Asterion's stored-up food for the winter into their own mouths because this had been the first town they had not been forced to set on fire (thus destroying granaries) to defeat. Asterion had not made an effort to resist the depredations, giving the foreigners all they wanted until the Himeans began to deem the town truly subjugated and hence became laxer with their policies of entry and exit. Once they relaxed enough, though, Asterion had taken revenge.
The commander of the Himean forces had apparently taken well to being feasted by the local leaders and quickly came to enjoy her dinners with Asterion's magistrates, where they pulled out every delicacy and drink they could to satisfy the woman's finicky tastes. At one of these dinners, the town magistrates arranged for the commander's sparse guard to be overcome and the Himean commander herself taken hostage. After this, they had shut the town's gates and refused all Himeans entry, holding the enemy leader as insurance to prevent the troops in the camp outside from attacking and waiting for succour to arrive. Succour that it now appeared Thorak was going to provide.
Immediately after the enemy leader's capture and before the city gates were shut, the magistrates had sent off the two messengers that now told Thorak the tale. Their order had been to ride for Thorak's old camp at the borders, as they had not known her to be moving their way already. It had been good fortune that led them straight to her watchmen and eventually to her command tent, where they were able to regale her and her officers with the story.
"How did you manage to escape their own watchmen?" Thorak asked. "Surely they set guards around the town?"
"Yes," said one of the messengers. "But we know paths out of our city better than any foreigner ever could."
"Besides, they wouldn't have noticed us even if we'd ridden in front of their noses," the other messenger, the dark female, snorted with derision.
"Why is that?" Thorak said.
"Drunk, the lot of them," said the woman. "We plied them with drink to see if it was true what they said about Himeans, General, and it was. They down wine like fish drink water. By the time they noticed their commander was missing, it was past noon of the next day, since they'd been drinking through the night."
Thorak smiled: most people around the Himean Sea knew of the Himean weakness for liquor.
"So you slipped out without notice, good," she said. "How many of them are there?"
"We couldn't count perfectly," one messenger replied. "But our master reckoned about nine, ten thousand."
"Half ours, the others were right," one of Thorak's captains muttered.
"Where did they come from?" another officer asked.
"Down the mountains from the west, I think they said."
"I told you so!" the officer who had asked the question crowed to someone else at the table. "It's those ones."
"Well, of course it's those ones," the man responded to his friend. "I never said I believed that shit about them coming over the massif."
"Never mind that for now," Thorak sighed. "What's important is that we get there as soon as we can, before the Himeans get antsy enough to try anything drastic like storming Asterion despite their leader being held captive in it. That is what your master begged in the letter," she said, addressing the two messengers.
They nodded in earnest.
"Tell the others," she said to her officers. "We'll march as fast as possible tomorrow, crack of dawn. Even if holding their leader might seem strong insurance for Asterion for now, you never know with these Himeans. They're insane enough to come down from a nicely fortified spot like the one they probably left in Trogum to start up this commotion in the plains and in the middle of winter. We'll have to go fast or Asterion's trick will go to waste."
And fast they went indeed, making what even the much-faster-on-the-march Himeans would have considered fair time. Thorak sent scouts ahead to survey the situation and once they had cleared more than half of the distance to the city, those returned with reports corroborating the Asterion messengers' story. They told Thorak of what they had seen, which was the Himeans milling confusedly around the camp they had put up beside Asterion and occasionally sending groups near the city's walls to yell threats to the people looking down at them from the towers—who, more often than not, retaliated with jeers and a rich variety of rude gestures that the scouts took great pleasure in replicating for their commander. The Himeans had apparently grown so discomposed by the abduction of their general that even their watch had eased sufficiently to permit Thorak's scouts to get in close during their observations.
This relaxation of discipline was obviously something to be taken advantage of as soon as possible, so Thorak and her officers spurred the men forward again. Thus they arrived at their destination two days ahead of schedule, panting from the effort but rewarded by the sight of a tiny Himean host beating a hasty retreat from its posturing near Asterion's walls. The Himeans ran to the safety of their camp—another of those weird structures the foreigners seemed to like to build, the ones with the rows of ditches outside its walls, Thorak noted—and locked their own gates upon spying the new army on the scene.
The Mentulaean force parked itself menacingly in front of the Himean camp, sitting between it and the city. Meanwhile, Thorak prepared a contingent of one hundred soldiers to accompany her into Asterion, where they would fetch the enemy's general. The town leaders had said that they would only cede the prisoner to the Baroness Thorak herself, being wary of tricks from the Himeans—who might attempt to slip their general out of the city by impersonating some other officer under Thorak's command.
"Are we going to threaten to behead her in front of them?" asked one of her officers as they waited for the guard to be put together, earning a nod from his general.
"That should get them to give up their arms," Thorak said with confidence. "It wouldn't have worked if the local officials had done it, of course. They don't have an army behind them and it would have lacked the pressure needed to convince those Himeans out there that they've no possibility of winning even if it came down to a fight. With us here, it'll be all over as soon as we flash their commander at them."
"Yes, that makes sense." He heaved a sigh of relief. "At least this'll be over quickly, then."
Thorak agreed. She could hardly wait to settle down again for what was left of the winter, keeping to herself as she had been doing before this accursed foe had come along and obliged her to trudge all over the region following its tracks. If she could bring all these in alive too, she would be sure to get an added reward, for the king would enjoy making examples of them. Their commander would probably be paraded around the capital's streets naked and dragged from the heels by a donkey, made to suffer the taunts and excrement the capital's inhabitants would be encouraged to throw at her. And as for Thorak, she would probably be given gold, lands, or perhaps even added titles. These did not really exert as strong a pull on the baroness as the chance of asking the king for something, though, which would be to ask for a position that would strategically keep her out of the fighting from now on in this war. Somewhere nice and quiet, as was the idea.
"General, we're ready."
Thorak surfaced from her thoughts. "All's done? Where are the messengers from Asterion?"
"Over here, General."
"Let's go, then."
The two messengers directed Thorak and her guard through the smaller of the two gates Asterion had. The bigger gates had been barred and even fixed shut from inside, they explained, to withstand battering ram attacks from the Himeans. Thus Thorak and several of her officers were obliged to walk into Asterion through a narrower entrance than was ideal for a guard over a hundred strong—which number was severely abridged when the townspeople gathered at the mouth of the gate to welcome them drew out swords and started to cut down Thorak's surprised guard with the efficiency of veteran soldiers.
So quickly and capably was the ambush carried out that Thorak and her officers were already divested of their own swords and drawn aside before the fight concluded. Not all of the Mentulaean soldiers guarding their commander were slain: over a third of Thorak's guard escaped, fleeing through the gates before these were shut and heading for the safety the rest of Thorak's horrified army afforded outside. As for Thorak and what remained of her party in the walls, they were obliged to surrender themselves quietly to their assaulters, who started shrugging off their civilian cloaks to display mail-shirts underneath.
One of the supposed magistrates of the city—these had been standing in wait in the formal style at the end of the courtyard and had watched the fray without once joining in—detached from the rest of the group and strode over to Thorak and the rest of the captives. The person pushed off her cloak's hood and gave them all a friendly and decidedly glorious smile.
"Which is the Baroness Thorak?" she enquired.
"I am," Thorak said, still stunned by what had just transpired as well as the looks of this new character.
Out came a hand. "Shizuru Fujino. I am pleased to see you were not hurt in the scuffle."
"Fujino. Fujino…" Thorak muttered, wondering where she had heard the name before. Ah well, who cared? It was highly unlikely to matter now. "Himean, of course?"
Thorak's hazel eyes drifted away, still blank with shock, and fell upon some of the bodies around them: those of her guard who had been dispatched by the Himean ambushers. How quickly they had died! Was that normal? She had never been this close to the actual fighting before, so she did not know. It seemed to her to have been a curt battle: most of the soldiers had provided argument only once and then ceded the issue almost without retort after that. How could such brief disputation have given birth to all those glorious paragraphs of description the writers and poets often generated in their accounts of war? For some utterly inexplicable reason, she felt a greater disappointment in the brevity of their fight than in the fact that she had just been played for a fool and made captive.
"So you hold Asterion," she mumbled. "What happened to the city's magistrates? Did you kill them? Were we too late?"
Shizuru indicated the people still grouped behind her and watching with varying degrees of curiosity.
"Those are the magistrates," she said. "We certainly did not kill any of them."
Comprehension dawned on Thorak: "Ahh. It was a lie."
"It was a lie."
"And you were never captured."
"I was never captured."
"Yes, I see," Thorak sighed wearily, looking her up and down. "You don't look the type to get captured."
Shizuru flashed her glorious smile again.
"And you do not seem the type to rave when faced with a situation disadvantageous to you," she returned to the Mentulaean, who looked more tired than sulky, annoyed, or anything else along the same lines. "I approve strongly of your composure."
Thorak took a deep breath and slanted her head to one side in a shrugging way.
"It won't do any good if I start screaming at you now," she told Shizuru. "So now that I'm your captive, what's going to happen?"
"Ideally, you are going to go with us quietly to the top of that tower over there, where you shall be in full view of your army. You are then going to tell them to surrender to us if they wish to live. You shall remind them that they are not only absent a commander and most of their superior officers but are now presently in the middle of two enemy camps, in the perfect position to be enveloped by their foe, and are also still weak in the knees and winded by their long march. You shall make all these things clear in order to show them the wisdom of capitulation. After that, you shall have a drink with me and a bit of refreshment. I think we both shall have earned it by then."
"I am happy that you do."
They brought Thorak to the top of the tower on the walls nearest the Mentulaean army, and from there overlooked Thorak's confused army for an address. Thorak saw that the Himean army at the other camp had given up its pretence after the scuffle at the gates: it now stood arrayed in proper battle lines before the Mentulaean force. It was bigger than Thorak had thought and been told, and she said so.
