Greetings to everyone. I very much hope everyone has a pleasant winter this year.

Et on the subject of winter, I wonder who among you have seen "Frozen" already. Because I toured the Elsanna ship recently and may now be manning one of the capstans. Mais non, non, je ne regrette rien~


Vocabulaire:

1. Ala (s.), alae (pl.)a cavalry unit. For this story, every ala shall be equal to 500 horsemen.

2. Corona graminea (L.) – also corona obsidionalis; the rarest and greatest of all Roman military awards. Only the actual army and its non-senatorial officers (the centurions) could award it to a person, and they awarded it only if the recipient had saved, by his personal efforts, the lives of an entire legion or the whole army itself. It was thus the only crown that could be awarded by the soldiers to their general upon their own determination. The recorded Roman recipients of this award were so few that they could be counted with just both hands.

3. Cataphracti (pl.) – a cataphract is a type of heavy cavalry, a fully armoured man on a fully armoured horse. It is basically a "shock unit".

4. Contubernalis (L.) - a cadet; typically, the first military exposure of the upper-class family members of Rome would be in this position.

5. "Depth" in army formations – this is in case anyone has trouble understanding the military term. In armies, "width" (sometimes "length", depending on the perspective) typically indicates the number of columns and "depth" the number of rows, at least if one looks at the force from the front. Take this representation of an army, for example:

[! ! !]

[xxxx]

[xxxx]

Let us assume this army of x's is facing the three exclamation marks. If each "x" is a soldier, the army would be then be 4 men (or columns of them) wide and 2 men (or rows of them) deep.

6. dies caniculares (L.) – The Dog Days of summer were from July to August in Ancient Rome, at least when the calendar was in step with the seasons. Sirius, the Dog Star, appeared in the sky around this time and the heat would drive many Romans out of the city and to cooler provinces.

7. iugerum (L., pl.iugera) a Roman unit of measurement for area, specifically for farmland; one iugerum would be a little over 2,500 sq.m.

8. Manumission (Eng.) – the freeing of a slave. Manumission was fairly common for Roman slaves, who typically gained it either by fulfilling the specified years of service in their contract, by being granted it as a gift from their masters, or by saving sufficient money from their wages to buy their own freedom. Note that slaves can actually continue to work for their masters after manumission: they simply do so as hired freedmen, but everything else stays much the same.

9. pilum (s.), pila (pl.) – (L.) a heavy standard-issue Roman javelin. It could be a fearsome headache for enemies because it tended to pierce deeply even into heavy shields, which made the shield difficult to handle afterwards since the pilum would be stuck in it.

10. rosea rura (L.) – the fertile lands outside of Reate, or modern-day Rieti. This was where they bred the best mules in Italy.

11. "Servi poenae poenas dabunt." (L.) – "Servi poenae" is an anachronism, of course, but I doubt anyone really minds here. There were many types of slavery in Ancient Rome. "Servi poenae", or in some translations, "penal slaves", entered their type of slavery as penalty due to some transgression of law on their parts. Loosely translated, the sentence reads "the penal slaves will pay the price", referring to the doubled punishment the persons referred to in the text are about to receive. They will enter slavery as the penalty for being conquered by the enemy, then must also pay an additional penalty (presumably for their attempt at a last-ditch stand) of entering the worst kind of bondage possible.

12. Strigil – or strigilis (L.), a bathing implement used for scraping off oil and dead skin.


Inter Nos II: Inde Ira et Lacrimae

par ethnewinter


Shizuru wasted no time when she received the missive from Kenji Nakamura. She dashed off an answering letter, sent another requesting that her cousin come to the conquered Lasandre, and sped up the work of converting the former Mentulaean citadel into a serviceable army base from which to deploy her own troops.

"Which is quite easy, as an army was quartered here not long ago," Shizuru told her cousin when the woman arrived, the Fourth legion and cavalry in tow. "Besides the petty one that gave us that sad little drama when we entered, I mean. And to think no one gave them applause for their pains; someone should have told them that what they were doing was not theatre."

Natsuki's laughter filled the background as Shizuma requested an explanation.

"There was a small core of diehards in the city—loyalists, that is, to the realm," Shizuru said. "The group was headed by some local aristocrats, even. They were vehemently against the idea of opening the city to us, and certainly did not change their minds even after the fact had already been accomplished. They were so against the idea of surrender that they decided to try and hold out in one of the towers on the walls."

"I take it you assaulted the diehards' tower, then."

"Why would I?" Shizuru asked. "I posted guards outside the tower's entrance and let them do as they wished. They could have had an orgy up there for all I cared."

"And did they?"

"I doubt it," the other grinned. "The cretins went up there with little forethought. They stocked up on weapons and got themselves up in some of the most stifling armour you ever saw a Mentulaean don in this heat, but somehow neglected to bring food or water with them. Barely two days of summer up in that spire and they came down with tongues touching their navels."

Her cousin sighed at the sorry tale.

"Poor devils," was the older patrician's verdict. "They surely imagined rather a more glorious end to their protest. And perhaps they would have had it, had they only had the fortitude to end their lives themselves instead of surrendering! The thirst might have weakened them too much for that thought, though. Animal misery has that power."

"Misery is right," sniffed Shizuru, unimpressed.

"Ah now, Shizuru, at least allow that they had some courage, standing up to the inevitable. As to their end, I doubt even they predicted it. They probably thought you would tear down the tower and they would in that doom like fallen patriots. What person moved to his actions by a blaze of honour ever imagines defeat from water instead of blood?"

But the other Himean was dismissive, more interested in the princess passing her couch.

"More flicker than blaze, I should think," said Shizuru while tugging at her lover's dress; she wanted Natsuki to sit on the couch with her instead of returning to the third one around the table. "Besides, I am not overly enamoured of arguments based on honour nowadays. I find that the word 'honour' is very often used to disguise folly now because some think it a universal justification. People are allowed to overlook the logical when honour supposedly demands something less reasonable. Even had those idiots brought supplies with them, what would they have achieved by holing up in that spire? Nothing, at least not in the grand scheme of things. Lasandre would still be a fallen city and, eventually, I would still win this war."

"You mean Hime would win this war," her cousin teased.

"I am acting as Hime's representative here, so naturally I meant that," Shizuru said dryly. "And there is the difference, Shizuma. The honour I have of performing my duties for my country shall be recorded as significant to its history. It is honour that everyone else shall acknowledge. Think of the results alone when this war is over. I shall have expanded Hime's territories by a whole empire's worth. Surely one can consider that honourable, sufficient to ennoble a whole family for generations. Whereas those idiots' supposed honour of standing up to me shall not even make it to the official records, so pathetic was the attempt. Honour! Sometimes, I think that people only quote the word to justify some self-satisfying stupidity."

The other Himean lingered over the drink she was taking and when she looked up from it, her gaze turned not to her cousin.

But the green eyes were on Shizuru, and they held nothing but adoration.

"Maybe you're right," Shizuma sighed, finally. "What happened to the diehards then?"

"In with the rest of the captives," was the response. "Surely you did not think I killed them?"

"Heavens, and give them the satisfaction!?"

"Exactly, so they are more or less unharmed." A beat. "Still, I am thinking of arranging for the members of that idiotic cabal to be sold especially to slavers selling to Sicily or the Spains. Gods know people of such mean sense cannot do much good as slaves elsewhere."

Which meant, a wide-eyed Shizuma thought, that they had given her cousin no petty irritation with their "sad little drama" after all. Such a fate as Shizuru was arranging for the Diehards of the Tower (for so did the senior legate think of them now) could be nothing but a punishment: Sicily and the Spains were full of the toughest slave owners in all the provinces of Hime.

Sicilian slaves worked vast tracts of agricultural land without cessation and under harsh guard. This was because the great landowners of Sicilia had practically militarised their operations after the servile wars in years past. The slaves of the Iberian Peninsula had it even worse. These worked the famous Spanish mines—mines of which Shizuru was one of the biggest landowners, and which constituted a big chunk of her vast inheritance.

Mines were among the most profitable of investments, and that was helped by the fact that they ran on unpaid labour. As a result, mine slaves faced the greatest drudgery of all those sold into bondage; none of them entered the status of his own accord. His lot was a stark contrast to those of slaves who not only got paid for their jobs but also sometimes entered slavery of their own will—slaves like Shizuru's charmingly epicene steward, for example.

Hermias hailed from one of Greece's many rural pastures, all too aware that his potential was wasted in the idyllic backwater he called home. Even as a youth, he had yearned to live elsewhere, ideally somewhere that mattered. He transferred to Athens once he came of age and had been happy at first. But after a year the appeal palled: he found even the seat of Hellenic culture wanting.

The problem with Hellenic culture, he decided, was that its time had come and gone. Athens was no longer the navel of the world. Another place mattered more now and had become the centre of culture and power. Athens would always have a special place in his heart, with its unapologetic intellectualism and fragile ideals and all its beautiful boys endowed with the sweetest arses. But it had already passed the sceptre to Hime and Hime reigned supreme.

That was how Hermias had decided that life would be better in slavery—but only the right kind of slavery, of course, and only slavery to a Himean senator. His regime of self-improvement was brutal, covering oenology, fashion, bookkeeping, and a dozen other subjects for household management. The goal was to appeal to a rich and aristocratic Himean seeking a Greek housekeeper, and while he knew his face and form would already go a long way to making him a more presentable option, he did not care to hedge his bets on physical appeal alone. He wanted to work for a household of means, class, and influence. So he had to strive to be the best of all the other ambitious men and women putting themselves forward on that auction block.

He knew what he was going into the moment he sold himself into bondage. He could expect to be treated well, especially due to this talents and the price they put on him. He would never worry about lacking food, or shelter, or even care, for his master would see to everything as though he were a true part of the family. And as he was educated, capable, and pleasing to look at, he could expect a position that would give him power over the rest of the household slaves along with very good wages. Eventually he could even expect to be manumitted and made a Himean freedman, bearing his master's family name to show to whom he owed liberty and his vote.

A mine slave, by contrast, expected none of these things. He could receive the whip from his overseers at any time, and had only the barest of necessities to stay alive. He spent most of his hours underground and the dark would ruin his eyesight forever. When he got ill no one sent for a doctor and he would only be made to work until it became truly impossible for him to rise. And that was the end for a mine slave, for he had no manumission to aspire to after his labours. He worked, he suffered, and when he could suffer no more, he died.

So Shizuru's intentions with the Diehards of the Tower were brutal enough to merit interpretation as punishment—for Shizuma knew her cousin and knew that despite the younger woman's ruthlessness, she was nonetheless someone who would not sentence people to such lifestyles absent reason. Shizuru was not someone who took pleasure in cruelty for its own sake, but she could take pleasure in vengeance.

Shizuma wondered what it was that had irked her cousin about them.

She doubted it was the perversion of "honour" that had done it. Could it have been that Shizuru had wanted that particular tower earlier than they had allowed? But that seemed unlikely even to her. Indeed, most of the things that immediately came to mind seemed unlikely answers for such a riddle. What in the world could those poor people have done to merit this response?

Whatever it was, she decided, it had sealed their fates. Servi poenae poenas dabunt.

"On the topic of slaves," she said, "I presume you want the prisoners sent as soon as possible to the Atinu Camp, Shizuru?"

"Yes. I want some auxiliary infantry to escort them. Have one of the tribunes handle it, Cousin."

The other nodded and said, "There are a lot of them."

"True, so best put them to work."

"No, not the tribunes," said the senior legate. "The prisoners."

Shizuru gave a smile that said that was both natural and obvious.

"I did take a city," she reminded.

But Shizuma needed no reminder of that, just as she needed no reminder of the fact that not all generals seized and sold whole populations of cities on conquest: most especially not, it had to be said, when the cities were taken by surrender. More common to take only the fighting fit to reduce enemy forces, or perhaps to take only one sex so as to temporarily stunt population growth. It was not condemnable to do what Shizuru was doing with Lasandre—and indeed she would not question her cousin on it even if she personally felt it to be so—yet it left an impression on her, this great arrest and enslavement of a whole city's people after it had opened its gates in peaceful submission.

Shizuru had stripped Lasandre and its surroundings completely bare of inhabitants, sorting them into lots of men, women, and children. Those with illness were slain to prevent disease spreading and burned in a special pit. Babies and children were permitted to stay with the women, although it was doubtful that these would live during the exodus. Supplies for the captives were worked out down to the last metre of rope for their bonds, and even their rations were dispensed with the sparing attitude of military urgency.

Even though those rations were ones their captors had only seized from them.

It was a memorably cold and businesslike operation, and the senior legate saw it conducted by a person she had always thought among the most humane and sympathetic of their kind. Which her cousin still was, every part of her insisted, despite the lack of hesitation the woman had showed in treating a whole city of people as meat to be sold.

The interesting thing about her, she thought, looking at her cousin with wondering eyes, is that she can do things like this without ever seeing a contradiction between it and her compassion. One might say it is the Himean way, as we're a pragmatic people and not much given to the philosophical idealism of the Greeks. But Shizuru applies it to extremes. Absolutely ruthless one moment and shockingly humane the next, whichever serves the primary cause of her life best in a situation. The only centre or consistency she seems compelled to live by is ambition. Everything else serves it, I am beginning to think.

But then her eyes strayed to the girl occupying the couch with her cousin, sitting upright with Shizuru's bare feet on her lap.

Except that particular thing, I suppose—although I've yet to see what that thing is exactly. Is that girl a slave to her ambition or mistress of it?

"Yes, we should pass the captives off to the slavers already," she said to her commander and cousin. "That way we shan't have to keep feeding them with our supplies. When are the auxiliary troops you ordered up here expected?"

Shizuru looked to her mistress.

"The foreriders—" A sudden stop. "Is this the word, Shizuru? The advance group of scouts?"

"Yes, of the vanguard, meum mel."

"They shall arrive in perhaps three weeks. The rest, I would increase the time by three. Maybe even by four."

The silver-haired Shizuma looked to her cousin with a question.

"I believe she means to triple or quadruple the time before arrival," Shizuru offered.

"Were they so far away?" the senior legate frowned. "I had thought them to be well on their way some time ago, and I have to say I'd not have thought Otomeians to be slugs on the march."

It was Natsuki who answered, although it was Shizuru who had been addressed.

