Rule Number One
May not be 100% canon-compliant; I had to guess at a lot of things for Marcia's background and make up even more. I might revise later, or I might not.
Like all good pegasus knights, Marcia came without attachments to hold her down: no extended family, no patrons, no parents. Her brother didn't count because he hadn't reached his majority when their mother died, so he went one way, and she went the other, and sometimes she remembered to write him a letter. He never replied.
Since she didn't remember her mother well, Marcia's earliest memories belonged to her unit commander, who seemed a lot like her; she had the pale hair, the gentle voice, the same coat with the same trim and insignia. Marcia remembered how sweaty her palms would get during those first sword lessons, repeating the motion over and over again - draw, hold, sheath; draw, hold, sheath. They practiced bracing their lances in the saddle, and came close to smacking her pegasus five times before managing to pull it out right. They learned how to slam their heels together and snap to attention, so the practice halls echoed; her knees screamed for days when they practiced how to genuflect, shooting pain down to her ankles.
Any fool can hold a sword the commandant said after Marcia's sixth month of training. Everyone who wanted to drop was gone. If she'd had a choice, she might have left when the woman added most fools will never place their lives on the line for the greater good, but hell, she was seven, and she liked the next part: we are the Apostle's shield and the pride of Begnion. We are Goddess Ashera's shooting stars. Never mind their Apostle was only two years old. That only made their role as her guardians more important. Someday that squalling baby would see Ashera's dreams and lead Begnion to glory again, and the holy guard would be there by her side.
If the little princess lived.
Apostles didn't always live that long.
Marcia was awarded the silver pin that made her head of Group C and kept it for three years. When they moved her to Sienne for the Apostle's coronation she sent a letter to Makalov so he'd know what happened, but figured he wouldn't bother to write back anyway. That was her first real flight, and she thought it went pretty well. Everything hurt the first night - her feet spasmed, her legs ached, it felt like every muscle in her body was crackling and tearing apart when she tried to get up or turn in her bedroll. She almost fell over the other side when she tried to mount the next morning, but the flight from Seliora to the capitol was weeks long; the pain was gone by the time they reached Sienne. The gleaming white towers of the capitol, the hammered gold of the palace dome, the spear of the Tower of Guidance against the sky, where the goddess had slept for nearly a thousand years- it was the most beautiful sight she'd ever seen. They had a library bigger than her home town. She stared so hard her formation banked around the Tower without her. And then, after landing, unpacking, undressing and bathing and dressing up again, a junior knight barged into their barrack and told them it was time to meet the empress.
This should be good, Octavia said under her breath when they filed out. My Aunt Lavia says she's a screamer.
She's just a baby, Helena said. Give her a break.
She's five, five isn't what you think of when you hear 'baby'-
Marcia jumped at the snap of the junior knight's voice and dropped her spear. The clatter was deafening. She could swear that girl's gaze was boring a hole in the back of her head when she picked it up; the others giggled. Holding her head high and looking straight ahead was all she could do.
The palace was vast; everything sounded smaller than it should have, like they were mice crawling through someone's house. Ceilings vaulted two stories high, stained-glass cast shapes on the white tile floors, red and blue and yellow like a flowerbed. There was so much glass - so many windows, lamps, and ornaments that she was afraid it would all break if she sneezed. She felt so dingy. Her uniform was washed and pressed like everyone else's, but Marcia wished she could walk in the middle of the line where her knees could wobble in private.
The junior knight led them to a reception hall as big as a ballroom and had everyone line up facing the door. The whispers started up again while their superior paced in front of the open doors: I wish we'd gotten to go to the coronation, said someone from Class B. It would be boring and stuffy anyway, Octavia replied. My Aunt Lavia- and someone spat fie on your Aunt Lavia! "You guys," Marcia breathed while the junior knight's back was turned, "shut up. Do you want to get us in trouble?"
The other silver-pin, Francine, snorted, and somehow managed to look completely innocent when their guide spun around on one heel to face them. "For the best of Base Almandine," the Junior Knight said, narrow gaze sweeping the front line, "you're a disappointment. Need I remind you her majesty is honoring you with an audience today? The Apostle has no need of a troop of unruly vagabonds."
"And what does her majesty need?" Octavia - or it could have been one of the other triplets. They all sounded alike. "We're as good as anyone here-"
"Obedience!" The junior didn't yell, yet her volume, her tone, cut like a knife. "Loyalty! Your aunt's connections to the senate aren't anything to be proud of."
An echo interrupted her - a trio of voices and the tread of many boots. The junior rattled off a list of last minute instructions like when to get down on their knees and how far they'd better bend their necks. Marcia didn't need to be told. Her knees wanted to bend before the empress even got there. Just outside the door her escort paused while her nursemaid - and oh, they'd heard about him - put her down and guided her inside slowly by the hand. Real knights, shimmering in their white uniforms, peeled into two lines at the door and marched the perimeter of the room. Marcia snapped her eyes forward and slamming her fist to her chest.
If they'd been wearing armor it would've been more impressive. They clapped their heels together as one, knelt as one, and Marcia hoped they all bowed their heads at the right angle. The empress might be too young to care, but she could feel the hawk eyes of the elder knights prickling on her skin.
"Sephiran," the Apostle's small voice said. "Are they also mine?"
"Everything here is yours, Empress Sanaki," he said. He had a nice voice. "Yours to command."
"You can look up now," the empress told them. She was leaning on Sephiran's leg when Marcia obeyed, holding him around the knee and pretending she wasn't trying to hide, even though she had to look around the flaring tails of his white coat to see everyone. "What are your names?" And then, face turned up, "I'm supposed to memorize their names, right?"
