Ander's promotion ceremony had been perfunctory – but then the difference between Second-Lieutenant and Lieutenant was hardly a large step up in responsibility. He was being given full charge of the platoon, where before he'd been subordinate to Cairvelle and still been the one to make all the hard decisions. Cairvelle was being promoted to captain, though, and would have several platoons under his direction. Additionally, he was a graduate from the academy at Caulderon and had a family relationship with General de Béziers – his father had roomed with the general, or some bullshit. This meant that Cairvelle was getting a fancy celebratory dinner at the officer's mess later that night, and Ander had to go and make nice.
He'd been to a few of these sorts of shindigs before. They were usually tolerable opportunities for entertainment – good food and liquor, at least – but he was also usually able to keep his head down and escape to something more his style after he'd put in an appearance. But he'd been Cairvelle's second, and so he was expected to go, to stay, and to socialize. They were probably expecting him to have stories to tell about his platoon's CO. Flattering ones, even.
Well, Ander knew he could bullshit through that well enough, and he'd live down one night of drinking out of the wrong glass or using the wrong fork or whatever. It was weird. He didn’t really care what they – the other officers – thought of him for the most part. It wasn't like he was planning to make a career out of the military and would need their good opinions down the line. But it was hard to keep that in perspective when everyone in the room acted like they were better than you just because they were richer, had titles, went to some fancy school. Knew what sorts of things were safe to talk about at fancy dinners, how to be polite to someone's guest, all that kind of crap. Had someone else to polish their damned boots and press their dress uniform.
Well, technically he was entitled to that too, but it just seemed weird, and besides, he had no idea who would be good for it. Cairvelle had actually suggested Enderlen, but no way was he wasting Ralf on something that mundane. Not for the longterm, anyway. In the short term....
"You're assigning me to what?" Ralf made a face. His scar had healed well, but it made all of his expressions extra dramatic.
"You and Jillain, yeah, escorting Cairvelle's wife. You meet her when she gets to the base, show her around, keep an eye on her in case she tries to wander somewhere she shouldn't, or in case the slicks decide it's a good time to start shelling."
"What the void is she thinking, coming way out here anyway? This place ain't exactly a quiet front anymore."
Ander could only shake his head, pulling out two cigarettes from his silver case and handing one to Ralf. "He knows better than to tell me what he's thinking, when it's something this stupid. I just do what I'm told," he added somewhat pointedly, "same as you."
"He hasn't been promoted yet – that means he doesn’t outrank you anymore." Ralf hesitated while he lit Ander's smoke and then his own. "Doesn't it?"
"Yeah well. He's basically already a captain, and he's got seniority, and anyway I think it's just a habit."
Ralf snorted. "His or yours?"
"Well, he's not gonna be my problem much longer, is he? He’s transferring out tomorrow, takin’ the wife with him. I'm just hoping if I do him one, he'll take it easy on me at this voided dinner."
Ralf didn't answer that, just took a long drag on his cigarette. Ander sighed.
Ralf was glad Jillain was with him – she wasn't a nob or nothing, but she's been around their type more, and had a better sense of how to talk to them. He was pretty sure that Ander had stuck him on this detail on some kind of 'misery loves company' basis. Since he'd be on duty for the promotional dinner, they might be able to sneak a smoke break at the same time. If that was all it entailed, he wouldn’t have minded so much, but the dinner wasn't until the evening, and Mme. Cairvelle? Lady Cairvelle? Was due sometime before before noon. So he and Jillain were waiting. It did get them out of some more tedious regular training duties, at least, and they could relax some while they waited.
"So," Jillain said, breaking the growing silence. "What do you think – super hot, or kinda plain and dumpy?"
Ralf shrugged. "Well, the lieutenant ain't no prize."
"I dunno." She leaned forward, glancing around first to make sure they weren't going to get in trouble for gossiping. "He's not too bad to look at, but that might just be the uniform. He’s from a good family though, and I heard his wife's a Kauzlarich. Not titled, but noble all the same."
"Uh huh." Ralf had no idea about Cairvelle's family, save what Ander had griped about, let alone his wife's. "Noble doesn't mean she's hot."
"No..." Jillain glanced around again. "But, there's a certain kind of girl who marries career military types, right?"
"Is there?" This wasn't something Ralf could claim to have any kind of experience with, but Jillain just grinned.
"Yeah, I guess you probably don't read the Scourge do you? I shouldn't – it's terrible, but my roommate used to bring it home and I got in the habit... But think about it, right? Husband is always away, she gets a decent income from his salary, plus half are nobles and probably have incomes already, don't need to work..."
"So, what, they just fuck around and do nothing all day?"
Jillain nodded, still grinning.
"An' you think the lieutenant's wife is one of them types?" He could almost see it. At least, if he was married to Cairvelle he'd sure as hell want to spend as much time away from him as possible.
Ralf shrugged. "Well, even if she is – easy ain't the same as hot."
"Sure, true. I bet you she is though. Five silver."
It could be the sorceress knew something he didn't, but even if she did he knew he'd probably win back more than that at the next card game. "You're on."
It wasn't too much longer until they had a chance to find out. The lady was supposed to be arriving with the supply caravan, and the advanced scout rode up a short while later, letting them know that the wagons were about a half hour behind her, and that all was well.
When she finally made her appearance, the two soldiers couldn't quite agree on who won the bet: Mme Cairvelle was not what anyone would call a great beauty, but she was a woman who was well aware of her physical assets and not afraid to flaunt them. Her travel clothes were fairly practical, but Ralf was pretty sure that the knee-high boots and ruffled, low-cut, blouse were chosen with ulterior motives in mind. The impression was reinforced when she paused after being helped out of the wagon to take a compact out of her bag and repaint her lips a deep red and fluff her short chestnut curls.
The officer who had helped her down, a lieutenant whose nametag read 'Duchenes', looked around and, seeing Ralf and Jillain standing expectantly at attention, turned and nodded to them, returning their reflexive salutes.
"You two are here to take charge of Mme. Cairvelle?" Duchenes seemed harried, like he was trying to keep track of too many things at once. Probably he was, if he was the one in charge of the caravan.
Ralf let Jillain do the talking.
"Madame has some baggage in the rear of the first wagon – it is well marked. She's..." He turned to see where she'd gotten off to, but she was standing directly behind him.
She smiled, stepping forward. "I'm right here, Giles. I'm sure we'll be fine."
"Yes ma'am," he answered, slightly flustered. He exchanged another set of distracted salutes with the two soldiers, and returned his attention to what he apparently considered more important work than chaperoning civilians.
"So, privates.... Enderlen and Jillain, is it?" Mme Cairvelle smiled, looking them both over and clasping her hands together. "I'm Yvie. Shall we go fetch my things, and you can take me to my darling Marcel?"
Ander and Cairvelle were in the office, going over some final paperwork while Cairvelle collected the last of the effects that could reasonably be considered his. It was going to be Ander's office now, solely – at least as long as the platoon was still working out of the maze of temporary buildings that had grown up into a functional base in the past half a year. Cairvelle leaving was going to give him a bit of privacy, but the promotion also meant that he had to deal with more of the bureaucracy.
"I'm sure you'll be fine," Cairvelle said, glancing over his shoulder as Ander flipped through some of the less familiar forms. "Just make a little time for it each day, so it doesn't pile up."
"Mmm." Ander glanced up just in time to catch the smug smile. "I still don't see why they want so much of this written down."
"Well." Cairvelle sniffed, a sure sign that he was about to quote some kind of academy nonsense. "It's as much for the annals as for the analysts. Part of it is just tracking resources, of course, but it's also so they can study the reports and see how and why certain decisions were made, and later repeat or avoid similar outcomes."
Ander leaned back in the chair, looking from the form in his hand and back up to his fellow officer, taking a drag off his smoke. Well, the part about tracking resources sort of made sense, but it still went against his instincts to put so much on paper. The last part just smacked of bullshit, for more reasons than he could list. "Yeah – is that what they think they're getting?"
The smugness deflated, leaving behind something more complicated. "You'll be fine, Suterre," he repeated, crossing his arms. He seemed on the verge of saying something more, but the moment was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Marcel, darling? Are you in there?"
Cairvelle was standing in an instant, the joy evident on his face. "Yveline!"
Ander stood as well, knowing a cue for an exit when he saw one – especially on a makeshift base without much privacy.
"These'll keep," he said of the forms, knowing how little attention had been paid him since the dame had come in the door. Ralf and Jillain were waiting outside the door, the latter just setting down a couple of bags. Unfortunately, Cairvelle and his lady were right in his way, making it hard to execute the discreet departure he'd been hoping for. They managed to pry themselves apart, Mme Cairvelle hanging off her husband's arm. Ander nodded to her. "Ma'am."
"Forgive my manners," Cairvelle put in, Ander thought mostly to his wife. "Darling, this is Lieutenant Ander Suterre – he's been my second here, of course. Suterre, this is my wife, Yveline."
"A pleasure," she said, extending her hand.
"Likewise, ma'am.” Ander hadn’t expected the firmness of her grip – or the cunning gleam in her eye as she met his gaze. “But, ah, I imagine you've got lots of catching up to do – how about I make sure your things get taken to the right place, and we can follow up on the introductions later."
