2005 by Holly Lisle, All Rights Reserved
This is draft copy. It may contain typos, spellos, and other errors, and may not be copied, reproduced, or quoted in any form or format.
“I’m afraid I’m going to ruin it,” Riknir told me.
I looked over to see what he was doing. He’d finished bending the plain copper band he was working on into a circle, and he had the edges lined up perfectly. And he was staring at the little dish of copper solder pallions and the flux and the soldering irons heating in our work fire as if he were trapped in the midst of a nest of snakes.
I laughed at him and ruffled his hair. “If you destroy the piece, we can melt it down to use for something else. That’s why you’re starting with a copper ring.” I hugged him. “And when you finish it, you get to wear the ring.”
” Maybe I should just help you some more.” He frowned at the unfinished ring in his hand.
” How about if this time I help you? I think you’ll not have such a fear of it once you’ve done it alone, so I’ll stand by and watch you, and you can ask for my help as you need it.”
He nodded, and nervously reached for the brush and the flux bowl, then glanced at me, checking. I nodded.
He painted his flux, going a little wide with it, which would make a messy bead, but it was his first solo piece and his hands were shaking; I wasn’t about to make him rub the flux off and start over.
He finished painting, and sat on the stool breathing hard, brow furrowed with concentration. Then he smiled, and nodded a little to himself, and used the tweezers to place tiny solder pallions on the flux right down the seam line — he used about twice as many as I would have used, but no matter. He’d have to do a bit of extra filing, but it would be good for him. Mistakes are, after all, the finest teacher.
And then he took a deep breath, and turned to the dozens of different-sized soldering rods heating in the fire. He tossed two more charcoal bricks in the bottom, started pumping the foot bellows the way I’d taught him, and got the rod handle ready. He was doing well, and I was proud of him. He waited until the tips of the rods were exactly the right color, and I grinned. I hadn’t thought he had paid such fine attention to that bit of the process. Then he clamped the handle around the base of a rod with a point two times too big for his project. This time I did say something. “Smaller, Riknir. You’ll have a hard time keeping that one on the work and off your fingers.”
” Oh.” He released the rod, and chose another, considerably smaller. That one would do.
As he started applying the tip of the rod to the pallions, one at a time, and watching the tiny squares of metal turn liquid and flow along the flux he’d painted on the seam, I realized that he and I were no longer alone.
Landsman Breega, my unit’s newest messenger, who was only a few years older than Riknir and who wore the real Shields uniform that Rik so coveted, stood in the workshop doorway watching us. Breega was still much taken with all the lovely formality of military life, to the point that — though he had lived down the street from my family all his life and knew me personally — since being taken into Magics he had yet to call me by name. He even referred to himself by his rank. He’d grow out of it soon, I hoped.
” I’m sent with news, shieldsergeant,” he said, and I sighed. So this was not to be the day he did.
” They need me back.”
He nodded. “Increased incoming from the Eastils. Everyone has been pulled off leave and the major is having ducks.”
I kept a straight face. The major wasn’t too bad most of the time, for an officer, anyway, but when things got tick-tight, he was well known for, as Breega put it, having ducks. But that didn’t mean that Breega should be announcing the fact in front of civilians, and children at that. Things in Shields we keep in Shields.
” Do I have time to pack?”
” We have a packer with your mother right now, shieldsergeant.”
Maybe he’d stop it if I hit him. No. Probably not. And anyway, if I did hit the child, I’d end up having a long talk with Major Damis about clobbering a fellow soldier, and I could get to watch the major have ducks at me. “Thank you, landsman,” I said, giving him a hard look, and watched Breega race off to ruin someone else’s leave.
” Well, then.” I looked at Riknir, who wore his disappointment from head top to toe tip. “If I leave my tools with you, will you see to it that you put them away when you’re done with them?”
His eyes got wide — I’d never left him in charge of them before. “I promise,” he said. “They’ll be perfect.”
I hugged him and ruffled his hair and said, “I know they will. You can use everything to finish your ring, and you can show it to me when I come home again. Does that suit you?”
” I can use everything without you here?”
” Just for this project. Nothing else with the soldering irons — you know Ma will have me strung up if you set yourself afire, or burn yourself full of holes.”
Rik laughed. He knew.
Ma came out just then, my kit in hand and a bag in the other that I knew contained a lunch for me. “You’re off too, then.”
I hugged her. “Riknir has my permission to finish his ring with my tools,” I said. “He’s going to care for them for me until I get back.”
She is good, is Ma. That right eyebrow of hers only rose the tiniest fraction before she got it under control. “He’ll do a good job of it, I’m sure,” she said.
And then I was gone, Shielders pack slung over my shoulder and Ma’s lunch in hand, moving down the streets toward the wharf at the steady dog-trot you learn when they teach you to march at speed and that you can never after forget.
I met a handful of colleagues coming from other directions, so Breega wasn’t the only one doing the summoning. All of them were moving at the same speed as me, so I had to guess that I hadn’t overreacted to Breega’s implied urgency.
