Verse 32: RIDERS ON THE STORM
Shim Po did not hold with the old adage about fish and houseguests beginning to stink after three days. Three days might be acceptable for fish, but for houseguests like Captain Polglase three hours was too long. The Dragoon was impossible! She was always demanding things: water, paper, a chair with better lumbar support, his attention. She kept him from doing important things, such as staring off into space and despising the world at large. Worst of all, she insisted on calling him Po-Po, a nickname he had hated as an Apprentice. The situation was intolerable, and Shim Po could see only one solution.
Polglase had to die.
The question of how remained troublesome. Poison was out, so that left several messier options. He harbored no illusions regarding his ability to best the Dragoon in combat, physical, or magical. They might have learned roughly the same number of high damage spells, and he was no doubt more powerful, but Polglase actually used her spells in combat while to Shim Po they were more of an academic exercise. Direct confrontation would be suicide. He had to rely on the element of surprise.
Practically every Wizarding Guild requires of its members proficiency in at least one weapon, although for the largely cerebral Mystics it was not counted for credit towards advancement but purely on a pass/fail basis. Shim Po's weapon of choice was the throwing dagger, which worked at a distance, his preferred approach to dealing with most of the world. One well-placed blade, he believed, would rid him of this meddlesome Dragoon and enable him to return to his embittered existence in peace. It was definitely worth a try.
If only he could remember where he'd left his dagger. When had he last used it? Ah, there it was – stuck between the eyes of a book jacket portrait of the odious Lafcadio Hyssop affixed to the end of a bookcase. Desperately casual, he ambled in that direction, one eye on the Dragoon sitting placidly in her hard-backed chair, smoking her noxious pipe, and making notes in a journal. Pretending to look for a book, Shim Po bent down, resting one hand on the bookcase end as if to steady himself, and tried to pull the weapon free using only his fingertips. He worked it back and forth, loosening it, praying it would not squeak or worse, clatter to the floor. Finally, the dagger came free. Breathing a sigh of relief, he surreptitiously slipped it into his sleeve, then glanced at Polglase: still puffing and scribbling.
"Perfect!" the Mystic gloated silently. "My deliverance is at hand."
He flung with all the precision and strength at his command. The blade flew straight and true towards a spot a feather's breadth forward of the top of his unwitting victim's left ear. Without pausing in her journal entry, Polglase raised her left hand and caught it between thumb and forefinger.
"Did you drop this?" she asked nonchalantly.
Without sparing the Mystic so much as a glance, she threw the knife back at him. It whizzed past his head and stuck, vibrating, in a crack in the mortar between two stones. Shim Po reached for his ear in panic. To his infinite relief, it remained securely attached to his head. When he took his hand away, however, a clump of matted hair came with it. He regarded the shorn locks with dismay.
Polglase shut the journal with a finality that made her unwilling host jump in alarm. She stood and stretched, stifling a yawn with her pipe hand. "I fear it is getting late, and we have much work ahead of us," she said. "Perhaps your manservant can make up a cot for me?"
"N-n-nonsense," Shim Po stammered. "I would not hear of it. You can have mother's room. She only visits twice a year and is not expected until the Quilt-makers competition next month. Rogi has had a tiring day, and I see no reason to disturb him. I shall go and make sure the bed is properly prepared."
"You need not go to such lengths, Po-Po," Polglase said. "I am accustomed to roughing it."
"It is my pleasure, Captain. You must have the best my humble dwelling has to offer. It shall take but a moment."
He took the steps down to the second level, pausing briefly to wrest a particularly nasty looking broadaxe from a suit of armor on the landing. In mother's room, he cast a dream-sensitive enchantment on the weapon, then carefully placed it on the brocade canopy above the four-poster bed. Keyed to REM patterns, the axe would wait until the bed's occupant reached the deepest level of slumber before cutting through the fabric and neatly cleaving the target's skull in twain. He rubbed his hands together in glee as he climbed back up to his study.
