Won’t Anybody Like Gorgeous?
Spite leans against the central post in the Marshal’s tent, watching Fang appear and disappear behind the thin-walled modesty screen. The steam from the hot water rises into the already-warming summer air inside the already-heated tent. Every so often, Fang mutters or grunts.
"You need help back there?"
"I know how to bathe myself."
"Sure you do," Spite says, grinning. "I taught you, remember?"
Fang’s head pops up, or rather over, the screen. “I am the daughter of a Zemyati chief, I damn well knew how to bathe before I ever met you.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t actually do it.”
Spite cranes her head as Fang returns to her ablutions. She makes a low whistle at the sight of the black and purple bruise rising from the Marshal’s mid-thigh, over her hip, dissipating below her ribs.
"Fucking Hells, Zin…she caught you good."
The other woman tosses back her wet hair, splashing Spite in the process, reaches out for her top, catches Spite’s throw without looking.
“I gave as I got.” “To hear tell, you almost gave more than you got. Just go easy. We’re short-staffed as it is, right?”
“Yeah, yeah.” says Zinovia over the sound of her splashing water onto her upper body from the wash basin.
“She went gentle. They are not all from her, you know? One of those fucking rotters caught me right over the shoulder. Burns like hell.”
A snort and a spit.
“That will do,” Fang says. She comes out from behind the modesty screen wearing a pair pants where the caked mud had been brushed off and then deemed clean enough, boots that cut off at the knee, and no top. She has about a finger’s worth of medical salve applied to a cut across her left eyebrow.
“Hey, Spite, will you toss me that shirt over there? Thanks.”
"You might want to wrap the girls, first."
Spite peers around, finding a not-entirely stained halter, and throwing that to Fang after the shirt.
“Admittedly, there’s not much to wrap.”
Fang turns around toward the tent flaps leading to the vestibule just in time to see the gangly shape of Gorgeous as she fastens the last few buttons of her blouse. Genuinely surprised, Fang raises her eyebrows, wide-eyed, then winces at the jolt of pain from the cut.
“Well, look at that,” says Zinovia. She continues with a spooky voice. “The Crones converge. Ominous. Come on in, Gorgeous. Spite is here too.”
Dmitri glances down at his feet, not embarrassed, but reserved somehow. "Oh. Oh good. It is good that you are both here."
He sighs and sits, sucking the good humour out of the room.
"I need both of your opinion on something. If you could convey an immediate and tangible strategic advantage, but only by assuming significant personal risk - would you do it? You have been the Council for far longer than I."
Spite listens. Her brow furrows with mild confusion.
“As a member of the Council, you mean? I don’t know, it would depend on a number of factors, I’d think.”
She looks at him curiously. “From your manner, I’m thinking this isn’t a hypothetical question. Something happen?”
Dmitri nods. “In a way, yes. I have spoken to Her Eminence, to see what might be salvaged from the Chapel of the Waters. She let me know precisely who was responsible for it’s current condition - who might be there.”
He sinks onto a folding stool, steeples his hands between his knees.
"The Knights of the Black Oak."
“Render’s oathsworn riders.”
Dmitri nods. "Yes, but still living men. They swore an oath to him, back when he was the best of my people, and they have cleaved to that oath with him down the darkest of paths. But they will fight like men."
He sighs. "Men I know. They were sworn to Clan Czecha. Before they killed my family, they were part of it. I have seen them in their cups, at their books, in love and on the field of battle. I know how they will think. It might give us the edge we need."
He looks to his co-Councilors, speaks softly and simply. "I should be there."
When Gorgeous started explaining about the Order of the Black Oak, and ultimately the implications thereof, Zinovia felt tired. It was that particular flavor of Zemyati honor obligations that absolutely drove her up the walls.
Fang pinches the bridge of her nose and winces. Takes a deep breath, as if she was winding up a clockwork soldier, ready to do battle against spinning tops on a kitchen floor back in Or. Left hand on her hip. Spite had seen this one before. And there comes the patented Fang-points-and-accuses-stance that the Marshal deploys when she’s particularly flustered and mad.
“Godsdamnit, Dmitri,” Fang says. “Now you pull this shit?”
The Marshal’s nostrils are flaring, but Spite doesn’t spot any flames coming out of them. Yet.
“Between Spite and me, we got thirty plus years with the Legion, fourteen on the Council. When Rampart died, you don’t think we felt honor-bound to go save her remains from being desecrated and mangled by that blasted crazy scientist-corpse-crafter? You don’t think we felt that same burn in our hearts, to go do something about it, as you do now? To fucking rage against the Cinder King?”