We didn’t speculate on the situation we were heading into; we were on the street and already sure to be causing enough worry among the civilians just from the sight of all of us streaming back to Shields. Were we to begin bandying speculation back and about the attack Beyltaak faced while we ran, someone would be sure to overhear us and the rumors would fly.
Out of habit, we fell into formation as we joined up, until by the time we reached the wharf and ran along the dock toward the Shields building, a good twenty of us thundered alone the boards two by two, our feet thundering to an uncalled cadence.
Major Damis, my unit commander, met us at the arch and rushed us through long, dimly-lit corridors back toward the heart of Shields, the Shielders’ Active Defense Center, shortened over time to SADC. And he clearly was having ducks. His eyebrows, which are black as moonless midnight and thick as caterpillars, bounced up and down his forehead as if danced on strings by a mad puppeteer, and he shifted from foot to foot. “SADC quick as you can go, people,” he urged.
We passed through the arches into SADC to find the hub full already, every bench taken, every on-duty Shielder already masked and on the bar. All of us who had come at a run stared at each other, bewildered.
” Into uniforms only if you have them, and onto benches — any bench, any bar. We don’t have time to put you with your partners. You’ll be doubling up back to back, two to a bench for the duration of this, and you’ll be trading off in half-days. If this gets any worse, we’re going to have to add benches and trade you off in three-quarter days.”
I hadn’t done back-to-back with anyone since training, and we’d done it then only because the training hub was so small. I had to wonder what exactly we had coming in on us.
Those of us with uniforms in our kits stripped out of our civilian gear where we stood and threw on whichever uniform we’d been wearing when we took leave. We weren’t in the dress of the day, most of us, but Damis’s urgency was contagious.
And when I took my partner’s back, not even getting time for a greeting to identify who had my back, I found out why. I slipped on the mask, an eyeless cloth head-covering with heavy padded earpieces; the mask renders me blind and deaf to everything outside of my head. I got as comfortable as I could with only half of the padded bench available to me, with my partner’s spine jammed against mine and my knees hitting those of the masked Shielder facing me. And I gripped the metal link bar that leads, like one spoke in a wheel, to the metal hub in the center of the SADC. There’s nothing magical about that metal hub with its twenty long iron spokes. It serves no more purpose than to let all the on-watch Shielders share a physical contact with each other. We could do the same thing by holding hands or hanging onto the same rope, and when we’re out in the field that’s what we frequently end up doing. Some of us do not even require a physical contact every time; without bragging too much about it, I number myself among them. But over the hundreds of years the Shielder’s have been at this, that big metal hub has been the one form of connecting device that has reliably survived direct physical attacks from the Eastils. And we all need that contact sometimes; most of all when things get bad.
And things were bad. I slid into the View, and got my first look at the sky over Beyltaak from those who were already lobbing barriers. The Eastils were raining hell in on us; I had never seen anything like it in my life.
The View is a thing I think none of us will ever clearly describe to those who have not the senses to see it. But how I wish we could. It is a realm with no fixed walls or firm landmarks; everything within the View is fluid — every single thing in Beyltaak, from the weeds along the back paths to the paths themselves, to the houses, to the cats and dogs and horses, to the silverware on tables and the tables on floors, to the people eating their dinners and the dinners they eat, are living, breathing, moving, and radiant with the energy that fills them. They expand or contract as their relationships to other objects change; they repel the unfamiliar and embrace the familiar, so that when two friends meet upon an oft-traveled road, the road embraces them joyously and the friends meld together into one shimmering, dancing form, and their houses, no matter how far apart they are in the physical world, slide together in a gentle glow of attraction. Fresh enemies blaze red as they see each other or even think about each other, old enemies dull to gray with the hatreds that devour their energies and their lives.
I see my town more clearly than any but the others who share my gift, and the beauty that exists within this place of mine has filled me with such love that I cannot imagine living anywhere else by choice. And yet I know that every other place holds this same secret beauty, and I am filled with wonder.
Because we can see this energy, Shielders can work with it — some more effectively than others, but all of us to some degree. Civilians imagine us casting a big, shiny bubble over our taak that keeps the foul magic of the Eastils at bay. They imagine that our job is to prevent this giant, lovely bubble — this ‘shield’ — from breaking or developing holes that will let in the bad magic. The way they see it, our work is passive; build a wall, then hold it in place.
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no wall. There is no bright shiny bubble. There is only them, and us. We sit, blind and deaf, surrounded by the fires of life, watching for the incoming attacks of the Eastils, which are designed to attract themselves to specific energies and so can look like almost anything — like the people or places or things they are designed to destroy — and in the very few moments between the time the attack is launched and the time it hits its target, we have to identify the force coming at us and throw an energy that will repel it between it and its target, either scattering its force or sending it back where it came from.
The example we get when we start Shielder basic is of holding a magnet in our hands, and having magnets thrown at us. We’re to look at the magnets coming, identify their attracting force, and ward them off by turning our own magnet so that it will repel what is coming at us rather than attracting it. What they do not tell us until much later is that there are thousands of kinds of magnets, and each can only be repelled by another magnet of the same sort.