"All is in readiness, Captain," he said obsequiously. "If you would be so kind as to follow me?"
Polglase eyed the room and declared it to her liking. "I shall see you at breakfast and we can plan how best to rescue the hapless victims of your nefarious endeavors. Until then, Little Po-Po." She firmly closed the door in his face.
"Sweet dreams, Captain," he replied.
He retired to his own chamber and lay awake all night, waiting for the morning so he could discover that the poor officer had fallen prey to a freak furniture malfunction. At dawn, he threw on his dressing gown and went to the kitchen. Rogi was there removing a tray of scones from the oven, and a pot of porridge bubbled on the stove.
"Good morning, Master," the lackey greeted him.
"Any word from our guest, Rogi?" Shim Po asked innocently. "I put her in mother's room."
"Not a peep, Master."
"She expressed a desire to join me for breakfast. Perhaps you should check on her."
"No need," came a voice from behind him. "Mmmm! Those smell delicious." Polglase took a seat at the table in the breakfast nook. "Any more of that tea from yesterday?" she asked.
"Excuse me," Shim Po said. "I, um, I forgot to… comb my hair." He dashed up the steps two at a time. The door to his mother's room lay ajar and he pushed it the rest of the way open. The axeblade had split the pillow straight down the middle, and feathers covered both sides of the bedside floor. He stared at the place where by all rights the infuriating intruder's cranium should have been.
This, he decided grimly, was not going to be easy.
He stopped by the adjacent lavatory, scanned its contents, and made a few minor adjustments. He then returned to his chamber, scrawled several lines on a piece of parchment and folded it over and over again. He looked in the mirror, ran a comb through his hair in a desultory fashion, and returned to the kitchen where Polglase had eaten all but two of the scones.
"I hope you do not mind," she said pleasantly. "They really are quite good."
"Not at all," the Mystic replied through clenched jaws.
"I am afraid the bed you so graciously provided me was a little too soft for my tastes," she reported. "I prefer something firmer. Perhaps your man can run an errand for me? Ilfgar the Tentmaker should have completed his work on my field pavilion by now. I shall set it up on the roof, now that I have created access from there to your study. I would go myself, but I would hate to deprive you of my company, Po-Po."
"By all means," the Mystic responded unctuously. "I have a short shopping list for him as well, it should be no trouble for him to stop on his way back from acquiring some provisions." Shim Po handed Rogi the note. "But before he goes, maybe the Captain would enjoy a hot bath?"
"Very much, Po-Po. You are quite considerate."
Rogi went off to the guest bathroom to comply. Once out of sight, he opened the note the Mystic had handed him.
This interloper will RUE the day she dared to interfere in the affairs of the mighty and puissant Shim Po! Procure an adult female cockatrice and stash it in the wine cellar.
P.S. We need more yogurt.
P.P.S. Eat this note.
Rogi groaned and drew the bath as directed. He then took the note up to the study and placed it in the Bad Ideas drawer.
When Shim Po saw the infernal creature disguised as a Captain of the Imperius Dragoons enter his study half an hour later, he greeted her pleasantly enough. Inwardly he seethed. He had been certain that either the Electrocution glyph he'd placed on the soap or the highly caustic acid substituted for the bubblebath would have done the trick. Quite clearly not, for the odious woman did not look in the least bit dead. Instead, she looked rosy and refreshed.
"Nothing better than a long, luxuriating bubblebath," she declared. "I feel like a new woman. But enough self-indulgence. Let us discuss the matter at hand."
Shim Po glared at Polglase but reluctantly set his not inconsiderable intellect to the task. The Captain first interrogated him at length and in minute detail regarding the exact mechanics of the spell that had caused so much mischief. She examined the diagram inscribed on the floor, and questioned the Mystic regarding every line and squiggle. She read the entire book from which Shim Po had derived the spell and listened to him recite the words a safe distance from the spell circle. When told about the fateful sneeze, she searched the room until she found the nest of spiders, one of whose members had been the variable in the equation. All throughout, she took copious notes. She made him start at the beginning and repeat everything, then once more while standing on one foot and hopping, telling the tale in a singsong chant.