"And you still have more soldiers in the city, I see. They said there were fewer of you."
"There used to be fewer of us," Shizuru told her, and left it at that.
They trumpeted the horns to draw attention to the tower and began their address. By the time that address had been finished, the Himean artillery was already ranged on the other towers and being pointed threateningly at the dismayed Mentulaeans, who also had to watch as yet another army issued from Asterion's big gates—which had not been barricaded and fixed shut after all. The army coming out of Asterion was actually the one Shizuru had been marching with all this time, since the group now lined up outside the Himean camp was Kenji Nakamura's army: these were the Fifth and Sixth legions. They had come down from their post in Trogum at their commander's behest about a month ago, reaching Asterion after a blisteringly fast march that ensured they would reach Shizuru's position in time for her plan. It was two days after they arrived at Asterion that Shizuru sent the pair of messengers to the Mentulaeans she had known to be shadowing her, and thus set into motion the deception.
One of these two messengers observed the surrender as it was managed, her mistress at her side and acting as one of the chief supervisors of the weapon collection.
"Do you ever think any of them will try to get a hack in or something while the others give up their arms?" she asked her mistress, who snorted.
"That'd be damned stupid," said Nao.
"Well, sure. Who said it'd be smart? I meant as something out of desperation."
The primipilus barked an order out to some legionaries first, then turned to look at the dark-skinned woman muffled up in local winterwear.
"You see those looks, Poll?" she said. "Those're the faces of people who've been beaten already. It takes the heart out of you, you know, to see your commander in the hands of the enemy and to suddenly be shocked into facing a foe much bigger and nastier than you'd been told you'd ever see. They're past desperation, no fight in 'em left. There'll be no hacking from them now. They were done even before we started taking their swords and spears."
Pollonia nodded, crossing her arms across her chest as she regarded the surrendering soldiers again.
"They were sure livelier when we first ran into them," she mused.
"I'll bet." Nao had turned to the work again, but threw Pollonia a look over her shoulder. "You did your job perfect, Poll. This's some good work you've done here. I'm pleased."
Pollonia grinned hugely. "It was easy."
"Good to hear."
"And it was fun!"
"Even better. That local we sent to play messenger with you made trouble?"
"Oh no. I think he enjoyed it as much as I did," laughed the other woman.
"Yes, I thought so," Nao said, smiling. "The one we picked for the job was another regular villain. And he'll be getting rewarded for it."
"Will I be getting a reward too?"
Nao grabbed one of the pole-arms the legionaries were gathering from their captives, testing its weight and the blade on it. It was new and cut a tiny line on her finger; she licked the bit of red away instantly.
"Even if I don't reward you myself, Fujino-san will," she told Pollonia with a smirk and the taste of her own blood on her lips. "Twenty thousand! She'll make a fortune off the lot—not that she needs it, mind you. But every time she makes money, she gives her soldiers nice chunks of it, bigger chunks going to those who've been of more help. She's right generous, she is. You'll be seeing a fat bonus next time the pay is issued."
This was indeed standard practice in the ever-lucrative Fujino army. While material booty had made up bulk of the returns for it in this war thus far, its commander actually expected more loot soon from slave sales. She had been utterly ruthless in her marches ever since entering enemy territory, putting everyone from all but one town to the sword, but that had been out of necessity and not cruelty: she had wanted to exploit the advantage of her unexpected arrival as much as possible, and it had served to demonstrate that she was a foe to be reckoned with. Had she not completely destroyed those first three towns and their populations, she knew Asterion would never have surrendered to her and made this latest victory possible.
Taking all those slain as slaves to be sold in the great markets of Hime and Greece would in fact have been an alternative to killing them, of course. However, it would not have worked in light of her aims. Captives would have slowed down the army's pace, hampering them in her efforts to lead Thorak's army on a merry chase through the Mentulaean Southern Frontier. It would also have obliged her to split her men's rations in order to provide for the captives. This was why no prisoners had been taken until now.
What made the difference now was that she had Asterion as a temporary base for holding her prisoners. The added resources being supplied by the city would also help in tiding over everyone in her army until she could move the captives to another location.
"Send messengers to Avaro-han today to inform him of what happened," she told Keigo as they surveyed the armour and loot their captives had surrendered to them. There were both legionaries and noncombatants working on sorting out the items, and other officers directed them on where to put certain objects. "I want you to take one of Kenji-han's legions—the Fifth shall do, I think—and bring the captives with you to Avaro-han's camp over the river. Arrange to have them sent on from there to Argus, where there should already be some slave traders waiting to buy them and have them shipped off. I shall prepare letters to inform my banker's representatives here on how to handle it, so you can simply send those over to Argus as well."
Her legate nodded.
"I am allowing you a slower march than usual," she went on, "to allow for the fact that you shall have an entire cavalcade of prisoners walking with you. However, I still expect you to make it to Avaro-han's camp by early May, provided you leave in the next few days."
Of course, he thought with an inward sigh: to Shizuru Fujino, a slower march than usual was actually about the same pace as a truly "usual" march for any other commander. Not that he really minded, however. Now that he had seen how effective her ruthless speed was, he was pleased to do all she ordered. And though he probably would not be able to admit it aloud to his brother and the rest of his senatorial clique later, he was enjoying himself under her command, finding it more thrilling than anything he had yet done.
"They're going to go for a fat price," he observed, thinking of those twenty-four thousand prisoners being auctioned off. "It's been a while since we had a proper war, so we've not seen this many slaves for sale in a while around Our Sea. The demand's been a bit higher than the supply for the past few years."
Shizuru smiled at him.
"True," she said. "Slave prices may go down a little in the future, as we shall be getting even more throughout the course of this war, but I predict they shall stay up for quite a while yet. From what Shizuma told me, several of the other provincial governors—Asia Province comes to mind—have been demanding more soldiers for their garrisons of late. Some of our other territories seem to be getting their share of threats these days."
He frowned. "But if those threats break out into conflicts too, wouldn't that have the potential to drop the slave prices as well by providing more sources for captured slaves?"
"Only if they develop into wars and only if the other governors are as successful," she said, her tone obviously implying she thought both unlikely. Had Keigo not seen her in action in the past few months, he might have been annoyed by her easy dismissal of the other governors, but he had spent enough time with the woman now to see from where all those mountains of confidence arose.
"Even should those conditions come true," she said, "I do not think you shall see them realised in the next year just yet, at least from what I know about the territories in question and the people administering them. Which means that able-bodied men and women are currently being siphoned out of Hime by her territories through the military conscriptions—our recent ones included—such that there are going to be fewer and fewer labourers at home for the industries, fields and farms. Result? Hime is going to not just want but actually need more slave labour. So you see, I shall have technically fuelled as well as filled that demand. That may develop into an issue later, once the wars are over and legions start coming home, but it should be easily remedied with the right legislative action."
"I see," he said, impressed by her economic acumen and uttering a silent apology to his brother and other conservative friends for it: but it was so hard not to be impressed by the woman! "It's amazing, though, that we got this many without even having to fight. I admit I'd never have believed you if you'd have told me this could be done, Fujino-san. Well, most of the things you've recently shown me can be done haven't been the easiest things to believe, in all honesty. I was even sceptical about this latest trick until the last moment. So much about war is about deception, though, isn't it?"
"As it is in politics," she chuckled. "Thank you, however."
"For never questioning me even when you were sceptical of my orders."
They looked at the sorting of the loot again.
"What should we do after the slaves have been sent off to Argus?" he asked.
"Join forces with Avaro-han and come back here. I expect both of you here in Asterion by June."
Another furious march. "Will you be here?"
"No," she answered. "I am going to cause a little more mayhem around this region to distract their central bases once you leave, and then I shall head over to Shizuma's camp."
They turned to the call and saw a woman trotting towards them, hands lifting the hem of her dress above her ankles so that she could jog faster. Keigo heard the air puffing through his commander's nose at the sight and sucked in his lips to try and prevent his smile.
"Good day to you, Harumi-san," he said once the woman had reached them.
Harumi patted down her cloak and dress and self-consciously smoothed a palm over one side of her head to make sure her hair was in place.
"Good day to you too, Kurauchi-san," she returned. "And you, Fujino-san. Everything went beautifully today, didn't it?"
Shizuru gave her a smile.
"Yes, it did," she said. "Thanks to your help and that of all the other citizens of Asterion."
"Oh, we were glad to do it! Those boors would have as soon killed us as saved us from so-called 'invaders' if they thought it would be amusing."
Shizuru hummed and nodded. It was Keigo who answered her with actual speech.
"We'll be seeing you at the dinner Ertyala-san is giving tonight, Harumi-san?" he enquired.
"I wouldn't miss it!" she said, with a glittering flutter of her eyes at the woman standing by Keigo's side. "I hope I can sit beside you later, Fujino-san. I heard that you were quite a lover of poetry and I thought I might discuss it with you then."
Again Shizuru gave her a smile.
"That sounds lovely, Harumi-han," she said. "I fear you might find my knowledge of poetry disappointing, however, as I might not be as versed in it as you may have been led to believe. Besides, I very much doubt the others attending the party shall find it as scintillating a topic as someone with your learning would, so we might ostracise them by discussing that then."
"Oh, pooh on them! Or we could simply talk about it over dinner at my house one evening. I daresay you might find my library interesting, and you could give me opinions on the local poets there too. I have copies of all the most popular works."
Shizuru sighed expressively and made an excuse about needing to check on something before walking away, actually intending to go to the town's main commercial street to see if there was anything worth bringing back for her girl. Her legate stayed behind to give the thwarted Harumi a helpless smile.
"A word of advice, Harumi-san," he said. "The general has someone waiting for her back home."