Marcia swallowed a giggle. She waited for Sephiran to turn in her direction and recited her name and birthplace. The cue went on down the line to Francine, Dolore, Clamita, Legretta, Helena, on and on, some followed by a long list of titles. Her knees sparked with pain by the end of the recitation, grinding on the marble floor whenever she shifted the slightest bit. The empress said it was nice to meet them all. Her escort said he expected great things of them.
Then the empress tugged on Sephiran's pants and told him she was hungry. No, not in a bit, she wanted something now, she was thirsty. Pick her up, she was tired of walking. Marcia kept her gaze on the tiles, but saw in her peripheral vision when the prime minister knelt to lift her into his arms. They left without fanfare unless one counted the precision of her knights or the creak of the monolithic doors as they closed, and Marcia wasn't the only one to let her breath out in a rush when she finally stood up.
Wow, Francine said under her breath. In the back row, one of the triplets said Lord Sephiran was as handsome as Aunt Lavia said, followed by a chorus of oh yes and that lucky little girl, what vivid green eyes - they pierce you like daggers.
The Junior walked up to Marcia, who blinked, and took the hand she was offered. "I'm Tanith," she said, withdrawing, looking Marcia up and down. "The name De Candia is known to us. Your grandmother served the Apostle Misaha as strategos of the guard, and your mother gave her life to secure Lady Sanaki's rescue. Correct?"
The whisper's behind her quieted. Heat spread across the back of Marcia's neck, creeping into her ears. "Yeah."
"The proper form is 'yes sub-commander.'" Tanith stepped backward. "You have a lot to live up to. Good luck." Her gaze swept the rest of the line, and then she turned on her heel again and headed for the door. "Back to the barracks."
Tch. Someone once told Marcia her mother died for the best of all causes: protecting Ashera's chosen. Marcia was only six at the time. There was no cause in a six-year-old's mind equal to her mom's voice, her mom's singing, her smiling face in the morning. They gave her the pegasus, her mom's spears and bow, her armor. Not enough.
Marcia had never asked for any of it, and now she had a reputation to uphold besides.
She counted the steps back to their barracks: three, four, two hundred, five hundred. Time in Sienne slowed to a crawl.
The Holy Guard learned all sorts of things that had nothing to do with riding or fighting - math for the strategists, healing staves for those with the aptitude, history, lineages. Marcia was bad at most of it. Give her a target and a bow any time - or a javelin, or a spear. She hit dead center every time. But she couldn't use a healing staff; she was terrible at formulas, and only remembered one in six when the medical officer quizzed her on how to make sleeping potions, bone-knitting tea, pain-killing gels; she remembered things she didn't want, like how to poison an entire garrison, how to make someone cough up a lung, what to drink when - not if, when - someone was violated, and how much, and at what intervals. War is war, the sub-commander said. Don't fool yourself. Knightly ethics and the morality of the elite will always be the first casualties.
History was boring or depressing, usually both. Continental war in 432, the Treaty of Sarasa in 478, Laguz Emancipation act in 624.
Apostle Misaha, murdered in 625, betrayal within the ranks. Serenes herons blamed and massacred by Begnion mobs.
They harped on those.
Marcia heard a lot of things during the periods her unit was stationed at the palace; Lord Sephiran wanted reform, especially for the laguz. Empress Sanaki, their Apostle, had not yet had a revelation from the goddess, and the priesthood was getting antsy. She was only five, she was too young- but the Apostle Yoram had her revelation at age six, and Sanaki was almost six - then when she was almost seven, they said the same thing. But Marcia didn't care about revelations. She cared about how long she had to stand on duty at the door to the audience chamber, while the senate argued about who to screw over with higher taxes. The Apostle liked the water garden, and took her lessons there with Lord Sephiran whenever he would let her; Marcia only cared that there were five points of entry to guard, that it was impossible to patrol effectively when stationed at the gate. She listened to Sephiran's baritone recite the principles of just rule and ask, gently, for the empress to elaborate. They weren't at the subject long before trouble came walking down the path, like it always did when Lord Handsome wasn't locked behind an office door.
That day it was a woman named Tigana, and she spread her lace fan when she looked at Marcia, covering the bottom half of her face, and lied about having an appointment with the prime minister. Don't let any of them in, the empress had instructed her earlier, not Medena or Tigana or- Marcia wasn't about to disobey the Apostle. She tried to remember that the holy guard was above and beyond the nobility. Was there a nice way to tell a lady to get lost?
"And what is he doing," Tigana said, fluttering her fan when Marcia suggested she leave, "that is so important he must break his promise to me?"
Ha ha, a promise. Marcia had been around more than a year now - she knew better. "The Apostle does not wish to be disturbed, Lady Tigana." Be polite, Tanith always said - but firm. It never worked. "Can I take a message?"
"Take it right into that pavilion and bring him out here, little girl," was Tigana's reply, made with narrowed brown eyes. Her hair was piled up on her head in braids the way they wore it in Asmin, oiled and gleaming. "I have important business to discuss with him."
At the other gatepost, Octavia bent her stubborn neck. She always did for these butterflies "Of course you do, please forgive my partner. Give me a moment to-"
"Hey, no!" Marcia sidestepped into the gateway and shoved her partner back to her place. "The Apostle's order trumps yours any day, Lady Tigana- and we're not sorry," she cut in when Octavia started up again, elbowing the other girl. "Make a real appointment like everyone else. General Zelgius does, and you wouldn't believe how long they discuss business every night-"
Octavia hissed her name, but it was already out. Rule eleven: the holy guard does not spread rumors, however true or untrue, no matter the cause. Whoops.