"Let us have some lunch," Polglase commanded several hours later. "Watching you sweat has given me an appetite."
Shim Po rang for Rogi, but the Lackey had clearly not returned from town. He volunteered to make the midday repast, but Polglase insisted she would just have a look at the larder and take potluck. He tried to trip her on the way downstairs, but she nimbly avoided his feigned clumsiness, which promptly turned into the real article.
"Not that this hasn’t been fun, Po-Po," Polglase said as she field dressed his broken ankle, "but it must cease. The only reason you still draw breath is that you may prove yourself useful. These petty distractions of yours are diverting, but we have serious business ahead of us."
Once satisfied the bone was set correctly, she cast Fuse on the break. The Mystic tested the repair and hobbled painfully around the kitchen.
"I offer you a bargain, Po-Po," she said, watching him limp. "Stop trying to kill me, and give me your undivided attention. If we cannot devise a plan to retrieve the Minstrel and the Forest Troll, I will merely beat you to within a gnat's whisker of your life before turning you over to the Sapphire Authority to pay for your heinous actions. Otherwise…"
"Yes?" Shim Po asked, a quaver in his voice betraying his extreme trepidation.
"Things could become truly unpleasant. Agreed?"
Shim Po set his jaw, gnashed his teeth, and nodded.
"Excellent!" she beamed. "Sit down and I will see what I can rustle up for lunch."
Rogi returned as they finished the meal and handed the Captain a small wrapped package. She immediately left the room, presumably to check the quality of Ilfgar the Tentmaker's workmanship. Once she was out of earshot, the Mystic addressed his servant.
"The damnable Dragoon has more lives than a phoenix!" he raged. "Did you get the cockatrice?"
"No, Master," he admitted, cringing in anticipation of the drubbing he was certain would follow.
"I could not find any. I searched high and low and visited all the usual shady traffickers in forbidden creatures. None were to be had for love nor money."
"Dolt! Did you try the Amazon Commune?"
"They said cockatrices were on back order, and to allow four to six weeks for delivery."
"Damn!" Shim Po kicked a chair in frustration.
"I got the yogurt," Rogi offered helpfully.
"Will its gaze cause our unwelcome guest to burst into flame?" Shim Po demanded archly.
"No, Master," Rogi admitted dolefully.
"Then it is hardly an adequate substitute, is it?" the Mystic screamed at his underling. "What kind of henchman are you?"
"Actually, Master, Henchmen come from a rival guild. I am a–"
"Then what kind of Minion are you?"
"I apologize, Master. I have failed you and should be flogged."
"No time for that now," Shim Po scowled. "I must go appease this harridan." He dragged himself up the staircase, cursing the Captain's name with every agonizing step.
Polglase soon broke the operation into three phases: Scouting, Insertion, and Retrieval. Overall success depended on the magical construct's relative stability. Chaos being what it is, there was every possibility that the tunnels' endpoints could shift from their original positions. If so, all concerned were probably beyond salvation. Assuming that the portal would continue to appear at the top of the nearby hill, Phase One: Scouting would begin there, its objective to determine the nature of the environment at its far terminus: atmosphere, gravity, general terrain and climate, threat assessment, and so on. Both concurred that if the far end led to the vacuum of space, a pit of elemental slime, or the interior of a distant star, the mission would have to be scrubbed and Polglase would administer the promised disciplinary action. If the other end of the conduit opened onto anyplace remotely livable, however, Shim Po would earn a reprieve and Phase Two would commence.