The woman lifted her brows at him and he reflected, not for the first time, that she was actually quite handsome. The Asterion local had large blue eyes and masses of thick auburn hair, and her face was a heart-shaped, well-formed one that actually suggested that she was noble, which she was. If his general had been rejecting all her blatant invitations all this time it was not through any real embarrassment in her form, he thought, but simply due to the fact that all these virtues still did not quite put her in the league of her competition.
"That never stopped anyone before," she told him now.
"It will stop you, trust me."
"Well!" She frowned, looked put-out but not devastated. "It's a girl, of course?"
"She's not married, though," she said with a note of triumph.
"No, she's not."
"Then there's still hope. Besides, all people are faithless lovers sooner or later, Kurauchi-san. It just takes time."
Keigo chuckled at this and explained, upon receiving a questioning eyebrow, that he was of the opinion this did not apply to the case at hand.
"Somehow, I don't think either Fujino-san or her girl count as 'people'," he laughed, mystifying Harumi even more before he also walked away and left her alone himself.
When the Lupine Division was training, it often cleared its chosen training ground of people without intending it. The troopers had a reputation for getting energetic and the division's trademark weapon was known for whizzing perilously near bystanders' heads during their sessions; though no actual accidents had yet been recorded, the mere breath of that paw shooting past one's ear was sufficient argument for most onlookers to clear out of the environs in moments.
So when the Polemarch of the Otomeians came for her inspection of the troopers one chill day in the winter of Shizuru Fujino's alpine march, she was one of the few observers present. Joining her were three of the most important of the Lupine officers, the only ones excluding themselves from organisation of the current exercise. The rest of the officers were right up against the fray, barking and snarling at any of the troopers they thought not pulling his weight. Since the exercise was for the division's latest draftees—and since it was common knowledge in the army that a draftee was never considered to pull his weight for at least the first few months of his service—there was a lot of barking and snarling taking place.
As for the trio of officers not involved in this harassment of the recruits, they were also observers today, though not of the troopers themselves. Rather, all three were observing their polemarch-princess, who sat primly on a stool they had fetched for her and had her own gaze on the exercises. She and her fellow observers were silent: the quartet neither spoke nor looked away from their respective subjects. The only sound was from the whooping troopers and their steeds, and from the snapping, scowling cavalry officers telling the sweating troopers to Move, damn it, or you'll be snorting mud!
The princess herself appeared too fixed on the activity to pay any mind to the three officers watching her, but she was in truth very aware of their eyes. She knew it was less eagerness to see her reaction than routine that kept them looking: her officers had already spent years of doing it and could no longer kick the habit. It had started from their paranoia over her welfare when she first joined their ranks—she learned about it only later in her command, but the leaders of the Lupine Division had apparently been threatened with execution if they failed to keep the last royal Ortygian alive in her first battles as a young trooper—and it had been encouraged over time into dependence due to the style of leadership she had long employed with them, where she delivered commands as much with her eyes and body as with her tongue. They had simply grown so used to looking over and to her, she knew, that they were hard-pressed to stop it now.
This was the very logical explanation she gave her lover when that woman had remarked on the fixity of the Lupine troopers' gazes on herself. Shizuru had accepted it as a sound answer; however, the Himean had also taken care to point out that said logical explanation passed over the adoration that was also present in the stares, almost as if dismissing the emotion aspect of their motivations from the theory. Natsuki had admitted the justice of this criticism—albeit not without gentle protestation that she had not explicitly dismissed emotion. She was fairly aware of her troopers' emotions, she contested, and never considered what she knew of them irrelevant.
Those notes had been exchanged after an observation not unlike the one taking place at the moment: but that earlier one had been conducted by Shizuru herself, who had come one day to view the Lupine Division's exercises. She had actually obtained permission to do so from the polemarch, asking if she could escort the girl to the location and observe the Lupine Division's recruits during their training at least once, some days before she had left to go on her mountain march. Her request had been phrased so gently, with a hint of timidity that Natsuki had found uncharacteristic enough to merit curiosity.
"If it pleases you," Natsuki had said to the request, pushing herself up to stare at the Himean on whom she was resting. It had been very early in the morning when this conversation happened and they had still been in bed. "You are my commander still, Shizuru, even if I am now Polemarch. You need not ask. You need only tell."
Her commander had smiled.
"With anyone else, I would," had been her response. "But I do not wish to step on your toes, Natsuki."
"With your big feet."
She was literally spanked for it, the older woman's hand coming down on her rear with a smack and causing a squirm.
"Oh, your cheek! But yes, unfortunately, that is indeed what I mean."
"That you have big feet?"
"Do you want me to spank you again?"
She asked what Shizuru had meant.
"I do not want to intrude on your fief, so to speak. I may be your commander but everyone in this camp knows I am more than that for you—and we already know some are not inclined to thinking well of our relationship, even among your people."
"The same goes for your people, Shizuru."
"So it does, dear. But you are the subject here, not I. And I do not want to injure you out of my own wilful recklessness."
"You think I could be injured if you come to see my troopers at work?"
"Let us simply say that I do not wish to impose myself on the situation carelessly and harm your dignity in the process."
"My dignity is never harmed by your presence."
"How sweet of you to say so. Very well then. Still, I do wish you would appreciate my asking you for permission first instead of pointing out its non-necessity due to my rights as the commander of the army. It's unromantic, meum mel, and perhaps slightly inconsiderate of the one romancing you."
"Do I harm your dignity with my lack of consideration, Shizuru?" she had asked then, laughing.
"No, darling, but you do injure my ego."
Which had prompted Natsuki to laugh again, as she considered Shizuru's ego so monumental it was already beyond casual injury. Natsuki liked the high points of pride in the other woman, finding them as appropriate as they were charming. Shizuru's attitudes generally had reasons, she thought, and when the reason for your self-confidence was as great as the woman's, it was only to be expected that you would have a healthy regard for yourself. Indeed, the woman's self-confidence was so deuced assertive that it even made you feel silly for worrying about her during some trial, on occasion!
That reminded Natsuki: she had to ask her servants if all the sacrifices she ordered had been made already. Having them finished earlier was better, naturally, although she was not opposed to a bit of delay if it only served to enhance the sacrifices' preparation and contribute to their propriety. One had to be certain that the right offerings went to the right gods because the deities were finicky creatures. Perhaps she should go ahead and double the offerings to the gods of war and triumph? Yes, and send for one more calf to be sacrificed to the altar of Shizuru's ancestress. Shizuru might laugh at her many precautions were she to learn about all of this, Natsuki supposed, but that was fine: what mattered was that the woman would be blessed by enough fortune to laugh at all, even if Natsuki had to be the object of said woman's amusement.
She emitted a long exhalation, her three officers perking up at the sound.
"Better," she pronounced, which caused all three to frown. They knew that she saw a difference between something that was better and something that was good.
"They're still learning, Captain," Kyo offered, only to receive a sharp look. He caught himself and amended the title: "Polemarch. They're still learning, Polemarch. Please pardon me, Natsuki. I'm still getting used to it."
"As am I," she told him.
"We need to get them into even more skirmishes with enemy cavalry to make proper Lupine troopers of them."
"Mentulaean cavalry are a poor standard against which to measure ourselves."
"Then what are we to do?" said another of the officers. "We already have them sparring with each other and against the enemy when opportunity allows it. What more is there here?"
The green eyes turned to the one who had asked the question.
"A lot," she said. "This is not pushing, Zofel. You have them fight each other or each other with the veterans distributed evenly between sides. What in this is a challenge?"
"Then what must we do to make it more challenging?"
She mulled it over for a few seconds before answering, flicking her black hair out of the furred ruff of her cloak.
"Put all new members together instead and collect the veterans in the opposing team. Have them use only the daos."
Her officers digested the idea.
"Excuse me for saying so, Natsuki, but that doesn't sound like a match to me," said the last member of the trio to speak, a blonde who had a look of the Kruger brood about her. As well she might: her father was the king's half-brother. "If we put the veterans into one group and the tyros in the other, it's an inevitable conclusion which side will see victory. Especially if we forbid them from using anything other than the daos in the skirmish! It won't be fair."
"This war is not fair, Arania," was Natsuki's retort.
She tilted her face to the sky and shut her eyes with a look similar to that of a basking cat. Yet the sun was already dying in the west and could not truly reach her through the clouds.
"Do you think our division great?" she asked Arania, face held up that way and unreadable.
"The greatest in our nation," Arania told her.
"This is known." Natsuki's eyes opened again, sliding to fix her very distant relative with a meaningful gaze. "And our greatness is our ability to always match the odds, no matter how unfair the measure."
She then transferred her attention to her humming pet, bending over to catch its black head in her hands. It sniffed her jaw noisily and she smiled.
"I give the parameter on what weapon may be used for a reason," she said, dropping a kiss on the big cat's nose. "See their timidity. That is fear of the daos. They fear what it can do to them even when they are the ones wielding it."
"With good reason," Arania said, tapping her right ear. Kyo and Zofel smirked at their comrade, knowing the crescent of missing flesh on it had been lost in a mishandling of the daos when she was younger.
"Yes," their polemarch allowed, her eyes smiling as well. "But also only within reason."
Kyo grunted; the princess's mind was set.
"I understand," he said. "It will be done."
"Good," she said.
"Which paw of the daos should we have them use?"
"That is your decision, Captain."
He shook his head and looked put out.
"I just can't get used to it," he told them.
They all grinned at him, Zofel patting his back.
"You can," Natsuki told her subordinate. "You shall."
She took a quick breath to brace herself, then got to her feet. The weight on her left side was distributed between her walking stick and the prosthetic buckled to her left knee. She was still getting used to the latter, even if she showed no actual struggle, and the newness of the object to her was betrayed in the long pause she took once she was off the stool. The trio she was talking to—as well as some of the officers directing the training—watched her intently, their jaws tightening. They knew of the prosthetic, naturally, though it was almost entirely concealed by her dress. The three surrounding her were the only ones who could see the brown tips of several beautifully carved toes poking out of one of her sandals and beyond the hem.