But it worked. Lady Tigana's fan snapped closed and she turned her back, a long, rope-like braid swinging. She walked off with her back stiff and her shoulders thrown back, and Marcia watched the maple shadows dapple the train of the lady's long skirt until it disappeared around the bend.
"You idiot," Octavia muttered, digging the butt of her spear into the dirt. "I had better not get in trouble for this."
Marcia snorted. Who cared if she did?
"Ten demerits?" Ouch. "Come on sub-commander, you told me to be firm!"
"Firm. That's one way to put it." Tanith fanned the red cards with her thumb, blue eyes lit from beneath her lashes by a lamp on the commander's desk. "It's true you deserve credit for observing your duty, especially in light of your partner's weaknesses," she said, and those eyes slid to the right, maybe nailing Octavia where she stood just behind Marcia. "But you also insulted a peer of the realm, and did so while offending the prime minister's dignity and reputation. Lady Sanaki was not pleased by the rumor."
Marcia gritted her teeth. It was because of the Apostle's petulant jealousy that she'd had to turn the lady away to begin with. The earth would freeze over before Tanith would listen to that argument- but it was true.
"Furthermore-" Tanith snapped the ring closed and tossed the paper tokens to Marcia. "-I was attending that business discussion with Commander Sigrun, and I'm not thrilled to be getting questions about 'what it was like,' if you catch my drift?"
"Ahh-" Marcia caught the tokens, cleared her throat. "Oh. Um."
"We have twenty seven mounts stationed at the palace," the sub-commander said, leaning her hip against the desk. The lamp flame jumped. "For the next two weeks you will clean up after all of them, rub them down, maintain their tack, in addition to seeing to Lady Tigana's retinue whenever she visits the palace. When you're done with that you may take a break and scrub down the antechamber Lady Sanaki uses before audience-"
Yeesh. Octavia's glare dug into Marcia's spine; she was pretty sure the sensation wasn't her imagination. The curtains drifted in her peripheral vision, a breath of cool wind brushed her legs. They were also sentenced to dish-washing, polishing, organizing - it seemed like every routine task was being dumped on their shoulders.
"-and you aren't setting one foot outside the palace compound until I release you. Understand?"
Somewhere between all the extra chores, Marcia attended drills with the other girls to learn the spear, the sword, hand-to-hand, archery, all practiced using slabs of meat. She sliced patterns into a side of beef with a long sword, a dagger, and never looked at a steak the same way again. In Sienne they cooked it with rosemary and sage, so it smelled delicious and tasted better, even if they served it in ridiculously thin slices. She scrubbed the pans later and snuck bits of charred meat into her mouth.
Octavia was still her partner when their punishment was all over; Marcia would have gladly put up with the Lady Tigana herself rather than share another detail with Her Mighty Highness, but Tanith refused her request to switch, and even sweet Commander Sigrun turned her down because it would disrupt the rest of their unit. Everyone else had learned to get along, she said; Marcia could learn too - learn that everyone had their merits.
Maybe that was true - but it took Octavia another two years to show them, and Marcia had long since stopped caring by that time. They had their hands full with the empress. She liked to sneak out of her room to visit Sephiran - make sure he didn't have any visitors she hadn't approved of, in her own words - and took unsupervised flights to the water garden, the rose garden. If she demanded chocolate, she bloody well wanted it right then, and if she asked for pound cake, it had to be covered with strawberries shaped like hearts and freshly whipped cream- Lord Handsome had to be there to eat it with her, no matter what he was doing, whether he was in a meeting, or already eating, or bathing. Marcia had the dubious privilege of interrupting one of his long soaks, and even though she saw nothing, heard nothing but splashing water and his permission to speak, she barely got the Apostle's command out in comprehensible words before her legs moved for her and ran out of the room.
Sephiran laughed at her. Octavia demanded details. Tanith told her to get over it and stop turning red.
"Or you could get laid," someone said in her ear while Tanith was leaving, one of the triplets. "Perhaps with Lord Sephiran-?"
"Oh please, Marcia?" Octavia, ever loyal and encouraging. "He'd bed fat old Duke Tanas first."
"I don't know, he seems to like muscle, you know, the athletic types-"
Marcia tried not to hear the rest of it. No thanks. He was handsome, sure, but how awkward would that be, to have your boss? And anyway, she liked her men a little broader around the shoulders. Give her General Zelgius any day. He was to die for.
Legretta leaned over her shoulder. "Look, she's getting all starry-eyed-"
"Shut up!" She hated her face for getting all hot and red. Their laughter rang in her ears so loud Marcia almost didn't hear the guy knocking on the door - pounding on it, more like. She stalked away from the table where they were clustered and shouted for him to hang on a minute in a tone that made her sound like Tanith. She tried to sound nicer when she yanked the door open. "What do you want?"
He wasn't anyone from the palace, for sure - wasn't dressed nicely enough, looked too scrawny and tanned, and he had the accent Marcia had come to associate with the river docks. "Looking for De Candia. She here?"
The girls went quiet. "No." Marcia shoved the door closed.
His arm blocked it. "Nice try, kid. You look too much like your brother."
Sometimes Marcia forgot she had a brother. It just happened that way. "You could tell me I'm the spitting image of the Apostle and I still wouldn't talk to you." She leaned her weight on the door, but it didn't budge. "Get lost!"
