The next morning dawned clear, and a bit cool, with the year shading into fall. While there was still a little pain, Meliantha took up her sword and went to the practice yard, to do her morning devotions – which involved both prayer and weapons training. She was still integrating the things she’d learned from Shen Gao into her battle-skills. Some of the soldiers watched her moving Chainbreaker around, first the standard sword-drills, then into the advanced, and finally her own training. It was a thing both spirit-cleansing and physically awakening for her, and when she stopped, she felt mentally much better.
As she walked towards the stairs to the quarters she’d been assigned (and then, she expected, to a bath), she heard someone talking:
“I tell you, this wouldn’t have happened if a real man was in charge. Lhal’s too soft, Loran’s too old. The demon-bitch, no one would follow her, no matter what she did. Need to get a real man in the place.”
Oh, there we are, the bits of treason, she thought, and silently as a cat, moved closer.
“Captain Norrell’s the kind of man we need in charge. He’s a proper captain, came up through the ranks, not one of these stupid noble appointees. He’ll do the right kind of job.”
She made a mental note to have this Norrell investigated – she didn’t know who he was – and then cleared her throat. All of them jumped, and the one who was talking glared.
“What are you doing, sneaking around?” he demanded.
“You mean ‘what are you doing sneaking around, ma’am’,” she replied, coolly. “I am your superior officer, Swordmajor. If you must know, I was returning from my morning workout when I heard you speaking mutiny fluently. I suggest you come with me. The War Wizards will wish to have a long conversation with you.”
“Bitch,” he spit. “I’ll take you apart!” He clawed for his sword, only for Meliantha to punch him in the gut, chest, and jaw. As he staggered, she grabbed his helmet and brought her leg up, slamming his chin into her thigh. His eyes rolled up and closed, and he fell to the floor, groaning.
“No,” she informed him, “you won’t. So,” she said to the other half-dozen soldiers who had been listening to him, “What was going on here?”
“We were on guard, ma’am,” a man with the insignia of a First Sword said, “and he came around talking to us. We’re not supposed to speak on duty unless spoken to first, so we just kept silent. Then you came, and, well.”
“Had you seen him before?”
“No, ma’am. But there’s a number of soldiers from the patrols we’ve never met, figured he was one of them.”
She nodded. “Tie him up and gag him. I’ll send a patrol to bring him for interrogation.”
The First Sword nodded. “Aye, ma’am.” He saluted, and Meliantha stepped up her pace. Barely time for a bath this morning.
Thankfully, an item she’d picked up in her travels helped. In her room, she grabbed the small, irregularly shaped stone from the small table in her quarters, and spoke a word. Things shimmered, and suddenly she was clean. Quickly, she changed from the clothes she’d worn for the workout (also clean now) and went to the closet. Within, along with her other garb, she found a Purple Dragon uniform. She shook her head as she chuckled, then dressed in the duty uniform, noting that it already showed her rank, but needed some adjustments - a bit tight in some places, and loose in others. Her other items garbed her – bracers, belt, boots, gloves, and the scabbard, which Chainbreaker slid into with a small sigh of relief before being slung over her shoulder and into a cross-body sash.
Prepared for the day, she stepped out into the corridor, and locked the door. As she turned, she found one of the young women who served as couriers walking towards her.
“Ornrion Meliantha, you’re wanted in the War Room.”
“Thank you, Ensign. I’ll be there presently.” He saluted, she returned it, and then they both started walking towards the War Room (once the Banquet Room, now repurposed).
As they reached the first staircase, she said, “Excuse me, ma’am, if I may… how long have you service in the Dragons?”
“Since about this time two days ago. Oversword Durtharr saw fit to give me the rank, even when I protested. I don’t intend to keep it long. Before that, I served in the Gold Dragons for three years.” She shook her head, as they descended the staircase. “I’m going to have to get an adjutant. I know absolutely nothing of the paperwork I need to fill out.”
She broke a small smile. “Well, ma’am, if I may, my father was an adventurer, and I handled his taxes, and now I’m a courier and general runner. I’d like to stop being at just anyone’s beck and call, and move to being at just one person’s. I can give excellent references.”
Meliantha paused on the steps, and she went down one more before realizing it and turning. “I’m sorry if I was a bit forwards, ma’am.”
“I just wasn’t expecting it,” she replied. “Let me see what the Oversword wishes and then I can see about it.” She gave a small, ironic smile. “They say volunteering can bring you great danger. Do keep that in mind.”