So that is the job for which I was taken away from my family at such a young age — to watch over a flowing, glowing, ever-changing landscape; to identify as hostile the energies that are launched at that landscape with sometimes-blinding speed and that have been designed to look as much as possible like the things they are sent to destroy; to determine the precise type of attack that is coming; to shape from Beyltaak’s available ground energy a force that will repel it; and to do it over and over again, without making a mistake. Using the hub and bars, we Shielders slip far enough behind each other’s eyes that we can share the View, and by doing so, we are able to see things others miss.
Usually we can handle Eastil attacks with Shielders on ten of the twenty link bars. An average Shielder can handle five or six attacks in an hour if they aren’t spaced too close. A really talented Shielder can handle a dozen, or even more. I’ve handled as many as ten during one awful hour, but I’d never had to deal with that many hour after hour.
The one thing Shielders have in our favor is that magical attacks are not like arrows; there is no way for the enemy to create them in advance and store them up and send them out in a barrage. Every attack has to be created and shaped and sent by someone very much like us on the other side — and it’s up to the enemy Sender to identify his own targets and disguise what he is sending and form it to hit his designated targets, because random attacks, without the attraction of design, are unlikely to hit anything.
Senders are as talented at what they do as we are, but we each have different weaknesses, and those are the reason magic makes an effective weapon at all. The Senders’ weakness is entirely creative: coming up with attacks that we cannot recognize from long experience; or hiding those attacks until they are too close to permit us an effective response, or building and launching attacks fast enough to overwhelm our defenses. Our weaknesses are that they always have a good idea where we are and where the targets we protect are, and that timing is usually in their favor — given sufficient time, we will recognize enemy attacks and determine how to repel them, but sufficient time is hard to come by. We all, Shielders and Senders, share two weaknesses. First, working with magic is draining; we cannot stay inside the View for an unlimited amount of time, and we cannot work with the energies of the universe except in short bursts. We all have to recuperate after each volley.
Second, the View is seductive. It embraces us, caresses us, loves us. It is unutterably beautiful, endlessly deep, and full of mysteries. It vibrates with a music that sings in our ears and our eyes, on our taste buds and in our bones. We are never more alive than when we are within the View.
Leaving after a long, slow shift is hard. Leaving after a battle, when the world outside is harsh and the reality of pain and death and loss await, is almost impossible.
Sometimes Shielders don’t leave. Which is why we never go in alone — never with less than ten. Nine can pull one back from … well, wandering. Eight can pull two back. And six can hold three in place while one goes back to the physical world for reinforcements.
When we fail to bring them back ….
Ah, Jostfar. The price of failure is watching our comrades’ bodies die over days or sometimes weeks, without ever seeing from them reaction or recognition, without seeing on them any sign of injury. Watching their families plead with them to come back, though we know our friends have gone too far to hear, and will not find their way home.
We swear to each other that we will not wander away. And we swear to keep each other from wandering.
But sometimes we fail.
In any case, those of us Magics Forces in taaks like Beyltaak, which are near but not right on the border, spend most of our time floating in the liquid universe of the View trying to figure out where the enemy is and what he’s doing. As best we can, we watch the other side. And our enemies watch us. And when they think they’ve located a flaw in our defenses, or when they come up with a new sort of attack, they launch whatever they have against it, and we either stop it, or we don’t. And at the same time, our Sender units, guarded by the small mobile teams of Shielders who watch over them, are out in the field launching against their targets.
Both sides avoid targeting civilians, and also avoid destroying land, crops, livestock, and buildings. Both sides have rules worked out over long centuries, both sides abide by them. We Tonks intend to claim and rule the Eastil lands when we win. No doubt the Eastils intend the same for us. It’s acknowledged on both sides of the border that no good can come from destroying the wealth we hope to claim and the people we hope to rule. Or in our case when we finally can deal with the Eastils directly, put the people we plan to onto ships and send back to their homelands.
All of these things made the attack I found underway when I grabbed the linking bar almost incomprehensible. My mind focused on the View, and suddenly I was in the midst of dozens of simultaneous attacks, attacks following on attacks as quickly as we could fend them off. No only were there too many launches coming in at us, but they were Large Random Common; a class we rarely ever saw. It was as if our enemy had decided it didn’t matter which targets he hit so long as he hit something and hit it hard. Large Random Common attacks run counter to a hundred rules and a dozen treaties and agreements, and yet, there they were.
We could identify the launches because they were common, but they were so powerful we had to drain ourselves casting the shields that would hold each one off. And once we successfully turned a broaching spell, we had to sit there shivering while we waited to refill our own life energy; we’re a bit like cups beneath a pouring spout. Each time we empty, we must be refilled again before we’re any good to anyone.
The Eastils had either found a way to avoid being emptied, or they’d brought so many people in against us for this attack that they were able to work at their regular speed but still overwhelm us by sheer numbers. They weren’t going for cleverness or accuracy or deception; they were just pounding us with size and fury, and I realized that in this instance, size and fury were all they needed. We were in trouble.