Fang was feeling it now. She was gathering momentum.
“But did you see either of us charge out of the Remnant camp, like some starry-eyed errant knight, out to win a cup and a kingdom? No. Because that is the fucking easy way out.”
Both hands are on the hips now. The pointing had become moot. This was getting bad.
“You were elected Commander by your fellow soldiers after the clusterfuck at Ettenmark Fields, Dmitri. Your sole responsibility right now is to honor that commitment. You don’t get to pick and choose when to be the Commander. Brief the Specs and the Fist that I’ve assigned, the Star Vipers. Prepare them. Hone them into the sharpest blade that they can be. But you will not go riding off on a reckless expedition to the Water Temple just because your clan mates fucked up and sided with Render.”
Zinovia was breathing as heavily as when she had finished her sparring match with Zora. And despite Fang’s well chosen cluster of word-arrows she had just launched straight at Gorgeous’ heart, the unspoken one was the sharpest. The one that didn’t need to be fired.
Because if you die in the field, the Remnant might not survive.
Spite had been prepared to speak. Had been prepared, even to be patient and reasonable and to do her damndest to keep from anything that might even remotely possibly be perceived as condescending at all from her words and her tone. And then Fang hit him with the scabbard, hilt, and blade as well, as far as Spite is concerned. But her stomach is in knots, and she catches herself running a fingernail down the scar that cuts her face, and stops herself. And waits as the silence spreads like settling dust.
Dmitri’s face flushes in anger for a moment as he receives Fang’s ire. His knuckles whiten, the canny generals notice, but he doesn’t budge. Still unmoving, he pushes all the air out of his lungs in one long exhalation before standing. He’s taller than Fang, looks down to her, without obvious rage, but instead a kind of tired courtesy.
“I’ve been here longer than you, Zinovia. Not in supreme command, but I took the Oath before you did, and earned my spurs first too. I’m not some raw recruit you need to bust up, even if I never aspired to your glories.”
He steps backwards towards the chest at the end of the room.
“This is not about revenge. It’s not even about anger. You think I want to get my hands bloody - bloodier - still?”
He crosses his arms, “Maybe I do. But this is about more than that. It’s about our people. It’s about the Legion.”
Dmitri glances out beyond the tent flap towards the remnant of the company.
"How can I send good men and women to their deaths when I know that if I had been there, if I had given them the edge, they might still be alive?"
There’s a moment’s pause, after Dmitri stands, arms folded, somber expression, when he has glanced out of the tent, then back to look at the two women. Then Bianca laughs.
“Pull the other one,” she says. “It’s got bells on.”
She grins, “Yeah, you’re Gorgeous, and oh, the big soulful eyes, and you really do care about the soldiers under your command, don’t you? Good. Join the fucking club. Somehow, fifty-nine Commanders before you have managed to send good men and women out to die knowing that, if they had been there, they could’ve given them some edge.”
She cocks her head, looks to Fang for a moment, then back to him.
“Who are you, Dmitri? All these years you hid in the ranks, you didn’t rise, you didn’t shine. You survived, you did your job. The Annals record you the way they have thousands of others, did his job, moving on. Who are you? Which is it? If you’re suddenly as sentimental as you’re pretending, that’s a far cry from the man who was willing to spend blood taking down Mihkin ‘for a win.’”
She pauses, eyes him. Shakes her head slightly.
“I don’t get it, and I don’t get you. And what’s worse, right now? I don’t trust you. And the reason I don’t trust you is that you’re saying this is about the Legion, but the Legion needs a Commander, and that’s you. But you’re willing to play your Oath as your argument. You come in with some green-rook bullshit, and two breaths later you’re getting in the Marshal’s face and trying to pull years on her? Which is it?”
Her expression softens, even as the crow’s feet dig their talons around her eyes. She steps closer, not angry, almost curious, now.
"Who are you? Just some officer who got lucky when it counted? Are you our Commander? Are you trying to get out of it, is that it? Trying to get yourself killed?"
Her tone has softened, genuinely bewildered. She stops, shoulders almost sagging. She shakes her head once more, meets his eyes without rancor or even suspicion.
“It’s a ridiculous request and you know that. All your years in, you have to know that. Why would you even propose it?”
It is a practiced routine, like a dance. Seven years together as Crones will do that to a partnership. Now, it was Zinovia’s turn to be quiet, and give Dmitri a blank stare. Spite speaks and makes Fang’s point for her, about the Marshal’s eternal conundrum. How do you send good men to die? It’s not supposed to be an easy thing to do.