"Whom have you deputed," she asked, her big cat slinking against her, "for later?"
Kyo rattled off the names he and the other two had settled on.
"Good," she said, and gave them the hour and prearranged location; they all knew these details already, but she repeated them anyway for confirmation. "Prepare."
"I'll get on it," said Kyo.
The trio bowed and she made to leave.
"You do that," she heard Arania say to the other two just as she was about to walk off. "I'll walk with you into camp, Natsuki, if you don't mind the company. May I?"
Natsuki lifted an eyebrow at the request but nodded anyway.
"Where's Zidek?" Arania asked once they were off, referring to the hulking Otomeian who had been serving as Natsuki's attendant and "body-carrier" for the past weeks. "Why didn't he come with you today?"
"He is on an errand," the polemarch answered. "What is yours?"
"The new senior legate," Arania said instantly.
"You wish to speak with her?"
"There are some worries among the others," the fair-haired woman expanded. "We've not had a lot of time with her, and no real battles yet, so there are still more questions than answers. She seems to be fine so far, but you would know her better than we do. How does she compare to the previous senior legate?"
She glanced at the younger woman's feet as the latter frowned at the query. She slowed her steps another half-beat after confirming Natsuki's pace, bringing her eyes back up quickly.
"Imprecise," the cool voice was telling her. "There were two previous senior legates, and comparisons can be made on too many levels. The walk is not long enough."
"Please excuse me. Compared to Seigo Ushida and on the subject of our treatment."
They walked two more steps in silence before Arania realised that the response to her clarification was in fact the answer to the question itself.
"She's Shizuru Fujino's immediate cousin, isn't she?" she said then.
"They're not very alike."
Natsuki withheld a smile and hummed again.
"They say she's a great womaniser, too."
"Is there a reason you offer me these opinions on the senior legate, Arania?"
Arania released her breath noisily.
"Small talk, Princess Natsuki," she said. "Even all the time you've spent with the Himeans hasn't made you any better at it, I see, if you will excuse the joke."
This time, Natsuki let her smile develop untrammelled.
"Small talk," she said, "is often a size larger than it appears. Come to your point."
The other woman nodded and delivered an apology.
"Is she trustworthy in battle itself, Natsuki?" she asked, abandoning the extensions of the conversation that she had been planning. Natsuki might still be smiling, but Arania did not want to give her any cause to drop that expression. That was one of the interesting things about their Ortygian princess: she was not always opposed to prevarication and could display a near-foreign tolerance for it at times. Yet she was still someone who loved precision, and was best heeded whenever she indicated she wanted it served to her immediately. She was just, yes, and kind too, even, as well as bizarrely compassionate in certain ways; despite that, she could be as pitiless as she was proud. This with her power meant that she would not hesitate to make you bleed if she thought you were making her wait for something just out of insolence. And though Arania had absolutely no intent of being insolent, she knew that the princess was acute enough to sense when a conversation's loops were premeditated, and might just read that as a form of insolence one way or another.
"In the last battles where they used us, we were turned into living bait," she said, turning her head so she could look at the princess as they walked. "We lost many. Numer's wife was one of them." She was referring to the spouse of her dearest friend, a woman who had been a friend as well. "And he was not the only one made a widow, even just from among our ranks. We lost so much, Natsuki, without a need to. We were just used badly, and that was the problem. There's also the return of Princess Alyssa and her new involvement in the war: had we been under her leadership instead, it would be safe to say we'd not have been used as badly as we were. Unlike our infantry comrades, though, we can't go to serve directly under her. We all know the Himeans will keep the horse—our horse, in particular—close to them because they want the strongest cavalry to be with their armies and not those of their allies. Can you blame me or any of the others for feeling worried?"
Natsuki nodded, and Arania saw that she was not yet able to wipe away the upturned crumple of her brows at the inner corners, her grief at the losses among her troopers still too thick to be folded away so easily. Yes, she was indeed compassionate, their poor princess. And she too had been used so badly!
"You ask a complex question still," said the polemarch, sadness in her voice. "We are auxiliaries. This means we tend to go last in the rewards and first into the battles. However, we are also valuable auxiliaries, as even the Himeans know now that we are the most valued of the royal military. Furthermore, we—no, you are under my command, and I am polemarch of the army as well as thuh – thuh – the mistress of the Himean commander."
Both she and Arania bit on their tongues after the last comment, it being the first time Natsuki had ever avowed this point of her status so frankly with any of her subordinates. Neither looked at the other for a few moments after that as well, choosing to look at the frozen road they trod instead.
"Consider these things," Natsuki concluded. "They are factors in the answer."
Arania chewed on her tongue a little more.
"Yes, they would be normally," she said eventually. "Will they matter to this senior legate?"
"You think her to be unmindful of such things?"
"I think her—compared to the ones before, at least—a little different. I'm not sure how. But isn't she?"
The other huffed a cloud of breath.
"Yes," said Natsuki. "She is a little different."
"In a good way or a bad way?"
"Both. Relative to your query, time will tell."
"That's not all that reassuring."
"We are of the Lupine Division. For us, life is never all that reassuring."
Natsuki stopped walking and leaned on her walking stick, the long fingers of her hand folded around its curved end.
"There is my destination," she said, indicating the command tent now only some metres away from them. "You may go. I can walk unattended, though you all refuse to listen when I say it."
"I never intended to make you think that, Polemarch," Arania replied with a sombre face. "I didn't come with you with any ideas of assisting you. I walked with you only so you could assist me, and so I could talk to you just now about my and the others' fears."
"Yes, and your fears were very small," the polemarch said, shaking her head at one of her most loyal officers. "You are a bad liar, Arania, and you do not know how to make your talk big enough to be convincing. But I thank you still. Now please leave."
The other woman bowed and did as ordered, though she lingered in her steps enough to see Natsuki finally enter the Himean command tent. Natsuki felt her subordinate's eyes boring into her back as she went but chose not to shoo Arania away again. She understood that the woman was only suffering from the same worries that afflicted her other troopers, who, though they refused to say it to her face, constantly fretted over whether or not she was truly strong enough to walk about this way without accompaniment again and all other things to do with her general safety. In some ways, she thought, they were as silly as Shizuru herself. There were so many silly people around her—this injury of hers had demonstrated it—but how much she loved them!
Fresh events had cast them to light beyond all possible ignorance, she supposed. Take that recent incident involving the Lupine troopers and some members of Alyssa's infantry army. Before the Princess Alyssa had taken Otanara and the Otomeian foot at Sosia away to the borders, a dispute had arisen between several infantry soldiers and the Lupine cavalry. Apparently, a number of people from different companies of the Otomeian army had been drinking to pass time in their camp. As often happened when soldiers had a drinking party, some careless talk had developed a dispute. This dispute had been a grave one, however, and not the sort to be forgotten once the alcohol had dissipated.
The subject had been the Princess Natsuki's return to the Himean commander's hands. The problem came because liquor had loosened tongues enough for some soldiers to go where most did not, at least not aloud: three of the infantry made salacious and contemptuous remarks on the Princess Natsuki's scandalous record of bed-bounces in recent time, from her hop into the bed of the Red-Eyes then into the late Legate Himemiya's and back into the former's bed again.
When Natsuki found out about this incident, it was much later, well into her recovery already and after Alyssa's departure with the Otomeian foot. She did not suffer as much pain as others might have expected upon learning of the bawdy insinuation that had started the matter, having been aware of that popular suspicion herself. Indeed, she had known it long before and had even predicted it to herself: it was perhaps only natural, she had told her late Himean friend, that she would be suspected of playing whore-mistress to the next woman to share her tent after having so famously done the same for another. Even now it made her smile to remember how it was Suou who had grieved for her, offering again and again to transfer quarters elsewhere if it would in any way help her reputation. She had declined for two reasons. First, because Suou was someone she liked to have around. Second and more importantly, because the damage had already been done and the proposed activity promised no mitigation. And as for challenging the suspicion in public, what would that do? Merely acknowledge it and possibly even fan the fire.
So Natsuki was calm in her treatment of this suspicion held by some of the auxiliary, especially those who did not know her as well as her troopers did. The problem was that her troopers proved to have less temperance than their politically-astute commander. After challenging the loose-tongued soldiers from Otanara's army to retract their vulgar accusation and being denied, they had demanded satisfaction in the traditional way.
As Otanara had been reported to say after the fallout, it was only indicative of how mind-addled the three infantrymen were that they had not backed down when given the chance. The Lupine Division was the elite of the royal military, and that adjective was applied to its members not because of their lineages or those of their officers. These were people chosen from the outset because they lacked fear in battle and showed more promise than anyone else: and after they entered the division, they were trained still harder than anyone else. It made things worse that this particular collection of them had also been observed to have a bizarre obsession with their commander. Other Lupine Divisions had been loyal too, it was remembered, but not as focused on their captain as this bunch obviously was. Whether the reason for it was their commander's identity, her personality or her skills, no one outside of the group could settle on a firm answer: the simple fact, which everyone did agree on, was that the Lupine Division was made up of suicidally-fearless fanatics with lethal skill sets. One simply did not tempt to argument people of such profiles.
It was no surprise that the challenged soldiers were corpses the day after the quarrel. It was no surprise either that vengeance was a privilege eschewed by the friends of the dead: the combat had taken place under the old laws and the outcome was considered valid by most. Besides, anyone contesting it would likely only have added to the casualty count, given the temperament of the Lupine Division at that point (their former captain had still been bed-ridden at the time, and they had all been in dangerous moods as a result). Thus three deaths were all it took to settle issue nicely, and none of the Otomeian officers bothered to do anything after hearing of what had happened. This included the Princess Alyssa herself, who was heard to remark that she considered the outcome satisfactory.