I turned launches so vast I could not conceive an enemy Sender creating such a thing without sucking the life out of himself in the process; just turning them was sucking the life out of me. There were forty of us on the link bars, and I could feel a secondary hub being brought into service and linked to our hub to bring onboard the handful of late-arriving duty-ready Shielders not already doubled up on the prime hub.
I felt a couple of officers link up, too, as the enemy hell kept pouring in on us, and that scared me. Officers are Shielders who took injuries that bent them but didn’t snap them while within the View; who got torn by the View but who survived, and who know what it takes to be in there. Officers are not supposed to go into the View; they’ve served, they’re particularly vulnerable to the call of wandering, but their experience on the bar makes them priceless, and dying in the View would, most times, would be spending — for no gain — knowledge we cannot get back.
Yet we were failing to hold back the tide; I felt the broachers slipping past us, hot inside my skin and painfully bright behind my eyes. Some did no hurt — they could not find their targets, and so they scattered out unspent, losing their force and their intent. Some, however ….
When a broacher gets by us, we Shielders feel the pain. All of us. We feel the fires burning us. We feel the magic ripping us apart. We cannot withdraw, because the damned Eastils up the barrage if they feel us pulling back. We have to stay with the horror of our failures burning beneath our own skins, knowing that while we suffer in our minds, people we know and love suffer in the flesh.
Five years on the bar, they tell us. That’s all most of us will be good for. In that time, a few of us will break completely, losing ourselves inside the View for the rest of our short lives, dwindling away to nothing because we can no longer eat or drink, because we can longer speak or hear or taste or feel or see anything in the physical world. Some of us will watch our comrades tumble into oblivion, see the writing on the wall, and seek Breeder deferrals, praying to the gods that we’re fertile while trying hard to ignore the fact that we’re passing our own pain onto our children by our actions. Some of us will stand fast, growing stranger and stranger, until at last we’re taken off the bar, sent for a month’s Recuperation and Retraining, and returned to the battle as junior line officers.
Senders last no longer than Shielders. They have to be in the View to use it; they have to merge with their targets, at least briefly, to hit them. It is all very personal inside the View, and no one feels like an enemy. Everyone becomes family — and beloved — for the moments that we touch them. Even the Eastils.
I had a bad moment, when the fighting was at its fiercest, when I nearly lost my hold on the physical world. A broacher slid by me while I was holding back another one, and though I saw it, I could not reach it. It tore past me and latched onto someone I knew; a neighbor woman I had loved since I was old enough to walk. She was — aside from my father — my mother’s dearest friend; a smart, courageous woman who had raised a houseful of children after her husband died, never complaining, never doubting herself where any of us could see. She always had a kind word, always had a laugh, and I knew her as I knew my own family.
I felt her death, felt her see me as her life slipped away from her and she found the View for just an instant, felt her lift her chin and say, as she had said so many times before when the Fates cast against her, “It is meant to be.”
Her death was too much for me, and I faltered and let go of the bar and the rest of my unit, and began to drift away from the hub, trying to hide, wanting to die.
And I felt a touch; a stranger pulling me back, saying, “Bad as this is and weary as we all are, if you don’t hang on, you’ll take a dozen of us with you. Be brave.” She caught onto me and would not let go, sharing her own strength and melding with me until I regained my courage and could return to the bar and take up the fight again. And then she faded away, and I realized that she was one of them. She was an Eastil Shielder, but tied as tightly to the View as the rest of us. And she was right. In that battle, any one of us who fell would take down both friend and foe.
We would be enemies in the physical world, she and I. But we were sisters in the View.
I fought, and my comrades fought. Then without warning, the barrage ceased. It didn’t thin first. It simply stopped.
I sat within the View, trembling, feeling the pockets of terror and grief, and the Eastils were gone. Simply gone.
And suddenly I realized that I had something that I’d not had before.
I signaled to the major, who came and pulled me off the bar.
I tugged the mask up and squinted a little as my eyes adjusted to the light in the room. “I have news,” I told Damis. “I need to speak to the commander.”
He looked at me. “You look hell-ragged, Talyn. I’ll give you a moment to make yourself presentable if you wish.”
I felt tears drying on my cheeks and knew my face would be pale and tear-streaked, my eyes swollen. I had no idea how long I’d fought, but my uniform was sweat-soaked. “No, sir,” I told him. “This cannot wait.”
” As you wish. What do you have?”
” I almost fell,” I told him. “One of the broachers that got through … it hit a friend who has known me since I was born. I almost lost my way back out.”
” But you didn’t.” He was not the most patient of men, our major, but he listened well enough when it mattered.
” One of the Eastils pulled me back.”
He nodded. It happened — to save half of our own, we’d been known to keep one of the enemy from falling, too. War within the View is a funny thing, if you can call anything so terrible funny.
” She had to link me pretty tightly. I caught what she knew about this attack.”