Cairvelle nodded, puffing up slightly and smiling down at Yveline. "Yes. Thank you."
She pressed herself closer against her husband's side, tilting her head so that her curls framed her face. "I'll look forward to it," she said. And then, she winked.
Ander was pretty sure Cairvelle hadn't caught it, and he had no idea what to make of it either, so he just nodded and slipped out, closing the door after him. Ralf and Jillain both came to attention, and he returned their salutes – Ralf, at least, had probably seen, but he was apparently practicing his inscrutability. Well. Ander frowned slightly, nodding at the bags. "Enderlen. Pick those up and come with me."
The officer's quarters on the makeshift base weren't terribly overcrowded, but space was tight enough that not all junior officers had their own rooms. As fate would have it, this meant that Ander also shared his room with Cairvelle. Given that his wife was visiting, Ander had graciously agreed to find elsewhere to stay for the lieutenant's last night on base. He’d figured that it wouldn't kill him to camp out in the office for a night, but he wanted to grab a few things, and leaving Yveline’s bags there was a good excuse to stop by and pick them up. And maybe, by dint of slightly longer association, Ralf might have some idea what her deal was.
He asked once they were at the room, but Ralf just shrugged. "Dunno. Jill said she's probably just a slut. Nob chicks, I guess. Like maybe she got knocked an' needed to come see her old man to make it look good "
"Maybe." Ander was still vaguely unsettled, but he couldn't quite put his finger on why. She'd seemed pretty damned confident of...something. He lit a cigarette, offering one to Ralf. "Nob, is she?"
"Thanks – 's what Jill said, anyway. Lizard – Kuzerich? Kauzlich? Somethin' like that. Told us to call her Yvie'n all – like as if."
Ander swore. Ralf gave him a sidelong look, lighting his smoke.
"Fuckin' Yvie fuckin' Kauzlarich?"
"Yeah – that it. What?"
"She's a fuckin' Corriveau, that's what." He’d never met her before, but he’d heard the name. Her aunt was married to Avery Veilleux and, from what Ander knew, Yvie had taken an interest in her uncle’s family businesses when she was younger.
Ander scowled, unlocking his desk drawer and shoving his few letters from home in the bag with his shaving kit and other effects. "Void."
Ralf's escort duty had taken on a different tenor since he'd rejoined Jillain – he was on edge even before it was suggested that they take their guest out riding. Yvie (fuckin') Kauzlarich-cum-Cairvelle was a nob, so of course she knew her way around a horse. Jillain had grown up out in the country and had no trouble with them either. Ralf, though, had never been around them much before he'd been drafted. He was quick and had good balance, but that and a few lessons in basic training were all he had going for him. Riding around on something that had a mind of his own just never struck him as a great way to spend his time, and probably the damned thing could smell his nerves.
Technically, he knew how to saddle the animal, too, but that technical instruction had been months ago. He turned to see if Jillain had got hers sorted, but of course it was Yvie who came over, smiling, handing him the reins of her horse and taking charge of getting his ready.
"I take it you don't ride much," Yvie said, her manner easy. She hadn't changed out of her travelling clothes, but had taken time to freshen up after her brief reunion with her husband. Apparently that was all she needed, after days travelling over rough roads and a long night of hobnobbing ahead, before deciding that what she really wanted to do was go exploring the war-torn Psyran countryside. The area around the base was pretty safe, and he supposed it was pretty enough if you liked big open empty spaces and trees.
"No, ma'am." Ralf was pretty sure he shouldn't be letting her do this when they were the ones who were supposed to be showing her around, but it wasn't like he could competently object. The horse she'd been given seemed calm at least, and returned his wary look with a benignly blank gaze. It swished its tail, but didn't try to pull away from him, thankfully.
Her smiled slipped into a smirk, and she chuckled as she cinched the last few buckles of the saddle. Jillain rode over to join them, and Yvie turned her attention to the other woman. "He doesn't talk much, does he?"
Jillain smirked back. "No ma'am, but he is one of the best shots in the platoon."
“Is he?” Yvie gave him a more critical look over than Ralf was entirely comfortable with as she came back over to reclaim her horse, mounting it easily. “Seen a lot of action, have you?”
He resisted the urge to sigh, or give Jillain a Look – it would only encourage her. Instead he concentrated on getting astride his own horse without desperately embarrassing himself.
“Some, ma’am,” Jillain answered, and Ralf forgave her a little bit for calling away Yvie’s attention, “But it’s not like being on the front.” She took the lead on their party too, heading out past the barracks towards the eastern plains. That would take them out towards the river, but there’d been no reports of enemies in the immediate area for weeks.
“Marcel doesn’t give me any details, of course – he wouldn’t want to upset me, even if it weren’t for the censors. But I picked some things up on the trip out. There was a big battle over the river a couple of months ago?”
There had been some other action, but that was still the piece that got the most attention. Another platoon had got cut off on the other side of the Arvelen when the slicks had blown up the bridge, and they’d been sent to provide support while the engineers threw together something temporary at a different point. It had gotten pretty intense – so he’d heard.
“It was pretty rough,” Jillain concurred, though Ralf could tell by her frown that she wasn’t particularly inclined to get into the details either. “Enderlen was lucky – he sat it out back at base with a busted ankle.”
“Hey!” It was an argument they were never going to resolve, but Ralf wasn’t keen on rehashing it for an audience.
“That sounds like a story,” Yvie put in, glancing at him expectantly. She held her horse up so that she could hear him without calling quite so loudly. Jillain followed suit, flanking their guest.
“I – uh – fell off a cliff, ma’am.” That was the short version, anyway. Jillain huffed at the description, and Yvie looked from her back to Ralf.
“That’s one way to get out of a fight.” Her tone was challenging, but her look was mischievous. Ralf knew she was trying to draw the story out of him, but he couldn’t just leave it at that.
“We were scouting the bridge – before it got blown up – and the slicks… the enemy spotted us. They got Flyn right away, an’ caught up with me by the river.”
“And then you fell off a cliff?” She smirked. “Did the slicks give you a hand?”
Ralf shook his head. And he knew he shouldn’t go into detail, but he wondered how she would react. “Nah – just tryin’ not to get shot. Took one of them out first, though.”
Yvie gave him another considering look. Ralf wasn’t sure just exactly what she was considering, but he was pretty sure her husband wouldn’t approve. “Did it work?”
Ralf grinned, turning his head a little to show off his scar. “More or less, ma’am.”
He was still getting used to the way his face looked, and the effect it seemed to have on people – Yvie grinned back, the spark in her eye gleaming larger. It had been a long few months, and all the women in the camp were as grimy and tired as the men. Yvie Cairvelle was a whole other animal, and a dangerous one at that. Jillain, he noticed, had pulled a little ways ahead, picking a path through the rock plain. It was going to be an interesting afternoon.
Ander had planned to grab his stuff and head back to the office to hide out for a while, assuming the Cairvelles had vacated the premises, but he should have known better than to expect things to go according to plan. There was always something that required his attention, or a string of minor somethings, and they kept him from getting back to the office for over an hour. When he did make it back, he was surprised to find Harald and Desmey keeping watch outside the door. They snapped to attention when they saw him coming, and saluted. Returning the gesture, he waved them inside after him.
He’d brought his dress uniform over that morning, thinking that it would be way less of a pain to change there than to try and get ready around the Cairvelles, and part of his ‘hiding out’ plans had been making sure everything was in order. It was still there, hanging on the hook behind the door, but it, and the shoes in the corner, had clearly already been looked after. It was kind of sweet, really, and he knew either of them could have managed it with a cantrip. It didn’t explain why they’d been hanging around outside.
“Alright,” he said after he’d set down his bag and made a show of noticing their work. “What’re you two goons up to.”
Harald frowned, his expression more serious than Ander had anticipated. “Sir, we just meant to do a little looking out for you, you know, save you a bit of headache before tonight. But then we found someone in here who wasn’t supposed to be, and we figured maybe we should just stick around until you came back.”
“Oh yeah?” That wasn’t encouraging, but it seemed like it was going to be one of those days. “Who was that?”
“Sargent Bellamy, sir,” Desmey put in. “With the 307. She said she was meant to report to you or Lieutenant Cairvelle. The door was open, she claimed.”
“Yeah – and of course as soon as we showed up she quickly remembered a few other places she hadn’t checked.”
The pair shared a look.
“I don’t know, sir.” Desmey shook her head. “She’s a sargent, and her tale is plausible. Maybe we spooked her, showing up unexpectedly....”
Harald’s frown deepened. “But that’s not what my gut’s saying, sir.”
“We thought it would be wise to keep an eye out.”
The 307 Mixed Division was part of Cairvelle’s new command, and they’d send a squad as an escort to bring him and his wife out to the new posting down in Kirkare. Ander had expected them to arrive a little earlier, but somehow news of their safe arrival wasn’t bringing him much relief at the moment.
“Where’re the rest of them at?”
“Back at the barracks, sir, last I knew.”
“Right. You two are...dismissed, I guess. I’ll get all this straightened out.” So much for his down time – but at least he didn’t need to worry about his uniform.