Not surprisingly, Polglase had just the item to effectuate Phase One. Phase Two: Insertion would be simplicity itself. Polglase would go to the origination point of the vortex and allow herself to be whisked away to the terminus. Phase Three: Retrieval was the tricky part. They spent the better part of the afternoon and well into the evening considering and rejecting various scenarios such as tying a long cord to the Captain's ankle, and forgetting the whole misbegotten idea and going out to get plastered instead.
"Would the Master and his guest care for supper now?" Rogi asked, interrupting a discussion on the feasibility of using a mind-controlled dragon for the return journey. "I have made chicken and dumplings."
"Captain?" Shim Po inquired." She nodded curtly, barely looking up from her calculations. "We shall eat in the study. Set up a table. I will go see that the stew has been properly seasoned."
Minutes later, Shim Po laboriously carried two large steaming bowls of food up the stairs and set the first before Polglase, already seated at the table. He took the seat opposite. At his master's command, Rogi went to fetch a bottle of wine. Shim Po watched carefully as the Dragoon lifted spoonful after spoonful to her mouth, barely paying any attention to his own serving. Finally, Polglase belched appreciatively and dabbed at her lips with a napkin.
"That certainly hit the spot. I could not eat another bite." She pushed the bowl away. Shim Po looked into it; only one dumpling remained.
"It seems a shame to waste the last morsel, Captain," he observed.
"You've eaten less than half your own portion," she countered. "Was it not to your liking?"
"I will save the rest for later," he replied. "I find that if I eat too much at supper I tend to get drowsy and I shall surely need to keep my wits about me if we are to solve this conundrum. But you really should clean your plate, Captain, else Rogi will be disappointed."
"Then he shall have to be disappointed. In any event, we should have him clear so we can resume deliberation."
Taking his eyes reluctantly from the solitary dumpling, Shim Po rang for Rogi, who took the dishes and silverware, then returned below stairs. Less than a minute later, both heard a muffled explosion. Soon Rogi reappeared, disheveled and singed, his hair and vest still smoking. Without comment, he broke down the folding table, and carried it away. Polglase gave Shim Po a pointed look, and the Mystic feigned ignorance.
As the appointed time approached for the commencement of Phase One, Polglase and a still-limping Shim Po left the tower and traveled to the hill. When the portal opened, precisely two days after its inception, the Captain stood resolutely in front of the raging vortex and released a round device the size of a goose egg. It flew into the maelstrom. Two minutes later, it returned to Polglase's waiting hand. Once the portal slammed shut, they returned to the study, where Rogi was reshelving books. Polglase rolled up her left sleeve and attached the device – a military issue Wizard's Eye – to her battlengine. Immediately, six viewalls appeared around her. One labeled Visual showed the Minstrel running directly at the device, slowing, then falling face first to the ground. The Eye focused briefly on his prone body, then scanned its surroundings, taking note of an attractive woman with red hair and of slight build before traveling back through the vortex.
"He looks dead," Shim Po observed hopefully.
"Not in the least," Polglase replied, pointing to a viewall bearing the legend Thermal. "He is not at all well. His condition appears serious, but not necessarily fatal. There may yet be time to cure him if he cannot cure himself. Otherwise, everything else appears within nominal parameters." She indicated the other readouts. "The atmosphere is breathable, the gravity only 25% lower than normal, and the temperature quite pleasant. The location’s manaquo is barely enough to support sapient life however, which is a mixed blessing. Not much power to draw upon, but there are almost certainly no serious threats to be found there. Getting in should be a breeze."
"And back?" Shim Po asked.
"We shall have to put our heads together on that one, eh, Po-Po? I see one more thing that concerns me, though." She pointed at a bar graph on the Stability Index viewall. "Your little experiment is deteriorating."
"Let me see," Shim Po examined the figures. "I see what you mean. Each recurrence has been of shorter duration. I fear we can expect at most two more appearances of the gateway before it is gone forever. One more is a virtual certainty. A second? I cannot guarantee better than a five in twelve chance."