For her part, Natsuki reserved her opinions on the incident. Her thoughts on it were many, though, as she considered it to have been her responsibility. It was astounding how many protectors she had, and she knew it was a failing not to have seen them as clearly before. Their presence was something that made her worry more than it set her at ease: when your guardians were the likes of Shizuru Fujino or the members of the Lupine Division, you had to worry greatly about the ramifications of nearly every act. To have so many fearless persons willing to kill for your sake meant that you had to shoulder the fear of someone actually getting killed for you each day, in a result whose chain of causes would likely lead back to you.
Words that Suou had once spoken echoed in her ear when she thought on it: not my fault, but my responsibility. For someone who had been deprived by fate of the duty-laden position she should have inherited from her parents, she was still a young woman with far more responsibilities than most would think. She was the Otomeian Polemarch, an adoptive princess of the Royal Kruger House, and ward to several hundred troopers who would insist on protecting her at the cost of their own skins. And, beside all these, she was also now a person who had to deal with two marriage proposals given at nearly the same time and by two rather awesome women. Choosing to accept either one would shake to pieces parts of her world and those of the people around her. Yet choosing to accept neither would likely result in similar tremors.
Growing up as she had, Natsuki had never really thought of marriage as an urgent reality. It was a distant option back then, not a likely one. She had known that she would have to confront it sooner or later, since she knew the king would likely make overtures at some point to try and absorb her blood and everything that went with it into the Kruger dynasty. But in the grand scheme of things, she had expected this confrontation to come far, far later in her future.
Life could be very interesting that way, she thought wryly. When she had first contemplated the possibility of one day being persuaded to marry one of the king's issue, all she had hoped was that whomever he proposed would be not too embarrassing to her personal standards. She knew that admiration was not generally the basis of such arrangements, but something in her had still rebelled against the idea of taking someone uninspiring for a spouse when the need finally arose. If she had to marry at all, she would rather marry someone worth that commitment. In other words, she had hoped for someone great. That was because she herself had her share of this quality and greatness only ever really called out to greatness, of course; however, as she was her own harshest critic, she did not explain it thus and simply attributed that hope to the juvenile side of her person.
Well, she supposed her juvenile side should be satisfied now, at least. Now she had two marriage proposals from two of the greatest persons she had ever known, with one coming from a woman she loved more than should surely be safe for any mortal being. And the other proposal came from a woman she loved too, even if in a different way. Who would have ever imagined such a situation worrisome? Yet it was to her, and greatly so.
Oddly enough, it was the proposal from her lover that she found more surprising. While her cousin's had been a surprise as well, a moment's contemplation had worked quickly to reduce the astonishment. There were definite benefits to Alyssa in it, for one thing. It was not an unattractive arrangement to her either, from a practical perspective. Furthermore, Alyssa was the only one of the king's unmarried children whom she had considered capable of satisfying her standards for a spouse. She had simply never considered the woman in her hopes before because Alyssa had always seemed uninterested in such a union, even when the king had hinted at it jokingly in their presence. Ah, but Alyssa had been playing a game, Natsuki saw now. It was a game she herself understood fully.
That being the case, one could easily see which marriage would be more expedient from a simple view of her aims, which included protecting Shizuru as best she could from the odium their relation might breed. But again: that was from a simple perspective. On the whole, the Princess Natsuki did not favour them.
A more faceted vision, she thought, would reveal that it would not only be disrespectful to her older cousin and painful to herself to agree to the other princess's proposal but also monumentally hurtful to Shizuru. A little hurt Natsuki could have condoned if it meant she could spare Shizuru graver pain later. But to hurt the woman in a way that might be genuinely critical? Impossible. Natsuki would sooner cut off her remaining leg herself, and would not even spare a tear in the doing of it.
This was also why she had revised her decision not to go to Hime if Shizuru asked again. Among the many things she had discovered recently was that she had made that gravest of errors one could make with Shizuru Fujino. That is, she had underestimated the woman. Shizuru would truly dare all to get what she wanted, and she also made no bones any longer about the fact that Natsuki was one of the things she wanted. Want, Natsuki saw now, was different when it was from Shizuru. Perhaps it was due to the woman's ego, perhaps it was due to her compulsion to conquer whatever she set her mind to conquering—but whatever the case, Shizuru tended to need the things she wanted, or perhaps she even only wanted the things she needed. And one of those things was Natsuki.
This understanding made a part of Natsuki happy (though she felt some guilt over that, being her ever-guilty self), as its revelations gave her permission to do at least one thing she truly wanted, should opportunity for it arise again in the future. Even so, she had to think first on the matter of marriage, since she did not think the excuse she had just been given provided for that much as well.
Were her scruples on Shizuru's behalf not present, though, she knew she would have agreed to the proposal so fast she would have choked. What a proposal it had been! Passionate and possessive, a headlong dive into the kind of mind-numbing I-would-dare-all-for-you romance that nearly all girls dreamt of inspiring in their lovers. Listening to that splendid voice profess such adoration for her that its owner deemed her a necessity for life already, Natsuki had been sent tumbling even deeper into love where she had thought further depth impossible. It had truly frightened her not at all when Shizuru had admitted to her the selfish and strange nature of this amour. Natsuki had spent so much of her life being held on the fringes: an outsider even among her people, a kind of anomaly tolerated and even revered in her community while still being considered an anomaly. Hence, to be encompassed and absorbed by someone she loved so much might even have been something of a relief.
She was in the tent; it was Shizuru's cousin who had just greeted her.
"Ave," she replied, putting her considerations on hold.
"Have a seat over there, please," Shizuma said. "I just need to finish talking to the centurions here."
Again she tilted her head, moving over to the indicated desk and seating herself on the chair drawn up to it. Her pet followed without needing to be told, spreading itself next to her seat and resting its head on her living foot. One of the servants in the room came to offer a drink at this point, but she waved him away. Natsuki waited in silence as was her wont, taking in the sounds all around the room as the officers talked and worked. She took in Shizuma's tone in particular as the woman addressed the centurions at her desk.
It was so, she thought after a while: Shizuma was truly a little different from her cousin.
Shizuma could be a nice person, for one thing, where Shizuru simply was. The senior legate was charming, Natsuki thought, but she knew that was different from being nice even if it could look the same. She wondered why: a possibility might be that the woman had been hurt before by being nice and was now wary of it. But that was only one possibility among many, so Natsuki did not place too much stock in that as an answer.
She clearly possessed a sharp intellect too, though Natsuki had not seen anything from her yet to indicate that she could equal Shizuru's staggeringly colossal one. Also a little bit colder, more obviously withholding of herself than her younger cousin. But not to the point of being haughty with her subordinates, Natsuki could see. She still talked to the centurions with much the same friendly authority her cousin did. That was good. It was smart and Natsuki approved of things that were smart.
In fact, she generally approved of Shizuma. She even liked her. Part of what made Shizuma so easy to like was a matter of reflection, though: even if Natsuki easily differentiated the woman's face from that of her lover, she nonetheless acknowledged the presence of many other little curves and angles of countenance that the two cousins shared. Those similarities, tiny though they were, predisposed her to being instantly warmer with Shizuru's cousin than she naturally would be of others in the early stages of acquaintance. And little though she knew it, this actually helped the Himean live up to the expectations of said predisposition. As Shizuma tended to strike so many people as rakish or haughty from the start, and because her reputation as an inveterate philanderer often preceded her, she regularly ended up hiding the better side of her character from most people from the beginning, being a sensitive enough person to detect disapproving judgements even before they were voiced. Because she sensed nothing of that kind from her cousin's lover, though—and because warmth, no matter how deeply buried, still tended to recognise and respond to warmth—she ended up treating the girl with the kindness many others never had the opportunity to discover.
This outcome benefited Natsuki greatly, considering how much apprehension she had harboured over finally meeting one of Shizuru's relatives—and one Shizuru herself seemed to esteem highly, at that. Arania's concerns earlier had been valid, to some extent. There had been the added worry over how this new senior legate would perform, and whether or not said legate's opinions of Natsuki might have an influence on how her troopers and the rest of the Otomeian auxiliaries were treated. The Himean command was restructuring itself, and with the high likelihood of Shizuru being gone for stretches of time for her own marches and battles, Natsuki needed an ally more than ever. She had an excellent one not too long ago, but that ally had been lost along with her leg and a part of her heart.
Ah, the accursed leg. Or perhaps it was better to say the accursed person. Natsuki reached out for her pet at the twist of anguish this brought to her belly, hugging the animal's furry head to her knees as she doubled over to find comfort in its purring presence. She still feared the possibility that she was a bringer of misfortune, worried even more now that yet another group of people she had loved had been slain around her. Her fear on this was ever-present, although it was being rocked by some powerful counterarguments at the moment—and ones brought to her by the two women asking for her hand, even.
The more moderate of the counterarguments came from the Princess Alyssa. From her had been the suggestion that there might be no more cause for Natsuki to hold on to her fears of being accursed: Alyssa's suggestion was that Natsuki's leg could have been taken as restitution for some of the past tragedy it had caused the first time it had been broken. That took some of the sting away from its loss too besides proposing to ease Natsuki's worries. If Alyssa was right, there was a possibility that the misfortune the girl feared to have been her companion all these years had finally been excised and could no longer harm those she held dear, severed from her along with that rotten leg that had once led to the deaths of so many.
Natsuki hoped so much for this that it was nearly a fantasy. That she did not classify it as one was because another, more fantastic idea had recently been presented to her—and by the one too for whom she feared most whenever she considered the possibility of being a bringer of misfortune. Shizuru's contention, as well might be expected, was the more radical of the two, an argument so wild and optimistic in Natsuki's eyes that merely to think of it often left her reeling so much she had to sit down.