Sargent Bellamy wasn’t with the rest of her squad, of course. They all seemed a little ill at ease, and none of them could account for her strange behaviour, except to protest that it wasn’t like her and grasp at weak excuses. But Ander was pretty good at tracking people down, especially strangers in his territory. He knew who to ask around with, and finally managed to track her down at the stables – talking with Yvie Cairvelle.
Cairvelle saw him coming first, and waved, smiling genially. “Hello Lieutenant Suterre, fancy meeting you out here.”
“Ma’am.” He nodded politely, but his attention was mostly fixed on Bellamy, who was executing a crisp salute. She looked a little nervous, which was good. “Sargent Bellamy? With the 307? I heard you were looking for me.”
“Sir, yes sir. You or cap- Lieutenant Cairvelle.”
“I think she just got a little misdirected – don’t look so sour, Lieutenant, it doesn’t suit you.”
He smiled tightly – not at Yvie, but because Ralf and Jillain had just come out of the stables, and offered a pair of salutes. He returned the gesture, and the pair came around to stand behind him. “Well you’ve found me now.”
“Yes sir. I needed to report in – my squad arrived at 13h, escorting the USO performers for the dinner this evening. I also do have orders from Major Sterin for – well, for Captain Cairvelle, sir, for our return.”
“You needed to chase me all over the base for that, Sargent?”
She hesitated, glancing at the soldiers behind him. “There was some...confusion, sir, when I asked at the barracks – about who it would be best for me to talk to, and where you could be found.”
No matter how plausible her answer, Ander’s gut was telling him there was something more going on. That he had no real idea what it might be just made him all the more wary. He nodded slowly. “Get back to your squad, and stay put at the barracks.”
“Yes sir.” She saluted again, turning to go.
“I’ll let my husband know you’re waiting,” Yvie piped up. “If he’s at the room – I desperately need to freshen up, or I’ll reek of horse all evening!”
Bellamy thanked her and scurried off. Ander gave a more or less polite farewell and sent Jillain back with her as an escort. He needed to have a word with Ralf – horse was not at all what she smelled like."
Ralf could tell Ander was pissed off, more than he let on, he just wasn’t exactly sure about what. It was in his movements, usually casual and fluid but now carried out with an overly efficient economy of movement. The silver cigarette case appeared and disappeared in a moment, then the battered butane lighter. Even his first inhalation was sharp and quick – in through the mouth, out through the nose, as though he was forcing out some unwanted scent along with the smoke. Well – maybe he was. Ander jerked his head towards the stable, then turned.
By the time they made it to an empty stall where they could talk, the cigarette was half gone.
“What the void, Ralf. That’s not the kind of ride you were supposed to be taking her on.”
He shrugged. Things hadn’t actually gone that far, but that was probably more due to Jillain’s presence. He knew he should have turned her down, but when that moment had come along and they’d been on their own together down by the river, he hadn’t really felt like it. “Look – it’s no big deal. Nothin’ really happened anyway, and it’s not like I’m gonna go spreading it around. Or like she is.”
Ander didn’t seem particularly placated.
“No big deal?” He glowered for a moment, continuing more quietly after flicking away his cigarette butt. “She’s still Cairvelle’s fucking wife, and a Corriveau, either of which could land you in a huge pile of shit.”
“Cairvelle’s not going to know. If he hasn’t figured out how much runnin’ around she does already, it’s not gonna come out now. Or if he does know, he’s still not gonna do anything now. And so what she’s a Corriveau – I ain’t tellin’ her anything, even if there was anything to tell.”
Ander sighed. Probably because there really wasn’t anything to give away. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Look, what are you so worked up about anyway? They on you for something?” From what he knew, the Corriveaux and the Mala Tajna mostly tried not to step on each others’ toes too much, but there were definitely tensions. It could be a rough business.
“Ehhhh. I don’t know. Maybe.” He sighed again, getting out another cigarette. He was still tense, but Ralf wasn’t sure about mad, and he did at least offer up the silver case to share. “Never did tell you how I wound up out here, did I?”
Ralf shook his head as he lit up. Ander had said something about staying out of the slammer, but never anything about the Corriveaux. Of course, if he’d pissed off the Corriveaux, that would be a pretty decent incentive not to wind up in the Creux.
Ander continued, speaking in Rat. “I was supposed to be facilitatin' this op – picking up some product, moving it through the city, delivering to their people. It’s not their usual trade, but they had some big thing going on. Never did find out what. I’m mostly just tagging along to do the talkin' when we get there, right? So it’s just the two of us, me and our navigator. We come up out of the tunnels, get around the corner, and that’s it – fuckin’ coppers everywhere. Still don’t know what they were there for – they weren’t expecting us to pop up anymore than we were expecting them, but there they were, and us with a fucking crate – a whole crate – of onyx.
“Shit happens right? ‘Cept we can’t really lose our navigator – we’d be fucked. No one knows the tunnels like he does. So – I don’t know. Maybe there were other ways out, but it wasn’t like I had a lot of time to consider or work out all the options. There were too damned many of them to try and deal with. So – I told them it was mine, an’ made them let him go. So that was me, pinched, and the Corriveaux not getting what they paid for, and that’s on us.”
“It weren’t your fault…” Ralf knew how little that was likely to matter. What he didn’t see was how you went from being picked up for smuggling and possession to an officer in the Imperial Army.
Ander shook his head, grimacing slightly. “Doesn’t matter. Anyway – I wound up spending three days in a holding cell in Pearl, not knowing what was going to happen. People were pissed off all over the place, and didn’t get around to tellin’ me much other than to just hold tight. My aunt wound up cutting some kinda deal with the Hush, I guess, to get me sent out here instead.”
Ralf wasn’t sure what the penalties would be for hauling that much onyx – a year, maybe? But he was pretty sure the Mala Tajna didn’t make a habit of dealing with the Hush over these kinds of things, either. At least, he always figured that if you fucked up they expected you to take your lumps. “The Corriveaux must have been pretty pissed.”
“I guess.” Ander shrugged, then tilted his head, considering for a moment before continuing. “Plus there’s a bunch of old days kinda shit with them and my aunt that never really got worked out to everyone’s satisfaction, let’s say, and they like to pick where they can.”
So it wasn’t just the one thing then – he’d have been a target anyway, plus it sounded like he was even more connected than Ralf had thought. So maybe it made a little more sense. “Bad history.”
“Yeah.” He frowned again. “So maybe you can see on why I ain’t so keen on you plastering yourself all over Yvie Kauzlarich.”
“Look – it ain’t like she’s out here on account’a you. Just just a coincidence, with her being hitched to Cairvelle. From what she let slip while we were out ridin’, I’m pretty sure Jillain’s right. She got knocked up, and she came out here ‘cause she needed a fuck or two so he won’t ask no questions later. She’s just messin’ with you ‘cause you’re here.”
“Could be.” But Ander didn’t look particularly convinced. “Tell me – did you see her with that new sargent, Bellamy?”
Bellamy had come up while they were getting the horses and their gear taken care of, and she’d seemed to know who Yvie was. “Yeah. Yvie – Mme Cairvelle, I mean, she seemed surprised? But they got to talkin’ straight away.”
“Harald and Desmey caught her earlier, pokin’ around my office. She gave ‘em some excuse then, too, but there wasn’t much they could do other than wait and let me know.”
“Well.” That wasn’t any good, no wonder he was pissed.
“Yeah – well. Like I don’t have enough other shit to deal with right now, right?” Ander glanced down at his hand, as if he was just remembering he’d lit another smoke. Maybe he had forgotten – it had mostly burned down to ash with him only taking a few drags while they were talking. He flicked it away in annoyance.
“Look – you want me to watch after Cairvelle’s missus or what? I can do that.” Ralf hesitated for a bit, but it was Ander, and he wanted to make sure he knew he was sincere – that he had his back. He reached up and put his hand shoulder. “And I ain’t gonna lose my head over her, okay?”
Ander gave another long sigh, pulling himself together. “Alright.” He glanced at Ralf’s hand for a moment, then back to his face. “Stay close but not too close – you get me? Go catch up with Jillain.”
“Yes sir,” Ralf replied, more out of reflex than anything, and he was halfway through a salute when Ander waved him off.
Ralf headed out of the stables, making for the officer’s quarters. Maybe it was all still nothing, and maybe it wasn’t. He could keep a close eye on Yvie, but he had a suspicion that maybe his and Ander’s definition of ‘too close’ didn’t exactly match up…
The rest of Ander’s afternoon passed in quiet frustration, camped out in his office with the door closed, half-heartedly familiarizing himself with the agonizing details of Aveyronnais military bureaucracy. By the time he had to get ready for Cairvelle’s dinner, he was actually looking forward to the reprieve. This sanguine attitude didn’t survive contact with his fellow officers.
As Cairvelle’s second, Ander was seated at the honoree’s table. Their Company captain, Bryson Arguelles was already in attendance, talking to their platoon’s medic, Alvred Reinhart. The medics were attached to, but not really part of, the military structure. In theory they had their own ranking system, but they usually just got called Brother or Sister, like any other priest. Reinhart was competent at his job at least, but he was conservative and prone to proselytize when he had the opportunity. Given the conversation in progress, he considered this a prime opportunity, and was content to ignore Arguelles’ polite attempts to change the topic. Ander’s arrival was apparently to provide the captain a more certain out.