"All those thoughts are correct," said the one dark-haired woman in the room. "But they are incomplete. The bulk of the army is made of footmen, unlike the foreriders. They march in this lowland summer when they—we are people of the snows. Thuh–thawing us does not improve our speed, Legate. It melts our sinews instead."

The more golden of the blondes listening picked up her goblet and hid a smile behind it.

"Of course, forgive me for failing to think of it," Shizuma said to the rebuke. She was not a whit discomposed as she turned back to her cousin. "Nothing for it but to wait, then. We should start working out the cart schedules for the prisoners' conveyance, though. Or maybe we could get more carts? I wish we had more oxen."

But Shizuru disagreed.

"Mules are better for this if we can find sufficient carts to match them," said the army veteran expertly, having dealt with both animals for years—even once, in her youth, from the intimate perspective of a contubernalis tasked with overseeing a legion's animals.

That experience had been intended as a penalty for the young patrician, who found herself constantly stepping over and around herbivore dung in the course of the assignment. The irony of it was that she had just been awarded a corona graminea right before it. She won the decoration in a battle gone awry, mustering a legion and countermanding her general's strategy. Her only goal had been to save as many as she could in the growing debacle. And in the end she did not only that but even turned the tide of the battle, saving both the army and the day.

Yet she very nearly got prosecuted for her pains.

Disobedience was a bad enough offence, but she made it worse by being a mere cadet. It would have been scandalous enough had she been a minor officer but Shizuru had occupied no position of authority at all when she led the soldiers in that battle. How could she have held an office at her age then? That the legionaries had even followed so young a person had been considered incredible—but as the years would show, it was only the first demonstration of her power over the people marching under the standards.

It was these same men and women whose love and gratitude later saved her, she who was also their saviour. They shielded her from the rancour she gained from her general and superiors in that battle. She had upstaged these leaders in a painful way and in front of thousands of soldiers. A contubernalis, of all people! A contubernalis did not command, and often did not even fight. He acted as a minor secretary and merely attended a superior officer. Yet this one had gone so far above her station that she had usurped the imperium of every officer above her. It was as though she had looked upon that battle and decided to take over with a shrug, saying, I might as well do it because no one else is capable enough.

She should have been brought to trial. As the army had just given her the rarest military decoration of Hime, however, the embittered senators could not have prosecuted the young woman—all the more as they knew that to do so would have brought down a true mutiny of the soldiers on their hands. Ah, but they could still hate. What did it matter that she had saved their skins as well? Gratitude ran short where envy ran long. Hence they strove instead to make the rest of her campaign miserable in various ways, including by assigning her to inglorious duties like that of managing the legion's beasts of burden.

Although the irrepressible youth had then turned the tables on them by diving into that duty as seriously as if it had been an army command. And then putting it to good use in her later campaigns, when she began to restructure the way her armies worked to turn them into the speedy machines she favoured as a general.

"I learned a great deal about the two animals when I was a contubernalis," she smiled to her cousin, who found little to smile about in her own remembrance of that time. Shizuma had been near-mad with worry back then, and had even rounded up their most powerful relatives and friends to see what could be done in case of a trial. She would be damned, she had sworn, if she allowed her favourite cousin to be condemned so soon after the girl had lost both parents. And even those of their circle most aghast at Shizuru's arrogance had pledged all their resources to save her.

But that was all before they learned of the corona graminea.

"The mules will do better because there is sufficient grass yet to keep them going," Shizuru was lecturing, "and the distance is actually manageable. They will not only move faster but weather heat better too. They should make good time without fuss."

"I see," Shizuma said. "I confess I always wondered which animal was superior."

"Oh, it always depends. Mules in this case. Change a few conditions, however, and the answer might be oxen. Either way, better one of them than horses for this sort of work."

"I know that, at least! Lucky for you—though not for the Treasury—I nearly bought out the breeders of the rosea rura to supply your campaign with the best mules possible. They cost more, but no Himean general of any sense would do with anything less." The senior legate stopped, screwed her eyes up as if a thought had suddenly occurred to her. "I say, I wonder what sort of mules one can get off those devilish large horses of the Otomeians. What would the progeny of a donkey and one of the Otomeian mares look like, you think?"

Shizuma turned to the Otomeian princess for an answer, but such was the affront on that woman's face that she found herself apologising without knowledge of her insult.

"I think she dislikes the match," their general said with a giggle. "Is that it, meum mel?"

The Polemarch of Otomeia was held fast by the ferocity of her indignation. She could not even manage a word of response.

"I think she really dislikes it," Shizuma's cousin whispered.

"A donkey!" said the polemarch, provoked to speech at last. "A donkey for my horses!"

"See?" Shizuru went on. "An unwelcome proposal, it seems."

"It is puh–profanity, not a proposal!" Natsuki hurled out.

Her lover made an effort to swallow the laughter.

"We must remember that she too is an aristocrat, Shizuma," the general said to her cousin, who was bemused by the foreigner's passion on the subject. "And her horses are in a sense as aristocratic as she is, if I understand her culture and how they treat these animals. Natsuki is also especially invested in this, as she has business in horse breeding. What you just suggested might have been equivalent to—oh, I don't know—I suppose imagine how Hikaru Senou or even the more prudish snobs among the Himemiya must have felt when they heard of Chikane-chan's choice of wife."

Even as the fascinated Shizuma digested that, she realised that a better analogy would have been to compare it to how those snobs would feel upon learning of her cousin's own (desired) choice of wife. Even though Himeko Himemiya had been part of the classless Head Count before Chikane wedded her, she had still been a born and bred Himean. The Princess Natsuki, despite her nobility, was by contrast a total outsider.

The idea had not been to mate a superb horse with a common one: it had been to mate a horse with a different animal.

But it is hardly as though she can be expected to point that out to the girl's face, Shizuma allowed, saying instead: "I suppose, but Chikane and Himeko cannot actually produce offspring, which would be the purpose of the match the case of the beasts. I do take the point, though, so I will ask Natsuki to excuse me. It was an idle thought by an ignoramus on equine breeding. Pray do not think too badly of me for it, for I've little education on the matter and could not even begin to compare to you there."

Natsuki subsided into a blush at the apology, sincere as the Himean had made it sound. Satisfied, Shizuma addressed her cousin again.

"I'm to stay here and command the ones left behind as garrison, then? I expect you've plans to head somewhere again shortly, which would explain why you want me here."

"Yes," said her cousin, peeking out again from behind the goblet. "I want you to take charge of this area, as I intend to move further afield soon. Put a cohort of the Fourth in the Atinu camp, as that should be enough. Keep the rest with you and coordinate with the other legates to subdue this area. The Carsini, Shizuma. I want them put down. These people give the empire many of her soldiers in the centre, I take it, and they are deathly loyal to the king. I hear he used to live with them when he was younger."

She paused to sip at her drink and continued: "Unfortunately, they are spread out over a huge territory nearby with several forts and lords to continue recruiting and rallying them. I want them neutralised but my attentions need to be elsewhere."

"Very well. Where do you go?"

"It depends on what I learn in the next few days—soon after I speak with the Baron of Firens."

"That would be the Mentulaean heading the deputation requesting to meet with you."

"Just so. He should be headed here now, along with a coterie of other defecting aristocrats of the empire." She set her goblet back on the table and said, with every appearance of adding something inconsequential, "I instructed Kenji-han to have them escorted here on horseback with a handpicked group of crack legionaries from the Ninth. Handpicked by me, by the way."

It was Natsuki's muffled "Oh!" that alerted the senior legate to the presence of something more to what Shizuru had said. She looked to her cousin's inamorata for an answer, but that young woman was already looking at the commander.

"Shizuru," was all the Otomeian said, saying it in a way that said she was hugely tickled.

"Yes, I did forget to mention that to you earlier, Natsuki, did I not?" was the woman's response. She favoured the polemarch with a flirtatious wink before turning back to her cousin. "I am certain she has already guessed it, so there is no point in explaining to her what I mean, at least. Now tell me, Shizuma, have you ever met the chief primipilus of the Ninth?"

The senior legate said that she had not yet had the pleasure.

"Saltier than the pork we keep in the supply barrels," Shizuru outlined, sounding proud. "The woman's tongue curdles milk in the bowl. Ask Miyuki-han if I lie about that when you see her."

Shizuma's brow pleated: "Why not Natsuki here, since I assume they have already met?"

But Shizuru laughed.

"Do you understand half of the vulgarities Yuuki-han says, my love? Be honest," she asked Natsuki, who scowled at the challenge.

"How am I to answer?" the Otomeian replied. "If I know half of them, I shall think that half to be the whole, no?"

The other two were caught off guard by this logic and burst into laughter.

"You have me there, I admit," Shizuru said. "Now back to the centurion. She is Sulpician in origin, absolutely steadfast once you gain her esteem, and as red of eye as she is of hair. And I think I do not exaggerate when I say her hair is some of the reddest I have ever seen, no, mea vita?"

The Otomeian's head bobbed with fervour. Shizuma remembered that the Otomeians saw none of this hair colour themselves, so she supposed it had left a profound impression on the girl.

"She also heads the Ninth's torture and intelligence detachment," Shizuru went on. "Wonderfully effective. She would not hesitate to drive shards and splinters under your nails if she thought it would help you share a secret. I believe she even once carved letters into someone's gums, although I cannot be sure of it because it was only related to me afterwards by someone else."

While the two cousins had a number of things in common, equanimity to torture was not one of them. Shizuma shuddered whereas Shizuru smiled—and both looked perfectly patrician.

"Resourceful woman," Shizuma said colourlessly, trying to cast the image of bleeding nails and gums from her mind's eye. She succeeded when she realised what her cousin was hinting at and what the polemarch had already deduced. "I see. You told Nakamura to have the Mentulaean deputation shepherded here by that centurion?"

"And a few other not-dissimilar legionaries, yes."

"You're not planning interrogation under torture of those poor people, I hope?"

Shizuru was puzzled by the suggestion.

"Why would I?" she demanded. "Do you think me a savage?"

"I'm not certain what I think of you sometimes, truth be told," the other said with a headshake. "Still, gods protect that poor deputation. I take it they shall have none-too-comfy a journey."

"But an efficient and secure one," Shizuru responded. "I want no tricks played on us here, and that means keeping those barons and baronesses isolated from others until I talk to them. It also means keeping them alive, which is again related to isolating them from others who might recognise them and see the betrayal. The people I selected stick at nothing to see my orders carried out, and it is why I chose them. It is hardly torture, Shizuma, to keep a close watch on the enemy's defectors. My legionaries shall ensure security, you shall see. Not one of those Mentulaeans will be able to relieve himself in a bush without Yuuki-han or another of my men trimming it to keep a close watch."

"What delightful vulgarities you do spout sometimes, little cousin."

"No better than the ones you surely speak to your paramours in bed," the other shot back, eyebrow up. "Still, there it is. No clandestine connivances or shadowing possible for the defectors! They can talk amongst themselves but will never be given an opportunity to meet other Mentulaeans or locals on the way. I want them here as fast as possible, and Yuuki-han shall see to that. Even if it means she has to wear their rears down to leather, she shall keep them on horseback and travelling as long as she can without actually harming them. Provided I get them here alive and capable of talking, I think I shall not lose sleep over their little inconveniences."

Which meant that Shizuru suffered no pricks of conscience when the deputation finally straggled in, looking as though they had been dragged behind their steeds instead of riding on them. In fact, the senior legate murmured to the Otomeian polemarch, their commander even looked delighted by the bedraggled appearances of the defecting Mentulaeans—who all behaved somewhat as though they were walking on the deck of a pitching boat after dismount.

This dizzy and dishevelled delegation was ushered into the commander's working premises in Lasandre. For this Shizuru had chosen one of the better buildings in the city, a domicile that had belonged to one of Lasandre's foremost citizens. It was not in fact the best in the sense of being the most luxurious or even the largest of the options available, but it was nonetheless the one she found most suitable for her requirements. It was very near the city centre, it was accessible via the main roads from the gates, it had two floors with a separate entrance for the upper one, and it had the luxury of a working latrine. The cooler ground floor she appropriated for her personal use and converted a large bedroom in the brighter first floor into her council room. It was in this room that she sat the Mentulaeans as well as several of her officers.

"Before we begin," she said to the Mentulaeans, "would any of you like some cool water?"

All of them accepted.

"The summers have always been worse here," said the obvious leader of the group afterwards, a man with a mass of white hair and the vitality of an old warlord not yet grown frail. He was the only one to have managed to exchange short introductions with Shizuru earlier so he just addressed her casually. "In this part of the empire, that is to say. Just another reason I'm not too fond of it."

"The region, Baron Entei?" Shizuru asked with a smile. "Or the empire?"

Entei smiled back and revealed that his teeth, though large and finely-formed, were heavily yellowed. As his tousled hair and beard were very white, his smile appeared a literally jaundiced one.

"The region," he said. "I have other, deeper reasons for disliking the empire, General Fujino. As do my fellows."

She invited him to introduce the others.

"The Baron Delior of House Epixes," he began, indicating a sandy-haired man with the physique of a bull. Brawny and thick-necked, head receding into heavy shoulders: it led to an impression of him being shorter than he truly was. He was the kind of animal that people tended to think less intelligent than he could be in truth. Whether or not the square-jawed Delior was more or less intelligent than his looks, though, was something that Shizuru could not yet tell.

"His daughter is betrothed to my brother's only son, and his mother was my mother's cousin. His fiefs abut mine, so the two of us are responsible for the strip of land from Irisorum to Pharuces."

"Opposite which, across the border, would be the most powerful of the borderside Nervian fiefdoms," Shizuru explained for him. "I take the point on your Houses' importance to the region, Baron. Please continue."

The others looked surprised, but not Entei. A woman capable of doing what she had with the Southern Frontier and of climbing over a massif in winter to do it could only be very irresponsible or very thorough.

"And here we have the Baroness Athain of House Hallon." This next personality was a wiry woman with dark hair slashed with grey. Her look was one of weathered severity—the sort you carved out of wood. "The Baroness was one of the first members of our coalition. Her fiefs also abut mine."

The general's smile widened ever so slightly.