If it ever gets easy to do, you’re probably a monster.
Zinovia remembers Hansika’s cooking. The Bartan had always been eager to fill a belly. The Marshal reminded herself to make sure to check in on Adav. The siblings had enlisted together, and insisted on serving in the same Fist. Fang thinks about how Knight Reuben Orlando always had been so eager to discuss politics with her, the latest populist trends in Or. The Marshal felt bad that she’d always been so dismissive of his youthful optimism. The young knight was never going to get to prove her wrong now.
Spite’s probing questions about Dmitri’s character pulls her back into the here and now. Again, the practiced dance with Spite, weaving in and out. Working new angles, not letting Dmitri to settle.
“These are valid questions that demand honest answers,” says the Marshal. “You’re a good soldier, Dmitri. I know you see the big picture here. It was never going to be easy. Do the right thing. Let the Vipers and the Specs do their job. Trust them to succeed in your absence.”
Dmitri shakes his head, even as he responds in the affirmative.
“Alright, alright. Marshall, I’d appreciate you setting up an additional briefing with the Vipers and whoever else you are choosing to send. There might be something I can give them they can use.”
He sinks back down on the chest, takes a leather roll of cigarillos from his sleeve and draws one before offering them the packet.
“Bianca - you want to know the secret? To being an unremarkable man? I did what it was called on me to do…and I didn’t do enough. I didn’t give enough.”
He lights up. “The best and the brightest are all gone now. The great lights have gone out. And a part of me wonders if I - if many of us - had done more, if we might’ve stopped some of this before it started. And damn me if the only way out of it isn’t to find whatever we’ve got left, our last reserve, and spend it.”
He look at her through a coil of smoke, “I don’t want to die, Quartermaster. But if the coin of my life will buy us a little more, I won’t hesitate to wager it. I know you don’t think I’m a very good Commander, and for all I know you might be right. I can’t be the only one to think that maybe the day will come where I am more valuable in the field than directing it. More valuable as a corpse.”
A pause, "But not, it seems, today."
I don’t know what kind of Commander you are," Bianca says, “Good or bad, a coward or a hero, I don’t know. I don’t think you do, either. But I know you’re playing games. you’re doing it right now. My questions stand, and you literally blowing smoke doesn’t make them vanish, Dmitri.”
“You don’t think very highly of us, it seems. Or maybe just of me. Fine. But we’re pulling this wagon of shit together, and until you realize that – that it’s taking all of us – we’re going to have problems.”
Another head-shake. “I didn’t ask how you hid yourself. I’m asking why.”
She glances to Fang once more. “I’ll get you something for that bruise.” And she exits out into the camp.
Dmitri chuckles as Spite leaves, a little ruefully, but warmly all the same. " Fang and Spite , eh? Remind me the next time I come to you for advice to put my damn armour on."
The Quartermaster storms across the court and into her tent in a mood, and it was not helped to see the Annals spread out over her turned-over shield. Zora, sitting on the floor, was surrounded by piles texts of varied ages, all out of their usual place of keeping. She is reading through a small volume bound in a disturbing shade of leather, with her feet crossed below her.
When Spite enters, her canine companions slide up beside her, hanging their tail between their legs and hanging their heads, as if feeling guilty for not barking. The Chosen does not look up, but continues reading one of the Elder Annals - not the translated volume of the lost tongue, but an original account of the Imperial Painlords of G’hom. She has a frenetic air, skimming pages back and forward. Without any sifting or sorting, she grabs out for another book, and opens it midway, glances, closes it, then slides to the floor.
She moans, gesturing with the book at the tent opening, entirely unclear if she means the author or someone outside, “Bianca, why must they disappoint us?”
She thinks of saying something, but the fact is there isn’t really anything to say. There is something almost childlike in the way Zora moves through the world, Spite thinks. A selfless selfishness. She pats Storm’s flank, scratches Curly’s neck. She looks to Taisa, balled up on her cot, blanket over her shoulders in the heat, bare legs visible, pale and dirty. Not for the first time in the last several weeks, Bianca wishes for a bath, a proper bath, in a big tub, with hot water and lavender and good scented soaps. A bath from another time and place and life, all of which are long lost, now.
So, with nothing to say, she steps carefully over the strewn books to the desk and begins quietly reordering those that Zora has apparently finished with. When the Chosen speaks, the fact that she has spoken as much as what she says, surprises Bianca.