"I do not deny that in your life you have seen great misfortunes," the woman had said, in a conversation sparked by her notice of Natsuki's worries over her 'unlucky nature'. "I do not belittle these misfortunes or their significance. Yet were you truly as hounded by misfortune as you fear, it seems to me that more of your ventures would fail. But this is not the case, and many other ventures bearing your involvement have also seen success. In fact, from what I know of your military record alone, especially taken on the merits of your specific ventures' outcomes, success has far greater constancy than failure."
Natsuki had been confused, baffled by the direction her lover was taking.
"What is it that you are saying?" she had asked, only to be treated to an answer that would set off a small tremor inside her that would over the years slowly grow, morphing into a full-blown earthquake with time and in its maturity violently collapsing many of the things she had come to believe of herself for so long. But this tectonic shift would happen only much, much later in the future, and at the time Shizuru set it off with her answer, would begin only as a small shudder in her being.
"What if the gravity of the misfortunes you have seen has distracted us from the true common denominator regarding your fortune in them?" Shizuru had told her. "You have seen great trials, my love. I shall be first to admit it. Yet you have seen great triumphs too, and I would say even more frequently. Indeed, that is the point we should heed: that even in the midst of great misfortune, you can and do succeed. You have suffered losses too, of course, some of them unconscionable. Even so, this should not take our eyes away from the fact that more than once, you have managed to evade the most unconscionable of losses, which is the loss of life and all possibility of restitution for or improvement upon past failures. You have lived through the worst of situations, you have survived things many others would not and indeed have not lived through."
"Taking this logically recommends a different interpretation from that you hold," that beloved voice had concluded. "What if the misfortune was in fact borne by those around you, your presence the thing that was incidental? What if your only true misfortune was to have chanced to be around these other, unfortunate people? What if the reason you have survived so much that so many others have not is that your life strand is so strong and so cherished by the Fates that you have long been and are in fact a genuinely fortunate, powerfully lucky being?"
It was so subversive an interpretation of her life that even just to remember it made her heart still in her breast. Even now, her breath hitched. No one but her pet marked it, and the animal was quick to comfort her with a nudge to the belly. Natsuki caught herself, smiling down at the creature as if to reassure it that all was well.
But all was not well, she knew, and the still-nudging cat seemed to know it as well as she did. There were so many things shifting in her world of late, testing her adaptability while testing her iron at the same time. Even the thing she had thought to be most unchanging, her old sin, was being questioned. It was true she did not believe what Shizuru had said. Not yet, not really. But sometimes she thought about the possibility of it and would usually end up so rocked by the mere presence of another option in the reading of her history that she would plunge into deeper guilt than before, augmented by what she thought was her selfish try to grasp at something that could absolve herself. The deaths of her parents and people, the deaths of half of her beloved troopers, the death of a foreigner who had somehow become her dearest friend in the short time they knew each other—these were great sins, she would tell herself, and were surely not so easily absolved. And yet, that small but ever-growing echo of Shizuru's voice often whispered what if, what if!
"Well, that's done."
Shizuru's cousin had finished her work and was coming over. Again Natsuki put away her considerations, doing it with the swiftness of one merely opening one door and closing another. The Himean had something in hand and gave it to her. It was a slightly flattened bun, some sort of pastry. She smelled it and caught the scent of cheese and bay. Good scents. She sniffed again, more approvingly.
"Libum," Shizuma said, with a flick of the eye at the big cat's head now sniffing too at Natsuki's lap; she had already made her peace with the animal upon being shown how docile it was, but she was not above a cursory glance to check its docility on occasion. "The cooks made some today because I requested it. Try it, do."
Natsuki pinched off a piece of bread and started eating as the other woman ordered someone to bring over warm wine for them both.
"So why are you unattended today?"
Shizuma grinned at the silent look that was her response.
"I'm sorry, is it a sore subject?" she asked.
"No," Natsuki responded after swallowing the food in her mouth. "A common one."
"Very well, I suppose you have had enough of that then. So how are your troopers faring? Are your recruits up to your standards now?"
Another look from the girl.
"Dear me, I am clumsy-tongued today," the senior legate laughed. "Perhaps I should just have started off by asking how you are. How are you today, Natsuki? How do you find the weather? It's quite fine for winter, no?"
The girl chuckled.
"The recruits are better," she said, smiling up at the Himean and seeing the flashes of Shizuru again that predisposed her to better liking this woman. "And I am fine. Thank you for asking. You?"
"Good and good. And good, thank you for asking too. I do feel my nose a bit tweaked of late, though."
"You have, um, trouble?"
"I have, in a manner of speaking. Though some of the people in this room will likely tell me it's common enough in the army to be discounted as that," she said with a small grin at the two persons hunkered over a document at the nearest desk, both of whom returned her smile. "Fortunately, I can make the argument that I'm green enough a legate to pursue the matter yet. I think some of the junior purveyors of supplies are getting a bit heavy-handed with the bills, you see."
"Exaggeration?" Natsuki asked.
"I believe so. Now to be fair, I cannot complain that the quality of the materials is embarrassing, so my officers have told me. However, I would insist that I can complain about these prices."
She chatted cheerfully with the girl over the issue, letting the other officers in the room get a word in every now and then and laughing at their jokes over what she should do with the purveyors whose bills she was questioning. No one but she and Natsuki understood that they were just passing time now, waiting for the signal to come for them to leave.
Near the time the senior legate's staff retired, the signal arrived. One of the Lupine Division's officers stood at the entrance. He exchanged looks with his Polemarch.
"An hour," Natsuki told Shizuma, who told the others to go after another turn of the glass, ordering the most senior tribune to be in charge. She and Natsuki left the tent.
"Let's go to my place first so that I can change." Shizuma paused to regard the girl, who looked up at her with large eyes that were rimmed with blackness. "You'd best show me how to do that to my eyes too."
They went and outfitted Shizuma accordingly, with Natsuki and her personal servant praising the Himean several times for her appearance in the Lupine uniform (which praise Shizuma received with great suspicion, given that those lauding her wore grins far too wide for her comfort) and then headed for the site of their purpose. As what was about to take place was clandestine and was unknown to anyone in the Himean camp save several of the Lupine troopers—the same ones who had helped to arrange it in the first place—and Natsuki and Shizuma themselves, the location was unassuming: the last in a row of heavy tents used for storage, so far back behind the other tents that people almost never even got to see it from outside. It had been cleared out of its contents surreptitiously and more fitting furnishings had replaced the sacks, crates, and barrels that had once been in it. The Otomeian polemarch and Himean senior legate were escorted into it by the trooper who had been leading them, and the two regarded the two large and handsomely-carved chairs that had been provided.
It was the polemarch who found a complaint. She turned to the troopers present and demanded that a pedestal or some other means of elevation be used to raise the seat she was going to be occupying, also stipulating that the distance between it and the other seat be increased by—she was very precise about it, as they knew she would be even before she spoke—two-thirds of a metre.
"My, my," Shizuma said after seeing what the girl had ordered of her soldiers in that gentle yet guttural language of theirs. "I confess I had not expected you to be so conscious of appearances, girl."
Natsuki regarded the senior legate levelly.
"I am not," she said. "But they are necessary sometimes, so your cousin said."
Two of her troopers stepped up to help her ascend the two steps up the wooden dais on which they had hurriedly put her chair. She seated herself gingerly and put her walking staff across her knees, resting both hands on the arms of the seat and seeming to be pleased.
"Is this particular appearance necessary today?" Shizuma asked, not at all surprised that the girl looked good on a throne. Indeed, the Otomeian looked as though she belonged on it. It was another sense in which she was a perfect match for her cousin, Shizuma supposed: that was another woman who looked as though she belonged on a throne, and whose demeanour only strengthened that opinion, unfortunately enough in her case.
"Yes," the girl said.
A few seconds of silence went by before Shizuma saw that she would have to ask it.
"Why?" she voiced out.
"To Mentulaeans, my people are, um… alien. Not truly unknown. But before this war, we did not often cross paths."
"And this resolves that how?"
"By presenting an image more familiar," the girl responded. "I have read—I hear such displays, they are normal to them. I try to make it easier for them to… hmm… to understand my position with this. Also, they know now because of the war the appearance of my people."
"You're concerned they shall doubt your identity because you're not the usual blonde and blue-eyed Otomeian they've come to expect by now?"
"Mm-hm. Also, I am not very warrior-like to see," Natsuki admitted. "My arms are thin still. I cannot even walk without my stick. This is not what people who expect display think to see of a polemarch."
She smiled lightly all of a sudden, as though she were remembering something that inspired fondness: her next words told Shizuma she probably had been.
"Shizuru, she can avoid the display sometimes because she alone is already a display. But I, as I am now? I seem feeble, I look weak."
"Looks can be deceiving," Shizuma murmured, a little moved by the self-critique; she knew how much physical strength mattered to the girl's people, who had a happy ability to produce hulking exemplars of it. How did they see this waif who was their polemarch besides being their princess? It was fortunate that her face at least made up for the deficiencies of her body: it was thin too, yes, but you still could not look at it without believing her related to either gods or kings.
"Still," the beautiful, feeble being was saying, "I must make the concession."
She then proceeded to pick at her dress, trying to make sure it was arranged properly over her knees. Shizuma smiled reassuringly once she was finished.
"At any rate, you look perfect for the part now," she said. "Though this must be the first time I've yet heard of a concession being the sort that gains one the elevation of a throne."
The girl on the throne tried not to smile.
"It is an irony, yes," she told Shizuma. "You do not appreciate it?"
"Oh, I do. More than most other tools of rhetoric, in fact."
"I worry you will not, um, appreciate what I ask next."
"What is it?"
"I ask of you not to disrupt once we begin," Natsuki said, smiling lightly and with apology in an effort to keep the Himean's hackles from rising: she did not know Shizuma well enough yet to know whether or not the woman would take umbrage at this, so she was worried. It only made it worse that the woman was her lover's cousin, as Natsuki wagered that the tremendous pride that often reared its head in Shizuru was something that ran in the family. She really would rather not butt heads with it.