"And finally, the Baron Orgestes of House Garrida," Entei finished, indicating the last man. This was a smoothly bald character with a trim beard and a well-lined face; Shizuru thought him to be the eldest of the deputation by his looks, although not necessarily because he looked creaky already. He and Entei were in fact not that far from each other in age, but the gentler and more refined-looking Orgestes had less of the other man's martial vigour. His was the face of the seasoned counsellor: so placid it was nearly blank, Yet in that countenance was the ability to reflect whatever a ruler wanted to see in other eyes.

"He was a courtier of Obsidian's father," Entei was saying, still speaking of the Baron Orgestes. "And for some time, he was a high member of Obsidian's court as well. That was until he decided to retire to his fiefs."

"And do his fiefs also abut yours?" Shizuru asked with a touch of impishness.

Entei gave his golden smile again.

"No," he said.

Shizuru welcomed all of them heartily to the conference. Next she went through her own introductions, although hers were less specifically informative.

"I am General Shizuru Fujino, proconsul and governor-general of the Septentrian Province of Hime, which shall be the name for these lands once I have annexed them for People and Senate," she said with such glib nonchalance that it caused blinks among her guests. Defectors though they might be, they were also still ruling nobles of the realm she had just condemned to conquest with such certainty. "The persons around us are all part of my army and staff. Excuse me if I skip a complete introduction for now, as you shall have ample opportunity to meet the ones you should meet later if all goes well. And if all does not go well, then at least we shall not have wasted time."

She smiled briefly at their glances to each other.

"Not that I intend to keep you in the dark about the identities of all the people here, though," she continued. "For now, let it be noted that at my right is my cousin and senior legate. That means the immediate second-in-command in our army. At my left is a high officer of our allies the Otomeians, their appointed polemarch."

This time, the disconcertment was so obvious among the foreigners that Shizuru was obliged to inquire if there was a problem.

"Forgive our confusion," said the one female in the Mentulaean delegation. She had a far softer voice and manner than her looks allowed. "What we know of Otomeia and its people isn't much, I do admit, but the, uh, poh–lay…?"

"Polemarch, Baroness Athain. Their auxiliary's high commander and representative in our councils. Also personally titled Princess Natsuki of the Otomeians."

"Ah, princess, yes," said Athain, latching onto the more familiar term. She directed a brief glance to the polemarch, whose face showed only curiosity at their interest. "As I said, we don't know much of Otomeia, all told. Even so, we do know some things one might consider of essence. And I must say, the princess doesn't look like any Otomeian we have ever seen."

"Yes, she likely does not," Shizuru said cheerfully. "Perhaps you should all consider yourselves fortunate to have the privilege of seeing her."

The senior legate grinned.

"I have already learned of what transpired at Massae and, as you explained them to my legate there, what events led to this," Shizuru continued, ploughing on before the foreigners could say any more. "I must say, though… a cool, if not frigid scheme, Baron Entei, to so use and spend people who were also your countrymen."

"So it must appear to some," Entei answered easily. "But correct me if I'm wrong—I remember that your nation has had its wars with neighbours too. Fuukans, I think, against Himeans?"

"The civil wars, yes. Countryman against countryman. But not people from the same nation."

"And there you have it, General," said Entei, a gleam in his eyes. "You call us people of a single nation, you call us all Mentulaeans. Why, the capital too insists we call ourselves that. But we're not actually all Mentulaeans at heart."

"No?"

"No, at the core of it. To many of us, we're still Firensian, or Vomaesian, or members of some old tribe or other. Well, we were separate tribes before the empire, after all. The king claims us to be one nation as if his claim were all it took to make it a reality. What we really need—the leadership it truly takes for such a task—has not been provided. In its place we've had only wishful thinking and naïve politics. There are too many unsettled grievances against each other, too many feuds that remain."

He gave her his yellowed smile.

"You see, there's the truth behind our great empire," he continued. "We're really just an agglomeration of petty nations held together by the thinnest tissue. No doubt you know some of this, General, since you seem the type to study her enemy until she's ferreted out as many potential weaknesses as possible."

"That is a kind view of me," she said to him, noncommittal.

"It's a weakness I'm sure you already know about. The empire's leaders—we all of us—have a dozen conflicts among us, and they've remained to this day. Why? Because our kings have never really learned to settle them. Or should I say they've never bothered? All they do is promise rewards and benefits for both parties if they set aside the grievances momentarily, hoping they'll be forgotten with their causes over time. I ask you, do enemies set aside their enmity simply because they forget the reason they began fighting in the first place?"

"Unlikely," Shizuru agreed.

"Our rulers failed to live up to their promised rewards as well," he said. "Our rulers are fickle and forgetful about their own promises. A great deal of the problem has been that they have little talent for dividing their attentions. They turn instantly to the idea of expanding their empire when they have to solidify it first. And contrary to what many simple advisors would have some believe, going after a common enemy doesn't always get rid of the enemies in your midst!"

Shizuru's smile had not budged yet: "Pity you were not there to counsel him on that, then, before he started sending armies over the border."

"I wasn't, no—I never could stand the pandering in court," the man admitted. "But I tell you honestly, General Fujino, that when the king first proposed the idea of expanding to the lands east of the Atinu boundary, I had my supporters in his court counsel against it as far as they could without losing their lives."

He noted her eyebrows go up with satisfaction.

"Because you believed there were more important things to do for the empire?" she enquired.

"Yes, and because I never cared to make enemies of your people," he said, prompting some looks among the others on her side of the table. "I know what you Himeans are like, General Fujino, far though our nations may have been from each other. I know no distance would keep you from getting to all those you think your enemies once they've stung you to action. It doesn't always happen the first time, nor even in the first decade, but your people don't stick at a first time or period of years—you keep trying even if it takes you a century to do it."

He gave his counterpart across the table an unreadable look.

"I know," he said, "about the tale of Carthage."

"Ah," was Shizuru's response.

"That was just one part of the concern," he went on, a line appearing between his white brows. "As I said, internal stresses were working inside the empire. The king ignored them and based his policies solely on conquest and expansion, which meant that even the lords of the west—our houses, which have long been the empire's bulwark against our closest true enemies—were ignored in favour of Houses that had armies and men to spare for his campaigns abroad. Well, of course they could spare them. They weren't doing anything for the empire's protection, unlike us. Yet they received rewards regularly and we didn't."

He stopped to take a drink from his cup again and found it empty. Shizuru pushed her untouched one across the table.

"Thank you," he said after using her offering. "It's more consideration than our so-called king often shows us, I'm sad to say."

"As you were telling me," she said gently.

"Yes," he agreed. "Well, we who had long been at the service of the empire's defence received little consideration from him. Why not? We had little choice but to do our tasks, as we ourselves would be in the path of the Nervii were they to break through. Still, it was a bitter turn to be consciously and constantly ignored by the king in his favours and rewards. The king—the kings, as I count his father before him—have been perpetually prejudiced in favour of certain Houses and peoples too. Again, why shouldn't they be? They have their own 'true people' too. It's after the old tribe and House of the ruling dynasty, by the way, that we take the name 'Mentulae'. Did you know that?"

Shizuru nodded.

"I don't say that kingship over the different clans is impossible. Unification, I mean. Had I thought that, I would never have married my daughter to Obsidian," Entei revealed to the circle of auditors listening raptly to his dialogue—if it could be called that—with the Himean commander. "It was a leap of faith I took then, when the king asked for her hand in marriage. But it's a leap of faith that has ceased to be of benefit. You'll know this from what I told your legate already. It was obvious to me that there could be no future in staying with the realm."

"And you believe one to be in Hime?"

"I believe Hime is the future."

The general said nothing for some moments, as if waiting to see if he had anything else left to say. When it was clear he had no more, she made the smallest of movements in her chair, like someone quietly testing her spine after a long period of stillness.

"Everything you have said is interesting. But what do you want me to do, exactly?" she asked Entei.

Entei's lips twitched under his snowy beard. He had read her earlier as the sort of person who would negotiate with delicacy and more than a bit of roundabout talk; even now he thought he had not read her wrong. Her evasive responses thus far had been proof of it. So was this one deviant response now to be read as something other than it appeared?

"What do we want you to do, General?" he echoed, trying to buy himself time to reassess her.

The look in her extraordinary eyes said she knew what he was doing.

"That was what I asked," she said. "Do be frank about it, please. You may even be crude if you like. It is too hot today for us to waste everyone's time by batting eyelashes sweetly at each other."

His mouth fell open for the briefest moment.

"Very well, General," he said once he recovered, actually giving out a chuckle. "I'll come to the point."

He looked her straight in the eyes for what he had to say, knowing letting them roam would be a weakness before this creature.

"I want a kingship," he said. "I will be king of the western provinces of the realm, with an expansion of the boundaries of those provinces. You Himeans can keep the majority of the realm if you want it. However, I want the west."

A smile. "Plus a little more."

"Plus a little more, but it's a little that you can easily afford. And for every part you give us, you have less to worry about administratively. I'll do what you want me to do in the rest—fight Obsidian, garrison citadels you take, whatever you need as long as you let me do what I want in what will be my lands. You can also request a tribute, auxiliaries, whatever, as long as you stand behind me when I declare myself king. And I want a promise of you standing behind me too in case my enemies attack. I think you call people like me clients?"

"Client-king in your case, yes."

"That's it. Any thoughts yet?"

"Perhaps a bit of surprise." She quirked a brow at him. "I thought you would ask for the whole instead of just a part. Why not request to be high king of the entirety instead, since you do believe that the whole can be united under the right leadership? You might have tried to convince me to it by pointing out the advantages of just replacing the head of the realm instead of carving it up into new territories."

The baron's eyes swept what showed of her above the table again, as if taking her in one more time.

"General Fujino, please," he said. "I'm not fool enough to think Hime would send in someone like you if they didn't want to grab as much as they could of this place."

She looked very amused by that.

"So these—" She swept the rest of the deputation with her gaze. "Would they be your high council?"

"The core of it, yes."

"They submit to the terms of the contract between us, then, as shall all those part of your coalition. Is this guaranteed? All of you would offer me your forces for this alliance?"

"Yes, and whatever else you may need that we can give. Local intelligence, grain, fresh animals if we can supply them. We'll also hold the west—the lands you let us have—against your enemies and ours, reducing your worries."

"The usual offerings."

It was an indifferent answer.

"You want something else," Entei said almost accusingly, eyes guarded.

"I want something more." She then surprised everyone in the room by declaring, "It is very likely that you shall pay through the nose for this alliance and support you seek, Baron Entei, and I do not pretend otherwise. I am waging a war and I will use every resource I can to win, even if it means I have to use it ferociously. Besides everything you have offered, I am likely going to ask a great deal more of you yet. It is up to you to decide whether or not you are willing to supply what I want. But trust me when I say I shall ask for nothing that you cannot actually give."

Entei ignored the murmurs of his companions and kept his eyes on the beautiful woman across the table.

"It's interesting that you would ask me to trust you, General Fujino," he said softly. "Especially when you've made no gestures yet that would give us cause to do that. Unlike us, by the way, considering what we did at Massae."

"True," she concurred without concern. "But you did that because you seek an alliance with us. We do not seek an alliance with you."

At the patent flash of alarm in all their eyes—even in the thus-far composed Entei's—she halted their fears with a quick amendment.

"We do not seek one, but we may take one," she told them. "Quite a difference between the two, My Lady and Lords. Choose to fulfil my requests and the alliance may happen. Choose otherwise and it shall not. The choice is yours."

"You sound," said the grey-haired Orgestes, "as though you care not which way that choice goes, General Fujino."

"I do," she said smoothly. "Pardon me if I gave you the impression that I did not. Let it be clear that I do care. However, it should be clear as well that I care less than would be preferable for your bargaining position. You see, there is another truth I shall not conceal from you, because you can see it too if you open your eyes. The achievement of our goals is not dependent on your support… whereas the achievement of your goals is, in fact, largely dependent on ours. We both know this, so I daresay it is folly to act as though in ignorance of it. Do you think King Obsidian would take kindly to your secession? It is rather too late to change your mind about rebellion now, given what you did and whom you slew at Massae. Remember too that rulers always fear the enemies closer to home. I rather fancy Obsidian would wage war on you first if I were to pack up and pull out my legions from this land."

"And sacrifice all you have gained from your victories thus far?" gasped Athain.

"If it gained me the whole prize later, why would I think twice about returning a piece for a time? Besides, I would not go unrewarded, mind you. I have already stripped several of your armies and towns of booty, besides capturing a good number of people to sell to slavers. I shall be retreating with a tidy profit to offset my costs already as well as pay for my return once you and Obsidian have battered each other into military insignificance."

She was still speaking and smiling in that tender way, which was what made the delegation so uncomfortable all of a sudden. They were not used to people who spoke like that, who required no great gestures or passions to express power. She was powerful: they were not blind to that, despite the youth that was plain on her face. Yet she strove constantly to wrap her strength in silk, as if dulling the gleam of her own steel.

"If indeed Obsidian went after you," she said, "I predict you would war so viciously with each other that the victor would have a Pyrrhic victory on his hands."

At their expressions, she explained, "Pardon me. Something in the manner of what happened to King Pyrrhus of Epirus when he warred with us two hundred years ago. He won battles against us that led to him losing so many of his men that he could not replace them for later encounters. Hime could refill the voids left in her ranks by those battles, however, and so eventually we won the war."

"I see," said old Baron Orgestes slowly, spellbound. "A victory at so dear a cost that it spells defeat in the long run."

"Precisely. So if I did leave you and Obsidian to your internecine war, whichever side turned out the victor would be greatly reduced in strength. It would be but a simple thing for me to move back in with my legions and subdue whoever remains."

"Then," said Entei, "why not just do that? Why not egg us on to declare ourselves seceded without your help and let Obsidian come after us as you said?"

Shizuru sighed and held out her hands as if to say the answer was obvious.

"You are not stupid enough for it," she said.

"And what makes you say that?"

"You came over to the winning side, did you not?"

A moment of silence, after which the tense members of the delegation finally unbent enough to smile.

"Besides, I am not stupid enough to do that either if there is an alternative," she said. "I am not the sort of mindless invader who would prefer to denude a land this large of all its people when I could convert some instead. Especially when the possible converts would be ones I can rely on to guard the land's flanks in the future, as you pointed out earlier. I see your worth! So I admit I would prefer that we be friends, my dear nobles of the Mentulae."