“Oh, I shall, Ornrion.” And with that, they came to the War Room. Where there had been paintings and banquet tables, there were now maps and charts, and smaller tables. The head table had been replaced by a sand table, and numerous military functionaries and couriers travelled the room. Escorted by the young soldier who’d brought her down, she walked up to the sand table and saluted.
“Ornrion Meliantha reporting to Oversword Durtharr,” her escort stated. “If you will excuse me.”
“Go ahead,” Loran Durtharr said, nodding, then turned to Meliantha. “You had to start early,” he said, mock-complaining. “What happened in the training yard?”
“Someone apparently trying to rouse some of the soldiers against Lord Lhal, yourself and me, and in favor of a Captain Norrell.”
He snorted. “There is no Norrell that I’ve been made aware of.”
“We’d best find out where Norrell is then.”
“Right, there’s your next assignment.”
She rolled her eyes and then sighed. “Oh, by the way, the young lady who brought me here, who is she?”
“What, young Wyvernspur there? Do you know them at all?”
“I know the name from the records you showed me, but that’s all.” Not knowing who else was around, she remained quiet about what she’d read, lest secrets of the realm get out.
“Well, her parents are adventurers, and her father’s got the trust of the crown. She herself is a follower of the Red Knight, and probably the best organized of the squires. Why?”
“I’m going to need an adjutant, and she suggested herself when I mentioned that. I think I’m allowed one at my rank, and I haven’t even seen the papers I’ll need to fill out yet.”
He chuckled. “Well, Sima will do the job well for you. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, and some time as an assistant to an officer will do her well.” She’s yours if you want her.”
Meliantha nodded, and Loran waved her over. “Squire Wyvernspur, you’re detached from the runners and attached to the First Irregulars, serving as adjutant to Ornrion Meliantha. For the Crown!” he said, as he saluted.
“For the Crown!” she replied, saluting, her eyes sparkling, then saluted Meliantha. “Ma’am, I report to your service.”
Meliantha returned the salute. “I take you into my service.” Then she turned to Loran. “If you will, Oversword, I have orders to complete.”
“Indeed,” he said gravely, though his eyes danced merrily, “Good luck to you.”
They turned, and left the room. “So, our first assignment is to find Captain Norrell.”
Sima Wyvernspur nodded. “Up the stairs, second floor, to the left, second right, third door on the left.”
Meliantha stopped short, and Sima smiled. “Wouldn’t have been much of a runner if I didn’t know where the rooms are. Besides, I helped bunk him when he came in. Oh, and I’ve already arranged for you to be moved from your current room to one of the officer rooms, with an office for me to handle things.”
Meliantha started laughing, shaking her head. “I did need an adjutant,” she said. “You’re certainly starting in the right place. Let’s go speak with Captain Norrell. Oh, yes, one more thing.” She unswung the scabbard from her shoulder, and offered the pommel. “You might have heard my sword is enchanted. Grasp the hilt – it won’t harm you.” As her new adjutant did so, she said, “Chainbreaker, keep your attention on this young soldier, as she’s part of my unit.”
“Of course,” the sword said. “I already was preparing that, although this helps.”
The hand was pulled back, then gingerly replaced. “I didn’t know it was intelligent, ma’am. And I’m sorry, sir,” she said, addressing Chainbreaker directly. “I was startled.”
“No harm done,” Chainbreaker replied. “And now I can both speak directly to you, as well as know your general health, to relay that along.”
“That’s handy,” Sima said, her cheer returning. “Oh, I don’t have a blade with me – couriers aren’t allowed to carry on duty. I’d best stay back.”
Meliantha rehung the sword over her shoulder. “Indeed. If things go badly, you’ll be a courier once more – running to get help!”
“I understand, Ornrion.” She stepped back, out of the way of the door, as Meliantha knocked. “Your linens, sir,” she said in a credible imitation of an old woman.
“Go away!” came the voice from within. “I don’t need it!”
The warrior and the squire looked at each other, and nodded. Meliantha reached under her tabard, and withdrew a small leather pouch. It unrolled and she hung it from her shoulder, pulling slender bits of wire and metal from it, and undoing the lock. It clicked faintly.
“I said I don’t need help!” came the voice from within, and steps came towards the door. The picks and pouch went away quickly, and Meliantha took an unarmed fighting stance.
As the door opened, the resident of the room – a man with sallow, pockmarked skin, a long nose, and messy hair – found his yelling at the help interrupted by a glove to the jaw, followed by a sense of disorientation. He never felt himself hit the floor.
“Ooh, nice,” Sima said appreciatively.
“Learned that far from here. Good for making sure we take them alive for interrogation.” The two of them tied him up, and Meliantha grabbed his collar and dragged him along. “Now, we’ll part for a bit. What are the rules about adjutants being under arms?”