"It is I they seek, our nation and not yours they wish to speak with," she continued, watching the shifting green patina on the golden eyes for a spark of danger. "I ask you to respect this, only, and not disrupt me. You may have your own time for – for interrogation after, I promise it. I shall yield her to you. But only after I have done. I ask only this, please."
To her relief, Shizuma nodded without rancour.
"Of course," the senior legate said, noting the girl's fingers as they relaxed from their tight grip on her walking cane. The girl understood Himeans fairly well, then; what a pity she did not yet understand that Shizuma was one of the better ones, who would not consider acquiescence to so reasonable a request as beggaring their pride. Even so, it was understandable. She could not fault the girl for having been anxious.
"Thank you," the polemarch breathed, before asking: "There is – is there anything you would ask me to say? To ask?"
"Why?" she said. "Would you actually ask or say it?"
"I will consider," the girl said earnestly and with charming honesty.
"No, I think I would rather let you handle this as you wish. As you say, I have time enough later for my own interrogation."
"So what time will they get here?" Shizuma asked.
Natsuki called in one of the troopers at the entryway and conferred with him.
"They are here," she said after the brief exchange. "My men wait only for my word."
"Speak it to them. Oh, wait first. What of your staff? You need not get up for this interview, anyway, so do you want me to take it for now?"
"No, I wish not to hide it. And my wooden foot is seen from this height, so it matters not if the staff is too. Also, if she gets angry and leaps at me, I will use it to poke her eye."
"Right, of course. Do not give the word yet, please."
"I need to laugh at what you said first."
Afterwards, when Shizuma's laughter had finally drained, the troopers brought into the room the person they had fetched outside camp and had been keeping hidden. This person walked in and stood in front of the chair indicated to have been provided for her, waiting for permission from the presence on the miniature throne before seating herself. She displayed remarkable composure when the big black cat prowled out from behind the throne and curled up at its mistress's feet, but she did look warily at the third person in the room: the very fair Otomeian who stood behind and beside the polemarch's throne.
The polemarch suddenly lifted the hem of her dress and showed off one of her legs.
"I am a cripple," she said in a low, memorable voice and in Himean. "I know you asked for only us to meet, Baroness Horyma of the Mentulae. But you see my situation. My attendant is for my safety."
The baroness smiled, recovering from the tiny shock the wooden leg had caused.
"I am sad to see you distrust me so much even before we start negotiation—this saddens me indeed," she responded, switching to Greek in the latter part of the sentence for the sake of showing the Otomeian princess that she knew that language. It was an extreme rarity among her own people, and it was part of the reason Horyma had been chosen for this parley: the Otomeians were known to prefer Greek to Himean, and the polemarch seemed to confirm that when she shifted to the Hellenic tongue as well, speaking more smoothly than she had in the other language.
"It was on account of your fellows that I am now void of symmetry," she said. "My precaution is justified, I think."
The Mentulaean bowed her head to the revelation.
"I've no doubt the polemarch has made my fellows pay for their offence," she responded.
Horyma looked up.
"That limb once cost an entire people," the very young, very haughty-looking wisp on the throne said gently. "The same price may be applied to its loss one day."
The enigmatic remark confused Horyma, who lost some of the smooth confidence in her smile afterwards. She bowed her head again and took the two seconds that afforded her to school her expression once more.
"Just so, Polemarch," she said. "My purpose here is in fact to see if the price for that and this war may not be negotiated to something more preferable as well as beneficial. Not just for our people but for yours too."
The slightest cock of the head encouraged her to continue.
"If this war proceeds as it is, your side will suffer losses that may turn the aforementioned price of one people into two," she said with a carefully rueful smile. "Our king, His Majesty Obsidian of the Mentulaean Empire, has sworn to call on every resource at his disposal to exact reprisal on the invaders. The king's resources are vast: they are worth an empire. For now, it is the Himans who gain his ire and whom he regards his bitterest foes in the matter of securing his dominion. The Otomeians, your own brave people, may yet gain his favour. And he is most eager to give it, if terms can be met here."
She paused, but the polemarch said nothing. Horyma tried to read the girl for a moment but caught nothing from the beautiful eyes—which were unmistakeably green, not the blue she had grown to expect from Otomeians by this point in the war. Actually, many things about the polemarch defied the stereotype and would have caused alarm had she not been warned by the Otomeian barons to whom she had sent messengers and who had helped her organise this parley. The big cat was only one of the things they had warned her about, although it had also been arranged as her surety that she addressed the polemarch of Otomeia and no one else: the polemarch, they had informed her, was the owner of this exotic beast. No one but the polemarch would dare keep it around without a leash.
The rest of the warnings had been on the polemarch herself and her appearance, and Horyma saw that the barons had been right to give her information on those things in advance. The polemarch was thin enough to be called frail and had very dark, very black hair that betrayed no highlights under the torches' illumination, as opposed to her powerfully-built and universally blond subordinates. She had a goddess's face, however. The Polemarch-Princess Natsuki of Otomeia was extremely beautiful, if sickly-looking, but Horyma admitted the latter could be partly an exaggeration of the dim lighting and the black cosmetic applied to the polemarch's eyelids.
That said, she doubted it an exaggeration to call the polemarch very young. The Otomeian looked as though she had yet to step into her twentieth year, and that had been another surprise. Despite that, the polemarch conducted herself like someone who had more experience at these matters than her form suggested, showing only the faintest touches of wariness and curiosity in her face and nothing more. She was reserved and languid and as perfect in composure as the royal tutors often wished several of the king's children to be when they were deep in their cups and lamenting to the other members of court how difficult their pupils were. Well, the king's offspring were a spoiled, bratty lot. Something Horyma suspected for some reason that the Otomeian Polemarch never was.
"If you join with us and forsake the Himeans, the king will share the spoils of the war with your people," she went on. "Indeed, he offers more than that. He will send valuable treasures to be offered to the ruler of the Otomeians—with a special portion set aside only for the polemarch, of course, as thanks for brokering so beneficial an agreement between our peoples. As for the spoils from the Himeans, he offers land from the current Himean provinces. Sosia, for instance, may become your people's property."
"Sosia," was the whisper. "Not Argus?"
Horyma put on her most apologetic smile.
"The king has long desired a port province opening into the Himean Sea. But perhaps an arrangement for Otomeian usage of the port could be drawn up. Management of the port must be ours, however."
"Must be?" came the soft voice, questioning the words.
"The king would prefer it to be so, although perhaps later talks may persuade him to reconsider his preferences to some extent. The king is a most reasonable man when applied to with the right sort of persuasion," Horyma lied, pleased at least that the Otomeian was showing interest in the idea. Again she paused, and again the polemarch stayed silent. She was beginning to see the foreignness in the young woman's conduct: were this parley taking place in the Mentulaean Court, she would be suffering interruptions and threatening remarks aplenty every few statements. The Mentulaean nobles were impatient and hot-headed, and it was not uncommon for them to interrupt subordinates and messengers to throw up an often-unnecessary question or warning. Of course, they were also prone to interrupting subordinates and messengers to have them thrown the way of the executioner's axe, so questions and warnings were often generally regarded as welcome by comparison.
"As I mentioned earlier, His Majesty would also lavish gifts on allies," she said. "Wealth, jewels, gold—the fruits of our land to be presented to your sovereign in formal deputations expressing the king's gratitude. Special emphasis will be placed on the role the polemarch has played in facilitating this beneficial relationship between our nations, as I said earlier. In fact, the king will offer the polemarch special status as an honorary baroness of the Mentulaean Court, and grant her lands from within the empire too in keeping with that honour."
"The Himeans are a rapacious race," she followed, working to close her proposition. "Their greed ensures that not even allies are safe. We have heard that they have proven this before, with several of their allies in the past. Those were cheated out of their spoils of the wars in which they fought and the Himeans even forced them to pay tributes like land and wealth eventually, as though they were conquered peoples and not allied ones. One day their hungry gaze will turn even to your wealth and the wealth of your people. They will demand tithes and taxes as though you were theirs to milk and enslave. Already they attempt to enslave you to work for a war you did not even start! Even now, Esteemed Polemarch, you should already see their self-importance and insufferable arrogance."
"It is so," came the unexpected interjection. "Their arrogance can be insufferable."
Horyma noted that the polemarch's attendant—another goddess's face!—smiled at that.
"Then join with us," Horyma pressed, taking heart from the remark. "Forsake the Himeans and aid us in pushing them out of these lands. With our combined strength, Polemarch, we can take back the North and end their arrogance once and for all. We can drive out these intruders and foreign elements and regain the ascendancy of our peoples over this region."
She had said her piece and knew it was now the other's turn to talk. So she held her mouth shut again, this time with more expectation of the polemarch actually speaking to her.
"So," the dark-haired girl on the throne said, "you ask us to inform the Himeans that we no longer wish to be allied to them and then shift our support to you?"
Youth had to betray itself one way or another, Horyma thought. Her smile widened, took on the sickly sweet taint it had when she was forced to fawn on some privileged aristocrat above her in Court but not in intelligence.
"Actually, we would prefer you to support us secretly, Polemarch," she replied. "We feel it to be wiser."
The girl on the throne smiled sweetly back.
"I see now. You ask us to make an arrangement with you in secret?" she queried. "And ask us to break the one we have with them in like fashion?"
"That is so."
The polemarch's smile turned into a smirk.
"That only tells me you consider betrayal of a friend a trifling thing, Baroness Horyma," she said. "This counsels against the friendship you offer."
To be tricked by one so obviously younger than her did not sit well with Horyma, and it showed on her face for an instant.