“Suterre! Congratulations again – how did you find your first day of your own command?”
“Well, sir,” he answered, taking his seat, “it’s not over yet. I could do with a few more quiet days, though.”
“You may have a few. I haven’t received any orders, and the scouts aren’t reporting any new activity in the region. We think the slicks called their troops back up to the border at Tyros. You’ll probably have lots of time to settle in.”
“No complaints from me on that, sir.”
“I, for one, wish that we might see a little more action out here,” Reinhart put in, giving Ander a pointed look. “It’s hard feel as if one is pulling one’s own weight when there’s so little to accomplish out here. The troops could use something to focus their attention, lest they fall victim to idleness and immorality.”
Ander was quiet for a moment, dismissing his first few choices of reply and settling on “Well, I’ll try and keep ‘em busy.”
His tone earned him a disapproving look from Arguelles. “I’m sure we’ll have action enough in the next month or so,” the captain said, probably aiming for neutrally diplomatic. It might have worked if he could have said it without sounding like an arrogant prick. “Meanwhile, we’ll keep training, to be prepared and, yes, to prevent anyone from lapsing into idleness.”
Ander knew better than to try and pursue any kind of conversation at this juncture, and just nodded noncommittally. He figured Arguelles probably did have a sense of humour, when he wasn’t being a pompous ass, but he probably wouldn’t appreciate Ander’s attempts. Reinhart seemed happy enough to hog the conversation, and besides he’d spotted the Cairvelles making their entrance.
They were joined at dinner by Kevan Sauer, a lieutenant with another company on base who’d apparently been friends with Cairvelle at the academy, making up a table of six. Yvie managed to more or less take charge of the conversation without dominating it, keeping the tone of things fairly light. The dinner, after the short presentation ceremony, was okay, and he managed to keep from getting too self-conscious about the stupid upside-down fork thing. The fact that it was a skill he had made any kind of concerted effort to acquire was pretty absurd, but ignoring all the not-so-subtle glances from his dining companions was tiring after a while. He may as well have have been eating with his hands. It put something of a damper on his ability to enjoy the otherwise excellent meal.
After dinner, the harder liquor made its appearance, which in his experience was a signal that the kid gloves were about to come off, conversation-wise. They were already starting to drift away from small talk – Cairvelle and Sauer were swapping old stories, with Reinhart occasionally interjecting with a mix of disapproving remarks and attempts to one up them with tales from his own training days. Yvie had been talking to Arguelles about some common acquaintances back in the city, with Ander listening politely and occasionally prompting them to continue with questions he didn’t actually care about. But she turned to him more directly when he asked her about some club she’d been going on about.
“You know, it is so funny that you should ask that!” She smiled, but that gleam was back in her eye again. “Yes that is the club in Pearl, and you know what, I was there just a little while before I left and your name came up, of all people.”
If she’d been hoping to catch him off guard, she was sadly mistaken. He might not have put it together without Ralf and Jillain’s gossip, but he’d been expecting something like this all night. He gave her a mildly curious look. “Oh really? How’s that?”
Her smile broadened, and tilted her head. “I was talking to some friends of mine who frequent the place – no one you’d know, I’m sure, Captain – and I was telling them about Marcel’s promotion. I was explaining his previous command, and of course I mentioned this “Lt. Suterre” I’d seen in the letters. And then my friend Tamra says ‘Is that Ander Suterre’, and I said I believed so. She was so surprised to hear you were out here, isn’t that funny?”
That was Tamra Feydeau, another Corriveau, but at least one he’d met before. Ander shrugged, taking out his cigarette case and extracting a smoke. “Must not’ve seen her before I left. But we’re not real close.”
“No?” Yvie hadn’t lost her smile, and the flicker of disappointment at not catching him off guard was brief. “Well she did ask me to find out how you’re doing, since I was coming out here anyway.”
“Well, ma’am, so far, so good.” He smiled back. Just to be extra obnoxious, he flipped his cigarette case back open and held it out for her to take one.
“I’ll be sure to let her know,” she answered, accepting his gracious offer
Ander’s magnanimity hadn’t gone unnoticed though, and Cairvelle leaned to his wife with a look of concerned bemusement. “Yveline, darling, did you forget your cigarettes again?”
She turned a pleading look and a smile to her husband. “Forgive me? I realized I left them in the room just as we turned up here. I thought I could manage all right, but you know my weakness.”
Yvie played the the ditzy socialite well, but Ander didn’t think Cairvelle’s role of her indulgent husband was an act. She accepted a light from Sauer, who’d practically fallen over himself to offer before anyone else had a chance. Cairvelle, who Ander’d never seen smoke anything but the occasional cigar, took her free hand, squeezing it affectionately. “I do know – one will never hold you. Would you like me to fetch them for you?”
“Don’t be silly dear – it’s your dinner, and I’m sure my escort can see me there and back with no trouble. That’s what they’re for, isn’t it? I’ll be back in a flash.” To forestall any protests, she leaned over and kissed his cheek as she stood and grabbed her handbag. “That’s a very nice case you have, by the way, Lieutenant,” she added over her shoulder. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The silver case was still sitting on the table where he’d set it, and eyes around the table were drawn to it as she slipped away, no doubt smiling smugly. Sauer, seated to his right, snatched it up before Ander had a chance to put it away.
“Oh that is interesting.” He ran a thumb over the design where reshaping the silver had distorted some of the etching, completely ignoring the incredulous glare Ander was giving him. “Is that in Rat? I didn’t know there was a written form.”
The case had belonged to his father, transformed from an older heirloom to preserve it. It had been a mirror, once, and had been in his family since before there were Suterres, or Rionets or Pervanches or Laraches or even Enderlens or Desmets or Desprezs. Ander reined in the urge to snatch it back, but Sauer was already passing it along to Reinhart to ogle. “Yeah,” he managed, somehow, without using any colourful invective. Before he could point out that no doubt volumes could be written about all Sauer didn’t know about Rat culture, the cleric piped up.
“Is this from the undercity?”
“Sure,” he quipped, “for all the smoking we used to do down there.”
Cairvelle frowned at him slightly, but apparently the tone of the conversation was sufficient to discourage him from joining in. Arguelles held his hand out to take the case next, but passed it back to Ander after only a cursory look. “What does it say then? A family name?”
Ander nodded, slipping it back safely in his pocket. It was a little more complicated than that, but it was as good an explanation as they deserved.
“That can’t be true,” Reinhart said, giving him a pitying look. “House Rat didn’t have family names before the emergence – they were all assigned by the chancellor’s office.”
Ander stared back. “Where did you hear that lot of garbage?”
“It was in that book – the one by the Duke of Coindeliers.” Reinhart seemed completely unperturbed.
“Oh yes!” Sauer chimed in, “it came out with a new edition, as I recall, and was a very popular topic of discussion at the salons.” He shook his head. “You know, it’s a shame the free schools can’t teach these things, it’s sad to think of people losing touch with their own history.”
Arguelles was watching him very carefully, frowning slightly in what might have been concern or alarm. Cairvelle looked like he wanted to contribute something, but who could say whether it would make things better or worse. Ander, who had actually read Rionet’s treatise and knew it contained no such nonsense, had quickly passed the point where he could reply rationally, especially if he was expected to endure the company of these assholes any longer.
“Funny,” he said, fighting to keep his voice calm, “somehow I don’t feel like I’m the one who’s out of touch here.” Ander stood before any of them could reply with anything even more idiotic and enraging. “”Scuse me, Captain. I got somethin’ I need to look after.” Mostly that something was not punching Sauer and Reinhart in their smug little faces, but it was accompanied by the sort of itchy-under-his-skin feeling he got sometimes when he felt like there was something he wanted to do but had no idea what it was. For the moment, it was just one more source of aggravation. He barely waited for Arguelles to nod before he turned to go, trying not to listen to the conversation at the table about his “unexpected” rudeness.
Ralf was off trailing Yvie, leaving pretty much no one around to vent to, or at least, he’d figured that would be the case. He was surprised to find Jillain lingering nearby once he made it out of the mess. She hopped up and saluted. In returning the gesture, Ander realized he’d left his hat behind at the table.
“If you’re looking for Enderlen, sir, I think he had to escort Mme. Cairvelle back to her room for something.” She shifted uneasily, probably anticipating his question.
“So what are you still doing here, Private?”
“Uh. I was at the latrines sir.” She nodded her head back to the soldier posted at the mess door. “Private Larice gave me a message but, uh, I didn’t think I’d be able to catch up…”
Ander sighed. He was sure Ralf would be alright, but he was also sure he wouldn’t know how to say no to that kind of pussy even if he wanted to. Of course that didn’t mean anything… Maybe she just liked dangerous men. Even if she was just using Ralf to mess with him more, he had to stop being so damned touchy. Everything was getting under his skin today.
“Is everything alright, sir?” She looked concerned. Ander stifled another sigh.
“Yeah. Thanks. You just sit tight here, then, Private.”