“Because otherwise they could never inspire us.”
She looks at the Chosen, seated on the floor. There is a Chosen, seated on my floor. She sighs and carefully edges her chair out, mindful to catch neither books nor Zora, and sits, surprising herself with how heavily she does so.
“Though I’m not certain I know which ‘they’ you’re speaking of, Chosen. Is there something you’re looking for? Perhaps I can help.”
The small Zimyati woman looks up at Bianca from the floor, and closes her eyes.
“I fight against the tide, Bianca,” her voice is distant, and a little aggrieved, “And I thought to have the Remnant of Tantarus by my side. Do you know, when I fought your Legion before, you held me at bay before my victory? You stymied me at every turn, you were inspired, and devoted past death.”
As Spite approaches to collect some books, Zora thrusts one in her hand out to the quartermaster to be tidied away.
“But… I forget how long ago that was. Dmitri, he is not ready. Did he decide to face the knights in the Chapel? No, it matters not. If he goes, it is because he is not ready for command. If he stays, it is because he has not shaken the habit of cowing to your sense of his duty. Where is the man I found at Ettenmark?”
The Blade shakes her head, and grabs for another object, an old scrolled map of the farthest east from a war centuries forgotten. She unfurls the map, and then immediately lets it roll up again, “And Raffaele has done nothing with his gift from Mihkin, and you ask me to restrain my testing hand. And I cannot find the relics of power mentioned here at all.”
“Your Mercy,” she gestures at Taisa, “at least knows her duty well. She at least is fucking Legion.”
Standing, she looks at Bianca, and the childishness or petulance falls away, shed like an outer layer of skin, and the ancient eyes with their primal heat seem to drink Bianca in, “I do need your help. Yours above the others, perhaps, and I should have seen this.”
She gestures to the marks on Spite’s uniform, “You are the quartermaster of the Legion. You… find things, and do preserve them, and do create them. And now you are the keeper of books, old stories, of what the Legion was, where it has been.”
She takes the standard Legion sword off her belt, “I need of you to build my Legion for me, yes. The one I need to kill the Cinder King. And I will help you to be finding the things I am needing.”
Bianca looks from the sword in her hand to the Chosen holding it. She nods, once, slightly, then rises, gesturing for Zora to take her seat. She moves to the chest by the rack that serves as her bed, and from within it pulls a scraped earthenware jug. She finds two cups that are not entirely filthy, moves a stool closer to the makeshift table with her boot, then sits. She pours two shots, leaving the jug uncorked, pushes a cup towards Zora.
“You aren’t easy to talk to,” Bianca says. “I’m getting that out first. So I’m just gonna talk, take it or leave it.”
She picks up her cup, swirls the liquor within, looking at it.
“You’re impatient. I can only imagine that, if I had done all you have done, lived all you have lived, seen all you have seen, that I would be impatient, too. You have purpose. I stand with that purpose. I would see it fulfilled. I fucking burn to see it fulfilled, Zora.”
“But it’s going to take time. We’re both going to need it. To hone the blades. To build the army. We do that, we stop the advance at Skydagger, you know it will draw the Cinder King to you. You know it will.”
She looks into her cup, downs its contents. It’s old, and it’s Zemyati, and it’s been in that jug a long time. She waits until the Chosen has emptied hers, then refills both.
“You’re the second person today who’s said our best days are past, perhaps not in as many words. I disagree. More, that’s not what the Legion is. We look forward. We look with purpose.”
A shrug. “Captain De Deori is heading out on mission. You’re disappointed he has not used his blade as yet? I promise you, he will use it when the time is right, and you will hear of it. Dmitri hasn’t found his way yet? That’s outstanding, but we’re three for three on the mission’s he’s called, Zora. There is a true Commander in there. Once he gets past whatever he’s fighting – doubt, fear, a broken damn heart, I don’t know – we’ll see it. Or he’ll crumble, and there will be another.”
“In your time you’ve seen the rise and fall of cities, nations, heroes, and more. They rise. They fall.” She knocks back her drink. “We are rising.”
The Chosen smiles when Bianca calls her difficult to speak to, but says nothing, taking the proffered seat and placing her naked blade on the table between them. When Spite drinks, Zora also drinks, downing the heady brew like water, and then when the cup is refilled, downs the next without hesitation. She listens attentively through the whole thing, and when the general is through, pours another drink for the pair, which she also downs instantly. The third drink seems to hit her, and she exhales.