A chair scraped back; she saw their shadows get bigger on the wall, Octavia's and the others, cast by the table lamp. "I'm positive Marcia has never gone to the river district," Octavia said from behind her, shouldering her way past Marcia to face the guy down at the door. Octavia was taller by a whole hand; her dark eyes and dark skin and wide shoulders let her tower over him. "Why don't you leave before we rip you a new one?"
"Sorry lady. She owes us." He pointed a long finger at her, a dirty, bitten nail. "Five thousand, and a few coppers on top of that for the beer."
"I don't owe you anything!" Marcia shoved the door again and he shoved right back, so she stumbled into Legretta. "Go to hell!"
Octavia pulled her knife and kicked. The man dodged away and Marcia threw her shoulder to the door. Someone threw the lock as soon as it slammed shut. There were windows in their common room, but they were all high, and small, and didn't open. Late afternoon sunlight tinted the plaster ceilings pink. The river man pounded on the door and called them a few names, but he eventually went away, leaving the five of them staring at each other - then at Marcia.
"I've never been down there," she said, her voice shaking just a little near the end. "Except to sign for cargo, and Octavia was always with me."
Octavia said they should forget about it, and they informed Commander Sigrun, but that wasn't the end of the problem; that man asked questions about Marcia all over the barracks grounds. The other classes looked at her like she'd sprouted wings and started singing galdrar; what did you do? they kept asking, and she kept answering with the truth: nothing, dammit. Nothing! And then she had to beg them not to say anything to Tanith, because she wouldn't understand - she'd just unleash everything she had and tell Marcia what a discredit she was to her classmates, consorting with riffraff commoners, a shame to the empress, blah blah.
"My cousin has a few connections in the city government," Octavia said under her breath while they were walking one day, down a big marble hallway that led to the audience chamber. Colored light crisscrossed floor, cast through windows of stained glass flowers. "She'll do some digging. You can thank me later."
Marcia nodded, not really looking at the other girl. Her spear weighed in her hand like it was made of lead. Everything echoed in Mainal Cathedral's hallways: footfalls, voices, whispers - even breathing. For the next few days it was like that everywhere - things echoing around her, bouncing back and forth between her ears but never really registering. When Octavia dropped onto a stool beside her at the dining table in the knights' commons, leaning back on the table edge with her elbows, what she said didn't make sense right away. Makalov had a trail of debts up and down the river, as far as the southern sea - all gambling, usually dice but sometimes cards, horse racing. He usually won the latter, but had terrible luck with the former, and always skipped town before his debtors could track him down. A ringleader based down at the low end of the capitol had taken on those debts.
"In Begnion?" Marcia shoved a spoonful of potato soup into her mouth, then let the spoon slide into the bowl. "Sounds like a dumb kind of criminal."
"He's pretty legit, actually. Has a barony somewhere up north in Culbert, runs a real business here - he's in horse racing."
Marcia didn't bother to ask why this was allowed to happen - why this cousin, or her connections, knew about something shady like that and let it go. There were slave rings in the provinces, still; bandits, sometimes. Her own hometown had been visited by a laguz market once. But big crime here in the capitol? That was just bad. "So if he grabs my brother and puts him in the coliseum, nobody's going to do a damn thing about it, in other words." She shoved her tray to the center of the table. Her soup sloshed over the rim of her bowl, soaking her half-eaten hunk of white bread. "I haven't even seen him in- geez, ten years? This is stupid! Why are they coming to me?"
Octavia didn't answer. They were sitting by themselves at the end of the back table, in front of a window that cooked the back of Marcia's uniform so all she could smell or taste was leather. Leather with a side of sweat. A group of five from another unit occupied the other end of the table, leaning in over their plates to hear something, or whisper some secret.
Marcia threw her napkin onto her tray. If she ate another bite she'd be sick. "So what kind of favor do I owe you for this?"
"You'll owe me two favors," her partner said, swinging her leg to cross it over the other. She leaned her head back to stare at the white ceiling and the dark beams holding it up. Her black hair was cut short, and fanned down, almost brushing the tabletop. "You want to find your brother, right? I would."
"Yeah," Marcia said, curling her fingers into her white skirt. "To introduce my fist to his teeth."
Octavia smiled a twisted smile. "I'll call the favors in later." She sat up, unfolded from the stool. "Don't worry, I'm not like the guys after your brother."
Marcia stayed there and tried to count the ways these favors might be called in and how many ways they could get her in trouble. She could back out when the time came, leave the other girl out to dry - since it was always Octavia that got them into trouble anyway - but no. That would make her like Makalov, chucking her obligations out the window, skipping town instead of facing the music.
He wasn't like that before. They played games, sure, they made bets - with each other, with the other kids, for stupid stuff like cakes from the bakery, or apples from the orchard that was off-limits to ragamuffins like them. Makalov didn't care about being lectured. It could be the housekeeper yelling at him, a tutor, even their dad when he was around- Marcia didn't remember him, but her brother did. He drifted off again because Mom wouldn't marry him - but the Apostle's guardians didn't marry as long as they were in service, everybody knew that. He'd had gambling debts that sucked up the rest of their inheritance. So was Makalov was going to follow in his footsteps? That was the biggest cliche ever. What was that idiot thinking?
Now she knew why he'd never answered her letters: he was never there. Never where she thought he would be.
If this got back to Tanith - or worse, Lord Sephiran or the Apostle - goddess help her, Marcia would punch his face in.