They exchanged salutes again, Ander glad he’d at least gotten his hair cut the day before, but confident that she wasn’t going to comment to anyone on his uniform gaffe. He imagined could feel her eyes on him as he slunk off along the back way to his office.
It wasn’t so much that he wanted to be alone – quite the opposite. That was the worst thing about military service, outside of actual engagements. Ander understood why the rules were there in theory, but it was pretty isolating for someone in his position to try and follow them all. His options for companionship were limited in general and at the moment had narrowed to zero, and he figured he may as well retreat somewhere more private while he pulled his shit together.
He lit another smoke as he approached the structure, fumbling for his keys. Some instinct had him look up for an instant just before a figure rushed at him out of the night, but he wasn’t quick enough to capitalize on the notice before they swung what felt like a heavy iron bar at him and he doubled over, winded. Ander grabbed for her weapon – it was Bellamy, he saw – and reached for his pistol with his right, but she relinquished it in favour of punching him in the face. Already off balance from the first blow, he slipped backwards, landing on the ground with her looming over him. She relieved him of his gun and retrieved her crowbar, motioning at him with the first.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” she ordered, keeping her voice low. “And get up – slowly.”
Ralf’s afternoon had been alright. He’d caught back up with Jillain, who was lingering a little ways away from the officers’ quarters. Eventually the Cairvelles had emerged, their clothing carefully straightened. Jillain had given him a look – there was no way she didn’t know what had happened in the woods – but he just shrugged. He still figured she was right, and Yvie was really mostly here to see her husband. But she was also a woman who got off on a little risk, and if she felt like Ralf could maybe provide that, he wasn’t going to complain about it too much. There wasn’t anything for him to get jealous about. He was more interested in looking out for Ander, but that wasn’t exactly something he could share either.
He did get a chance to meet the others from the 307, and to see what Bellamy was like in front of her new commander, when the Cairvelles both went to greet them. There wasn’t too much to note, just that Sargent Bellamy and Yvie didn’t have much to talk about this time. After that, it was more just showing Yvie around, this time with her husband in tow. The lieutenant gave them a break to grab dinner while the two of them were getting ready for their own shindig, but now they were going to be on duty for the rest of the night – hanging around outside in case they might be needed, and there to provide a safe escort when the pair were ready to stumble drunkenly back to bed.
The officer dress uniforms did look pretty nice, and Cairvelle had a few of those little coloured bars that weren’t medals on his – probably more shit from school that didn’t mean anything in the field. Yvie was dressed all fancy, in a sleeveless dress that only hung just past her knee, and heels that made her legs look even longer. She had a little purse with her, but it wasn’t big enough to hide a piece or anything, so he was pretty sure she wasn’t armed. Maybe if she were some kind of caster she could still be dangerous, or he supposed she could have something strapped to her thigh. He didn’t think he’d get a chance to check, but he would keep it in mind, just in case.
The pair managed to find somewhere semi comfortable to settle in once the nobs were inside. There were always empty crates stacked around that could be rearranged to provide a place to sit and a little privacy. In this case they also managed a bit of shelter from the wind, but one could still watch the entrance – the soldier on guard at the door shot them an envious look. Jillain shrugged at her in return, but there wasn’t much to be done about the vagaries of duty rotation.
“I grabbed a pack of cards,” Jillain said, producing the same. “We’ve probably got time – I want you to show me that trick you were pulling on Ansard.”
Ralf hadn’t thought anyone had noticed, but that was the problem with sorcerers. They were clever. “Just luck,” he said, taking the deck and shuffling. Jillain snorted at him, and he grinned.
“Ahh, come on. You’re about the only one who knows how to really play. I bet you could clear us all out if you wanted.” She was watching his hands very closely – he slowed down for a moment so she could see – the cards were old and scuffed to hell, which made them easy to track. Someone else had dogged the ear on the queen of spades at some point, for instance, and he tapped it to point it out, running through some pretty basic shuffling tricks to keep it where he wanted.
“We’re not really playing for money.” He could have cleaned up more than he did, but it seemed like a good way to piss people off. That had been Ansard’s problem – got swept up in the thrill of it and forgot who she was playing against. Maybe it was just his habit, though, not to attract too much attention.
“I guess. Where’d you learn all that, anyway?”
He shrugged, dealing them each a hand. “Ain’t hard if you’ve got quick hands.” It wasn’t exactly an answer, but there were things his squadmates were better off not knowing. “You learn to ride like that out in the country?”
She smirked. “Okay, be that way, city boy. There’re no cars out in Jura – no trains up that far yet, either. It’s walk or ride.” She shot a look towards the officers’ mess. “Or take a coach, I guess. Or wagons, if you’ve got a lot to haul… Whole different world.”
“You didn’t ride all the way to the city, did ya?” Ralf really had no idea where Jura was other than north, or how far away. He couldn’t have picked out Psyra on a map, for that matter, save for knowing it was pretty damned far out east.
Jillain laughed, then made a face at her cards. “Nah. Caught one of the logging freights in Breese, then hopped on a passenger car from Tyrsted. Still took a week. It’s not as far as it is out here, but it’s got shittier service.” She tossed three of her cards back, looking a little more satisfied with her new hand. “How about you – tell me something about about where you’re from. You don’t talk about it much.”
“That’s ‘cause it’s a shit hole.” It was his home though. When he’d first shipped out, he’d have given just about anything to go back, but he’d formed some unexpected attachments. If he lived through this mess, even, he’d been starting to think there would be some better alternatives.
Ralf shook his head. Everyone knew about the Shambles – that it wasn’t someplace you went if you valued your life much. People still lived there, sure, but mostly only because they had to. “Rhenea.” He laid down his cards. They were just playing to pass the time, and he didn’t have any coin on him anyway.
“I thought Rhenea wasn’t so bad?”
“Parts of it ain’t, anymore.” They’d been working on fixing it up since he was a kid, and you could really see the difference, if you knew. “Some of them fancy places, near the temple? Used to be pretty rough, ‘til they sent in the guard to clean it all up. Now they’re prime real estate, even got some nobs livin’ there. No old timers though.” There were places that were still too rough for that kind of treatment – no one had ever tried to improve Three Dagger Court. Sometimes, too, they’d run in to other hard lines, where other forces were stepping in to help make things better – but for the people who already lived there instead of whoever could afford the jacked up prices.
“I haven’t been in the city long enough, I guess, to know the difference.” She picked up the deck, shuffling before dealing the next hand. “But – speaking of ‘nobs’...” Jillain glanced over towards the mess, or maybe at the poor private standing guard, and dropped her voice. “I don’t wanna be a killjoy, or a hypocrite… But I sure hope you know what you’re getting into.”
“I’m not gettin’ into anything.” There wasn’t anything to get into at this point. Yvie was leaving the next morning with Cairvelle. “But I’m not turnin’ down some harmless fun, neither.”
“Yeah,” she said, tilting her head to the side, trying to be casual. “Probably not. Just, you know – try not to screw things up for the lieutenant?”
Ralf scowled at that. “Fuck Cairvelle.”
“Not him – I mean Ander. Look, it’s not exactly protocol to assign a guy to escort a woman around. That’s just one way it could go bad on him, especially with it being his ‘first command.’ In their eyes – you know what I mean. You can take your own risks if you want to, I know how that goes. But don’t let your dick bring anyone else down.”
“You give Harald that speech too?” Everyone knew they were fucking, even though they tried to keep it on the downlow. Jillain was pretty good at keeping her focus, but Harald was a bit more moony, following after her when he didn’t have to, or staring when he ought to be keeping his attention on other things
“You know it’s not the same.” She laid her cards down with a grim look. “We’ve talked about it though.”
“I ain’t gonna do anything to fuck over Ander.” That she thought he might made Ralf cranky; that he couldn’t quite put Yvie out of his head made him crankier, and that her warning echoed Ander’s earlier concern… He glared when she grinned at his unintentional pun.
“You’d give me the same if it was the other way around.” Jillain tried another smile. “You’d probably be less nice about it, at that. We all wanna keep him now that we’ve got him in charge, right?”
“Yeah....” She was right, on both counts. But it wasn’t going to matter anyway, and she seemed willing to let it drop in favour of him showing her a few more card tricks. They played a few more games, until Jillain had to hit the latrine, promising to see if she could scrounge up something else to pass the time. Ralf knew she was too much of a straight arrow to bring back a couple of beers when they were on duty, but he could hope.
Jillain hadn’t been gone more than about five minutes when Yvie came out, and Ralf’s evening got turned on its head. He swore when he saw her, hoping maybe she’d just stepped out for some fresh air. But he couldn’t just leave her for the duty guard to deal with, regardless, and headed over to meet her.
“There you are! Do you always just appear out of nowhere like that?” Yvie smiled – her cheeks were slightly flushed and she seemed quite pleased with herself. “Where’s Private Jillain? I need to pick something up from my quarters.”
“Stepped out for a minute, ma’am – she should be right back.”
“Well, this won’t take a moment, soldier. No sense in waiting outside in the chill is there?” She pulled her shawl – a lacy beaded thing that looked better suited to a nightclub than a cool and windy evening on base – tighter around her shoulders. And then she turned to go.
