Eza walked along the rows of initiates, looking each dead in the eye as she did and remembering how scared she’d been in their places. There were thirty, maybe forty boys who’d been selected to become Rooks, an elite fighting force many thought to be the queen’s personal assassins. They all looked down on her physically, and only a few didn’t give her questioning looks; most of them seemed to think that her presence there was a joke, something to lighten the mood during the most decisive moment of most cadets’ lives: choosing their weapon. After all, she was shorter even than the smallest of initiates, and was younger than at least half of them. In these boy’s minds, there was no way that a short, sixteen-year-old girl could be head of the most feared organization in Caitha; the real head of the Rooks would emerge somewhere in a spectacular fashion, one that inspired awe and obedience.
That was not how Eza operated.
“Welcome to hell, boys,” she barked, being sure to let her Kurzhian accent come through. All but a few gave her an amused look, as if they thought that she was pretending to be stronger than she actually was. Those who recognized where the accent came from, likely indicating that they, too, were foreigners, seemed to cower at her voice. The rest, all Caithians who’d probably never even seen a Kurzhian before, only rolled their eyes; though they didn’t have a reputation for it, Caithians, especially those from big cities such as Semata, seemed to think they were superior simply because they were Caithian. They had a nasty habit of underestimating foreigners, a tendency Eza planned to beat out of them; she had to, if Caitha were to have a chance in hell to beat the Giskens.
“I know you all think you’re hot shots after beating out your other classmates, but I can assure you, you aren’t,” Eza continued as she scanned the faces of the cadets. None of them seemed too indignant about being under her command; not yet, anyways. “I don’t give a damn how well you think you handled your sword during Watch training, how strong you think you are, how brave you think you are, how smart you think you are; you can toss all that into the nearest shit house, because as of right now, you’re all nobodies until you show me otherwise.”
“And who are you, exactly, the commander’s daughter?” the recruit who said it was tall and strong, and judging by the way everyone else looked at him, he’d kicked all of their asses during Watch training. Eza recognized him from one of the many files sent her way after the selection process was done. It was Ramir bin Jabaar, an Abunaki refugee who’d spent the majority of his time in Caitha terrorizing shopkeepers in Semata for money for him and his little brother, who was currently training to be an army messenger. His instructors hated his guts, but marveled at his capability as a soldier. “Go home, little girl; this is no place for a child.”
Eza found anger seething out of her, but kept it hidden under a stony mask. She glared at him for a few moments, then looked behind her at a fellow Rook, newly appointed and standing by a table with an assortment of weapons on it, including a staff identical to hers. He looked calm and collected, but she could tell that on the inside, he was wondering how this Abunaki could be so stupid as to call the commander a little girl.
“Staff,” she said, holding her hand out. Without a hint of hesitation, the Rook grabbed the fighting staff and tossed it to her. She caught it and handed it to the Abunaki.
“Fight me.” The man looked confused as she took off her cloak and tossed it to the side. For the first time that day, she saw a hint of hesitation on his face, however slight. All he did was stare at the staff for a few seconds, wondering whether or not she was joking.
“Are you deaf, cadet?” she asked. “I’ll even let you attack first. Letting women go first is polite in this country, yes?”
That was enough to get the Abunaki riled up. Without another word, he got out of his place in line and lunged at her.
She had to admit, he was better at wielding a staff than she thought he would be: he acted like he’d used them all his life; not surprising, considering where he was born. Even so, he was almost hilariously predictable. He came at her with a swing to the head, a move every cadet over the years had tried to pull during this little exercise. She swatted the blow out of the way as if it were little more than a fly, then smacked him on the side, hard.
Ramir yelped, then stepped back, inspecting his opponent with brand new eyes. He was suddenly seeing her as a real opponent, one that could beat the snot out of him if he continued to underestimate her. Every other cadet had grown deathly silent at seeing Eza’s staff it its mark; it seemed that it was a rare occurrence when fighting with Ramir. It just managed to show her once again how unprepared the Caithians were for war, despite the fact that they’d been given ten years.
“I was under the impression that you were going to at least try to fight, boy,” Eza said. “Can you not defeat a child?” Once again, Ramir lunged, and once again, he aimed for the head. Eza stepped to the side and attacked. This time, she swept his legs out from under him with her staff. He fell to the ground, groaning, as his classmates looked on in awe and, in some cases, horror.
Eza bent down, ripped the staff out of his hands, and tossed it back to the Rook. When she looked back at the cadets, she saw that none of them gave her those questioning looks: though they still had to look down on her physically, none of them questioned her authority, now. It seemed that everything had gone just as planned.
“Would anyone else like to get their ass handed to them, or shall we get down to business?” Nobody said a word, except for the still groaning Ramir. He’d managed to get to his feet, but he continued to rub his side.
“Good,” she said. “I suppose I should introduce myself: I’m Commander Eza Mitriovna, head of the Rook core.” They managed to resist dropping their jaws, but their eyes gave every recruit away: they all grew wide with shock. It was the same reaction she’d gotten from every recruit since she’d become a commander the year before. “I was merciful to Ramir today, as none of you knew who I was; however, if any of you disrespect me again, I swear on all that’s holy that you’ll never see the light of day again, got it?”
“Yes, ma’am!” The chorus rang out amongst the cadets.
Eza looked back behind her, where the weapons teachers stood. Behind them on the porch of the infirmary, Silas, the head of Caithian intelligence, stood with his arms folded, examining the scene with a boyish grin on his face. Next to him stood the aging general of Caitha, a thin, aging, Jotiese man who went by the name of Polain, as nobody could seem to pronounce his actual one. None of the cadets gave him any notice, however: Polain didn’t dress in extravagant clothing, like many of his lord colleagues; he dressed in plain, unadorned robes, ones that made him look like one of the many Jotiese refugees that had flooded Semata when the purges began in Jotai. His hand was on the hilt of his sword, a nervous habit that only came through when he needed to discuss something that he didn’t want to.