If Marcia were the type to pray, she would have fallen on her face and thanked Ashera a hundred times when she realized Octavia's idea returning favors involved Marcia sleeping in her bunk on the night of a party Octavia wasn't allowed to go to, and taking the heat for not being in bed the next morning. She could take a few more demerits; what difference did two more make when she had a collection of thirty? And even though Octavia tried to call attention to it and embarrass her - how far are you going to dig yourself in the hole, Marcia? - she just said I'm aiming for fifty by the end of the year, and everybody left her alone.
No one would front her the money for a coach, though, when Octavia's connections finally got back to them with Makalov's whereabouts. Marcia walked.
Sienne was a huge city - nice, at least around the cathedral. The university took up a square of four long blocks, and the Imperial Archives almost as much. Plaques chiseled with their names in the graceful curves of the old tongue were set into the stone. The streets were clean, sidewalks were chained off from the rest of the street for pedestrians, so Marcia shouldered her way between maids, liveried servants, sometimes even real citizens, the rich ones - the sky hung low like a cottony gray blanket, and the farther south she walked, the harder it was to breathe.
He wasn't by the river; that was over to the east. The south district, where he'd been found, was noisier and more crowded, the streets were narrower, and shops were stalls with yellow or green awnings instead of indoors; the buildings had shutters instead of glass, and none of the streets were marked. Marcia had to ask five times for directions, and when she finally got there, found herself staring up at a building that might've been a shop, once, but now the front door and windows were boarded up. Rain sprinkled her cheeks. She walked down an alley, splashed through slimy puddles. Someone was frying fish, and it smelled old. A yard was fenced off out back; the gate literally hung by a string and dropped open when she yanked it loose, slamming against a bunch of crates.
"Hey!" she called, stomping up the rickety stairs bolted to the back wall. They creaked and squealed, but held. "Makalov!" She pushed her cloak back over her shoulders and pounded on the door. "Have a minute for a sister you never talk to? Open up!"
The door flew open. All she saw was his pink hair before he reached out, yanked her inside, and slammed it closed again. Marcia's shoulder took most of her impact with the floor. She grabbed it and scrambled up, spitting the best curses she knew. "Try that again, you-"
"Shhhhhhht!" Makalov pulled a bar down across the door and grabbed her good shoulder, leaning in close. She could smell the alcohol on his breath. His hair swung down into his eyes. "Are you stupid? You can't just go shouting my name, people are looking for me!"
"Yeah, I've heard." Marcia didn't bother to whisper. She shoved him away, expelled her breath and tried to send the smell with it - but it was everywhere. The room was completely bare except for a few green bottles on the table, the lamp and its yellow light, and a few blankets rumpled on the bed. Straw stuck out of the linen covering. "This is pathetic. I can't believe-" She clamped her mouth shut and looked at him again, really looked at him. Bags under his eyes - bright blue eyes, she'd know them anywhere. And the sword in the corner, the crest on the hilt, was her brother's inheritance all right.
"It's really you." Makalov must have been giving her the same once-over. He ran a hand through his hair, scratching the back of his neck. "I heard you were in the holy guard, so I expected a little more."
Marcia looked down at her white tunic and work pants. "I know I expected more. What are you doing, wracking up debts and sending all those jerks to call on me?"
"Hey," he raised both hands, warding her off. "Don't get mad - they're just a bunch of thugs, I had no idea they'd try to track me down through you."
She crossed her arms and stared at the table. Lamplight shined through the bottles. His armor sat one stool in a big pile, glinting at her. "They're not just thugs. They have a business under some baron from Culbert."
"A baron," Makalov muttered. "How do you know?"
"Does it matter? Get out of here." Rain splattered against the shutters, thumped onto the roof, stopping and then starting again. "Get out of Sienne and make an honest way of it. I can't believe you've been dragging all over the river, like-" Saying dad would be a low blow, and it wasn't like she knew the guy. Marcia hid her hands under her cloak, clenching them into fists. "Never mind."
He heard it anyway. Makalov kicked a wad of brown wrapping paper at the wall and shuffled over to the bed to sit down heavily. "I was doing better than this, you know," he said, swiping his sleeve across his nose, reaching down to the floor - leg guards, knee pads, their burnished gold color shadowed until he picked them up and strapped them on. "Down south, when I was still in Persis. It's so hot they've got stuff growing year round, somebody always needs labor or guards."
The rain got louder, hammering on the roof like gravel. Marcia flexed her foot to feel the dagger she'd stuck in her boot and wished she'd brought a sword. She heard people outside - boots on the cobblestones, someone tramping through the puddles in the alley. Back when this started, that jerk hammering on the barrack door said she looked too much like her brother - the hair probably, the eyes, people always said they looked so much alike when they were little - and a creepy, twitchy feeling crawled up Marcia's spine when she realized she hadn't covered her hair on the way here.
"Besides, these guys can stand to lose some money, they've got plenty-"
The stairs outside squealed.
"Makalov." She bent down and pulled her dagger out of its hiding place, unsheathing it with a scraping hiss. "Hurry up."
Her brother paused a second, heard the stairs creak, and slapped the other knee guard on, yanked the buckles on tight, grabbed his breastplate and a pauldron. She listened to the stairs, but the noise they made could have been two men or ten, and they were sticking around near the bottom. He said they could take off, this was all he had, his armor and sword - the dive belonged to a friend. She swallowed her incredulous you have friends? Of course he did. He was her brother! He was personable!
Someone - something - knocked the crates again. It could have been the wind. Marcia didn't hear much in the way of gusting, but it could have been.