“Your new lieutenant is quite something,” she said as they passed through the maze of buildings back towards the officers' quarters. “I can see why Marcel respects him so much.”
“Ma’am?” He assumed she had to be talking about Ander, though he wasn’t sure why. It was news to him that Cairvelle thought much of him, and he figured it would probably be news to Ander as well.
“We were just talking at dinner. I’m sure Marcel would never admit it, you know, but he’s quite nervous about this new command – I think he’s come to rely quite a lot on Suterre.”
Ralf wasn’t sure how to reply to that, but Yvie looked over and smiled.
“Oh, I know my husband – I’m a little nervous too, you know. I am quite attached to him, in my own way.” She winked. Her way seemed to include having a fair bit of fun on the side. “He was telling me stories earlier – the kinds of things you can’t put it letters. He told me about Rizmir Bridge, and how Suterre found you, sent word back, and got carried along to fight with the rest of them the next morning. I’m sure I wouldn’t have minded him keeping watch over me all night, but, well. It makes quite a nice little heroic tale, don’t you think?”
Rald nodded, but it really wasn’t something he was comfortable talking about, or even thinking about too hard. He remembered things said and done when it was just the two of them, how he’d thought his feelings would be clearer if he got some sleep, if he was no longer in pain, and how it still wasn’t clear at all. He remembered how he’d felt when he’d been sent back to base (better to be a man down than to waste any magical healing before a real fight), and Ander’d gone off to battle without him. He’d vowed that would never happen again – they were supposed to have each other’s backs. That, at least, was simple. “He’s pretty well respected, ma’am, with all of us.”
“I can tell – and I can read between the lines, too, private. I think Marcel will do better with his next group, once he finds his feet. I hope so, in any case!”
Ralf kept his mouth shut, and Yvie gave him a coy smile.
“Sorry if I go on. As I said, I am rather attached, though I know he is a little lacking in grit. I think it will come to him him time, but meanwhile I’ll have to be content to get my fix elsewhere. There’s just something about dangerous men, you know.” She wet her lips when he glanced over, hugging her shawl tight against her body, outlining her form. They were almost back to the officers’ quarters already.
“Well, ma’am,” he answered, remembering the taste of her lips and the feel of her body, even briefly, under his hands and knowing that he was doomed, “they say like attracts like.” The best he could manage was damage control, staying discreet as possible, and not just hiking up her skirt and fucking her up against the wall, say. He broke eye contact first, glancing beyond her to their purported destination. Fucking her in her room – in Ander’s room – just felt wrong, but there were other places they could go. “What are we supposed to be pickin’ up?”
“Just my cigarettes. I had a taste earlier, and now I’ve got a craving.” She reached up as she spoke, stroking her thumb along the scar on his right cheek.
“'s that all? Void it then – I’ll just give you mine.”
Yvie looked, very briefly, uncertain. “You don’t want to come back to my room?”
After a quick glance confirmed there was no one else around, Ralf reached up and caught her hand, pulling her closer. “How ‘bout somewhere else?”
“What the void are you doing,” Ander hissed as he found his feet. He wasn’t hurt too bad, all told, but he was still a bit winded, and leaned on his knees rather than standing up all the way.
“Taking you for a picnic, vermin, what do you think?” She gave him a smarmy, satisfied smile. “Now turn around, hands out to the side. If I see you try and cast anything, that’s it.”
Ander did as instructed, though in truth none of his spells would have done him much good. Even if he dazed her, it wouldn’t last long enough for him to get far enough away to matter. He couldn’t quite figure what she was thinking, but she wouldn’t have made Sargent if she was stupid enough to try and take him out right there. “You don’t think we got enough shit on our plates right now? We’ve already got a war.”
“And they’re not going to miss one more junior nobody, rank or no rank. Now can it, and march.”
With the rest of the officers either on duty or at Cairvelle’s dinner, the block was pretty quiet. Anyone who was around was probably either busy or hiding, so there was no one to see him get marched off towards the woods at the edge of the encampment. There were patrols, but they tended to stick to the far side of the trees where they had a better chance of spotting any unfriendly activity. It would be pretty good cover for whatever she had planned, which was probably just to shoot him. He considered making a racket of some kind, on the principle that if she was going to bump him off anyway he may as well try and get her caught more easily, but he was hoping to get away from her once they did make it to the trees. People didn’t put much stock in the stories about House Rat these days, but his father had been able see perfectly in total darkness. Even if the gifts were fading away, they weren’t quite gone yet – Ander hadn’t inherited his father’s talent, but he knew his night vision was better than anyone from the other Houses, and the tension made all his senses feel sharper. It wasn’t much of an edge, given the current circumstances, but he’d take it.
“What’re you even gettin’ out of this,” he asked, once they were far enough away that she couldn’t reasonably be afraid that talking would draw too much attention. “Kinda risky, ain’t it?”
Bellamy was behind him, keeping out of his line of sight. “More interesting than babysitting,” she quipped. “And I think I told you to can it.”
Babysitting? Was she meant to be watching out for Cairvelle? Was there someone in his current troop who’d had the job first? His gut said no – if there were anyone else in the life, Ander was sure he’d have sniffed them out by now. But it made sense why she’d been talking to Yvie earlier… This, though, he still couldn’t quite figure, unless… “Fuck.” He stopped, glancing back over his shoulder. “You’re just doin’ this for the rep, aren’t you.”
Bellamy cocked the pistol, motioning him forward. She didn’t say anything, but he guessed from the look on her face that he was right. Ander was insulted that she thought he made such an easy target of convenience, but maybe a little flattered that she thought offing him would impress or please her superiors enough to be worth the risk. He’d gotten too used to thinking of his enemies as the people with rifles the next hill, or the next trench, over – he should have been more careful, even if Yvie was safely contained.
Bellamy didn’t correct him when he angled for a path he knew. She wouldn’t have had a chance to do much scouting, but asking around might have been enough to give her some ideas. No one was supposed to be in the woods if they weren’t on watch, but they did get used – often by soldier couples who wanted a little privacy. That kind of trysting was more an afternoon activity though – it was harder to get away after curfew, plus the night patrols were likely to shoot first and ask questions later if they found anyone skulking around.
Ander had been hoping to be able to make a break for it soon after entering the trees, but Bellamy was more canny than he’d figured, and stepped closer, grabbing his arm and sticking him in the back with the muzzle of his gun. At least he could worry a little less about getting shot without warning though, unless she wanted to get blood all over her uniform. He could see a hundred places to hide if he could get away from her, but it wasn’t what he saw that gave him any real hope – it was what he smelled.
Ralf was here, or had been here, somewhere close. Yvie was with him, and he could guess what they’d been up to. But the scent was strong enough for him to pick out over the trees and the rest of the forest, which meant that, unless his mind was playing tricks on him, they had to still be pretty close by.
“There’s a patrol comes through here at 21:30,” he said, slowing his steps. “Shame if they were to take us both out.”
She twisted his arm behind him painfully. “You’re lying. F company’s on patrol tonight. They’re not due through here for another hour.”
He was lying, but he wasn’t about to admit it. “Yeah – you think I don’t know the schedule?”
She shoved him forward roughly, sending him stumbling to his knees. “Do you think I didn’t check?”
Ander wasn’t sure if maybe this was it, but he was much less worried than he had been. He’d spotted a figure moving through the edge of trees – Ralf.
The shelter wasn’t much to look at on the outside, just an A-frame covered in branches. But it had been set up with a particular purpose in mind, and the inside was actually pretty cozy. They hadn’t quite gotten that far yet though. Yvie gave him a dubious look, but she still had her arm around him.
“When I said I liked grit,” she said, raising an eyebrow, “this wasn’t quite what I had in mind.”
“It’s nicer on the inside. Gimme a minute, I’ll get it all set up.”
Yvie relinquished him slowly, and he realized she probably couldn’t actually see much. The moon was pretty bright, but the light didn’t make it through the canopy very well. That just made it more impressive that she’d managed the path as well as she had in her heels, even if it was pretty worn down at this point. He scurried inside the shelter, lighting the lantern that hung from the roof, then beckoned her to follow.
It had just started out with a tarp, but as word got around, other people had done more to help make it more comfortable. The floor was spread with a couple of levels of spare bedrolls, plus some pillows and extra blankets, and Ralf was sure it was more comfortable than the camp beds some of the officers had.
Yvie had to crouch down to crawl inside, and she accepted Ralf’s supporting hand as she passed through the opening. She smiled once she was inside. “You’ve really got to respect soldier’s ingenuity.”
“Yeah – not too bad, is it?” Ralf shuffled over so that she could stretch out. It was still a little cramped, but it wasn’t much of a problem for people who were coming out here if they were pressed up against each other.