"I make it seven in twelve, but you are essentially correct." She stared at the screen contemplatively. "So I can get there easily enough, but even if we can devise a reliable extraction strategy, there may not be a portal to come back through. Still, in for a chit, in for a crown, I always say." She deactivated the battlengine.
"You still want to risk it?" Shim Po asked, incredulous.
"Of course," she replied cheerfully. "You're not one of those who always sees the flagon as half empty, are you?"
"Yes! I am!" he declared.
"Then I suppose you shall have to hope the portal only opens once more, while I will travel to this mana-poor realm and hope it comes twice. Care to place a side wager on who is right?"
Later, after the Captain Levitated through the hole in the roof, Shim Po lay awake in his windowless room and brooded, waiting for sleep that refused to come. He hated Captain Polglase with a scorching intensity, but could not help but admire and envy her as well.
The next morning, Shim Po found Polglase already immersed in the problem. Several books on the nature of Chaos lay scattered on the floor near her feet. "Awake at last!" she exclaimed when he entered the room. She handed him a thick volume. "Here. Tell me if this means what I think it means."
Shim Po took the treatise and sat down in his favorite chair. He read the indicated page twice. "This is pure twaddle!" he threw the book back to Polglase. "The very idea is enough to make me tear my beard out by the roots and knit it into booties for a salamander. How such tripe finds its way into print is beyond me!"
"Can it actually be done?" The Dragoon's demeanor was deadly serious.
"Who would be insane enough to try?"
"Leave sanity aside for the moment," she insisted. "Is it theoretically possible to manipulate Chaos in such a fashion?"
"You cannot –"
"Is. It. Possible?" she demanded. "Yes or no."
"Well…" Shim Po turned the concept around in his mind, forcing himself to think the unthinkable. Intensely aware that the Dragoon's eyes were boring into him, he wrestled with an intellectual challenge unlike any he had ever encountered. It required him to take everything he understood about the warp and woof of reality, pick it apart until reduced to individual threads, then re-weave them into a wholly new design. Then, unexpectedly, the tapestry was complete. The colors were wrong, and the image painful to contemplate, but the overall design held together.
"Yes," he whispered at last. "Yes, it could theoretically be done. But I cannot believe anyone powerful enough to succeed would be crazed enough to make the attempt!"
Polglase just continue to stare. Shim Po had never beheld anything as unnerving as that rock-hard gaze.
"Surely you cannot be suggesting –?" he began.
Polglase's unblinking eyes indicated otherwise.
"No!" He leapt to his feet. "I absolutely, positively, categorically refuse to do it!" His voice was filled with horrified outrage, and he wrenched his head around to escape that penetrating stare.
"I do not recall giving you a choice," Polglase said evenly. "It is the only way. I cannot do it, else I would send your manservant to this distant dimension in my stead. In any event, as the original spellcaster, you are the one person in all creation who stands the greatest chance of surviving the ordeal intact. It must be you, and perforce it shall." She roughly turned the trembling Mystic around to face her. "You must do this, Shim Po. No one else can."
Her unexpected use of his proper name took him by surprise.
"You honestly have faith that I will succeed in this incredibly foolhardy task?" he asked, voice tinged with disbelief and self-loathing. "You believe in me to that extent?"
"I see no other option. Show me one and I will gladly embrace it." Polglase's hands tightened on the older man's shoulder. "You have many petty and unpleasant traits, Shim Po, but you cannot have reached your present stature and until recently august standing in the community of Mystics without possessing a mind and will towering above the rest of us as your home towers over the landscape. Somewhere under your unwashed robes and malodorous hide there is the intellect of a giant and perhaps a heart to go with it. You have wrought great injustice, Mystic; it is incumbent upon you to set things aright. All I ask – nay, demand – is that you be true to your nature. It is said that power corrupts, but I hold that power ennobles. Find the hero that lurks inside you like some half-starved child. Bring him to the light."