Idiot. Idiot idiot idiot.
"Okay-" She heard Makalov bound up, grab his sword. He slapped her shoulder and Marcia's knees almost buckled. Then he went to lift the bar across the door. "Let's go."
She stared - he hauled it up and dropped it against the wall with a thunk. "You're not just-"
"You wanna jump out the window?" He had something in his hand, a yellow bottle he held by the neck, labeled with a glyph in the old script she felt she should recognize. "Get over here, hang by the wall just in case they're already at the door." Makalov kept his voice low. He didn't look the slightest bit nervous. "As soon as this explodes we run out-"
That tiny little bottle? No way. "Is that a mine-?"
Makalov clapped his hand over her mouth. "Shhh, just do what I said."
"You're crazy! You're gonna take us out with-"
Her brother flattened against the wall and cracked the door open. Then he kicked it wide and tossed the mine out, down the stairs, before the knob swung all the way to hit the wall. The floor shook when the mine exploded - she saw the burst of light, saw the entire yard lit up for a second before it went pitch black again. Makalov told her to get out now, now, run down the stairs. Their boots came down like drumbeats and the rain soaked her hair, turning it to ice. Then "Jump, the bottom's gone!" and Marcia leapt over the rail without even looking.
She landed hard on the packed dirt and stumbled. Her feet slid on the mud. Someone grabbed her arm.
Not her brother.
She barely saw him, really, only his shape - face blacked out with soot, hands dirty, wet. Marcia screamed, kicked. She felt her foot connect and swung her dagger around to his throat. He caught her hand. Rain slicked down her face and into her eyes. She kicked again, was blocked, tried to twist out of his grasp, ended up pulled around in a tight circle and almost slipped again. Makalov sliced someone with his sword in her peripheral vision. She went limp to make her thug lower is guard and launched a kick at his groin that connected, bless Ashera, and knocked the breath out of her opponent in a rush of air that smelled like a garbage heap. She jabbed her dagger into his throat and pulled with all her weight thrown behind it.
Cutting a man wasn't like cutting meat. They'd lied. It was much harder. Blood sprayed from his cut throat. Marcia shoved the body away and choked, spitting and wiping her face with her sleeves and sucking air in quick, sharp gasps. She slipped and fell, and scrambled up again. Light licked at the splintered remains of the bottom three stairs, bright yellow and orange, and she watched it flicker on her blood-smeared blade, duller, redder, until rain streaked down the edge. Someone else grabbed her- Makalov, she saw, a moment after she pulled her arm back to stab again. She couldn't seem to catch her breath. It just wouldn't come.
"Come on." When Marcia didn't move he pulled her toward the gate. People started shouting - windows were open, a world away past the sheeting rain. "Come on, don't wimp out on me now! We have to get away from here."
He was right. Marcia slipped and slid after him, and they ran across the street and down another alley, and another one, in a zig-zag path she couldn't have remembered if her life depended on it - and it might. She stumbled after him and tried to breathe. Rain soaked through her cloak and into her shirt. Makalov's hair was plastered to his head. His hand gripped her wrist tightly.
What a crappy reunion. Even she couldn't have imagined worse, and it galled that she could have done better if she'd taken the time to think. Rule number eight: never work alone. Never go into a bad situation alone. Idiot idiot idiot-
Breathe, Marcia. Breathe.
Marcia didn't know when Makalov left her; she thought it was somewhere around the cathedral district, along one of the back ways the servants took to deliver goods and haul trash away unseen. The south sky glowed behind her all the way home; she tried not to think about why. The sentry let her in after seeing the silver tags around her neck with her name, station, rank, unit, and she tramped through the borders of the gardens around the imperial residence until she got to the open court in front of the barracks. The white stone looked slick and wet, but it was carved with grooves, so she didn't slip when she ran across, tracking mud, or slime, or even blood, it was too dark to tell. Avoiding the pools of light around each building took too much concentration. If Marcia got caught now she was dead meat, no two ways about it.
She couldn't blame the girl who opened the door for standing there and staring. Someone told her to hurry up, she was letting cold air in, and there was more staring when Marcia sidestepped inside, eight pairs of wide eyes that she tried to ignore by leaning down to untie her boots. The laces kept snaking out of her fingers. Her hands kept twitching, slipping over the knots. Finally she just yanked the crisscrossing ties loose enough to pull her feet out and threw them into the corner.
She'd told Makalov to get out of town, but did that apply to her as well? Those thugs knew where she was, who she was. Their boss might even have enough influence to get her in trouble. Duke Culbert held the holy guard in contempt; she saw it ever time they passed him in a corridor, saw the sneer that curled his rouged lips. He wouldn't pass up a chance to make them look bad. That would cause trouble for Lord Sephiran, and Marcia could hear the pity party for the Apostle now; poor empress, stuck with such incompetents in your guard- here, take our ethically-compromised, work-for-hire thugs for your honor guard instead.
Marcia felt a hand on her arm and jolted, throwing herself back against the wall. Octavia. Just Octavia, a tall, slim shadow against the lamp light. She pulled Marcia away from the wall with a deep crease in her pretty almond skin where her brows had contracted, and Octavia's lips moved: get Commander Sigrun, she said. Now. Someone ran. The door slammed open and closed again. Marcia let herself be pulled past their bunks and into the back room where they had a water pump and big wooden tubs. Octavia shook her by the shoulders and ordered her to undress while she filled a bucket- okay? Okay?