We were walking back through the ancient Shields building, through a stone hall lit by the arrow slits that punctuated it, and at the moment kept unpleasantly cold by the same. Come summer, of course, those slits would make the place pleasant; sea breezes would keep it cool and smelling of salt air and week-dead fish. Coastal taaks have their disadvantages.
The major said, “You sure what she knows is true knowledge?”
” I’m sure she believes it, sir,” I said. “How true it is I cannot say. If they fed her lies, what I have could destroy us.”
” Tell me what you found. Intelligence will make of it what they will.”
I nodded. “This attack and one like it in Havartaak were designed as diversions, to hide the movement of a very small, elite fighting force. The girl knows one of the members of that force; the two of them are lovers.”
” That would be hard information to plant falsely.”
” Yes, sir. For that alone I thought it worth a moment in your ears and the commander’s.”
” What do you know of this fighting force?”
” A little. Destination, and purpose. They’re heading to Injtaak for the peace conference and they intend to disrupt it.”
The major frowned. “Then I think they fight on our side, whether they mean to or not. I like not at all the idea of this bargained peace brokered by busybodies, unless the bastard-humping Eastils intend to give it to us by a surrender.
” I think as you do.”
Major Damis sighed and stopped in the hallway before the commander’s huge double doors. “Yet we cannot let them succeed in their plans; we cannot permit them to shame us. Our taaklords will not sell out the Confederacy; there will be no unearned peace.” He clapped me on the shoulder, looking me in the eye from a bit below level, and said, “Well done to extract such a tidbit while under such duress. Well done indeed.”
He said nothing about my near-fall other than that, though he could have. So he did not think me compromised; he did not think me near breaking. Just by that smallest of details — that thinnest demonstration of his faith in me — I got some better hold on myself; if my major was not sending me to the unit healers, this battling of grief and shame that warred inside me must be nothing others had not felt and survived. If they had survived, I would too. The Confederacy needed me; my taak needed me; my people needed me. I would hold on for them.
He was watching my eyes; after a moment he nodded. “Come, then,” he told me. “It’s time we talk with the commander.”
Gair signaled a halt at the edge of the forest. Before him lay the fields that surrounded Injtaak.
” We stop here. Wipe the horses down,” he said. “Then we’re going to walk them and groom them until they don’t look like we’ve been running them.”
All six of his men stripped the blankets off the stocky, shaggy mountain ponies they’d managed to acquire, and started rubbing them down. Gair hated to spare any time, but if his team rode into town looking ragged and unkempt they were going to arouse at least some curiosity. Under usual circumstances, strangers in a tight little community like Injtaak would be subject to scrutiny and suspicion anyway, but not today. He could see tents pitched in the fields looking like a harlot’s festival; the brightly colored waxed-felt shaddas, or pack-houses, were a vestige of the Tonks heritage. Their violent, barbaric, nomadic heritage. Gair thought the Tonks should be happy to put their history of living in tents and hunting their neighbors for sport behind them; he could not see it as any source of pride. He thought the Tonks ought to be able to see the benefits of civilization and representative government, too, though, and if three hundred years of fighting had shown anything, it had shown that the Tonks were as blind to progress as they were tough and determined. Most of their number lived in houses most of the time now, but it wouldn’t have surprised him a bit to discover that they’d started wearing their enemies’ bones as jewelry again.
Wellam, who had enough of a knack with horses that Gair secretly thought him half-Tonk, finished first and approached Gair. “Shall I ride in and scout?” he asked. “I’m clean, my horse is presentable; I should be able to find out where we can spend the night, and take the time to locate the building where they’ll meet tomorrow.”
Gair shook his head. “We aren’t going to assemble again until after we have done what we came to do; just wait. I want to give everyone final instructions together.”
The rest of his men finished quickly enough, and Gair, watching in all directions to be sure they had not yet been observed, gathered them together.
” You’ll each enter Injtaak from a different direction, and find such lodging as you can. Most of the important people will be staying in their shaddas, so we should be able to find rooms at one of the three hostels. If you need to reach me, you’ll find me in the tavern named Black Hodd’s, which is supposed to be on the corner of Fox Lane and Butter Street. Unless it’s an emergency, though, don’t come anywhere near me, or acknowledge me in any way. Before the sun rises tomorrow, you must be in your position at the Favarhend, but don’t think to sneak in tonight; they will have soldiers sweep the building before the hend starts tomorrow. We aren’t going to assemble again until after we have done this. If you have questions, ask them now.”
” The hend will start at daybreak?”
” This is the best intelligence we have; the meeting between the Republic and the Tonks will not take place until midday, but at sunrise tomorrow — the hour of the Sparrow to locals — everyone who is of any importance among the Tonks will file into the Faverhend and discuss the issues they’ll be working on prior to the actual meeting. I cannot tell you what an opportunity this is for us; we have no record of any meeting of this sort occurring among the taaklords for more than a hundred years. We missed our chance on the last one, and people on both sides have kept on dying because of it.”