The baron said nothing for a moment.

"You would prefer it," he said. "But you don't… pine after it, I think one could say."

A laugh spilled from the beautiful mouth.

"One could say that," she said merrily. "If you take the route that turns us into enemies, I shall not shed a single tear over it, to be honest. Why should I, when it would likely work out for me too, eventually? In the end, the outcome of this meeting shall be your choice. I shall not insult you by trying actual coercion. As I said earlier, you approached me, not the other way around, so I shall not barter with you like some huckster eager for a sale."

The deputation thought this over for some seconds.

"Very well," Entei finally ruled. "It's hard to deny what you say, General Fujino—and that's why you can say you shall not coerce us, isn't it? You know you have no need to, as the situation itself is coercive in your favour. There is one thing I would like to amend in your words just now, however."

"What is it?"

"You referred to us as Mentulaean nobles. As we are building what is in effect a new kingdom, we wish to build a new nation as well. Please refer to us as Firensians from now on. All of my fellows agreed on this prior to this conference."

Shizuru nodded with clear approval.

"A wise idea, Baron," she said. "Indeed, should you not be titled 'king' instead, by now? Do you not wish to claim that new status yet?"

"I've not had the opportunity for a proper coronation."

Orgestes interrupted.

"Forgive me, My Lord," said the old man, his wise eyes suddenly bright and young. "It's true you've not had a coronation ceremony yet, but it's no obstacle. All the coalition swore allegiance to you and has also sworn support of your kingship already. That is formal acknowledgement of your kingship given circumstances, sufficient in lieu of the coronation ceremony to render to you kingly status in this negotiation with General Fujino. This is a rebellion in a time of war, after all—formalities are different in such times. I imagine it would also be more convenient to the General if you were to acknowledge your own kingship now instead of waiting for ceremony to claim what the rest of us have already legitimised."

Shizuru nodded to this. Entei looked to the rest of his companions, then back to her.

"I am King of Firens."

"King Entei of Firens, then," Shizuru agreed. "I must ask something before I even contemplate agreeing to this, and mind that you tell me the truth, please. If I find out you have given me a lie, you and your new nation shall not survive unscathed."

It was strange, Entei would reflect ever after, that he had known some of the most verbally vicious warlords and kings in his time, both among the Mentulae and his enemies among the Nervians. Yet he thought he had never felt—not heard, for there was nothing in either her tone or diction to merit that word—as much menace in a warning as he did from the song-voiced and smiling Himean that day. It seemed to him as though her deliberate omission of details or power infused her threat with a malice unmatched by the loudest alarum. Was what she had left out so unspeakable it had to be censored from its own suggestion?

"Lies will have out eventually," he told her. "I don't give a lie when I know it's one I will have to give and uphold continuously, since I know that can't be done forever."

"Oh, you are a wise king!" she said with complete absence of sarcasm. "Here is the query. Were there any Himean citizens recently in your lands or in any of the western lands belonging to this alliance?"

He exhaled quietly, the snowy hairs of his beard stirring with the breath. He had known she would ask this, so it was a relief to finally get it out.

"I found none in mine," he said, "and I very much doubt any of the others found Himeans living in their lands either. Ours are rough lands and too dangerous for tourism or foreign traders. Your people have never really ventured far enough west to reach our lands."

"None in mine either," said Delior.

One by one the delegation disavowed the presence of Himean citizens in their fiefs.

"If I may?" the old baron Orgestes said, and upon getting a nod from Entei, went on to explain: "I expect you are concerned about our possible execution of Himean citizens, General Fujino, but we had no such displays in the west. The first reason, as stated by my fellows and my king, is that there was no opportunity for it. From our understanding, you took many of the Southern Frontier's towns of note already. Did you get reports of Himean executions when you were there?"

Shizuru denied it.

"Most of the few Himeans would have fled even before the war really broke out," he said. "There were stirrings even before Argentum—your battle at Argentum, I mean, with Prince Artaxi."

"And the second reason?"

"The second reason is that we were already thinking of defection even before Prince Hiempnos crossed the border. Even had we found Himeans in our provinces around the time war broke out, we would not have been stupid enough to destroy our chances of an alliance with your people."

This time, the Himeans around the table were the ones to sport startled expressions.

"If indeed you were contemplating alliance with us as early as that," the senior legate spoke up, her eyes flashing golden in the daylight, "why did you come to us only now?"

"Because we weren't strong enough," was Entei's response. "Not at the time. We had to look for supporters among the other western lords first, build a more stable position, find an opportunity such as Massae to prove our dedication to this relationship, and somehow do all of this while protecting ourselves from detection by those loyal to the king. It wasn't easy for us. You've been separated from us by the king's loyal territories and his forces all this time. I couldn't even risk sending a courier to you before this, there having been too many armies and warlords capable of waylaying couriers until now—who was to say they wouldn't have intercepted even a secret message and alerted Obsidian to our coup prematurely?"

The two women on the opposite side of the table shared a look.

"Very well," ruled the Himean commander. "Let us now clarify the contract conditions in brief. You propose to become a client king of Hime, with all the duties and privileges that status carries?"

"Yes."

"You agree to enter an alliance with me that places your troops as well as your person and powers at my disposal whenever I require it?"

"Yes."

"You agree to remodel your laws in such a way that they are commensurate with the law of the Province of Septentria, in order to keep the peace better between our respective areas of governance?"

"What will be the laws of Septentria?" he asked.

"In brief, those of Hime." Her eyes flashed. "We may inspect them later. But for now, a good example of what I mean would be a prohibition against human sacrifice."

"Ah!" He should have known she would light on that practice. Well, it little mattered to him: he was no partisan of druids and thought little of using a dying man's twitches to tell the way battles would go. Only the mettle of a general, the quality of his troops, and fortune could do that. "Done, no human sacrifice."

"You agree to submit to our methods and decisions in division of spoils and territories?" she said, adding before any of them could offer the qualm, "Naturally, there shall be a special provision here concerning the exception, which is the allocation of the western territories to you and your barons. I shall not touch a single iugerum of land belonging to your fiefs. Nor shall I tamper with the lands you have recently claimed for yourselves following the events at Massae."

She glanced at Entei, then at the Baroness Athain: "I note that there was an enormous spur of territory previously belonging to the Lords of Vomaes separating what you now claim are your fiefs, for instance. I take it House Vomaes was one of those eradicated at Massae?"

Entei shook his head with a small smile.

"Your intelligence on us is remarkable," he told her.

"I think you shall find what I have to say next even more demonstrative of that," she said in return. "I confess I knew who your daughter was even before you mentioned her marriage to the king—or should I say King Obsidian for specificity, since you claim kingship as well? In any case, I was aware not just of her status but also of the rumour that she was left high and dry in the capital by her husband, who chose to winter and, it seems, summer elsewhere. When did you last hear from her?"

"Before I set these events in motion," he said. "She was indeed left in the capital, which is bereft of Obsidian and his court."

"You summoned her from it, I expect, in preparation for your defection?"

He shook his head, although not as an answer to the query.

"I wish I had your sources!" he declared, drawing a self-deprecating smile from her.

"Not at all—that was merely a guess. Unless you wished your daughter ill, you would hardly have left her in Gorgo to suffer the fate meant for you after Massae. Where is she now?"

He hesitated just long enough to prompt her to add, "There is no danger to your daughter's life here, but to be sure, I do not need you to specify exactly where. Simply give me a general idea of whether she is in the central regions, in the east, the north, and so on."

"The central region," he said then, drawing a satisfied sigh from her. "Not that far away from us even now, but deeply hidden. Our intention had been to fetch her with some horsemen after the battle—although that has had to wait, obviously, as your legate has seen fit to hold down all our cavalry and commanders until our conference was concluded. He gave us no choice since we wanted a meeting arranged with you straightaway." A pause. "I had been hoping to ask you to permit us to fetch her directly after this meeting, before news of Massae finally reaches these regions."

"I shall have to refuse that request, I fear, but wait and hear me out first, please." She sat back in her chair and gave him another of her warm smiles. "You are a man of great ambition and political dexterity, My Lord Firens. I doubt you would have left your interests in the capital in the sole custody of your daughter."

He took the implied question and answered.

"My daughter Azula has her supporters in Gorgo, yes," he said. "Although all of those publicly known to support her have departed the city too and are with her in hiding."

Shizuru made a soft clucking noise.

"So they were left behind too; you have fallen from Obsidian's favour," she said.

"I have," he agreed. "Little wonder I came to you."

"Indeed. What I have to ask is actually the next condition for my acceptance of the alliance. How quickly can you return your daughter and supporters to the capital?"

The Mentulaeans stared at her, even Entei.

"Return her to Gorgo?" the Baroness Athain echoed dumbly. "You do not mean that now, General?"

"Why, is it impossible already?" Shizuru asked, glancing at her. "As you said earlier, news of Massae has not yet reached this place. The only reason it reached me was that my legate sent a messenger as soon as he could. I applaud your care, by the way—you must have killed every one of the other westerners in that battle to have prevented news from being spread by survivors. Well, my men helped, I am certain. The Ninth has a particular taste for falling on those who show their backs in battle."

She seemed to shift slightly in her seat: she was crossing her legs.

"At any rate, your concern must be with the unlikelihood of her returning to the capital based on her cover story. What pretext did you use to get her out?"

Entei cleared his throat to draw the Himean commander's attention again.

"No, it's not impossible to return her to Gorgo, I think," he allowed. "But I do think it will be a little tricky. We asked her and her supporters to withdraw to the west for safety, you see. Let the rest of the city's governing nobles think it was paranoia on my part and all that."

"Did they attempt to hold her back?"

"You think it a slim pretext?"

"Not at all. If I were in a position where my enemy would be someone such as myself, I daresay paranoia would be more akin to wise caution in the end."

He grinned at the twinkle in her eye.

"I believe you," he said. "But no, to answer your question. They didn't hold her back. If the king withdraws to his northwest quarters with the court for an extended period during war, why would they blame the queen he left behind for doing the same? Besides, they wouldn't go leaderless without her. The one really given authority over the capital is the leader of its defending army."

"I see."

She sent for a map of the empire's central region and had it spread on the table.

"Which way would she presumably—I mean as far as the capital knows—which route would she presumably take to get from there to Firens?"

Entei traced the route for Shizuru with his finger.

"Then I suggest you send her a letter saying this," Shizuru said to him. "Tell her to retrace her steps immediately and reinstall herself and her companions in the capital. Once she has, have her spread word that the messenger they sent ahead as scout found the western lords already gathering at Massae. Not strictly an untruth, so hardly unbelievable intelligence."

Entei nodded, still waiting for the real excuse that would let his daughter return to the capital without suspicion.

"And then," Shizuru continued, "I want her to say too that while travelling, they had word of a Himean army coming from Lasandre and marching the road to Berentum, which we all know leads eventually to Gorgo. Tell them they heard it from fleeing survivors whose homes were destroyed by the invaders. She promptly turned around and headed back to Gorgo to warn its army of the coming foe."

Now everyone around the table was staring at her.

"The road to Berentum, General?" Orgestes said.

"Yes. There is an army not too far from there too, right? Nysias, I think. Is it still there?"

He wondered again from where she was getting information and told her as much as he knew from his own sources.

"The last I heard—it was a month past, General—yes, so I cannot speak for it now."

"I see. Now we come to the most important of my requests, the reason I am asking her to reinstall herself in the capital in the first place."

"What is it?"

"I need her to persuade the commander of the army at Gorgo to head to Berentum as well. Have her convince them that they should stop us from getting nearer the capital, that is, and head out to meet us instead of awaiting us where they are."

Entei blinked.

"What you ask is easy enough, but I just need to give out a caution, General," he said. "In case you do meet them at or around Berentum, you should be aware that place is a wide plain like this one, with even fewer hills. It will be the kind of ground Mentulaeans, especially those of the centre, know best how to fight on. Without insult to your abilities, a full royal army is different from the sort of force you defeated to get Lasandre."

"I trust it to be," she said with provocative sangfroid. "Then you have to add the forces near the capital too, like the ones at Nysias, which could reinforce the Gorgo army as it marches. Large, no?"

"Very. Then you should think too of the Prince Calchis's army up north, which could be heading here as we talk."

"No, that one shall not be a problem for the moment," she said, befuddling all of them; they did not know that she had shut off the central lands from that army for the moment. "Nor shall the one at Nysias be a problem if your daughter tells the capital too that she sent for it to be brought up to Berentum, presumably to help halt the Himean advance there."

Entei caught the light in her eye and guessed at it.

"But she will not have sent any messages to Nysias, in fact?" he volunteered.

"Oh, she will! But they shall be ones demanding that the army there be moved post-haste to Ressetium."

Entei's eyes danced, his companions' laughter in his ears.

"Ressetium is in the opposite direction," he said.

"It is that. Do you think your daughter can manage it?"

"Azula isn't without influence yet—or cunning, for that matter," he said.

"That gladdens me," Shizuru said, and meant it. "So we can rule out the Nysian forces too for this battle, most likely. Still, not bad odds for Gorgo's commander. Do you know the commander?"

He eyed her with mock-suspicion before answering: "Do you?"

She laughed and said she did not, inviting him to enlighten her on his superior knowledge here.

"And here I was beginning to think you knew everything about us already," he said. "Baron Terrigos. The king's half-brother—a bastard of Obsidian's father, really. The former king got him off some servant woman in the palace, so his lineage isn't remarkable on one side. The title he now holds was a gift from Obsidian, to whom he is most loyal. Not a politician, but a soldier. He's a veteran of war and one of Obsidian's better generals. The king's man to the death too."

"Which is why he was left in charge of the army at the capital, naturally," Shizuru said, directing a grin to her own cousin. "No doubt it is why he did not leave one of his sons instead. A bastard brother who cannot inherit the throne and whose claim to power is dependent on his favour. Not all that different from our own senators in their machinations, is it? Although blood ties are actually strengths in our case, as opposed to dangers."

The senior legate smirked.

"Unless you happen to be rich enough to be worth murdering for an inheritance," she said.

As Shizuru's fortune happened to be worth murdering for many inheritances, she raised an eyebrow askance at this.

"Very well," she said to the delegation, clapping both hands together in apparent contentment. "Let us wrap this up, then. As regards your daughter, I need her to act as soon as possible. She should not find her task hard if this Terrigos is as experienced a general as you say and if she still has some modicum of power in the city."