“Ah, well, it depends on the discretion of the commanding officer.” She looked down at the still-unconcious captain. “I believe that your orders will be to have us under arms at all times?”
“Unless countermanded by a superior, yes.” She nodded, then glanced. “And armor. And make sure there’s a travel-pack available at any time. We don’t need camping gear, but you’ll want personal supplies.”
Sima saluted. “As you will, Ornrion.”
Meliantha entered the Wizard’s Suite, having gagged Norrell when he woke up, and cleared her throat at the apprentice holding the desk.
“What do you – Oh.” He paused, realizing her rank. “Um… how can I assist, Ornrion?”
She shook her prisoner. “I have a believed infiltrator here. I would like him interrogated so that we can stop any others who came in with him before they sabotage anything within the keep.”
Almost as she finished the phrase, an explosion shuddered the keep.
“Beshaba’s bosom,” she swore, and turned, running, as the apprentice tried to get more information.
Sima and Loran are unhurt, Chainbreaker sent into her mind. Hm! Message from Loran: Get to the armory. And from Sima: Your bow and pack are in your new room, should I bring anything?
Meliantha smiled, ever so slightly. To Loran, On my way. To Sima, left side pocket, the three beads and the metal thing.
Meliantha could get used to this.
The area by the armory was filled with smoke, but her eyes cut through it. There were four bodies against the wall opposite the door, two of them not close to intact.
Loran coughed, waving smoke away. “Two in there, threatening to drop a Necklace of Missiles in there, saying they’re not afraid to die for their God.”
“Right.” She took a deep breath, then turned to a wizard who’d just come around the corner. “Divination magics. You have them?”
“I’m a transmuter by specialty… I can get one of the diviners.”
“Do it. Go!” she said, spinning him around and shoving him back the way he came.
Loran raised an eyebrow. “Not going to make a friend there.”
“I’ll apologize when there’s no chance of the place going up,” she shot back. “If they’re close enough.. ah!” Sima came around the corner at a dead run, holding a pouch. She handed it over.
“Easier… to carry… that way…,” she panted, then coughed. A moment later, a thin man with dreamy eyes came around the corner.
“Sorry I’m late, I didn’t get the call until Galen was almost to me.” He bowed. “How may I be of service?”
Meliantha pointed at the door. “Scrying. Two men in there with weapons that could blow the armory to bits. Where are they?”
“Well….” He said in a drawn-out tone. “The armory is screened against scrying. Except.” Meliantha’s face must have shown her frustration, as he sped his voice up. “War Wizards have a key to get through the protections, let me scry, just a moment.” Then a considered look came to his face. “Will you be going in, Ornrion?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Yes.”
“Well, then, let me do the scrying then give you the sight! Better than trying to describe.”
“That is an excellent plan,” she said, nodding. It was the work of a moment, and then she closed her eyes. The vista unfolded in her vision, and then she nodded, opening her eyes.
“Right.” She opened the pouch Sima had brought, bringing out a bead and a thing made of wound-up strips of iron. “Let’s hope this works,” she said, then vanished.
It did. The two saboteurs were surprised by Meliantha’s sudden appearance, and then she threw the Iron Bands at one, and the Bead of Force at the other, trapping them. It was quick work, and she nodded carefully, looking at them. The one in the globe of force said something that couldn’t be heard through the globe, and then the entire thing was filled with fire – but the globe held, leaving nothing behind but charred remains.
The door to the armory opened, and everyone outside piled in.
“Oversword,” she said formally, “I believe I have captured one saboteur. The other chose his god.”
“He was quite scared before he died, but not of death,” Chainbreaker reported. “I had no chance to determine anything else.”
The rest of the day was, thankfully, peaceful.
“And your signature here, ma’am,” Sima said, presenting another piece of documentation.
“I haven’t had a hand hurt like this in years,” Meliantha groused, signing. She looked around the small, mostly bare office that was in the front of her new quarters. Which she hadn’t actually seen yet. She knew there were two doors out of here behind her to the quarters, one to the left and one to the hallways, and one more to the side of the officebut that was all she knew of them. She didn’t even know how Sima had set things up.
“Just a few more, Ornrion,” Sima said, presenting another one, this one being a report on her actions in the armory, followed by a statement about the death of the saboteur, the capture of the other, a request for return of her Iron Bands, a request for compensation for use of the Bead of Force, and finally one last piece.
“This one is your formal acceptance of new quarters, including associated personnel assigned to you while in Arabel.”