Marcia pulled her cloak over her head and threw it aside, ripped the shirt over her head, and her headband, her pants, her stockings. The water pump scraped and water sloshed into the bucket, splashed her feet. When she stood there naked it didn't look so bad - those could've been someone else's bloodstained clothes. Her hands could have gotten dirty gutting a fish. It was like that, kind of, like gutting a fish or a chicken. The pump dropped with a clang that hurt her ears.
"This is going to be cold," Octavia said, lifting the bucket and bringing it over.
"I don't care, just-" Water came down over her head in a curtain, splashing over her nose, around her ears, over her shoulders, icy and metallic-tasting, and it ended too soon. Marcia turned her face up to catch the last drops and her chest heaved for air. "More-"
"Hold on." Octavia went to the shelves on the back wall came back with a bar of pink soap that she shoved into Marcia's hands. It slipped out of her grip immediately, and she went down on her knees in the dirty water to retrieve it and rub the bar over her hair, her face, her arms and legs, her face again, her hair, scrubbing with her fingers and nails while the rosy, soapy scent clogged her nose and stung her eyes. Her chest heaved with another breath. Octavia came back with a full bucket, muttering that Marcia was hopeless, and slapped her hands away to do the scrubbing instead. Clotted bits of blood dropped into the water. Her whole body trembled while Octavia dumped buckets of water over her head, worked soap out of her hair, rinsed it again. She told Marcia to cry, to just get it out, or she'd be sick. Her chest burned and heaved. Tears finally streaked down her cheeks like blood. She could still taste it in her mouth. It caked under her fingernails.
Marcia had never killed anyone before. She'd punched a few guys, she wanted to punch her brother, but had never pulled a knife on someone. Someday her job would require that of her, but now? She was just a junior knight - just a stupid kid who was starting to feel sick because she'd thought of those stupid slabs of meat again, the ones they trained with, and how much that guy had looked like her practice targets in the dark: just a slab of meat. Just a shadow.
Just a target.
First Marcia was sent to the infirmary, where she was checked for injuries, told she had a fever, and put to bed under a mound of blankets. Octavia came with her. Sigrun asked questions - where Marcia went, why, what happened, whose blood stained her shirt - and she didn't have the presence of mind to lie. Her throat felt swollen and scratchy, her eyelids heavy, and she fell asleep while other questions were directed at her partner, who for once didn't have the nerve to look the commander in the eye when she answered. Where was that haughty up-tilt to her chin, that practiced sneer she pointed at everyone?
Marcia didn't have any dreams. When she woke up the next day, she thought the glaring white walls, the white sheets covering the other beds, the curtain stands separating her from the rest of the room, were the brightest, most painful things she'd ever looked at. "What the hell." Her voice sounded like a frog croaking.
A dark hand shaded her eyes - Octavia. "You look like it," she said. "The commander had to sleep, so I'm hanging out until she wakes up."
Tears welled up in Marcia's eyes and turned the room into a white blur. "You stayed all night?"
"Don't get the wrong idea." Octavia frowned, brows knitting. "Please, no crying. They'll blame me-"
Marcia laughed, and regretted it, but the sound popped up out of her throat like a bubble. Hot, wet trails slid over her cheeks and dampened her pillow. "Good. Stupid."
Octavia sat back on her stool, lowering her hand. Both her fists clenched on her knees. "My aunt helped Lord Sephiran keep this quiet. You'll probably have to sign some papers or something. There was a fire, but it didn't hurt anyone."
Aunt- oh right, Lavia the Great. Lavia, member of the lower senate, who had contacts within the city government and probably lots of other places besides, though she'd stopped listening to the lists of the woman's important acquaintances years ago. Marcia lifted her arm, rested it over her eyes. Even that little bit of movement had her muscles burning. "I guess... it could be worse, huh?" Her tears soaked the thin sleeve of her nightgown. They clogged her voice so it came out thick and ugly. "A fire..."
"Seriously Marcia. Don't cry. I- I can't deal with-"
Marcia's lips cracked. She let them stretch into a smile.
The letter of resignation was hard to write, but Marcia hoped it would make sense to the right people: Lord Sephiran, of course, Commander Sigrun, even- even Tanith. The Apostle. They treated her like a kid, but Lady Sanaki was smart; her expression gave away how hard she focused during council sessions, and her ridiculous edicts - ordering Lekain to sew layers of chicken feathers to his coat when he refused to authorize a clash with the dracoknights up in Daein - they had a ring of sense to them. If she didn't learn to hide that Begnion wouldn't have an empress for long. But the Apostle had the holy guard to protect her, a hundred women who had sworn life and loyalty to her cause. Maybe it wouldn't sound like much to an outsider when compared to the thousands in the general army, but the guard was the holiest institution in Begnion besides the senate. The weight of their swords was worth a thousand men. Two thousand.
Makalov, though, he had no one. Not yet.
Rule number one, the law everyone in the guard held sacred, never break your word - Marcia kissed it good-bye when she turned her letter in and asked Commander Sigrun if it would be okay to follow her unit as far as the Ribahn River when they took off on their next mission. She had to say good-bye to everyone, and the time they had left in Sienne was too short for that.
Commander Sigrun smiled, tucking a strand of her pale green hair behind an ear. "A clean break might be best. You're only delaying the inevitable."
Marcia lowered her gaze. The commander's office was big and airy, floored with shiny blue tiles, accented with pots of mini roses in shades of pink. It smelled like water: cool, refreshing. An invisible fist contracted in her chest. "Please?"