"I'll send her the message this very day."

"Excellent. Next, return to your troops in Massae and collect them for a trip to Ressetium."

"Ressetium." A pause. "I see."

"I am glad you do. After you take it and eliminate the Nysian army, wait for more instructions at that location. Do these things and I say yes to the alliance and your uncontested kingship over the west."

There was a simultaneous straightening among the Mentulaeans—or Firensians, as they now dubbed themselves.

"Very well, General, I've no objection to the terms," said Entei. "But if I may ask a question, do you truly plan to head to Berentum and engage them?"

"I thought I said as much."

"Don't you want our forces to join you for it instead of bothering with the army from Nysias?"

"Even if I did, it would be a vain hope." Shizuru lifted an eyebrow, the one he saw was cut in half by a fine scar. "I have no intention of waiting for you to bring in your forces from Massae, you see. Doing so might lead to squandering opportunity. Your daughter's strongest argument for persuading the Baron Terrigos to meet us at Berentum would be the relative security of Massae and the area nearby, at least based on her claim of the western lords rallying their armies there. Terrigos would only have one direction left to look to for threats then. The longer we wait to do this, the bigger are the chances of a survivor from Massae or some random onlooker delivering the news of your defection, in which case Terrigos will then have two directions to look to for enemies. He would not budge from his encampment if that were to be the case."

She checked the water clock on a desk against the wall and smiled a dismissal at her guests.

"We shall talk more afterwards. For now, please do enjoy our hospitality. We have prepared food and quarters for you and you need only ask us for something if you require it to make your stay more comfortable. I believe you have been riding very hard the past days—" A sideways glance at her cousin, who was smiling unabashedly. "—so we shall provide all we can to help you have a restful night later."


A restful night would be a vain hope for people in their position, the newly-minted Firensians noted when free of foreign surveillance.

"How can one rest with everything we have to think on?" groaned the Baroness Athain to her similarly wakeful comrades. They were in the capacious dining room of the house they had been given. They were not there to dine: they had just come from a dinner feast the Himeans had put together hastily in their honour. But digestion did not come with sleepiness for any of them tonight.

"A plot to draw a royal army to Berentum," Athain continued. "An assignment to occupy Ressetium. A promise to send over a portion of our harvest straightaway. A gamble of a battle, if I'm to understand her intentions for Terrigos aright. That youngster wasn't kidding when she said we'd pay a lot for this alliance. And the sum of it's hard to swallow!"

"Fortunately, you can't say the same of their cuisine," said the Baron Delior. "That stuff they served was right tolerable."

"You certainly ate a lot."

"If you mean I was unworried enough to fall to my meal with relish, yes, you're right." His eyes lit with pleasure as he recalled their dinner, licking his chops voluptuously. Such wonderfully roasted pork! How had they managed to impart that delightfully subtle sweetness to it? "Seriously, though, Athain, did you expect anything else? To be honest, I thought she might ask for even more when we were just on the way here. I'd say she drove a decent bargain today, at least for someone in her superior position."

"So you think," Athain said, "that we're not being asked to pay through the nose and on speculation?"

"I think we're paying things we can afford to pay yet," said the sandy-haired man, who was in fact more intelligent than his neckless, bullish appearance suggested. He had kept quiet during the actual conference out of respect for his betters, for he was the youngest of the lot. But now they were away from prying eyes and he was in a mood to chat, being much excited by all that had just transpired on this mission of great import.

"I don't see why you're so put out, to be honest," he said. "We don't have much to worry about since she was right in saying we've no choice but to submit to her demands. There's no more thinking that needs to be done on that score, so it shouldn't keep you up later. Although—yes, I'm unashamed to admit something will still keep me up tonight! I blame it on our new allies' faces."

"What do you mean?" the baroness asked.

It was the Baron Orgestes who answered for the younger man.

"You mean," he said, "because the Himean command was full of lookers."

"That it was," Delior whistled, slapping his meaty thighs. "Weren't they, though?"

Both Orgestes and Athain agreed without reservation, having been as impressed by it as their comrade. Who dropped an elbow heavily onto the table and propped up his chin dreamily on one hand. It was an airy pose incongruous with his bovine looks, but many things about Delior were inconsistent with his appearance.

"Stunning!" he breathed. "Absolutely stunning! And the colours on those women! I mean the three on the other side of the table earlier, specifically. I didn't expect them at all."

"I don't think any of us expected them either—particularly the general," interrupted their king, finally surfacing from his preoccupation with some meditation. "Especially because she's the general."

"How do you work that out?"

"Army leaders are always described with heroic good looks in the stories. Legends inflate the appeal of the victorious just as they fill out the gaps in them. In reality, we know it's otherwise, don't we? Most great leaders aren't beautiful people. They often have something that makes them eye-catching or impressive to look at, yes, but they don't actually draw people to them with their looks. They're a very far cry from the way actors would make them seem when they're resurrected in plays later. Do you remember that one production we saw in Comus ages ago, Orgestes, the one where the old king was played by that gorgeous buck the women all fancied?"

Old Orgestes roared with laughter, tears actually springing to his eyes.

"And the old queen reared up in her seat and demanded to know why her husband suddenly looked so much better after his death," he explained to the other two.

Entei was laughing as well.

"That's what I mean," he replied. "But what we saw earlier was something straight out of the play, wasn't it? I don't think any actor could ever fill in for her shoes later when they begin doing tributes to her—she's so beautiful even thespians will struggle to match it." He paused and looked thoughtful. "She was so good-looking, in fact, that I even forgot about her youth as we talked. I could see it the entire time, yet it was only afterwards that it even became something worth noting. It's hard to explain why that relates to her good looks, but I felt that it did."

"I propose," said Orgestes, "that it may have been because her looks were more of the divine quality than the human. And we know the divine is ageless."

The other three looked at him, Entei smiling broadly.

"You've the most eloquence of us all, as usual," he said to his old friend. "Yes, that's what it was, I suspect. And her eyes..."

They waited, but he left the sentence hanging.

"Don't they remind you of that brat of the king's?" Delior finally burst out. "The one they say is a smart one? I don't like him."

"Prince Nagi?" said Orgestes, who had met that prince on more than one occasion—and who had no liking to lay on the prince's altar either; that son of the king's, he suspected, was very hard to like, never mind love. "Not really. Prince Nagi's are a very pale pink and a little blind-looking. The General Fujino's are much more vivid. And I should think her eyes never look blind, if you know what I mean."

"Either way, a memorable woman," said Delior, drawing an emphatic hum of agreement from Athain. "So very tall too, and what a figure! The other woman, the one she said was her cousin, was another interesting character. Such hair on that head! I thought at first she was like Prince Nagi, but she wasn't at all. Not as colourless, somehow. And her face was as ravishing as the general's."

"I actually preferred," Entei said quietly, "the face of the general's mistress."

The others were stunned into silence.

"Who?" Delior demanded when he recovered. "What do you mean her mistress? Well, I suppose I should have known she'd swing that way."

"She's an army general," Athain said to him. "Of course she'd swing that way."

"That's true. Still, who's the mistress?"

Entei smiled at them from under his beard and tapped the table with a finger: "She's the other face in the trio of lookers from earlier, obviously."

They continued to stare at him.

"The Otomeian princess?" Orgestes whispered.

"Oh!" said Delior with a snap of the fingers. "I was about to get to her! That terribly austere girl with the raven hair."

"So she's Fujino's mistress?" Athain asked their king.

"I think so," said Entei.

"But how would you know that?" the baroness said. "No one said anything earlier."

"If you look closely enough, you won't need to listen," was his response. "I'm not sure of it yet, but I think a few enquiries tomorrow will tell you that I'm right. That young woman is in bed with the general."

"Intrigue already!" said Delior with an animated laugh. "I admit I prefer women who are quicker to smile, but there's something to be said for beauties of that Otomeian's type as well—if she's indeed Otomeian."

Orgestes grinned naughtily at his comrade again: he found the younger man's verve for the topic amusing.

"That type?" he asked.

"Yes," Delior said with authority. "There's a unique refinement that can come with that sort of austerity, my dear fellow."

Athain frowned up at the rafters: "What was her title again, poley–what?"

Entei blew through his nose to get their attention.

"I wonder that none of you catch on to it yet," he said, looking very wry. "There is a point to me bringing up her likely mistress." At their blank looks, he said slowly: "It might turn out useful if indeed the Otomeian is General Fujino's mistress. Or should I say, if indeed an Otomeian is General Fujino's mistress."

It was Delior who voiced the answer first.

"Oh, I see!" he said. "It means she wouldn't scorn to take a foreign lover."

"So I hope," said the older man.

"Does that mean you hope to slip her a new mistress from within our ranks?"

Entei tipped his head to the side as if to say it was a thought.

"Not to be negative," said Athain in her mild voice, "but I don't think that's very easily done. She doesn't seem the type to take on just any beautiful woman presented to her, the general, and besides… well… we all saw that Otomeian, didn't we?"

"I know," Entei said ruefully. "Even if General Fujino were the type, we'd have a lot of looking to do to get someone of that calibre, you mean. Even then, short of getting a professional seductress, who can really compel someone to be attracted to them?"

Athain looked helpless.

"I know," Entei said again. "It's not even as though we know she'd take someone in the unlikely event we find someone comparable. It was just a thought. Given that Hime—which means that woman, at the moment—is going to be our new master, it seems wise to pursue every avenue that could give us leverage in our dealings with her. Even something as ridiculous as trying to see if we could slip her a second mistress is justified, given how much of our future she holds in her hands."

He gave the other three a look they all knew. It was the same look he had worn when first he had come to them with his plans of betrayal.

"I still stand by this being the right decision," he said. "I don't even feel worried about whatever battle she's planning against Terrigos, though I see some of you are. This is a right decision! But even right decisions come with dangers, and we all knew that coming here."

The others sobered at the reminder. It was a colossal shift in life that they had just brokered and sealed over food and drink earlier. Even if it was now an inevitable choice for survival, it was nevertheless an act that would eradicate some of the realities of the present. One of which would be their indifference to the edicts and desires of a foreign nation.

To be sure, their old masters had subjected them to sometimes foreign rules as well: orders whose origins were bound to faraway places like the capital, or to social and dynastic battles that did not really involve western life all that deeply. But these rulers had still been nearer than the Himeans. They were also rulers who had been more obsessed with themselves than their subjects, which meant that aside from levies of food, tax, and manpower, their policy had been to leave western society and culture alone as long as its politics went their way.

Himeans were different.

Everyone knew Himeans made for different masters because they meddled into parts of life most other masters would not touch. They seeded colonies in new places and were famous for making "little Himes" out of their provinces; their culture and ways of life spread through lands almost like an infection. And while they could coexist peacefully with other peoples, they made sure it was under their own terms.

They Himean way was to excise whatever it found noxious for whatever reason. Take human sacrifice, in the Mentulaean case. It did not matter whether or not it affected them—for no Himeans had ever been used for ritual sacrifice by the empire's religious leaders. For that matter, no Himean immediately expected such a fate for himself. All that mattered was that Himeans took interest in it, so Himeans meddled. And Himeans took interest in everything.

No surprise that the druids of the realm were united in opposing their presence. Himeans demanded too many concessions that would touch upon the old ways. Himeans also brought an entirely new religion to the land, invaded the spiritual territories of their old gods with their southern ones. They were even unapologetically political in their approach to religion, their faith's curators being senators and sometimes generals. All of this made them a colossal danger to any native creed.

The druidic opposition to the invaders would have counted for more in the old days. But the druids' faction had already lost a great deal of its old ascendancy, which had seen them consulted for every matter of state in the past. Now, they were mostly just sops to those who cared for ritual: the kings' tightening grips on power had weakened their force.

They were not completely dismissible even so. Factions remained loyal to them and the old traditions, factions Entei himself had turned away from and even slain at Massae. It had not been very difficult for him to do this, as he was not a religious man. The druids were custodians of the realm's spiritual health, true, but he did not think that meant they had a right to decide matters best left to those who better understood governance. For a nation's spirit—or a man's—was the air bit of it, the part that soared and flew free. What had that bit to do with the fleshly part labouring on and besmirched by the earth?


Shizuru chose her path as always with a mind towards avoiding deception. She who wielded it so often herself was perpetually wary of others turning the same tool on her, which explained the route she made the army march as they moved nearer the enemy capital.

The Berentum road was one that traversed mostly countryside. It yielded few items of topographical interest to break up a wide and flat landscape. There were no mountains, few rivers, barely any large woods or vales near the path. It meant that Shizuru had few platforms to use to her advantage if they were attacked, but the enemy in turn had few nooks to use in laying an ambush.

The Fujino Army had set off from Lasandre as soon as the Firensians confirmed reception of their message by Entei's daughter. The senior legate took over Lasandre upon Shizuru's exit, and waited there for two of the legions coming from the River Holmys.

The army by the Holmys was returning because it had already achieved its purpose, preventing the Mentulae in the Northern Frontier from crossing the river while it had been fordable. But this late in summer, that great river did the job all on its own, engorged as it was with the melts finally trickling into its headwaters near the northern mountains. So the legions by the Holmys were finally able to pull out, half going with the legate Ushida to Shizuma's position. The other half were commanded by the legate Shohei, headed into the heart of the empire and towards the general. She very much doubted they would reach her or Berentum in time to help against Terrigos, but she did not feel that she needed them to win so it did not worry her.

She was confident as ever even though she carried only two legions: ten thousand foot, all told. But she also brought with her a larger number of horse than she had used for any battle in the war thus far, thanks to the new cavalry regiments sent in by the Otomeians. Those doughty allies had been mustering with enthusiasm, stung to it by the recent Mentulaean incursions across the border and ever nearer their lands. So it was with pleasure that their polemarch had presented her lover with several new cavalry regiments, all made up of battle-hardened Northern giants on their horses.

The Lupine Division was larger than before at two alae, although over half were still considered recruits by its original members. As for the horsed archers, these had swelled due to Shizuru's explicit request: she now had four alae of these to deploy. The cataphracti made up another two alae, and the light horse three more. The Fujino Army thus carried five thousand and five hundred horse on its march to Berentum.