“Oh, no. That was a bit back, you formally taking command of me as adjutant and junior officer. This one is for your valet.”
Meliantha blinked a few times. “…I have a valet?”
“While you’re here. I’ve taken the liberty of finding one suitable to your rank.”
“Sima, I’m a simple fighter. I don’t know the first thing about what I’m doing here.”
“That’s what we’re here for, ma’am. I’ll take care of the administrative duties, Cecil – your valet – will take care of making sure you’re presentable for dinners and meetings, and you just… do what you need to do.” She sat down in the small chair next to the desk. “I don’t think you realize what a mark you’ve made here. You come into town, stop those two bastards, head out, then come back a couple of years later and break the back of an attacking army? And then what you did today? All the right people are terrified of what you’ll do next, if you think they might not be properly loyal. One of the pages said that Vangerdahast conjured you from the Abyss and bound you to the kingdom as a secret weapon, but I think he’s an idiot.” Her eyes danced as she looked at Meliantha. “Oh, pages and couriers are terrible gossips, so I might learn something useful, or nothing useful at all.”
Meliantha laughed, shaking her head, and then there was a knock at the door. She looked at Sima, and both shrugged. “Come,” she called.
The door opened, and a Halfling entered, wearing a rankless version of the military uniform. He came to attention and saluted. “Cecil Bramblewood, your valet, ma’am.” He looked around. “And just in time, I think. Don’t worry, we’ll get your quarters squared away well enough.”
Meliantha returned the salute. “I’d ask what the problem is, but quite honestly, I’ve been doing paperwork. I haven’t seen it.”
Cecil nodded. “All right, then. Let’s see what needs doing.” He bustled past and opened the door to the left. It was a small room, with a small bed, a footlocker, and an empty rack. He placed the pack he carried on top of the footlocker. “This is my room, and I’ll be here unless I’m handling chores or you require me to be elsewhere for assignations.”
Meliantha’s cheeks darkened. “I don’t have… assignations.”
Cecil nodded artlessly. “Just letting you know, ma’am. A valet handles dressing you, helping you bathe, preparing you for formal events, and insuring your items are in good condition in preparation for any event. It may also include forcing you to eat if you are working, bringing you late meals or snacks, or arranging for someone to depart if they are being too nosy.” He turned to Sima. “As the adjutant, my duties including your dressage, but your toilet is your own, miss.” He returned his attention to Meliantha. “Shall we inventory?”
Each of her outfits was reviewed very critically by Cecil, who apparently had served as a military valet for ten years, and had a number of opinions about clothing, boots, and accoutrements.
“These,” for example, he said, regarding the green leather boots that Meliantha wore, “are they really the kind of thing you want to wear?”
“They’re enchanted for speed and comfort.”
“On duty, then, but not for formal occasions. And the sword, that’s decidedly not standard issue - longswords for the Dragons.”
“I am not for disposal,” Chainbreaker informed Cecil forcefully, “and if you try, I will, in fact, shatter your mind with fear.” You could almost hear a condescending sniff as the sword delivered its ultimatum.
Cecil paused and demurred. “We can work with it.”
He also showed the rest of the rooms: Sima’s, which was larger than his, and Meliantha’s, which was the largest, and had an attached room with a bath. It had a place where coals could be placed to heat water, then pump it into the bath, then a drain that went, Meliantha noted, down into the sewers of the city.
When he was finished, Cecil had made copious notes. Then he made Meliantha strip down to her underclothes, and pulled out a string, making more notes as he measured her. “I’ll just get this to quartermaster, telling them we need one formal uniform post haste for tonight, and at least three more regular duty uniforms.”
“What’s tonight?” Meliantha asked, fearing the answer.
“Formal dinner with the Lord and the other high officers,” he replied.
“Not familiar with noble dining, then? We can help with that. Or rather, Cadet Wyvernspur can.” He turned, then turned back. "I don't wish to have you think things are normally done this way, ma'am, but if you have a few coins to spare I might need them to tip the tailors for the extra speed we need.
Understandingly, Meliantha reached into the right side-pocket of her haversack, pulling out two small pouches. One of them disgorged a dozen gold coils, and she paused, thinking.
"Things outside of the normal uniforms are at the payment of the officer in question, correct, Cecil?"
"Take this, then, find a changer and cash it in; hold onto it and use it for required items. We may need you to get things quickly, and I don't want you to need to come to me for it." She handed over a blue gem roughly the size of the first joint of her thumb. His eyes goggled briefly, then his aplomb was restored.
“I shall keep a book, then." The halfling turned to Sima. "I place her in your hands, miss.” And with that, he bustled out to take care of his duties. Meliantha turned to Sima, a pensive look on her face.