She wrapped an arm around his waist, grinning saucily. “Just bad enough, Private”
They didn’t waste much time getting down to business – Yvie would be missed if she were gone too long. She seemed happy enough to get his shirt open but not off, and same with his pants. There wasn’t much to her dress, so it was easy to hike up around her hips, pull it down over her tits. She did not, in fact, have any hidden weaponry. Ralf didn’t think until after he kissed her about her lipstick, and by then – fuck it. She tasted clean and sweet, and a little like liquor, and he could smell how much she wanted it even before she opened her legs, dipping her hand down to draw him in. She kept it down there while he fucked her, and he was pretty sure she came more than once from it. Once he was done, she brought it up to his face, and he sucked the juices off her fingers. If they’d had a little longer, there was a whole list of things they could have got up to, but even a quick fuck with a dame like that would hold him over for a while, he figured. As it was, as soon as he started to go soft she was wiggling out from under him, grabbing her panties and straightening her dress.
“Is it true what they say,” he asked as he tucked his dick back away and fastened his pants. “Does bein’ knocked up make you want it more?”
She smirked, leaning forward to help him get his shirt straightened back out. “It’s sure not hurting anything. But it doesn’t account for all of it, you know.”
Ralf shrugged. He wasn’t complaining, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t just his manly charms that had got her all worked up. “You know who’s it is?”
Yvie laughed, drawing a compact and a lipstick out of her purse to fix up her face. “You know, it might even be Marcel’s,” she said, eyes twinkling as she peered at him over the mirror. “He did have that leave, what, two months ago?”
Ralf wiped his face, in case the smudges of her lipstick had wound up smeared all over him. “So that’s why you came out here?”
She passed him the mirror, smiling still. “Do I need some other reason, other than just to see him when he’s getting promoted?”
“I guess not.”
Once he was sure he was at least passably presentable, Ralf gave her back her compact and squeezed back out so he could give her a hand getting to her feet. Once she was outside he stretched back in to blow out the lights and drew the canvas back over the entrance, pegging it down to try and keep out any curious wildlife. He stood up, brushing off his trousers, and noticed that Yvie was standing very still, her head cocked to the side. She pointed towards the path, and he turned to listen as well – there was definitely something out there, and he was pretty sure it was too early for the next patrols.
Ralf motioned for Yvie to stay where she was, but she gave him a cross look and shook her head. He pointed back at the shelter, but she was slipping off her heels, stepping silently in her stockings over the forest floor. The sounds were getting closer, and he didn’t have time to worry if she was going to be stubborn. At least she didn’t seem scared, and if she was a Corriveau she probably wasn’t going to freak out if things got rough. He started quietly back toward the path, and Yvie crept up behind him, keeping a hand on his back so as not to lose track of him in the dark. She stumbled a few times, and he heard her bite back a couple of quiet cries when she must have stubbed a toe or stepped on something rough, but on the whole he wasn’t worried that she was going to give him away.
Ralf hadn’t brought his rifle for escort duty and a shag in the woods, and he hadn’t been able to afford any kind of pistol. All he had on him were his knives, but they would be enough as long as there weren’t too many. Of course, that was if it anyone to be worried about, and not just another couple looking for some private time while most of the officers were occupied. He still wasn’t sure – he guessed there were two, and they seemed to be coming from the base rather than towards it. Still, he was going to have to get closer, and that was going to mean ditching Yvie. He stopped alongside a larger tree, then turned, taking her hand off his back and putting it on the trunk. She frowned at him, but her eyes went wide when he slipped one of his knives out of its holster. Apparently she hadn’t figured out he had them when they were fucking earlier.
He slipped more easily through the trees now that he wasn’t worrying about her, pausing briefly when he heard voices. A chill went through him when he recognized them both, and he tightened his grip on his blade: it was Ander, and Bellamy.
Knowing that Ralf was close by made Ander feel better, even if Bellamy still had his piece. “Some of us got more important things to worry about than this petty street-level shit,” he said, turning to face her as he rose. Bellamy just kicked him in the face though, and everything happened quickly at that point. Ralf was on her out of nowhere. He held back from slitting her throat at a signal from Ander, but kept a knife to her neck. She dropped the gun, and Ander picked it up, also taking the chance to relieve her of the crowbar hanging from her belt.
“You alright sir?”
Ander nodded, wiping his face on the sleeve of his dress uniform, and then wishing he hadn’t. He could taste the blood already, but the whole point of contact still stung, and he wasn’t sure if it was from his lip or his nose. That was something to worry about later. “Where’s the other one?”
Ralf pursed his lips, glancing back towards the tree line, but she actually emerged a little further down, tossing her heels down onto the path. “I’m right here, Lieutenant.” She put particular emphasis on the last words, as though Ander was the one who needed reminding that maybe this was not best the time or place to pursue these kinds of rivalries.
“Right.” He sniffed – it was definitely his nose – and gestured at Bellamy with his gun. “You wanna tell me what the fuck this shit is?”
“I”m sure you know more than I do.” Yvie seemed nervous, glancing between him and Ralf, who still had Bellamy held. The sargent was bigger than him and probably stronger; she might have been able to get free, but not without a good sticking for her trouble. “Nothing sanctioned, I assure you.”
“Right.” He did believe her, but after all that had happened he didn’t feel like letting her off the hook too easily.
“Really,” she said, stepping back into her shoes carefully. “I’d meant to be more grateful, after I had a bit of fun. I know how well you looked after my husband – I thought he might need someone else to support him in this new posting, so I tried to have a few strings pulled… Looks like maybe a few wires got crossed instead.” She gave him an apologetic look that was probably meant to be sultry, but she was barking up the wrong tree for that. When it had no effect on his unimpressed glaring, she looked to Bellamy instead.
Bellamy didn’t answer, but looked to Ander instead. He figured they were past the point where anyone was likely to do anything too stupid, so he nodded to Ralf to let her go. He did so slowly, stepping away from Bellamy once she was free, and coming around to take his place beside Ander.
“You might have been singing a different tune,” Bellamy said to Yvie, rubbing her throat to make sure she hadn’t been nicked, “if you hadn’t been out here slutting it up. Someone up the chain would have cared, at least.”
Yvie shook her head, and Ander wondered if they had in mind just who that ‘someone’ might be. “Well here I was. And now, well, it looks like you’ve assaulted an officer – I know I’m just a civilian, but I’m pretty sure that’s not something of which the army is particularly forgiving.”
“I am aware,” she said flatly, but her eyes were still full of anger. “I understand what this is going to cost.”
“This bullshit,” Ander put in, holding a handkerchief he’d gotten from Ralf to his nose, “is not going to any Army court. None of us need that.” The army would not be happy about external rivalries messing things up behind the lines, and neither the Mala Tajna nor the Corriveaux would likely take well to that kind of scrutiny. They’d all wind up with the Hush breathing down their necks, or worse. He’d probably end up with the ‘or worse’, considering how he’d wound up here in the first place. And with the army running things, getting sent to the Creux might be the best he could hope for – not that Yvie or Bellamy needed to know all that, if they hadn’t guessed it already.
Yvie nodded, as did Bellamy, but she still seemed on edge. “Then what? You can’t go back to dinner looking like that, and I’m sure Marcel is already….concerned about me.”
“You ain’t just gonna let her walk after that, are you?” Ralf asked, more quietly, eyes still on Bellamy. He hadn’t put away his blade.
Ander shook his head, watching her as well. “So what were you thinkin’, hmm? Maybe some slicks slipped in and grabbed me? Thought folks would go for that?”
“That’s what the troops were saying – that this is the weakest border, the patrols aren’t good enough, if they wanted to send in a small team. You were out on your own – you would have made a good target.”
“And then, what, I tried to get away out here and they shot me?” It sounded at least vaguely plausible. He could work with that. “What’d you tell your squad you were off doing, then?”
“I told them that while we were here, I wanted a chance talk to some of the NCOs from other companies.”
That was workable, if not ideal. “It’s pretty easy to get turned around here at night. You wound up out at the office block, saw these slicks dragging me off. Could have gone for help but you figured you could go after ‘em instead. You gotta’ve earned those stripes for something. There was a bit of a tussle, they figured they’d been made, and they booked it.”
Bellamy nodded slowly, but she still looked pretty wary. She probably knew there had to be more to it.
Yvie narrowed her eyes a bit. “What about us?”
“You and Enderlen were never here. Maybe you turned an ankle. Got a run in your stockings, whatever. You can come up with your own cover – just keep him out of trouble.”
She smirked at that. “I’ll do what I can. I do need to change my stockings.”
“Is that it, then?” Ralf did not sound entirely pleased, but Ander wasn’t through yet. He cocked his pistol, firing twice into the air. Yvie winced, but Bellamy braced herself as Ander passed the gun over to Ralf, whose knife disappeared back up his sleeve.
“Give her a good one, just in the arm, say, then you and Yvie scram.” Ander’d have done it himself, but Ralf was a better shot. He didn’t waste anytime following directions. Bellamy staggered back, clutching at her upper arm. Ander took back his gun and reholstered it; Ralf was already making for Yvie.
She hadn’t looked away from Ander despite her lackey being shot. He met her gaze evenly, though the gleam in her eye was worrying.
“Are we all through here?”
Yvie nodded, smiling as Ralf took her arm roughly. “All clear, Lieutenant.”
Bellamy was crouched on the ground, clutching her arm, breathing heavily. Ander ignored her while he made a circuit of the area, kicking at the ground a bit to give the idea of there being a larger scuffle in the area at least a veneer of plausibility. He expected response to the gunshots to be quick, though, and there were other appearances to keep up.