So many horses might have been hard to feed during such a hot summer had they been elsewhere. But this part of the empire was horse territory, much of it spread or spotted with good grazing watered by small streams and underground tributaries. So Shizuru's progress was not too difficult as she marched towards Terrigos and Berentum, whichever came first.

They ignored nearly every settlement they passed, detouring or stopping only when they found opportunity to seize supplies. None of the small guard forces in the cities they passed accosted them, for the imposing size of the cavalry contingent deterred all comers. Again it worked in Shizuru's favour that she passed through horse territory—for many of the peoples here considered cavalry warriors far superior to infantry ones. In their eyes, only one of the royal armies could possibly have offered resistance to the enormous complement of cavalry travelling with her.

The Fujino Army thus slithered to its destination unimpeded, well aware the enemy was nearer the target and probably reaching it even as they strove to cover the distance. And indeed, the enemy was already sitting on the plains of Berentum when Shizuru's scouts sighted it and were sighted in return.

Straightaway Shizuru knew this would be a different battle from that the foe had thus far offered: Terrigos had not only deployed heavy scout numbers to watch for the Himeans but had kept his troops battle-ready as well. As soon as news of the Himean army's proximity reached him, he sent the order to mobilise. It seemed he had no intention of waiting for the reinforcements he believed coming in from Nysias, nor of letting the enemy settle down first. Aggressive, but not foolish.

It was fortunately still early in the morning, so the Himeans had not been marching long for the day. Shizuru sent orders out for a shift to defensive marching position. She rode out with the rest of command towards elevated terrain so that they could better see their foe. A gently rising hill was the best they could do, so it took some time before they could appreciate the enemy in its entirety.

It yielded some surprises.

"I don't understand," said one of her legates. "Are they missing most of their chariot or am I blind?"

"No, you see what we all do," Shizuru said, squinting into the distance herself. It was very bright, for the sun was not far from its zenith, and its glint off thousands of armour-clad soldiers was painful to regard steadily. "They have fewer chariot than we expected, unless they are holding some in reserve out of sight. What do the scouts say? They should be hard to hide on these flatlands."

But the scouts only reported what they saw, which was far fewer chariot than had been expected. For their new ally, the King of Firens, had himself warned to expect chariots with the royal armies. He could not have known the number of royal chariots that prior battles had already destroyed. Most of the empire's chariot was in fact gone: that there were none to fill the void was because the king had not yet levied to replace them.

The paucity of chariots still did not represent too great an advantage for the Himeans. Shizuru had worried little about those given the strength of her own cavalry units. Even from a distance, she could see that her cavalry bested the enemy's—a significant difference from the pattern thus far in the war, where her numbers had been constantly lower than the foe's.

Shizuru's estimate from afar was that the foe had a little over half the horse she carried. It was a good estimate: Terrigos had only seven alae to her eleven if the chariot were excluded. However, while she had only a thousand heavy cavalry—the Otomeian cataphracti—the enemy had a thousand and five hundred. The rest of Terrigos's horse was light cavalry, four alae to her three. The chariot added only a little over one ala to the Mentulaean numbers, so sparse was its attendance.

The infantry was where the Mentulaean figures soared far above the Himean again. Terrigos had twenty-three thousand foot with him, over twice the number in Shizuru's two legions. It was clear she would need to use her superior horse to protect the outnumbered foot in the battle, which was why she had them assume a defensive line from the outset. The heavy infantry formed the main force, the lighter cavalry units protecting their flanks. And leading the way were the cataphracti, like a battering-ram-cum-shield in front of the line.

But the Baron Terrigos was apparently wary of the foe's horse too, and wary of the many strategies that would allow that cavalry superiority to bring about his foot's envelopment. So he deployed his army in much the same formation, with the heavy cavalry spread out over the front and the light cavalry defending the wings.

One look at the enemy's formation and Shizuru dashed off new orders. One legate, Toshi, stared at her in surprise upon hearing her radical changes in positions.

"But General," he cried, "what you want will change the whole plan!"

"Why, yes, it would," she said, giving him such a look that he clamped his mouth shut.

The beauty of imposing discipline on soldiers in the drill field, Shizuru had once told her lover, was that it made for an army capable of order even when subjected to sudden command changes. Her troops proved it as the new orders went out, the Himean line reforming along a slightly longer front and losing the cavalry on its flanks. She kept the cataphracti in front of the foot but had the rest of the horse ride ahead now as the new leading force.

"I've a mind for a cavalry battle," she told her mistress before leaving the young woman with some of the other officers. She had ordered the polemarch to stay on the hill with the stationary command, explaining that she herself needed to be nearer the troops in this particular battle: she was, after all, playing it by ear.

"This is my first time to command your horse, Polemarch," she smiled. "I promise to do it justice."

"Triumph and return," was the other woman's response, acquiescing to her demand for a 'kiss of courage'. "Anything else would be unjust."

And though the Otomeian's voice trembled faintly on the last word, Shizuru was kind enough to pretend ignorance.

She rode out to actually join the leading forces, intending to direct as much of this cavalry sally as she could herself. First she had all the free cavalry—which meant all but the cataphracti—charge towards the enemy line. But she had it bear gradually to its left as it galloped, intending to hit the foe's right flank. Behind the charge, the cataphracti and Himean infantry trundled on, a steadily approaching threat to the near-matching rows of the enemy's main force.

But the Mentulaean commander was no fool: he saw the danger as it developed. His cavalry was smaller and he had even been obliged to split it in half just to protect his line from pincer strategies. Or he had split it almost in half, as he had reinforced the two alae on his left flank with the ala of chariots.

So the weaker of his two cavalry flanks was the chariotless right. As compensation, he deepened the infantry wing on that side. Hence he had a fairly solid force that he could trust to resist encircling strategies by the numerous Himean horse.

But now what he was seeing said that the Himean commander would not bother splitting her horse for reserve or complex manoeuvre: they were going to slam into one of his sides en masse instead, in a belligerently dedicated attempt to crush one of his flanks.

As with everything else in warfare, the move was a wager. But given the disparity in cavalry numbers, it was a good wager for the Himeans to make. So Terrigos had to respond with a countering wager of his own to prevent theirs paying off.

The choices ticked off in his head with their benefits and drawbacks. Old army veteran that he was, it took him only a second to decide. The amount of information he actually processed, though, was more than might have been expected from that time.

If he moved his heavy cavalry to reinforce the imperilled right, he would be exposing his whole infantry line to the incoming foe. Not least to the imposing cataphracti in front of the enemy foot and which could try to make a dash at him.

If he did nothing and braved the assault by simply preparing the men for the attack, that swarm of Himean horse would still hammer into his right flank with shocking strength. They could annihilate half his light cavalry in one blow and devastate the exposed foot on that side before it could rally again. What was to prevent the panic from spreading all the way to the left at such a blow then?

If he detached all the cavalry and chariot from his flanks to engage theirs in a floating battle, he would spare his foot damage since it was large enough to meet theirs by itself without worry. But then that would mean almost certain annihilation for the light cavalry, which was outnumbered two-to-one. Unless the enemy horse was miraculously delayed in its assault too, his horse would not even be able to present a force of two-to-one against theirs upon contact. The cavalry from the left would still have to cross the entire length of the line to get there, so it would have to straggle into the fray long after the right had already joined battle. Add the fact that having his horse fight as a floating force would deprive it of infantry support. If his light cavalry perished, he would not be able to protect the infantry with just the heavy cavalry… so the outcome of this option would still end up being a stage for envelopment.

His final decision was of sufficient flexibility to show his skill as a military leader. He tore off his left flank's horse to rededicate to the right, which he kept where it was.

In order not to impede his centre's progress or make the transferring horse from the left vulnerable to attack, he made it go behind his lines instead of before them. Thus it sped safely and swiftly behind the Mentulaean army's rear, its purpose to aid its fellows on the right from the impending blow.

It was this move that led to the most incredible series of tactical responses he had ever seen spontaneously formed in a battle.

Shizuru was leading the horse herself, as she had promised her mistress before joining the fray. As soon as she saw the enemy's defensive manoeuvre, she slowed the cavalry to change orders yet again.

"Princess Alyssa, take command of this group," she yelled, splitting her horse into halves even as the enemy strove to recombine its own. "Turn around and cross behind our lines—the way his did. I want you to head for his left. I shall keep heading for his right."

Alyssa tossed her golden head.

"I understand," she said. "You want me to attack his left flank now that it has no cavalry to protect it."

"No, in fact."

She threw out the rest of her instructions in shouts to the Otomeians, who listened to the foreigner in amazement. Many of them already knew her mettle as a commander but had not honestly expected her to be capable of leading cavalry as well. Once she had delivered her orders to them, those selected to go with Alyssa peeled away. This left the general with half of the horse she had been leading before. She had kept the Lupine Division for herself, of course, and used it now to spearhead her new assault.

"We still ride to the enemy's right," she directed. "And then we ride a little further!"

She resumed the charge and swung their direction wide—so wide, in fact, that it soon became clear she had no intention of engaging the horse on Terrigos's right flank at all.

She was trying to go beyond it instead.

"Damn it," said the watching Terrigos, worrying his lip as he saw the way the two halves of her horse were going. "They are going for envelopment!"

Again he showed he was not the sort of commander who was paralysed whenever an enemy sally threatened his plans. He ordered his right wing to extend, stretching out so that the horse trying to pass it would not be able to reach the end before being compelled into engagement. Even his heavy cavalry fronting that side joined the extension, the front line presenting a still orderly—if more stretched-out—formation to the Himean advance.

The movements were so efficiently done that Terrigos barked out a laugh of triumph, knowing for certain that he had thwarted his foe's attempt. The enemy horse would not pass his right flank and would be forced to fight his own horse there now. And because it had split itself in its bid at a pincer manoeuvre, he now had less of the enemy horse to fight… while at the same time having more of his own horse to defend the right flank since the cavalry coming from the left had arrived.

And then, just as it seemed the two cavalry forces would finally clash, the enemy commander threw Terrigos another shock.

She changed direction again and swung her horse inwards. Instead of an outwards diagonal chasing the extending flank, the Himean horse drew a harsh slash into the stretching Mentulaean line, piercing it with the surprise of an arrow altering target midflight.

The Mentulaean horse was hard-put to follow, try though it did to go after the turn once it realised what was happening. For one thing it was still in the middle of riding in the opposite direction, redeploying as ordered to avoid being outflanked. For another the recently-arrived horse from the left were also still finding their places amidst the rapid changes of formation. So Shizuru's lightning charge into the Mentulaean line was uncontested by the cavalry forces she had originally set out to face—and the unprepared foot and heavy cavalry she actually met fared badly against the unexpected attack.

Shizuru's horse hacked into the foe's right wing and it flapped brokenly in the aftermath. Terrigos's cavalry leaders were quick, however, and their retort along with the depth of the Mentulaean foot on the right spared that part of that army from complete separation.

Until the other half of the Himean horse materialised, anyway.

Shizuru had sent these to the Mentulaean left earlier, but not to attack the temptingly unprotected left flank. Rather, she used the absence of enemy cavalry on that side to afford them an easy passage past that flank and around the enemy. They had been riding around and behind the Mentulaean army, in effect, as Shizuru's half of the horse had been threatening it from the front. Not too long after her own hack into the Mentulaean line, it was able to follow the last part of her orders: it turned suddenly inwards as well and drove into the enemy foot, instinctively going for the same point she had attacked but from behind instead.

And even as the Mentulaean force floundered from the second blow, its crippled right wing finally snapping off, its front found itself dealing with a new source of pressure: the Himean pila.

While the cavalry faceoff at the Mentulaean flank had been taking place, the two armies' main forces had been getting closer to each other. The cataphracti had been leaving the Himean front slowly the entire time, gradually trundling away from it during the advance. That was because it had been shifting into squadron formation directly opposite the now-horseless Mentulaean left flank. To which it then rode at its heavy and steady pace, its officers drawn to that weakness like moths to a flame.

Of course, this had left the Himean legionaries open and vulnerable to a charge from Terrigos's remaining horse—which were perhaps the Mentulae's only hope at that point. If Terrigos could ride down the Himean foot with this heavy cavalry first, he could save what remained of the infantry by having it follow in the heavy cavalry's wake. The right flank and part of the wing on that side were nigh-hopeless now and he knew they were in too much disarray to save. So he had to get the still-intact left and centre away from the enemy horse, which was steadily outflanking him. He could do it if his heavy cavalry broke the Himean foot—which would also be demolished in the process.

He ordered the heavy cavalry to charge.

As Shizuru would explain to her mistress after the battle, Terrigos had a miscalculation in this strategy. While heavy cavalry could indeed overpower infantry on plains like the one they fought on, it was significantly harder to do so when the infantry concerned was prepared for the attack. There were ten thousand legionaries in the Himean army that day. Each of those legionaries was equipped with two pila. That meant that the remaining three alae of Mentulaean horse—one thousand five hundred armoured horsemen—had to suffer nearly twenty thousand javelins as they charged.

Now a Himean pilum was none too intimidating a weapon if one focused only on the size of its head: tiny and pyramidal, a thumb-sized arrowtip attached to a fragile-looking shank. Mentulaean javelins were more fearsome-looking, had larger and longer tips with sharp edges.

But like most heavy javelins, a pilum was in fact capable of going through shields and armour. Indeed, it had remarkable piercing power, as its small and dart-like head offered a smaller point and less resistance. It was why pila were used to soften up enemy ranks before the legionaries waded in with their swords. Pila would not cause devastation if the enemy was very heavily armoured, but they still did enough good to make them standard issue for Himean legions.

That they did more than good in the Fujino Army's case that day was due to Terrigos's own orders.

Heavy cavalry typically did not accelerate: it plodded along easily and relied on sheer strength and sturdiness. In a bid to cover the last few metres between the enemy and himself, however, Terrigos had his heavy cavalry accelerate towards the now open Himean front. It should have delivered a frightful shock to the Himean legionaries, had it worked. But the Mentulaean heavy cavalry's speed combined with the speed of the pila thrown to meet them saw the Himean javelins doing more damage than usual: it was like the intensified damage a man caused by lunging in to meet a punch.

Far more of the heavy cavalry fell in that charge than either side had expected. The cavalry's charge had also made it harder for them to keep up their shields—which often became impossible to wield properly once there were several pila bristling on it. So what should have been an overwhelming charge into enemy ranks turned into a debacle for the Mentulaean horse.