Eza looked back at teachers. “Ambrus, take over.” Ambrus, a stout man who trained cadets to use a broadsword, stepped forward and saluted.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. Eza walked up the infirmary steps and onto the porch, where Polain and Silas waited. She saluted the general, who saluted back.
“Commander,” he said. He put his arm down, and she followed suit. “I trust that I’ve found you in good health.” Eza nodded.
“Yes, sir,” she said, she began to look around for Princess Marion, who always seemed to be by the general’s side whether she wanted to or not, but she was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Marion?”
“She’s in Semata,” Polain said. “I thought she would be safer there, surrounded by stone walls and an army, and after seeing the condition of Commander Olrick, I don’t think it would have been good if she were to see him like that. She’s been growing more and more… attached to him as of late.” He looked over at the recruits, who were holding an assortment of weapons in order to find the one they would be trained in. As was usual, many went right for the heavy broadswords or war hammers, while only a couple even considered other weapons. Only one person picked up a staff and, judging by the look on their face, seriously considered it.
“Have you been brought up to speed on what’s going on?” Eza asked. Polain nodded.
“I know enough to know that I need the three of you back in Semata as soon as possible,” he said. “I know that this won’t surprise you, but the officers there are all more interested in finding away to keep their comfortable homes when the Giskens come rather than in fighting them.” Silas snorted.
“Of course they are,” he said, rolling his eyes. “What else would you expect from those bureaucratic bastards?”
“So, you need us there to back you up when you have to sit through a meeting with those parasites?” Eza asked. Polain nodded.
“I know that leaving this place is the last thing that you want to do right now, but believe me, I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it weren’t urgent,” he said. “I need you there so we can respond to this threat quickly and efficiently, without the distance between here and there slowing things down.” They both nodded.
“We understand,” she said.
“I’ll come willingly, under one condition,” Silas said. Polain gave him a weary look.
“And what is that?” he said. “I certainly hope it’s simple; I don’t have the energy to drag you to Semata in chains.”
“I think it’s a fairly simply request,” he said with a shrug. “I just want your permission to get nice and drunk before you put me in the same room with those assholes, is all.”
“General Raul, sir?” Raul looked up from his glass, filled with his second thing of alcohol, at a soaked Finn. It was cheap stuff, the Kurzhian brew he’d chosen, but damn, was it strong. Just what he’d needed, after learning that that damned pyromancer had nearly killed his son.
“What is it, captain?” he asked.
“The doctors told me to get you,” Finn said. “The lieutenant’s pretty banged up, but they think he’ll pull through.” Raul set his glass down and stood up, his wooden chair creaking beneath him.
“Thank you, captain,” he said. “You’re excused.” Finn raised his fist in a salute, then left the tent. Once he was gone, he swigged down the rest of his beverage and began the walk to the infirmary.
He’d known that Blair wouldn’t be in a very good state, but what he saw shocked him. The right side of his body was wrapped in bandages covered in red splotches, with black, charred skin poking out from those that covered part of his face. His eyes were shut tight and his face was contorted in pain. One of the doctors sat next to him with a pile of leaves in one hand, a large bottle of beer in the other. Raul recognized the leaves from his first campaign in Kurzh, when he’d lost his eye to a glaciomancer: they were saved only for those whose pain was excruciating enough to need it. The fact that it was being used with beer, a more common sedative, and that Blair still looked to be in pain said a lot about what the pyromancer had done to him.
“How is he?” The doctor looked up at him. Dark circles were under his eyes, likely from staying up with Blair for most of the night.
“I’m fairly certain that he’ll live, sir,” he said. “But he’s going to have scars from this for the rest of his life, and he might not have the range of motion he used to for a long time, if ever.” Raul nodded; he’d expected as much.
“Can he hear us?” he asked. The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not sure, sir,” he said. “Why, do you need to speak with him?”
“Get some rest, doctor,” Raul said. He could see that the doctor wanted to protest, but he didn’t; instead, he set down his herbs and beer and stood up, saluting him.
“Sir.” He walked out of the tent, leaving Raul alone with Blair. For a few seconds, Raul simply stared at him, his mind filled to the brim with questions about what had happened to him the previous night.
“What happened last night?” Blair’s head rolled toward him and his eyes squinted open. They were filled with pain.
“We caught the Watchman and the pyromancer trying to escape,” he wheezed. “We managed to catch up … and when I went to kill the Watchman…” he closed his eyes and swallowed. “I tried to get out of the way, but it was too late. I-I don’t remember anything after that.”
“Which road did they take?” Raul asked. Blair’s head rolled back so he was staring at the top of the tent.
“The main road,” he said. “T-they took the main road.” Raul thought back to his maps, trying to think of what towns lay in that direction. The only one he could think of was Asfalis…
Asfalis. According to his scouts, there was a fort there, one just for the Watch and the Rooks. The bastard had probably told his superiors about them, already; the element of surprise was now gone.
Anger began to rise of in Raul. The Caithians, it seemed, had every intention of defending their little island. They were the first to fight them since he’d made an example of Kurzh to the rest of the world. Every other invasion had ended the second they’d started it; peace treaties were signed within a week of him entering, ones that, the opposing generals hoped, would keep what happened to the Kurzhians from happening in their country. The Caithians were the only ones to stand up to him, even though they knew full well what would happen to them if they did.
He’d make then pay for it, even more than the Kurzhians did.