For just an instant, he dropped his voice and spoke in Hyerti, the official language of the Eastil Republic. “God and King Trimus bless us all, and find favor in our mission.” He and his men clasped hands, and all of his men whispered, “God hear us.”
” May we meet safely on this side, or triumphantly on the other,” he added, speaking again in Tonk.
Then they mounted up and scattered.
Gair held them all in his heart. They had been his best friends and closest comrades for all the years the team had worked together, learning and waiting and praying that they would have an opportunity to act.
This moment — this day — was their gift, their chance to bring civilization to this land and peace, real peace, to his own.
The commander wasn’t a madman. Imagine that. I didn’t like the little bastard even so. He has the coldest eyes I have ever seen in a human being, and I think if he ever had an emotion in him, it died of loneliness long ago. But he listened to me as I stood before him, and he didn’t doubt what I’d said. He’d once spent his time on the bar, too, of course; there is no way to become an officer without having survived time on the bar, for how could one command Shielders who has never faced what we have faced? So he knew what the bar could be.
When I finished, he said, “At least we didn’t lose all those citizens today for nothing.”
Thoughtless bastard. I felt the citizens we’d lost — every one of them. And he knew it. Then I realized that Havartaak had been the other taak today that had taken massive bombardment, and that had suffered civilian casualties; the man might be suffering losses of his own.
So I tried my best not to think him a reptile; to be generous in interpreting him.
I stood and awaited dismissal. He watched me. And said, “You’re one of the av Tiirshas. Radavan av Tiirsha is your father?”
” Yes, sir.”
A look of faint amusement crossed his face. “I served with him back when he was on active duty.”
” He’s on active duty now,” I said, and immediately wished I hadn’t. It was not that I was betraying any confidence — most Magics who take a Breeder deferral end up active for brief periods at one point or another, and I had not blurted out where he was or what he was doing, at least. Breeder deferral can buy back most of a life, but with so few Magics, it cannot buy back all of it.
But as I spoke, I could hear irritation in my voice at the commander’s assertion of his own superiority, that he had remained active duty throughout his career and had not taken a Breeder deferral; many Magics saw that deferral as the easier path. None of those, of course, have raised fourteen children — but that truth lives neither in the field nor the barn, as the saying goes.
Worse, I could not swear the commander had truly been smug in his speech; my mind is quite capable of assuming the worst when I must deal with people I don’t like. And though most times I have the self-control of the Five Saints, I’ve been known to speak out of turn once or twice in defense of my family.
The commander noticed my tone. His eyebrows rose, and his eyes turned icier, and I could see myself pulling extra duty at some menial task after my shifts for my insubordination. And then Major Damis, bless him, said, “I’m alternating the Hawkshanks and the Red Watch on doubled-up three-and-two shift for the next three days, until we’ve had a chance to get through these peace talks with the Eastils and the Feegash.”
My unit was the Hawkshanks, and usually I would have welcomed a three-and-two schedule with as much grace as I would have welcomed being clubbed over the head by an Eastil. A three-and-two means working three quarters of a day — twelve of the day’s sixteen faces — followed by being off eight faces, then coming back and working twelve more. It’s a brutal, disorienting schedule to work — it offers no regular time for sleep and know way to adjust, for if you begin your first shift on the Sparrow and leave it on the Fox, you’ll begin your next work period on the Bull and leave on the Ram, and on and on, never stepping out the doors to the same light two days in a row.
But working three and two would keep me in a state of exhaustion during my little free time and keep me from thinking too much.
The commander looked surprised. “If Talyn’s information is correct, it seems unlikely to me that we will see another barrage like the last one.”
” We may not,” the major agreed. “But we could, if the bastards want to draw us off whatever it was they put so much trouble into placing. If we have the people already on the line to get on top of another such attack from the first volley, we should be able to prevent most, if not all, losses.”
The commander’s lips thinned into a mean little line as he looked past the major to me. But he said, “We’re here to protect our people, major. Go ahead with your plan.”
I was tired, but not tired enough to go to my quarters to sleep yet. Under normal circumstances, I would have gone to the Star’s Rest for a meal and some entertainment, or perhaps out on the town with a few friends, before I returned to my room in the Shielders’ barracks.
But these were nothing like normal circumstances. My father was away and out of touch with my mother, my mother’s best friend had just died, and though we in Magics may not be permitted to make family our first priority, we may make it our second. I took leave of Major Damis and notified the duty sergeant of my intended whereabouts.
It was no happy thing walking through the streets of Beyltaak. The taak had suffered from the Eastils’ barrage. The Zatavars’ bakery on Fishbinder Street was burning; people fought the flames but it looked to me to be damage to property only. I saw both Mother and Father Zatavar manning buckets in the fire line, and no one weeping as they would over a lost child. Two blocks way, though, crossing Wide Lane, rescuers pulled bodies out of Lorlina’s brothel; like others passing by, I quickly checked the faces of those lying beneath the sheets on the walkway to make sure that one of my own people was not numbered among the dead. Lorlina had welcomed her last customer, I discovered, though I did not know any of the rest; her place had served mostly the better-off sailors from the docks and travelers passing through. The brothel was undamaged, though, and no doubt Lorlina had left it to some family member or one of her girls.