Shim Po took these words of praise and encouragement and basked in them. He had never felt so proud and yet so humbled. He was on the verge of agreement when he suddenly realized what the Dragoon's game was. "You are giving me a pep talk," he declared. "Is this how you inspire your troops before battle?"
"Pretty much," she conceded.
"Well, it may work on a bunch of military lunkheads who barely know one end of a cannon from the other, but how dare you try to motivate ME?! I was regarded as a master in my field when you were still soiling your diapers!"
Polglase shrugged. "It was worth a try."
"Since you have no better nature to which I can appeal, I must resort to threats of violence."
"You cannot kill me," Shim Po thundered. "You need me! You said so yourself!"
"Who said anything about killing?" She removed a slim lancet from her collar and started to clean her fingernails. "With this tiny blade alone, I can inflict such pain that Caring Death will earn her name."
"You do not frighten me!" Shim Po barked.
"Yes. I do." Her fingers flicked and Shim Po vaguely felt a pressure just below the point where the ball of his left shoulder met the third rib. He saw the protruding lancet in his chest, and then all he saw was a purple and orange sky dotted with searing points of white light, and everything around him was reduced to primal energy, burning, shredding his nerves and gnawing at his senses. He tasted pain howling through the canyons of what had until seconds before been his consciousness. And then…
Polglase removed the stiletto and wiped the blood off on Shim Po's tatty robe. The pain evanesced. Not even the memory of it remained.
"I am done toying with you, Mystic. You are responsible for this concatenation of events. With great responsibility there must also come great power, else it is all for naught. You must find the power within yourself to remedy the situation. Otherwise… I shall have to get creative."
Shim Po fought to recapture his breath and composure. He had never been used in such a fashion in all his millennia. Now, he decided, was the time to teach this strutting popinjay what it meant to face a true Magnus. He prepared to cast Lethe, one of the most powerful Mind spells he knew. It would break this upstart's brain into tiny pieces, wipe them clean of even the most basic memories, turning her into a blank slate with scarcely the mental capacity to breathe. After dark, Rogi would leave the drooling imbecile in the depths of Veyolak Swamp, from which many a traveler had failed to return. No one would be the wiser. Filled with righteous fury, he cast the spell.
A burnished golden helm appeared out of nowhere, covering the Dragoon's head. She flipped up the visor.
"Mind Blank charm," she informed him. "Makes the wearer impervious to all Mind spells by shielding the mind to the point of transparency. What a spell cannot see, it cannot affect. Now for Aramoth's sake, stop farting around and act like a man!"
Shim Po folded like an origami toad, all the fight gone from him. "But why, dammit?" he demanded, fighting back the sobs that threatened to drown him. "It cannot be on account of the accursed Troll, so it must be that Minstrel. Who is he to you? Your son? You do not strike me as maternal. Some other relative? Your lover perhaps, as bizarre as that may seem? Why does his fate concern you to the point that you would put yourself in jeopardy on his behalf? At the very least, tell me why this is so blessed important to you."
Polglase paused, then sat, indicating Shim Po should do likewise. "All things considered," she said, "a fair question, and one not easily answered." She took out her pipe and pouch and began the ritual of filling, tamping, and lighting. Once the draw was smooth, she blew out a long stream that rose to the rafters in graceful curlicues. "I was born on the largest moon of Hatoma, the fifth planet circling the rimstar Tymparee. I doubt you know of either. Tymparee is a star of minor magnitude on the far reaches of the Outer Worlds, and Hatoma is an unremarkable gasbag with no rings and only a handful of satellites. The moon is simply known as Hatoma 4, although some call it Farhomestead. It is an agricultural colony for a gentry house, a minor one at that, and the inhabitants are almost all farmers. It produces enough wheat, barley, and rutabagas to satisfy the needs of the closest three star systems, although the need for rutabagas has always escaped me. The farms are large, family run affairs, managed by clans whose lineage is as old as the soil beneath their well-worn boots. Clan Varoon, my clan, owned a medium-sized parcel, just under a district, or about 1250 fields. Not the biggest farm by a longshot, and far from the smallest."