"I'll allow it," Sigrun said. Water trickled beyond the open window, where a tiny fountain sprayed a fan of it from the mouths of three stone fish. "And if you ever want to come back, I'll speak to the Apostle straight away. That is Lord Sephiran's request, and I am in agreement."
Tears swam in Marcia's eyes for the umpteenth time in the last two weeks. She pulled in a shaking breath. "I'll never, ever do anything to tarnish the Apostle's honor. I'll never betray her, or you." Her throat tried to seize up when the time came for the ceremonial part of her promise. She swallowed five times to make it go away. "Glory to her name, and to Ashera."
The trip to the Ribahn came and went too quickly. Marcia packed her boxes like everyone else - clothes, fighting manuals, a collection of red and white tops. It only took a week. They left Sienne without fanfare at the crack of dawn, pack horses and wagons bouncing over ruts in the dirt road winding away from the city, while Marcia and the others rode the wind in a loose triangle formation. Their shadows skipped over the trees and glided below them across meadows and fields ripe with grain, and farther west, rice. Clouds thickened the sky, drifting in layers that tasted like rain and smelled of ozone, sometimes dark gray and at others fluffy and white. Rain misted over the Ribahn when they reached the crossing. To Marcia the huge granite bridge looked like it was carved out of a mountain from afar, though she knew it was made up of bricks like everything else. Big bricks, maybe, but still man-made, maybe slave-made. She landed several yards away and waved the others on past her.
She looked at the bridge and wished she would be crossing it. Maybe she could, but on the other side she would still be going north, while the rest of her unit - her former unit - would continue west into Tanas to intimidate some stupid minor lord to give up his contacts with the slave rings. It was no mystery how that would turn out; she wanted to be there to smack him upside the head with the haft of her spear and tell him they had permission to skin him alive if he didn't spit it out- but no dice. Not for her. She sat in the saddle and fiddled with Lucia's reins while Legretta and the triplets took to the sky and their shadows jumped over the grass. Lucia stood still even then, ruffling her wings, because she was the best damned pegasus in Begnion and knew when to stay put. She hadn't quite scraped up the nerve to tell anyone where she was going, yet, and now- now... now she had to do it.
Bye guys. I'm leaving. Take care and have fun!
Oh man, they were going to hate her.
Someone came up behind her, and she knew it was Octavia before the other girl raised her voice. "Are we going, or what?"
The wagons creaked behind her, gravel grating under their wheels. Marcia listened to the crates rumble against each other. Her saddlebags were packed as full as they'd go with money, food, and clothes. She'd kept a top tucked into her belt pouch. Makalov had given her those. "What."
Octavia reined in beside her and glared. "What?"
"I mean, I'm not going." Marcia twisted her reins around her hand, then quickly unwound them. "There's some family business I have to take care of."
They led their pegusi off the road to allow the wagons to pass. Lucia flicked her tail at a yellow butterfly, nostrils flaring when the wind ghosted over them and left the scent of wet grass behind. Tiny droplets of rain flicked Marcia's cheeks, chilled her nose, made her wish their uniforms came with real coats instead of flimsy cotton tunics and standard-issue cloaks that never stayed in place once she was in the air. She glanced at Octavia.
"You can't go." Octavia clenched her fingers around her reins one-handed. Creases, lines slashed her forehead, and she bit her bottom lip for a moment before it popped out again and she opened her mouth. "Marcia, you're- we're-" She glared at the pommel of her saddle with her eyebrows scrunched together. "I can't run patrol without you."
It came out so quiet Marcia had to lean sideways to hear. "Sure you can," she said, checking the buckles on her saddlebags one last time, and then the brace holding her spear - her mother's spear. "You and Legretta get along great."
"I don't want to run patrol with Legretta."
Even though Marcia was way past the crying stage, her eyes still felt a little hot and prickly. "Too bad, prima donna. Say hi to your Aunt Lavia for me." She shook the reins and started Lucia off. "And thanks, too."
"Wait!" Octavia's reins snapped and Giselle stuttered forward to let her grab Marcia's sleeve. The last wagon rattled past them and onto the bridge. "You can tell her yourself." Wind ruffled her hair, rain glistened on her cheeks, lit by far off sunshine where it had broken the clouds off to the north. "Right?"
Marcia met her dark gaze and hoped she wasn't lying when she said "yeah." The wind chilled her arms. "Yeah, I guess. It'll be a while, though. Don't let her get mad or call me an ungrateful wretch, or anything."
Octavia's smile was forced, thin. Her fingers released Marcia's sleeve slowly, and they parted ways like that, inch by inch. "You'll regret it if you die," she said, her eyes narrowed in imitation of her usual glare. She snapped her reins again and Giselle took off.
Marcia turned herself north so she wouldn't have to watch and nudged Lucia into a run, then into the sky. A rainbow skewed off to the east, and rain swirled in the air like mist, dripping from her hair, her sleeves, her eyes. The Ribahn twisted underneath her like a blue, shimmery ribbon until they broke the cloud cover and found the sun again, where the droplets caught on her lashes cast their own bits of rainbow. The air was thin, but she could breathe again. She had no idea where Makalov was, no idea if he'd do the obvious and take the river, if he even wanted to get out of Begnion, but she'd find him before those thugs did, so help her.
She'd never been alone like this before. Never been without Octavia and her stupid, snotty sisters. The rain froze on her skin, the wind of their passage shot through her hair, pushing her bangs back from her forehead. Suddenly it was hard to breathe again.
You had better be alive so I can save your bacon, Makalov. The sky tore her whisper away.
For FE Contest theme 008, "flying through the rainbow sky."