“Alright, let’s see it.”
Ralf had got her pretty good in the upper arm, and at fairly close range. Ander didn’t doubt that he’d been as precise as possible, either. It was a little gratifying, as was the way she tried to edge away from his touch. If she were one of his troops, he’d have been a lot more gentle, but as she’d been plotting to kill him not too long ago he wasn’t feeling particularly inclined to give her more than perfunctory aid. She suffered through it stoically enough; the silence was fine with him.
Lacking bandages, he wound up using part of her sleeve to improvise a tourniquet, and he was working on rigging up a sling when he heard bodies crashing through the woods from the base. He’d expected some response from that direction, but had figured the patrol would get to them first. More surprising than the promptness of the rescue party was it’s composition – it was Jillain, with Harald and Desmey in tow.
“Make sure the area is secure,” Jillain ordered as soon as she saw them, waving off the other two. “Are you alright sir? Sargent?”
“We’re good, Private. Sargent Bellamy’s been shot, but I think the slicks’ve cleared out.”
Jillain nodded. She had more of her duty kit on her and broke out her bandages, giving Bellamy a closer investigation. “We’ll get you to our medic. He can take care of you.” Looking up at Ander, she frowned. “And you too, sir. What happened?”
He felt a little bad lying to Jillain, but it was better than drawing her into a bigger mess. “Couple’a slicks much have slipped through the woods, they jumped me over by the office. I’d guess they were planning to drag me off with ‘em to see what I might tell them, when the Sargent came up outta nowhere.”
“I was lost.” The clipped edge to Bellamy’s voice could easily have been from pain alone. “But I saw what was happening and I knew something wasn’t right.” She looked over at Ander. “I got lucky.”
“I figure we both did.” Lucky indeed. He nodded to her, then looked back to Jillain. “How’d you get out here so fast?”
“Well, sir. Enderlen and Mme. Cairvelle weren’t back, and then you were still gone, and Cairvelle came out to ask if I knew where his wife was and why I wasn’t with her, or where you were.... I just had a bad feeling, sir, so I went looking, and I saw sign of some kind of struggle over by your office.” She hesitated, and Ander wondered if what she’d she’d seen didn’t quite fit his story. “I grabbed who I could, and we heard the shots right after.”
“Good job, Private.”
“But are you all right, sir?” She’d finished adjusting Bellamy’s sling, and was giving Ander a fresh critical eye.
He sniffed. His nose had mostly stopped bleeding a while ago, but it still stung, and the longer he sat, the more he could feel a dull ache in his ribs. “Yeah. Just a little banged up. Some asshole kicked me in the face, but it’s not so bad as it looks.”
Desmey returned with the corporal in charge of the night patrol, and from there it was a matter of coordinating the search for the fictitious Psyrenes. Ander and Bellamy had a chance to re-tell their stories several times, including on paper. There was some small compensation for the added paperwork in knowing that Cairvelle, Reinhart and Arguelle’s night, and that of half the base, was disrupted as his. Ralf got off lightly, since Cairvelle was more concerned that his wife could have run in to trouble or been hurt than that she’d been off in the company of another man for an extended period of unaccounted time. If anything more came of it, it was well after the pair of them were out of Ander’s hair. Patrols were stepped up in the woods, which was probably for the best anyway. All in all, it seemed to have wrapped up as best it could, even if by the time Ander’d written out the third copy for the report, he wished he’d just let her shoot him.
Ander’d missed mail call for some officers meeting, so Desmey had grabbed the few things that had come by for him, and she’d been happy enough to let Ralf run it over to him. There was one pretty thick letter, and a package. By the time he made it over to the offices, the lieutenant was apparently back from whatever had kept him, and called out for his visitor to come in. He looked up and smiled when he saw Ralf.
“Hey, whatcha got there?”
“Mail.” Ralf stepped inside, setting his armload down on the corner of Ander’s desk, on top of some other papers.
“Oh yeah?” He reached over and picked up the letter first, tearing it open with his fingernail after glancing at the address. “You got a few? Sit down, close the door. Anything for you?”
Ralf theoretically had somewhere else to be, but if he was detained by the lieutenant then he could get away with being a little late. He slung himself down in the chair across from the desk. “Nah. I got a letter from Dinah a week or so ago.”
Ander was either just scanning the contents, or he was a really fast reader. Probably he’d have time to read in more detail later. “That’s who – one of your sisters?”
“Yeah, the younger one. We’re not much a writing family, but it’s nice to hear from home.”
Ander noded, glancing up from the pages in his hand briefly as he shuffled through them. “Yeah. This one’s from Bruno, but his wife got the kids to write me something too.” He grinned down at one of the pages. “‘Dear uncle,’ uh. I guess that’s supposed to be Ander. ‘I hope you shoot lots of bad guys, and don’t let any of them shoot you. Danya.’” He turned it over to show Ralf the accompanying picture, which had a stick figure firing a gun at some other figures who were apparently running away. The scribbly signature was in Rat. “That’s cute, eh? Life advice.”
“Sounds pretty solid to me.” He grinned back. “How old’s she?”
“Six?” Ander set the letter aside and pulled the package over. It was pretty common for troops, especially officers, to get care packages from home. Usually they contained little luxuries like cookies and other treats, soap, shaving cream, that sort of thing. Ander was generally pretty generous with the things his family sent, and Ralf had assumed this was why he’d asked him to stay. When he looked at the package, though, Ander frowned.
“What?” Ralf had been consciously trying not to pry. He’d noticed it was addressed in a woman’s hand, and had preferred to assume it was from his mother, or his aunt, or someone else like that.
Ander picked it up carefully, sniffed it, and shrugged before carefully starting to open one of the ends. “It’s from Mme. Yveline Cairvelle.”
“Yvie?” Ralf had figured she was out of their hair, hopefully for good but at least until the end of the war. He’d never quite decided if he was glad she’d given him a reason to be out in the woods that night, or if he just blamed her for Bellamy being around at all. Her, at least, he had definite plans for should he ever run into her again.
Ander nodded. “Yeah. Smells like smokes.” It was smokes – a box with a couple of cartons of Sovereigns, and a short note. Ander passed it to him once he’d read it.
Dear Lieutenant Suterre,
I hope you will accept this gift as a token of gratitude for the services rendered during my brief visit. While the debt incurred cannot truly be repaid, I hope this small gesture of goodwill might go some way in assuring you the extent to which I value our continued friendship.
Ralf looked up, passing back the paper. “So what’s that mean? Sorry some crazy bitch tried to kill you, have some cigarettes?” It wasn’t a bad gift, he supposed. Since the start of the war, the price of smokes had gone way up. Tobacco, it turned out, was one of those little luxuries that mostly came out of the Psyran counties.
“Yeah, only nicer, for the censors.” Ander shrugged, picking up one of the cartons and leaning back in his chair to give it a closer inspection. “I think the gist is not to worry that anyone else is about to try it again.” He tossed the carton across the desk. “Here. Pass those out to our folks, would ya?”
“Will do, sir.” Ralf tucked the box under one arm, watching Ander open the second and pull out a pack. He hadn’t actually known what brand Ander smoked before, since he always kept his smokes in a case. These smelled right, though, and he wondered how Yvie had known. Maybe it was just a good guess, but he didn’t think so. She was good at getting people talking, and he bet she was good at remembering all they said – and some of what they didn’t, besides.
Ander lit up, offering him the pack, but Ralf shook his head. “Later.”
Ander smiled at that, pushing them across the desk toward him. “Just take the whole pack – I got plenty to share.”
Ralf hesitated. They hadn’t really talked about what had gone down, other than just making sure they were both okay. He’d figured Ander had been too busy with everything else, and moments like this where it was just the two of them were still fairly rare. Whatever he did think of Yvie, though, he wanted to make sure things were clear with Ander. “You know – if it’d come to it, I’d’ve done her, right? Yvie, I mean.”
Ander was leaning back in his chair, and he sat there for a moment, just watching him. “I know, Ralf,” he said finally. “I wouldn’t’a let it come to that. But I know. Thanks.”
“Alright.” He felt better having said it, and tucked the cigarettes into a jacket pocket.
“Alright.” Ander smiled again, and somehow that made Ralf feel even better still. “You gotta run?”
“I should.” He wasn’t feeling particularly inclined, but he didn’t wanna piss off the rest of the squad by slacking too much. Plus Ander probably had his own shit to take care of.
“Well, then,” Ander took another drag, sitting up, and shuffling through the papers on his desk. “Tell Jillain to come see me, wouldya? I got some stripes for her.”
Ralf grinned at that as he stood, resecuring the carton under his arm. “Oh yeah? Finally, eh.”
“Yeah.” Ander grinned back, finding what he was looking for and laying it on top of the stack. “That’s one good thing that came outta that mess – I got to put in a commendation for her quick response, and Arguelles signed off on it.”
“And all I get’s a pack of smokes?”
Ander chuckled. “Well sure. Don’t you know, it’s ‘an assurance of the extent to which I value our continued friendship.’”
Ralf snapped off a quick salute. “That’s all I need, sir.”