And now the Himean horse was redeploying again, archers circling the Mentulaean foot in harassment. There was nothing left for the Mentulaeans but to fight, and fight on until there was a victor.

The outcome had been clear the moment the Mentulaean heavy cavalry went down, Terrigos told Shizuru later after being seized by her Otomeians. The two commanders actually met each other during the melee and nearly exchanged blows. That they had not was due to several of the Lupine troopers forcibly getting between them and slashing the enemy general's steed to death. One even struck the animal so powerfully on its nose that he stove in the bone and crumpled its face. The maimed beast fell and so did its rider, who was then captured and borne away.

In the aftermath, Shizuru managed to reflect on this and realised she had been watched over on purpose: whether by outright command of their polemarch or instinctual understanding of that Otomeian's wishes she knew not. Either way she was pleased with her allies' dedication as well as their performance all throughout the battle. And they lifted their bloody swords and scythes to her to signal an equal approbation once the battle was decided, voices raised with the legions to celebrate their commander.

They won the battle only through her dynamic and inspired method of command, so much did all the officers know. Even the Princess Alyssa, looking upon her countrymen roaring in worship of a foreign general. She was one of the few who were silent, and perhaps the only one silent out of reasons other than awe. Not that she felt no awe for her cousin's lover, whose responsive leadership during the battle had impressed even her. The woman was inspired by the very gods of war, so much was certain. But Alyssa still felt uncomfortable being dazzled by someone else's achievements, and her discomfort was what kept her tongue in check.

As for the nucleus of all this praise, she was riding past the men and searching for someone in particular. She found that someone coming to meet her with some officers as they came down from their hill to share in the victory.

She pulled her steed into a vicious stop and leapt off it to bear down on the woman she had been seeking. Cheeks flushed and hot, happy beyond caring, she dragged the Otomeian off her mount and crushed the girl's lips to hers, wasting no time in breaking them apart with her tongue and her teeth.

The Princess Natsuki, dumbfounded, barely even put up a fight in her shock.

This was something new for both of them. Although they were free enough of brief affections in public, this was something they had never shown others before: it was a kiss of the sort Shizuru gave only when no other could see, the sort of kiss that they shared only behind the modesty of closed doors. Several officers thus stared at the display with stunned expressions, but the soldiers, drunk on their own elation and the victory, threw up a cheer at the sight. When it was finished they returned to their own celebrations and the task of stripping the dead.

Their commander did not let go of her lover once it was over and the officers had moved away to give them their privacy. Her hand still held onto the dark tail of hair after the kiss, her lips pressed against the heat of her lover's excitement and shame.

"Find Hermias," she whispered urgently. "Settle our quarters. I want a bath in two hours. Maybe less."

"But – but I must see to the auxiliary too, Shizuru."

"And dinner. I want it set when I get back, and you there. You see to it."

"But I—"

"Others will do that. Now do as I say."

"But I must—"

"Delegate, Polemarch!" Shizuru told her, sounding as though she would bite the other's cheek. The soldiers around them were still roaring at each other happily, and only Natsuki could hear the harshness of her words. "Put that authority to good use! I'm your general and I am telling you I want my quarters settled. I want you in those quarters when I return. Do that or Jupiter help me I shall have you wherever I find you later, Princess, even if it has to be in front of your cousin! Now go and get to it."

She pulled away from the red-faced woman and left her with a final glare: "Two hours, my tent!"

And when she showed up in her tent, two hours later as stated, she found a place in perfect order as well as a beautiful woman ready to box her in the ear.

She made a point of ignoring the Otomeian's homicidal glower, however, and simply walked past her.

"So you can follow orders," was what she said as she bent over a basin, there for her to wash her hands and face. "I was beginning to wonder if you were the only insubordinate Otomeian in my camp, my love."

Raising an eyebrow at the other's purple expression, she said, "It's all right, I told the servants to go away. You may scream at me if you like."

"Your love!" the other exploded, so angry that her whole body shook. "Huh–huh–how can you?"

Shizuru started stripping off her clothes, seemingly unaffected by the tempest she had roused. She had already divested herself of her armour in the command tent with the other officers, so she was clad only in the tunic and breeches all of them wore under the metal and leather. Her boots were already off, having been doffed upon entry to the tent. She shed all her clothing until she was naked and stalked to a table with various soldierly effects.

"Angry with me, are you?" she said to her lover. "Well, I congratulate you for at least holding it in until we were alone. Very thoughtful, meum mel, very politic. At least I know now that your pride does not outstrip your wisdom."

Natsuki was suddenly on her feet, fingers white on her cane.

"You–you should not speak to me as you have!" the girl spat out. "Yuh–huh–how could you, Shizuru?!"

Finally finding what she wanted, Shizuru took it from the table. She advanced upon her mistress with the thing in one hand and Natsuki attempted to retreat in response. But Shizuru caught her by the sleeve of her dress and slipped the knife at her collar and under the garment. Down came the knife until the dress was rent, all the way to the hem of the skirt. After which it seemed only natural to push the ruined cloth in a heap to the floor.

"The truth is that I can speak to you as I did earlier, even though I usually do not," she said with a look that stopped the Otomeian's protest at such rude treatment. She threw the knife away, not even looking to see where it would land. "You were being difficult earlier, mea vita, and I all I wanted was to revel in my victory with you. Instead, you kept coming up with reasons not to do what I asked. Technically, I was not asking, however. You seem to forget I am still your commander. That means I can speak to you any way I wish."

She lifted the nude girl and dropped her onto the bed so that she bounced.

"I can do to you anything I want."

She undid the straps on the girl's leg and threw the prosthetic to the floor.

"The question is, what can you do about it?" she asked, smirking at her furious lover.

Natsuki reached up and revenged herself with her mouth.


"Was it necessary," Shizuru moaned that night, "to bite and claw at me like that? Some of these shall sting later, Natsuki, I am certain of it!"

She peered at the upraised tracks on her arms, knowing the ones on her back were worse. She reached around to feel them and inspected her fingers, relieved that they did not come back with blood. But it still stung terribly and she could feel the bruise on her shoulder where the girl had bitten her.

Out came another complaint: "The battle gives me nary a scratch yet I go to my bed and nearly get torn to ribbons."

The other tried to get up but only managed to flop to one side. Shizuru glanced at her and smirked in triumph, perhaps a little childishly.

"You deserved it for being unkind," the prone girl finally muttered.

"You thought me kind enough when I was inside you."

She threw an arm up to block the pillow in advance.

"Oh, come," she said when the girl finally gave up trying to batter her to death. "It was mostly in play, love, surely you knew that. I was only playing, mea vita!"

The Otomeian dropped her head to the bed again and shut her eyes. The tears from earlier were still in them, and they rolled off the sides of her face. Shizuru watched them dribble onto the sheets, remembering how tears had dribbled out of another part of the girl earlier before she even touched her.

She would protest, she thought then, even at the indignities that set her on fire.

"Shizuru," Natsuki said, sounding confused and curious. "You play at being so harsh?"

"Well, a part of it was fuelled by an honest feeling, I admit. We had not slept together in a while," Shizuru confessed. "I was getting frustrated, I suppose the word would be for it."

Natsuki's eyes shot open again.

"Was it on purpose?" she asked. "That we did not—on the march?"

"Of course it was on purpose," Shizuru scowled, disbelieving. "I hardly wanted to tire you out so much in the nights that you would find it impossible to march by daylight. So grant me some credit, please."

Natsuki scowled back.

"You did not even want me to come," she accused. "You tried to make me go back. Tuh–to the Atinu camp."

"I know," was the reply. "But I was obviously unsuccessful in my attempt to keep you back there. It was not as though I could have done anything else but keep you healthy enough to manage the march once we began."

She looked to the end of the bed where her feet lay and realised she had not even removed her socks when they began. One was still on—and gods knew where the other was by now. She sat up to remove the remaining sock.

"I am very glad you are here now, of course," she said to her mistress. "But I still do think I was right to have insisted you stay back, at least for your safety." A quiet laugh. "Much good my insistence did, though."

"Hahh… you can do what you like to me, you claimed?" Natsuki taunted, curling up around the pillow she had used as a weapon moments ago. "A false claim now, no? What do you call it—a 'bluff'?"

"Remind me again how you persuaded me to let you come along, Princess?" Shizuru sighed.

The retort came as she dropped her sock to the floor.

"I thought you wanted to forget."

Why would I want that, Shizuru wondered. She would rather remember the smile that had been on Natsuki's mouth when she had ordered the girl back to the Atinu camp instead of joining the march to Berentum. She had told Natsuki it was not a point up for negotiation. It had been worth remembering, that unique amazement and dismay, when the girl had responded by asking suggestively if Shizuru still wished to marry her.

"I cannot believe," Shizuru said now, "that I was coerced in such a manner. By you, of all people! I should have you tried in the Extortion Courts of Hime."

"If you ever please me enough to get me to Hime."

Shizuru looked over her shoulder.

"Careful with the cheek, Princess," she warned, "or I might please you enough to shock even the people sleeping three tents away."

Natsuki hissed that she was a shameless woman.

"You like it." A chuckle. "Besides, if the ones two tents away did not complain earlier, why should those further off?"

She got up and went to fetch herself some water. She was already heading back with a refilled cup when the girl sat up suddenly and grasped at the stump of her leg.

"What is it?" she demanded, splashing the water in her haste to return. "What happened?"

Natsuki was still holding onto her stump, but her expression was not the one Shizuru expected. The look on her face was not of pain or discomfort, but one of amusement.

Shizuru knelt beside her.

"An itch," came Natsuki's voice.

"An itch?"

"Yes." The eyes she turned to Shizuru were still filled with peculiar laughter. "I did not tell you before when first it happened, Shizuru. I thought I – oh, I thought it a dream! But I see now it is no dream. Or it is a dream of my flesh, not myself."

"What, Natsuki?" Shizuru asked, endeavouring make sense of what was being revealed to her. "What happened? I do not understand."

"My foot," the other said. "It itched. As just now."

She finally released her stump and even laughed.

"The foot that is gone," she said for clarification.

Shizuru looked at her and then at the stump, as though seeking the foot that itched but was not. She saw nothing, of course, but a faint shiver did run up her spine for an instant. It terminated in a crawling feeling around her jaw.

"You mean," she said slowly, trying to establish exactly what Natsuki was saying, "that you felt an itch in the foot that is no longer there?"

"Yes," the other grinned. "I am sure I do not imagine it, Shizuru. I think I do not. I was not even thinking of that foot when it happened. But I felt it! It was so strong an itch." She shook her head wonderingly at her own body's strangeness. "Did you see? I tried to scratch it before I remembered there was nothing to scratch."

Shizuru said nothing, wary of the phenomenon. Could Natsuki have been imagining things? And if she had been, what of it? Was this a premonition of something else? On and on the questions went, piling up within her so quickly that she could barely keep the concern from showing on her face—and indeed, the girl she was facing saw them and tried to put a stop to her fears with a laugh.

"My general should not be so fearful," the Otomeian said in good humour, her lithe hands cupping Shizuru's face. "It was an itch, Shizuru, not a pain. I know my body—it is not a bad thing. Only, I think, it is a memory."

"A memory, Natsuki?"

"Of a time when I had still my foot," she explained. "I think my body remembers… and sometimes forgets that it is no longer here. It is only a memory. It cannot hurt my body."

"I suppose not." But can it not hurt your spirit?

"Still," Natsuki said with a smirk, "I know you will worry until I tell the doctorsof it, so I will tell them tomorrow. I do not think it is anything bad. I feel nothing in it that is bad. But I will tell them for you."

Shizuru eyed her with great tenderness, wondering at the amount of strength a single (spare and crippled) body could possess. Who else but Natsuki could laugh so easily at a reminder of this sort, a teasing remembrance of the time when she had been whole enough to run rings around even the best of her warriors? For Natsuki's laugh had been genuine: she who knew the girl's laughs like no other had seen that. She had heard it in the laugh, which held none of the bitterness of those still unable to accept a new reality.

Such strength in that laugh. A laugh like the one she had given when those cretins had insulted her from the tower in Lasandre.

She grit her teeth at the reminder of that incident, herself furious over it even if her lover was not. It had been at noon of that first day in Lasandre, noon of the first day the diehards spent in their tower. Shizuru and some of her officers had come to give instructions to the sentries assigned to the location. Eventually Natsuki had come too, to see what was going on.

Upon arriving, however, the polemarch had been obliged to find a seat so as to remove and replace her wooden leg. She had struggled while walking over to the location, and when she removed it they saw that one of its straps had been damaged. It had not seemed to trouble the girl a whit to have to remove the false limb in public—her focus had been more on figuring out why it seemed to feel more and more uncomfortable each step—and she had even managed a jest to Shizuru and her officers present that at least it had not popped off on the way and horrified onlookers. Not that any of the onlookers at the place had acted remotely horrified with what happened. Everyone present had behaved very graciously… with the exception of the Mentulaeans looking down on the scene.

Such had been the popular feeling then that Shizuru was not the only one livid when the Diehards yelled to "send the cripple up" and claim their tower.

"Shizuru. Shizuru!" Natsuki's voice wrenched her from the memory. "You must stop worrying."

"Who said I was worrying? I was simply being quiet."

"You are quiet when you worry." The Otomeian shook her head. "Worrying so much, it is not marriageable."

The tease worked: Shizuru was diverted.

"Marry me and I shall prove you wrong," she said.

"Marrying you would prove me wrong."

"And would you rather be right than happy?"

Natsuki's laugh soared out and Shizuru's heart lightened again.

"That is terrible logic," Natsuki scolded. "You should be ashamed."

She pressed her lips softly to Shizuru's cheek and asked if they should not bathe yet. Shizuru responded by slipping an arm under her lover's thighs, the other behind her back. They moved to the bath that had been set out for them much earlier, now no longer steaming but still warm. Both of them had performed minor ablutions like washing their faces and hands after leaving the battlefield, but that did not suffice for a true bath, which Shizuru always insisted on them giving each other when given opportunity.

"Yet," the ever-practical Natsuki said while being settled on a stool by the tub, "our baths would be quicker if our servants helped."