“It’s all right. I’ve got the menu for tonight, so I can give you a tutorial for tonight. If you’re not perfect, that’ll be all right – you’re what some of the more annoying ones call a jump-up, got your rank for skill rather than going through promotions, which some probably resent but no one will say so to your face after your actions lately.” With that done, she proceeded to show the various utensils, and their uses.
“Do I need to do this dinner?” Meliantha said, faintly despairing.
A knock came at the door. Both of them called for it to open, and one of the couriers dropped a scroll on the desk, then came to attention. Meliantha opened it, read it, and looked at Sima. “Apparently, the answer is yes.” Then she turned to the courier. “Message received and understood, complements to the Lord, I will be there.” The courier nodded, stepped out, then closed the door.
Meliantha blew out, and sighed, then fell into her chair. Sima patted her shoulder genially and returned to her tutorials on fancy dining.
A few hours later, the formal dinner for the officers began. The herald announced each as they entered. A note sent to her indicated it would be in order of seniority, so Meliantha would be the last one seated.
Most of the officers had heard about Meliantha, one thing or another. A few comments were made about her fiendish heritage, others about her complete lack of military training, and a few about the fact that she seemed unwilling to use conventional tactics.
When the herald announced her name, every one of them was silenced. Cecil had turned out to have some training as a wizard – not enough to be recruited to the War Wizards, but enough to make him an exceptional valet.
The tunic was a pale grey silk, with pants of a deep blue, bloused and tucked into black boots shined to nearly a mirror finish. Across her chest from the left shoulder to the right waist was a sash of two stripes, green and red, and two small medals pinned near the shoulder. A deep red half-cloak of shimmering silk hung from her back, partially rucked with the sash. Her leather belt, polished and shined, hung around her waist, a pair of deep brown metal-studded leather gloves tucked into them. Her bracers pinned her sleeves, and the mithril they were made of had been buffed and shined. Her hair had been done up by Sima and Cecil, and was styled in a way that pulled it from her face, hanging in ringlets, and let her eyes be visible. At her left side hung an empty scabbard. All of it was cut in a way that flattered her form, something she’d thought wasn’t going to be possible.
Cecil, she thought, you are going to get a present for this.
The dinner was formal, and fairly boring, and Meliantha was snubbed by the other officers except for Loran, who was at the farthest end of the table from her. She made no major behavioral faux pas, for which she was truly grateful.
When it was over, Loran came to her. “What did you think of your first officer’s dinner, lass?” he asked.
“I’ll take the Banites, thank you, Oversword,” she replied.
He nodded, chuckling. “Some of the lads seem to be of the opinion that an academy upbringing is far more important than actual deeds. Anything you need, though?”
“What time is the morning briefing, and will I be able to get an hour to go into the city proper? I need to find a few things, and a couple of them are to be surprises, so my valet and my adjutant shouldn’t be with me.
He gave her a meaningful look. “Morning briefing at four candlemarks past sunrise, and most of the shops open at two marks, so you should be all right if you’re back before then.”
She saluted him, then, and on his returned salute, headed for her quarters.
“How’d it go, ma’am?” Cecil asked, sitting on a chair, knitting.
“Excellently. Between you and Sima, I came out as civilized, which I think surprised me and I know surprised them. They still snubbed me, but I’m used to that sort of thing.”
“Very good. What time do you take morning-meal?”
She took a moment to think. “I usually wake at dawn, practice with my sword, then eat. Call it one mark past sunrise.”
“Very good. Will you bathe before eating? You are entitled to it, if you wish to conserve your trinket.”
“…I’m so used to not having a bath I didn’t think of it. Yes, please. Might as well prepare before I need to go on campaign.”
Sima popped out of her room. “Orders?” she said, eyes bright.
“None yet, but I fully expect them at some point soon. Until then, let’s get things in order. I’ll be going out into the city after I eat, and back by nine marks to prepare for the morning briefing at ten marks. Is my adjutant supposed to come to that?”
“Aye, ma’am,” Sima said. “Take notes, refill your mug, keep an eye on the others.”
“I’ll be here, ma’am,” Cecil said. “I’ll make up the beds, tidy up the rooms, launder your dress uniform, and then about a mark past noon, head out to check on your other uniforms. They should be ready then.”
She smiled. “Excellent. Well, to bed with me. Good night.”
It was a fascinating day, Meliantha thought, as she pulled the blanket over herself. The dinner was the low point, but, after all, they didn’t know her.
She smiled. They would get to. And then they might not appreciate it, depending on their loyalty.