She puffed for a while, evidently composing the next part of her tale.
"Families on Farhomestead are line families, adding husbands and wives as the demands of planting and harvest dictate, producing children in bunches 45 weeks from the date after the last bushel is safely ensiloed. I was the 35th of 62, named Holisana after a matriarch who passed away mere days before my birth. It means 'pearblossom' in the local dialect. I was born to work the fields, tend the livestock, make beds and build barns, and to gaze at the unchanging horizon with no more curiosity than a heifer. But something in my genetic or spiritual make-up went seriously awry. I could not view the horizon without wondering what lay beyond, even though I knew it was either more of the family's farm or one indistinguishable from it. And so I reached the age of twenty-five with nothing to show but calluses and freckles and nothing to look forward to but work and marriage into another family of farmers in a neighboring district."
Her words had taken on a bucolic mesmerizing quality which threatened to lull Shim Po to sleep.
"Then the recruiters came." Her change of tone snapped the Mystic to attention. "There was a war, they said, in the Rigash Cluster. Predatory hordes of direwings had ravaged a protectorate’s mining outpost, and destroyed three of its fledgling colonies. The direwings claimed the worlds as their own, even though they had been uninhabited, and the Imperius was determined to take them back. The recruiters offered a bounty to any who would set down their scythe and take up arms. I cared little for the bounty and less for the Imperius, but I gladly took the Imperior's talen and affixed my sigil to the contract. Anywhere but here looked like a good place to be, and a chance like that was not apt to come again in my lifetime. I kissed my mothers goodbye, endured the uncomprehending stares of my myriad siblings who could never understand why I would fight for someone else's land, and shipped off to be trained at the Legion outpost on Hatoma 3. I learned to crawl for wings on my belly, shoot and stab and slash and eat out of tin buckets in the rain, and my heart sang. I knew I had found my calling. That first skirmish, with direwing firebombs blasting all around us and the cacophony of the screaming dying and the smell of scorched earth in my nostrils – it was better than the first day of spring after a brutal winter. I earned my citizenship the hard way, in the service of my Imperior, and took the name Polglase for reasons that made sense at the time…"
She waved her hand, and a sash appeared, draped over her left shoulder and covered in ribbons and medals.
"Po, I have been a soldier for 571 years. These represent the story of my life, and I am not sure I could tell you what all of them signify, even without the need for secrecy. I have a talent for war, Mystic. Not a taste, but a talent, and it soon came to the attention of my superiors. I achieved the rank of Corporal and command of my own company in record time, just under a decade, and made Sergeant in only 47 years. Rather than give me a battalion to command, they screened the sergeants for magical ability, and to my amazement they shipped me off to the Imperius War College on Trigori. I had never been to school before, barely knew how to read anything more complicated than orders and dispatches, and there I was, a Low Strain Wer in the company of Imperials, Alfaen, Tazyr, Orku, and Wolfen. Me! Holisana Polglase, wide-eyed homely farmgirl with the lingering stink of manure in her pores, trained as a battlemage!"
The decorations and medals faded as quickly as they had appeared.
"I will not bore you with details of my accomplishments, Mystic. When I attained the rank of Captain, instead of getting my own Legion, I was honored with a post in the Dragoons, the Imperius's elite shock troops. Even though it meant starting over again as a mere Nonce and years of more intensive study, I accepted immediately. Advancement followed advancement, and on my 400th birthday, I regained the rank of Sergeant and nine years later was assigned to the Division of Homeworld Security. In time I re-earned my Captaincy, performing deeds so dark and secret that I dare not breathe word of them to myself. I have served the Imperius in light and shadow for 571 blood-drenched years, Master Po, and you want to know how they reward me?"