Shizuru aped horror.

"You want me to rush through an opportunity to molest you under pretence of innocence?" she said. "What a fool idea!"

"You are a fool idea," Natsuki snapped, cheeks pinking. "But, Shizuru…"

She was silent long enough to compel Shizuru to prompt her to continue.

"I am going to speak… hmm… seriously about something, but it will be in hypothesis," the Otomeian eventually said. Her noble brow was marred with a line, though not one of displeasure: whatever she had to say, Shizuru decided, probably meant a great deal to her. "I do not say anything for certain in what I say next, is what I mean, but it is something I wish tuh–tuh–to consider."

"Go on," Shizuru said easily, already smoothing oil over her lover's skin.

"I was thinking."

She could not resist: "You do that often."

"Of what would happen if we married," Natsuki clarified.

Shizuru hummed and smiled.

"If we marry," Natsuki continued. "Wuh–where would we live?"

"That depends on myriad circumstances," Shizuru answered, wondering what had brought this on and what it meant. Even if the girl said not to take it as confirmation of anything, it still meant something that she wished to discuss it. "If I still have a mandate here then we shall have to live here during that time, for instance. And exactly where here shall depend on the state of my province, the empire by then."

"Where would we live permanently, is what I meant."

Shizuru stopped in the act of rubbing oil over the girl's shoulders.

"Well, I thought it would have been obvious," she said. "Since I also already have a house there, why not Hime? Were you expecting something else?"

"No." A beat. "No, not no. But not yes either."

Now Shizuru frowned. "Why, what could be the alternative? Surely not Otomeia?"

Natsuki smiled at this.

"Surely not," she mimicked in good humour. "I would not force Otomeia on you, Shizuru."

"Then what is the alternative you were considering? For I would hate to force Hime on you, Natsuki."

Natsuki took her time thinking on how to phrase it. As she did, Shizuru started working on her with the strigil.

"It is only a possibility to – to explore," the Otomeian eventually said. "I do think you should live in your city. It is needed for your politics. I know this. But what perhaps if I stayed out of the city?

"And thus keep yourself out of the public eye as much as possible?" Shizuru guessed. She sobered all of a sudden as a thought came to her. "Tell me honestly, my love. Do you fear it?"

Natsuki appeared torn.

"Not for me," she admitted painfully. "I am not—Shizuru, I do not say this again to vex you. I am only thinking on the best – the best way, perhaps, or execution for what you desire. If we are married, I mean, it is something to think on, no?"

"I understand," the other replied. "But if we were to live apart, it might worsen rather than improve matters. For it would make you appear a kept mistress more than a wife, do you not think so? And I already told you how I feel about that. Besides, if indeed you consented to be adopted by my best friend, I think she might have something to say as well about you portraying such an image by your absence. For why bother having adopted you then?"

Natsuki's brows lifted as she saw the sense of the rebuttal.

"Besides, it would be too much trouble, Natsuki," Shizuru said frankly. "I do not want to have to travel out of the city each time I wish to see my wife. What if I wish to dine with you immediately after a long day of senatorial work? Talk with you? Lay with you? Shall I have to restrain myself to taking you only to places in the country if I wish to spend time with you in public? For that would be idea, would it not: to hide you away from a public that might include my opponents back home?"

There was a brief silence as Natsuki thought on her words.

"Now you say this," the Otomeian eventually admitted. "Now… I see that my idea, it is silly."

"Quite silly, I am afraid. I have no intention of marrying a woman whose beauty would be the toast of the city only to hide her away in some provincial fortress. No, I would rather parade her until my opponents are green with envy. And I would make whoever is not jealous of me jealous of her by taking her to the Porticus Margaritaria and buying her enough jewels and silks to sink a ship."

The dark-haired woman was laughing at this comical plan.

"I hope," she said, "that the next thing you do will not be to buy her a ship."

"Well, if she asked it of me…" Shizuru said, laughing too. "Seriously, though, I would like to live in Hime. Both of us, not just me. Is there an objection you have against it that is not motivated by thoughts of protecting me? Because I would understand if so, I know it shall not be easy—"

"Shh, I know this too," Natsuki said, cutting her off with a kiss. "Also, Shizuru, it is not as though I do not wish to live in Hime."

And then she added, smirking: "And if I were married, I would not enjoy having to travel so far to see my wife too."

Shizuru grinned and handed her the strigil for her turn.

"I do like the idea of leaving the city every now and then, though," she admitted. "Gods know we Himeans who can afford it often do to escape its less appealing traits. I already have two country villas I use often in provinces near the city, but I daresay I can purchase more if you find a particular part of the country appealing. Or have something built. Yes, I think construction of a new villa would be better. I want you to have a decision in it. I want something partly of my wife's imagining, a new palace not just made for her but wished into being from her dreams, no matter how lofty…"

Natsuki murmured teasingly that she should probably rethink her proposal now, given how quickly future expenses for their union were mounting.

"I'm no beggar," Shizuru shrugged, enjoying the exercise in planning her married life too much to be diverted so easily. "Yes, I like the idea. A new villa as soon as we return to Fuuka and find a suitable location. Cumae, probably, though I already have one there. Well, it should make for a fine holiday retreat for us, so I daresay we should look along the coastlines if you enjoy a view of the seas. Somewhere cool for the summers. I've no intention of letting you spend a single day of dies caniculares in the city, after all."

Natsuki asked if it meant the same thing as it did in the Greek.

"Yes, so it means you shall never celebrate the day of your birth in Hime, meum mel. The heat of August is such in Hime that it would kill you. And if we see one of those unfortunate years when it not only swelters but also rains, I would keep you out of the city even to the winter—for I swear there is no more disease-laden air in Hime than that we have during the summer rains. Even I am quick to escape the city at such times. Pater always insisted on it, in fact. He was even more fearful of it than Mater because his own brother's career was destroyed by that one disease—"

She stopped abruptly, realising what she had almost described. The malady that had ended her uncle's career as a promising military man had left him alive in exchange for a shrivelled limb. In others it was the arm it sometimes wasted, but in him it had been the leg. He had surfaced from that mysterious and all-too-common summer sickness a cripple, not unlike Natsuki.

"What was the disease?" Natsuki's low voice asked.

Shizuru glossed over it.

"Let us simply say something unfortunate, especially where his career was concerned," she said. "Anyway, it is just one of the many diseases that rampage through Hime in the wet summers. I would hate to expose you to them. You are not from our land either. The city's doctors always say people from vastly differing climes are often those most vulnerable to a land's native blights."

"Mm, foreigners are often worst-struck by native disease," Natsuki agreed, to her surprise. "What? We have visitors to our lands too."

Shizuru smiled.

"The wise men and women say it is because foreigners have not had enough time to build a resistance to our diseases," she said. "The way people new to the bow hurt their fingers because their skin is not thick enough yet."

"That is a good way to see it," Natsuki replied, still working diligently with the strigil. "My cousin, she has a different view. She says it is the land's prejudice against things alien to it."

Shizuru was sardonic. "What a kind view your cousin does take. This is Alyssa, yes?"

"Yes."

"No doubt she hopes the land will show its prejudice against me next I visit your country."

Natsuki defended her relative: "My cousin is not so mean of attitude."

"No, she is downright charitable," Shizuru said. "At least, sufficiently so to ascribe her own prejudices to the land, anyway."

The younger woman's sigh was telling.

"She does not wish you such ill, Shizuru, I am sure," she said.

"Even if you told her I asked you to marry me and you are considering it?"

That got the Otomeian to stop.

"Then…" she started with reluctance. "But one could understand then, in a way. It is the, um, situation." She leaned forward and said with sudden eagerness, "But what were you saying before? About – about Cumae, I think. I think you have said this place before to me."

Shizuru watched her, amused. She knew very well it was the other woman's poor attempt to change the subject. As she felt very charitable after this day of victories both in the battlefield and in bed, though, she let her lover get away with it and returned to their earlier topic.

"I did," she said. "I remember I told you about my villa in Cumae before. Cumae has some of the most expensive land in Fuuka nowadays since it is the most popular of the prestigious seaside resorts. Of course, I do think it would be wise to get a villa somewhere else—somewhere up and coming—so that we can have a good investment. Some places are going to be turning into the next Cumae soon, and I would like to get something in them before the prices climb."

Natsuki agreed, being someone of sound business sense herself.

"I was thinking of looking into Baiae," Shizuru said. "Right now it is mostly occupied by fishery concerns—excellent oysters from there, Natsuki, you should taste them—but some people are already beginning to build seaside villas there and I want to be among them. Or we could go for even cheaper places like Capri or Herculaneum, which are beautiful enough to merit the faith in that investment. Whatever the case, you can have whatever type of villa you like then, I promise. And the garden of your dreams too to go with it. I have just the man for the job, a brilliant fellow whose green thumb I set to putting up apple trees in my Himean garden."

Natsuki smiled. "So you like apples too!"

"Hmm? Oh, they are all right. I only had them put up for you."

A hand caught at hers almost convulsively and she met Natsuki's wide eyes, halted.

"What?" Natsuki demanded, seeming astonished by what she had just said. "When?"

Shizuru's brows drew together at the strange reaction.

"Ages ago," she said. "When I went back—when I was recalled by Senate. I had it done as soon as I returned." She laughed suddenly as she recalled something. "The funny thing about it is that I could not even see the results! I had to send Shizuma to see for me since I could not cross the boundaries of the city, being that I still had command of my army. She said it was very handsome, though you shall have to ask her for a more precise description yourself. I had trees instead of mere saplings planted: we should have fruit in the autumns."

She smiled at Natsuki, who only looked at her again as if finally figuring out a puzzle or some piece of it after long effort. Concerned, she asked if something was wrong or she had done something untoward without knowing it.

But the princess denied it.

"No," she said slowly. "You did nothing wrong, Shizuru. Keep talking, please. About… about these places and building villas."

The Himean stared at her closely for a moment more before finally deciding to let it go. She resumed her bathing and continued her talk, detailing other possibilities for their hypothetical property investment and even suggesting a unique marble found only in a special quarry somewhere in Fuuka.

For herself Natsuki was wondering at the woman before her, who made the plans as easily as if she were pitching them into the world without a care. Yet she knew Shizuru planned in earnest, and not idly. If ever she had doubts about it before, the apple trees in the woman's garden had taken care of that—for the planting of those trees said that Shizuru had meant every word she said even back then, when she had spoken eagerly of wanting Natsuki to come with her to Hime when she had been recalled by their Senate. It said she had wanted it still even after being denied it, even after the separation when her ardour for the idea might have been most likely to cool.

And think of that too: she had wanted even then to house Natsuki properly once it finally happened, not in a separate domicile or province like a mistress. She had planted trees for Natsuki in her garden… and she had planned for "autumns" instead of mere "days".

All of this in earnest, even before she had come back to find Natsuki crippled and eternally changed.

This mattered greatly to Natsuki, especially after a certain conversation with her fellow princess when they had begun marching towards Berentum. Alyssa had been warning Natsuki of the dangers she could face were she to continue her dalliance with the Himean elsewhere after the war, particularly in a specific elsewhere far south and across the sea.

"I'm sure she asked you to come and visit Hime when the time comes for her to leave," Alyssa had guessed, unaware that the truth was even worse than her suspicion. "I would be careful before I agreed to something like that, Princess, much though I know you hanker to see other lands. Even if she does mean the invitation when she gives it, you don't know what your life will be like if you go there. You won't have any of your countrymen if you need help and you will be completely dependent on a woman who can easily forget her promises once she finds other things to occupy her. And you said it yourself, she's a political creature living in the political heart of her world."

The older Otomeian had shrugged with one shoulder and added: "Or maybe she won't care for the promises she made at all, having declared them only in the heat of the moment. She might be doused into cold sensibility once she returns to her proper place. Who knows where your proper place will be then? Some discreet backwater in a foreign country so she can hide you away along with her shame?"

So undeserved had Natsuki felt the portrayal of her Himean lover that she had been goaded into response, telling her cousin that whatever her lover promised, her lover gave. She was a woman of honour, she had insisted, as well as someone kind to those she held dear. But the Princess Alyssa had given a response to that as well, lancing a secret fear festering in Natsuki.

"Yes, the other possibility, which is that she is in fact honourable," Alyssa had agreed. "And, more than that, is indeed kind. Because she knows, just as we all know, Natsuki, that some part of what she did contributed to your loss, she just might follow through on every promise she gives you and more. Because she owes it to you as a woman of honour. But you too are a woman of honour, and can you tell me that being treated like that wouldn't torment your pride?"

Because she would then feel compelled to offer what she offers to me now for honour, Natsuki thought, so revolted by the mere idea that her brows underwent a contraction. How painful the idea was now that she admitted it! Why should a missing leg and wounded heart buy her everything the whole had been unable to procure? Why would anyone—even someone like her, even someone who loved and wanted and needed as strongly as her—accept that which had come at the cost of pity?

But Shizuru had those apple trees planted even before they met again and Natsuki became pitiful.

She had planned for the two of them to live together in her Hime manor even before she proposed actual marriage.

She had made the promise of "autumns" even before there was a lost leg that could guilt her into it.

This was the woman who was now bearing her out of their bath and dabbing at her with a towel to dry her off, chatting happily about even more promises all the while.

"I will look forward to the apples," Natsuki said, cutting into her lover's chatter. "And autumn."

The Himean was arrested when she realised what the other meant.

"Do you mean—are you serious, Natsuki?" she demanded, sounding almost embarrassingly breathless. But there was no embarrassment on her face as she stared at Natsuki with that open face, its heartbreaking planes on the verge of vibrating from some great and held-back joy. "Do you mean what I think you do?"

"I do not say yes to marriage yet," Natsuki cautioned. "I must still think on it, if you will allow me. But I say yes to go with you. When the time comes for you to go, I mean."

Shizuru took a deep breath, held it for a moment, then blurted out, "But you will stay for good with me? You do not mean you are simply saying yes to a brief visit to Hime once I do have to leave this place?"

"Yes, if you wish it," Natsuki said, smiling. And then she thought of something and surprised even herself with a laugh as she said it: "But you ask this when it is possible I will say yes to us wedding—and then we have no choice but for me to stay, no, as we do not wish to have wives distant from us?"

Shizuru merely stared, for once in her life absolutely speechless.