This is the way of attacks through the View. Conventionals send missiles that can be seen by the eyes, heard by the ears, felt by the flesh; their surprise is only in the instant before their impact. They never leave horrors unannounced for the unsuspecting after they have done their work; they have no way of threading a needle and leaving a building standing but everyone inside it dead, undiscovered until someone back home misses a family member and starts a search.
Many of us hate Magics for that; compared to the fighting done by the Conventionals, our work is dirty and ugly and it wears on the soul.
Walking through the street in the aftermath of the attack, I could not find my pride my uniform or my service. Though I knew how many attacks my comrades and I had turned away, I could see with my eyes and feel with my heart those that I had failed to protect. The dead speak louder than the living in the ears of the guilty, and I heard them clearly, whispering to me as I made my way home.
I thought of my father, away in Injtaak, and I wondered if perhaps the time had come to settle for peace instead of victory. If perhaps, after three hundred years, no victory was possible.
When the innocent dead speak, it’s hard to hold on to our certainties, and I am not so strong that I have never had doubts. I had them then, and for just an instant hoped that we might have peace even if it was the weak peace of diplomats and not the strong peace of soldiers.
When I got home, I could tell that my news would come as no surprise to my mother. Ma sat on one of the benches at the long table in our strangely silent house, with her head buried in her arms. She made no noise, and for a moment a new horror overcame me — that if I touched her she would not move, and that I had come home to find one last place filled with the victims of the Eastils, and my own world destroyed.
But at the sound of my step on the floor she raised her head and looked at me with eyes red from much crying, but now dry.
” I’ll fix you something to eat,” she said by way of greeting, “and we’ll talk.”
” I can’t stay long,” I told her. I shrugged. “I have no appetite.”
” You knew about Shakan.”
” I was there when it happened,” I told her. “I came to tell you, had you not heard.”
My mother clasped her hands in her lap and took a deep breath. “These are hard times.”
” They’ve been hard times longer than anyone can remember.”
Ma stood. “Just a few slices of roast and some pan potatoes, Talyn. You’re too thin.”
If I were wide as a spider house, she’d think me too thin. I’m a good, sturdy woman.
But her hands needed work to give her mind some peace.
So I held my tongue and watched her start dicing potatoes. And the silence of the house struck me again. “Where’s Riknir?”
” Your brother went over to help Shakan’s family. Her last two littles will be going to live with their oldest sister, and Rik is helping them pack a few things.”
She was making a pile of potatoes that would feed my whole unit. I suppose once a woman has cooked for fourteen children, it becomes hard to judge how much only one will eat.
” I really can’t stay for long, Ma,” I told her. “My unit is going on three-and-twos until after this business that Da is involved with is done.”
” You’ll eat,” she said in that voice that mothers teach to future generals. “And you’ll tell me … how are you?”
She looked me in the eye and I flinched.
” I thought so,” she said, and slid a bit of fat off the tip of her knife into the cast-iron skillet she’d been using since long before my birth. The fat hissed, and Ma used the back of her paring knife to scrape the potatoes from the cutting board into the fat. “Your father used to carry that same guilt with him after something got through. He thought that he could be infallible, too; he would never admit it, but I could see it in his eyes. He believed that if he were only a little more perfect, he could stem the tide of destruction, and that no one else would ever die.”
I settled into my seat at the long table and looked at my hands. “Maybe he was right, Ma. Maybe he could have stopped the dying if he had just been a little better at what he did.”
” Really? And how would you have stopped the dying today? What magic would you have used to hold back the Eastils and what has to have been one of the worst barrages you’ve ever been through.”
” How would you know that?”
” Everyone in the taak knows that, Talyn. We did not see you and the rest of the Shielders running through the streets back to Shields and think that you were going to a party. Everyone sees you; everyone knows who you are whether you wear your uniforms or not. And how often have we seen all of you called back at once. Almost never is how often,” she said, her Dravitaak accent suddenly noticeable in her speech.
” I –“
She put a finger to her lips and glared at me, then turned to press the potatoes into the fat with her spatula. “Almost never. And we go months — sometimes years — without any attacks getting through at all, and today they rain out of the sky and burst up through the earth. And no one — no one — thinks it was because you and your comrades were not doing your jobs.”
She turned the potatoes with sharp, angry movements. “But you will persist in blaming yourself, just as your father did. You will carry the deaths in your heart until you have about killed yourself from the worry of it, when I would swear on the souls of the Five Saints themselves that knowing you, there is not another thing you could have done besides what you did to keep those attacks from getting through. I know you. You would not let yourself do less than your best.”
I closed my eyes to keep tears from leaking from them. I would not do less than my best; she was right about that. But my best wasn’t good enough, and I had not been able to save people I loved.
How could I think I had done enough? I could not.
My mother watched me, eyes narrowed. “You’re just like him.”