Her eyes flashed dangerously.
"I will tell you how they reward a warrior! They offer her a choice of two postings. First, I can become an instructor! They'd condemn me to sit behind a desk and teach Anger Management to a bunch of snot-nosed brats with body counts lower than their Intellect Ratings. Can you picture me showing mere striplings how to turn their rage into a finely honed blade, to let it temper them in ways that will make them more efficient engines of war? Didn’t think so. But if I refuse Command’s gracious gift it gets even better! By passing up the academic life, I can sign on as bodyguard slash companion slash mentor to the third daughter of His Exalted Grace, Preston Anzower, the charming Princess Josephinallia – Jojo to her friends – who, having reached her 20th birthday, is now ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting and disinterested world as she matriculates at Lord Xelo's Academy for Girls. So I am faced with this choice: I can spend the next thirty years growing moss on my north side in some classroom, or try to blend into the background at an endless array of cotillions and garden parties watching Jojo trip over her feet or her tongue and keeping an eye out for kidnappers, brigands, or suitors beneath her station."
She stood and pulled him to his feet by his beard, "You ask why I would place my very existence at risk on behalf of a Minstrel whose acquaintance I first made three days ago? Is that what you want to know, Shim Po?" She pulled downwards so his face was practically touching hers. He swallowed hard, then nodded. "Because it sounds like fun!"
Later that night, the two mages stood together, but not too close together, on the nearby hilltop, waiting for the planet's rotational cycle to come full circle, for the precise alignment of sun and stars and magnetic fields to synchronize and reactivate the transdimensional tunnels. They had little left to say to each other, so each kept his or her own counsel. Polglase stood resplendent in her battle armor. Shim Po had changed into clean robes for the occasion, although he was not sure why he had gone to the trouble. A pleasant breeze carried laughter from the Greenhill Tavern, whose lights shone in the distance.
Polglase cleared her throat. Shim Po looked at her. "I am relying upon you, Mystic," she said.
"I am perfectly aware of that," he responded stiffly.
"Know this. Should the portal not open again on the morrow, then we are square. Your obligations to me and the others will be at an end, and you shall be free to live out your life, burdened only by your own conscience, which if I am any judge of character will trouble you no more than a speck of dust on your mustache. If anyone should come looking for me, tell them whatever story you desire. I shan't be there to contradict you."
"But if the portal does come again one day hence, and I find I cannot traverse it homeward with my companions, rest assured I will spend the rest of my days searching for an alternate route. I am tenacious and patient, and my imagination and determination know few limits, so eventually I shall succeed. When I do, my sole purpose will be to ensure that you never know a minute free from extreme pain and humiliation. That is the price of failure, Shim Po. That is the cost of treachery. Am I clear?"
"As the air itself, Captain."
"On the other hand, if you succeed and I do return safely, I give my oath that I shall consider all accounts paid in full. Your spiteful actions shall remain our little secret. I will not inform the Council of Mages, nor exact further punishment despite your many amusing attempts on my life."
"That is more than fair." Shim Po shuffled his feet. "How did you avoid the axe, if you do not mind an impertinent question?"
"I slept on the floor."
"I see. And the bath items?"
"Disarm Traps. Neutralize Acid."
"I suspected as much. And the exploding dumpling?"
"Oh that." Polglase hesitated a moment. "I truly had eaten my fill. That was pure random blind-pig luck. And now, unless I miss my guess, I believe my ride is here."
She lowered her visor and walked calmly into the yawning vertical pit. Shim Po watched her go impassively and waited for the tunnel to collapse upon itself. Then he trudged towards his tower, favoring his right foot since his left ankle twinged with every step.
"Addle-pated fool," he grumbled under his breath. "Does she really believe I would risk my life for such as she?"He slammed the large oaken door behind him and, aside from the trill of nightbirds, all was still.