“My… father,” she seems uncertain of the word, “He has given me many skills, but speech is not amongst them. Your Orite is the… twenty-third tongue I have had to master, and with each one, the native speakers think me the stranger for it.”
She runs her finger over the edge of the blade, “I was said to be quite eloquent in Old Takmani.”
“This is because I am old, Bianca. And this makes me patient, and not its opposite as you believe. I can wait for my strike, and can prepare. I have spent centuries preparing for holy war, plotting every move, preparing for every contingency, designing a campaign to make the world good and right.”
She picks up the sword, and holds it aloft, and it lights with pale fire that casts strange shadows around the tent. She speaks with conviction, and she meets Bianca’s eyes. She also pours herself another drink while Bianca is starting on the last round.
“I do not doubt your fire, for I can see it. And I see Rafaelles, and Dmitris. I know what each of you would have been without the Legion, and what you could become in it. That is a gift my father gave me. I know exactly what warrior’s soul lies in every breast, inerrantly.”
“In another era, in another war,” she swings the sword around, almost playfully, and Bianca wonders if the Living Blade is tipsy, “We could forge such an army here, with the Living Blade and the Tantarian Legion together, as this world has never seen.”
The sword extinguishes, “But Bianca, this is not that war. Nine Chosen were called with the sole divine purpose of ending the Cinder King. Two… remnants, let us say… of the Zimyati joined them, and the Living Shield swore it was his destiny to lead the battle that would extinguish the black fire. He commanded more than half of Heaven. He gathered his weapons and tools, honed his White Oak Knights, inspired the Eastern Alliance.”
“Five are Broken, and Shreya Merciful has lost her godsdamned mind. Alchemy is tainted, and another ritual of Breaking is in the air, I can smell it, another god who will fall. Is it my destiny to slay the Cinder King, or will he break that fate too?”
This is far and away the most Spite has ever heard the Chosen say, not just about herself and her peers, but words strung together. Her usual truncated elliptical asides would, perhaps, be more comforting.
“It is no fault of yours to be born in this time, but if I am not destined to be sufficient, then I need the army that can defy the gods and march against heaven to fulfill a contract. What I ask is not hard, it is impossible.”
Zora picks up the jug, and pours out the last skerricks of the fiery juice. “It is not that I am impatient, Bianca. I am simply out of time,” Her voice goes very quiet, very small, and she drains the last, “You are rising, but… you must rise now.”
“Oh, it’s not that you’re not eloquent,” Spite says, aware that the alcohol may well be priming her to say things she will later regret.
“You’re pretty eloquent when you turn your mind to it, but you don’t have much use for it — which is fine with me, by the way — that’s not it. It’s that you’re a fucking Chosen, Zora.”
She stops herself before adding, and we have to wonder what happens if you break, too.
“And I lied. I know you’re patient. You must be. War demands it, if not age. Timing is everything. I feel the urgency, I do. I mean what I say, I will sharpen the damn sword for you if it’ll end up in the Cinder King’s excuse for a heart. I want that, and if you’re means to it getting there, I’ll give my blood to see it done. But I’d not give it cheap.”
She watches the sword dance with fire. She leans back, reflexively, as the blade swipes nearer. Watches as it goes out, as Zora sets it down. Old as she is, she looks too young for all of this, Spite thinks. And the unspoken question hangs, who next will be Broken, and what can be done to stop it. She watches the Chosen empty the jug.
“We specialize in impossible,” she says, simply. She gestures with her now-empty cup at the volumes scattered around the tent, on the floor, stacked at their elbows.
“That’s who we are. That’s our Oath. We are rising now , Zora. You have to see that. It’s been two weeks since Ettenmark. We should never have made it this far. Already, we’re doing the impossible. And you know with what we have, we cannot make the battle yet. With what we have, it would be folly, and leave nothing. We are rising now, and we will rise faster as we move forward, and with you to hone us, we will rise faster still. Despair is corrosive, it kills the heart, it murders the soldier before battle. We’ve still got hope, for fuck’s sake. Take heart in that. Have faith in that. Faith, some dirty tricks, some good intelligence, and a little luck…wars have been won on less.”
Zora listens, and at the end, nods, then stands to make her way to the exit. At the tent opening, she stops, and half turns her head. “I will leave your smiths to you, but your fighters, with your blessing, I shall begin honing.”
Bianca grins. “Actually…I have some thoughts about that, too. But I’ll share those with you later. Hone them. Just make sure we’ve got enough left to fight with.”