"Not when ours would be a firmer friendship, Polemarch," she responded, recovering with the speed only a true courtier had. "We have a firmer, more lasting base for our alliance if only because its foundation would be a stronger cause: that of securing the integrity of the North. The Himeans do not belong here, unlike us. They are strangers who have come to intrude on our ways and colonise lands that were never really theirs to begin with, wresting them from local peoples who have lived here for ages before their own ships sailed to the shores of Argus. They are outsiders, in other words. If we, the true northern peoples, come together, we can repel these intruding foreigners from the north and take back what is rightfully our own. We can—"
"Baroness," interrupted her auditor, raising a hand with the palm out. "I have heard enough. I have an answer."
Horyma quieted, hoping anxiously that the Otomeian would reward her with a positive response. The polemarch dashed Horyma's hopes to the ground with her next words, however.
"You ask us to make common cause with you," said the polemarch, whose face was suddenly looking haughtier by the second. "But all I have seen and heard advises me we have nothing in common."
"On the contrary, Polema—"
"Am I finished, Baroness?" the polemarch demanded.
Horyma supposed she was not, and delivered an apology hastily.
"You hold to no oaths," the Otomeian continued, eyes narrowed; it was clear that the interruption had annoyed her. "You cleave to no promises. And your king is a man who once threatened to murder an enemy commander while under sacred terms of parley… then ran off chastised after the one he scolded him as one does a mere brat. This is the man who promises us so much? How does one trust promises from so ignoble a personage? You appear not to know us, Baroness. We Otomeians place not our faith in those who trade in the language of perfidy. Or the actions of cowardice."
Horyma swallowed at the scathing words, losing her smile.
"You do me a disservice by insulting my people and my liege so, Princess," she said stiffly.
"As you do me one by thinking me willing to play traitor." A look of frosty contempt followed the remark. "As well as to think my people capable of the same cowardly disloyalty that is becoming the mark of yours."
"I would have a care, Polemarch," Horyma warned. "You may find yourself regretting those words very soon. The tide is about to turn, and it will swallow the Himean side whole. You do not have to be among those drowned, but you will be if you fail to take advantage of this opportunity you are currently squandering."
"The quality of Mentulaean threats still fails to impress."
"That may change in the future when you have seen some of them realised. Please reconsider! I beg of you, for all our sakes, so that we may have fewer casualties in this war."
"I doubt that claim. I think the rebelling tribes of your empire's northern frontier would as well."
"Barbarians, nothing more! They are not on par with our peoples, Princess, and deserved every chastisement we gave them."
"For fighting chains you forced around their necks? Are they not also peoples of the north?"
"They are, in a way. But not peoples of the Mentulaean—or Otomeian—calibre."
"So you claim that some peoples are better than others."
"Of course. Just as a Mentulaean will always be a better friend than a Himean."
"Just as a Mentulaean will always be better than an Otomeian in your eyes, I know. Even my wooden leg itches. No part of me inclines to trusting you."
"Princess, please thi—!"
"Enough! You have my answer."
Horyma had been drawing up straighter and straighter in her chair throughout this exchange, and now she regarded the Otomeian noble with similarly rising suspicion, a prickly fear lifting the fine hairs on the back of her neck. It was time to make a retreat, before this apparently unpredictable princess got any ideas of doing something to her.
"Is there nothing at all that may make you reconsider your decision?" she asked. "Can nothing be said or done that would prompt you to think twice on the value of what I am offering?"
"Not even ownership of Argus and partial ownership and management of its rich ports, perhaps?"
"We are not a seagoing people," the girl sniffed. "What do we care for Argus?"
Time to retreat indeed. Horyma bowed her head in defeat.
"Then, if such is truly your final answer, I shall take my leave now, Polemarch," she said, preparing to escape.
"You shall stay."
The hairs on Horyma's neck shot up like spikes.
"The princess has more to say?" she asked guardedly, anxiety boiling in her stomach.
"No," the polemarch told her. "But you do."
The suggestion was clear. Horyma looked around them. There was still only the other Otomeian, the beautiful whitish-blonde one. She supposed the others were all outside, though, and waiting for her.
"The king will mark my absence," she protested.
"That is good. It shall give him our answer to his proposal."
Then the girl said something in her tongue, which Horyma naturally did not understand. It could have been a name, for all she knew. But it was more likely a command, for five of the black-garbed soldiers that had brought her here materialised in the room immediately afterwards.
The polemarch had turned to the soldier who had attended her throughout the interview: the beautiful, snowy-fair one.
"You wish to ask something?" she asked this soldier in the Himean tongue.
"My questioning can come later," the woman replied.
"Where shall we take her?"
"I've had a place prepared; I've some legionaries waiting outside for it already. I daresay she should be quite comfortable."
The brief exchange and the smirk of the snowy-haired "attendant" gave the baroness to understand the trick: that woman was not an attendant and most definitely not Otomeian.
"You accuse me of perfidy but practise it yourself, Polemarch," she said. "Are you even truly the polemarch? And this woman is what, a Himean?"
"I am the polemarch, yes," the girl replied. "As to her being Himean, I did not say otherwise."
"You said she was your attendant."
"Did she not attend me?"
Horyma snorted with annoyance.
"Now you take me captive," she accused, not even bothering to shrug off the hand one of her captors had put on her shoulder. "You insult our king while claiming that rules of honour are paramount. How can abduction of an envoy in a parley be honourable?"
The camouflaged Himean had stepped closer and was about to snap something to her at this; however, the woman was stayed by the Otomeian polemarch's hand brushing her arm.
The polemarch thus made the reply to Horyma's accusation, the steadiness of her voice chilling the captive not even because it sounded consciously cold; rather, it was that it was so strangely unexcited in the midst of the excitement that Horyma knew her abduction was. This awful girl, the baroness thought, had veins of ice.
"This is not parley, Baroness," the princess said. "You came to us not with a white flag but with black words. You sought us not in the day but in the night. You are not an envoy of peace but… but one of treachery. Do not speak of insult; you have insulted us more than we have you. To an Otomeian, honour is everything. Your offer has presumed that we have none."
The baroness apprehended it now: this had been a futile attempt from the beginning. The polemarch and the silver-haired Himean, whoever she was, had met with her tonight only to effect capture. Indignant and enraged at having been so roundly deceived by a people making war with her own, she stripped off her courtly composure and adopted a snarl that revealed all the serpentine malice she often kept hidden for the sake of political cunning and survival.
"I see how it is!" she said. "This was a trick from the beginning. This meeting was a farce."
"As was your offer. You would have turned on us at the first opportunity." The large eyes narrowed. "You think me a fool, Baroness. Had your proposal been genuine, you would also have offered a marriage of alliance between one of your royals and one of ours. It is possible with me, even. But you had no intent of staying tied to us after the war, so you included no such proposition."
"If that is what you want, I can arrange for it to happen!"
"No, thank you, I would not deign to marry a Mentulaean. Nor would any of my cousins, I think."
"You, Polemarch, are a treacherous cunnus," Horyma spat, frustrated beyond belief.
"And your mother mated with a weasel."
After a moment where it seemed even the seething captive paused to consider the odd retort, Horyma drew herself up again and recovered her awful glare, dropping her voice to convey what she had to say in the most menacing tones possible.
"This is the height of barbarity," she started. "And one day, I predict even very soon, you will have cause to repine at your actions, Polemarch. You may take me captive now, but you—"
She was unable to continue, having been gagged by one of the soldiers at Natsuki's command. The girl looked over the now-silenced captive with what was obviously puzzlement written all over her young face.
"The defeated make speeches only in theatre," she said with a note of instruction, as if trying to explain to the woman something of which the latter must not have been aware. "This is not theatre."
At her behest, the baroness was finally taken away, all thunder and muffled mutters as her guards directed her. The party left two women behind, one of whom watched them go with tears of mirth in her eyes.
The chuckling woman stepped in front of the polemarch's chair.
"A weasel?" she asked laughingly, now speaking in Greek as well.
"She insulted me," explained Natsuki, looking both hurt and dignified.
"So she did. I admit that the Hellenic one is not a great language for insults. Still, you do not curse often, I take it."
Shizuma held out a hand to help the girl up just as more troopers entered the room and bowed to them.
"If they're here to assist you to your tent, do send them away," she proposed. "I can serve as your attendant for a while longer and shall bring you and your pet safely to your lodgings myself later. For now, I invite you to come and have a nice hot dinner with me—and before you protest, I already had the cooks prepare some dishes from the list my dearest, silliest cousin gave me detailing the things you like to eat best. Consider it a special dinner to celebrate tonight. I daresay we deserve it!"
"Now then, it went well, I think," Shizuma said once the troopers had left, bringing the chairs with them as well as the dismantled dais. She held out her arm and asked the girl to take it so that they could walk together. Shizuki padded next to her owner, brushing against the girl's leg every few steps or so. "Though you said this was not theatre earlier, you must surely admit it had a touch of the theatrical about it. That aside, what do you think of how this went?"
"Yes, it was not bad," Natsuki said. "Above all, it is good she came to see me."
"Well, that is what I meant. Because of their attempt at wooing your people over, we now have a possible source of valuable information in our hands. I'm quite sure we can manage to get more from her."
But Natsuki shook her dark head.
"It is good," she said, "that she agreed to come to me in particular, is what I intended to say. It gives us perhaps more, hmm, valuable information than we can get from her by interrogation."
"All the people in this camp and our army know I am your cousin's mistress," the girl said in her lovely, measured Attic. "If the Mentulaeans approach me, it signifies they have no agents among us. One would not consciously choose the enemy's mistress as the party to tempt into treachery."
Shizuma's steps slowed and she looked down at the girl on her arm, astonished.
"Were you not my cousin's mistress, Natsuki, I would now strive to make you mine," she told her.
"But I am your cousin's mistress," Natsuki responded after a cough, a nearby torch showing the blush on her cheeks. "And as I said, it is fortunate that all know it."
Shizuma smiled and looked up again.
"Yes," she said. "You are probably right about that."