She turned back to cooking, and started slicing slabs off of a cooked roast into the skillet with the potatoes. “Your father. You’re just like him. He would never listen to me either; but I’ll tell you what I told him. You do what you can, but you cannot save the world. People die. People are always going to die, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you fight it.” She chopped an onion, silent for a moment. The smells in the kitchen finally beat out my despair, and I heard my stomach growl. “Because with you or without, that’s what people do,” she added after a moment.
I listened to the onions sizzle, and accepted the plate she presented to me a moment later, and dug in.
She was right, of course. I’m sure she was right when she tried to talk sense into my father, too. And I’m sure he sat in front of her, digging into an enormous plate of potatoes and roast or something equally filling, and knew in his heart that she was right, and wished to all hell that he could make what she said make the slightest difference inside him.
Guilt is a good friend, isn’t it? It will stand at your back when every other friend has abandoned you, and in the face of all reason it will stay by your side, and even when you tell it, “I am moving on now,” it will say “I shall never leave you; never.”
If only I could find a lover as faithful as guilt.
Gair sat with his back to the fireplace, far into the shadowed back corner of the tavern, where he could pour his beers into the sawdust without the serving girl noticing.
She brought him drinks regularly, and recited the short list of meals offered at Black Hodd’s with a charming cheerfulness when he asked, and without hesitation recommended the roast pheasant as being the best meal on the menu when he expressed uncertainty. She did not look twice at his silver, and she had a bright smile and round, full breasts that he got to admire every time she set a drink down for him, or took an empty mug away; she wore her outer tunic open to the waist, while the cloth of the inner tunic was so gauzy it provided nothing more than a few faint, lacy patterns across those fine, ripe peaks.
At one point, while the evening was still young, she settled into the bench across from him and said, “You’re all alone. Have you no friends to come and keep you company?”
” I’m traveling,” he said. “All my friends are in Lodestaak.”
” You are a long way from home, then. You must be here for the Alltaak Hend.”
” No.” He sighed. “Merely inconvenienced by it.”
It took her an instant to work her way through that. “You had a hard time finding a room, then.”
” I bought myself space on the floor under the eaves here, tucked in with half a dozen men who will no doubt snore and kick,” he said, laughing a little, “and when I wake I fear it will be to find my face in some stranger’s unwashed armpit. Meanwhile, my horse is roofless in the common corral, left to fend for himself, but I think, looking around at my probable floormates here, that I would trade places with him.”
She nodded wisely. “I thought you neither old enough or fat enough to be a taaklord.” She’d touched his shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Nor rude enough; you have not once pinched me or offered to pay me for my services.” She frowned at that, and he realized that she was not a whore; the serving girls in the Republic usually were. “I have a room and a bed at the boarding house. We’re not actually permitted to have guests at night, but if you were very quiet and left after the housemistress left for market in the morning, you could share with me. Some of your would-be roommates are very drunk already and have been mixing their beer with house wine; I do not envy you their company. Besides, I don’t think I snore, and I do wash my armpits.” She gave him a little wink and had the grace to blush.
His regret was genuine when he said, “If I did not have to be on the road before the sun rose in the morning, I could not say no. In my whole journey, no one so pretty has been so kind.”
She smiled as she rose and cleared away his meal. “If you change your mind, only let me know before I leave.”
So she would not be making the same offer to anyone else.
He was sorely tempted. He was not certain if she was offering her bed alone, or if she had included her body in her invitation, but even if it was just the former, he had not enjoyed the pleasure of a woman in his bed in long months. For that matter, he had not enjoyed a bed in that same time. Mostly he’d had his camp cot and his bedroll, and sometimes naught but the hard ground.
And she was so round, and so sweet.
He bit the inside of his lip; letting his mind wander over the imagined hills and valleys of her sleek young body would not help him get through the night, and taking his mind off of his mission would not let him get back to the Republic, to women who were equally succulent but not enemies to his nation and his cause.
He sighed, welcoming the distraction of a group of five men who strolled into Black Hodd’s as if it and everyone in it belonged to them.
They wore black. Black silk, black linen, black embroidered wool, black round-domed hats and black cloaks, black overshirts and full pantaloons, shiny black riding boots with tall heels and silver-capped toes.
Gair’s lip curled in loathing, an involuntary reaction that he saw echoed on the faces of many in the bar.
He would say this for the barbarian Tonks; they were good enemies. They had no more liking for a soft, easy solution than his people had. He had not heard one soul speak in favor of negotiated peace since he arrived in Injtaak. Not one.
Well, the serving girl’s fat, rude taaklords and the meddling Feegash would die in the morning, and Republic troops, massing on the border to enter Tonk lands the instant his communications man sent word of his unit’s success, would bring civilization and real peace to this place after centuries of war.
Maybe he would find the serving girl again once his work was done.
Maybe she wouldn’t hate him too much.
He sat, watching the Feegash, despising them along with everyone else in the big, crowded room, awash in an unexpected feeling of kinship and sympathy toward the Tonks.