By A. Broadhead
The horse's hooves clapped through the mud. The plains around Freeport normally didn't get much in the way of rain, and its steady pattering on the roof had kept Sparrow Swift awake through the night. It would be almost moon-set now, though the last blue Sphere would be hidden behind the clouds. She wondered who would be galloping around at this time of night in the dark and muck, without even the moons to guide him.
At the sounds of the horseman steadily approaching their farmhouse, Sparrow heard her father get up out of his chair by the fire, the old wood of chair and floorboards alike creaking as he made his way cautiously towards the front window. Then his footsteps circled back again to pause by the hearth, and with a faint clatter, he took the old beaten sword off its hooks over the mantlepiece.
Sparrow's heart leapt into her throat, but she knew her father would be angry if he knew she was awake. So she stayed where she was, in bed, and began hoping the horseman was nothing more than the next farmer over needing help with a calf coming before it was due. Or perhaps the rider would pass them in the rain? There were a lot of newcomers in Freeport because of the war, and not all the travelers out this way cared about or even saw the Swifts' little farm, tucked in a cottonwood grove between the river and the fields...
But no. The horse gave a flurry of beats just outside as its rider sawed too hard on the reins and the beast flailed to keep from tumbling over before it could come to a complete stop. There was another loud splatter as the rider dismounted, then squelched its way towards their door.
Sparrow heard her father quietly unlatch the lock and imagined him raising his sword, ready to bring it down on the head of the intruder as soon as they pushed their way inside —
"Swift! Swift! It's over!"
The door swung open, and the sound of rain became even louder. Sparrow wasn't sure who had moved first. No one cried out. For a moment, the little girl had the eerie feeling the two had both disappeared into the night, but then the rider spoke, pitched so she could just hear him over the rain...
"It's over. The Mogul won. Freeport is part of Krygon now."
Father hissed. "Those murdering bastards."
"We think the northern border will stay open a while longer. Will you come with us? It might be our only chance before he sends out his patrols."
"No. By the gods, I have a family now and this farm I worked so hard to build. I couldn't uproot them, even for the sake of a greedy warlord..."
There was another long pause, but Sparrow found her breath coming easier now she knew the two men wouldn't try and kill each other. She recognized the rider’s voice: one of the priests from the nearby city of Freeport. He and Father had been friends for years, before she had even been born.
"You'd better get out of here before they come for you," continued Father at last. "Or learn well which gods the Mogul still sanctions, if you don't want to find yourself tried for heresy."
The priest spat, and Sparrow couldn't help jumping at the rude gesture from a holy man. "Learn yourself," he advised sharply.
Another long silence followed — or silent as it could be, with the rain — and perhaps they still talked under it, out of Sparrow's earshot.
Then, finally, the door closed. Her father walked back across the floor, being less careful to keep quiet now, and rehung his sword over the mantlepiece. Sparrow chanced a glance over, to see if the rider had come inside to stay the night. Instead only her father looked back at her.
"Sparrow?" He sounded incredulous. "Why are you not asleep?"
"The rain kept me up," she replied, which was partly true.
"The rain is only Jarilon's way of showing His love for us," Father answered, as if she were still a young child. As if! She was almost seven years old now, after all.
She grimaced but, hopeful that the change of subject meant he wouldn't scold her for eavesdropping, went on to remark, "Jarilon has a funny way of showing His love, then, doesn't He?"
"Without the gods, the crops wouldn't grow and the sun wouldn't rise," Father answered, but a flicker of a frown crossed his lined face. He ran his hand through his curly hair, which had gone gray at the temples. Sparrow liked to tease him that the color made him look like a sheep, but Father didn't look like he'd appreciate the joke today.
Sparrow licked her lips. "Daddy, what's wrong? What did that man want?"
He paused. "A great change has come to our lives, Sparrow."
"The Mogul?" Sparrow asked, recalling the priest's news.
"Is he really as mean as all the stories say?"
"Never mind." Her father cut her off gruffly. "So long as the taxes are paid, he has no reason to interfere with the doings of honest farmers. Now, that will be the end of it. You should be asleep, child."
The promised lecture loomed. Sparrow sighed. "Well, there's one thing that won't ever change, Daddy."
"You and your grumpy-facing!"
It got a smile out of him, and he came over to tickle her until she squealed and he quickly hushed her, so as not to wake her siblings. She always thought that was unfair, that he'd rile her up and then command her to calm down — but that was fathers for you, wasn't it? With her blanket newly snuggled up under her chin, she watched him move back to the fire in the adjoining room, his brown weather-beaten face still crinkled with warmth.
If she had known that smile would be the last one she would see from him in years, she would have treasured it more.
Only a handful of miles away, the pennants of the independent city-state of Freeport were struck down from around the proud harbor that gave the city its name, falling in tatters from what was left of the city walls after the long siege. In their place, banners depicting the Mogul's armored visage rose up, scowling from behind the mask of his spiked helm, as if examining the latest addition to his Krygon empire and finding it wanting. Citizens huddled in their homes as the Division stamped up and down the streets, some on foot, some astride warhorses, and some guiding the oxen who pulled the heavy siege engines. Behind those came the ranks of the footmen, tall pikes and shields in perfect order, with each timed thump of the foot echoing between the tall buildings, seeming to make the ground shake.
It was more display of power than practical; the heavy rain fouled the wheels of the wagons and turned ornamental feathers or crests into sodden messes. Still, the citizens of Freeport peeked fearfully out from their windows and marked it well.
Even the akor'mari — elfin, lithe, gray-skinned dwellers of the sprawling underground Reaches — came out of their burrows to witness it. For the most part the humans ignored them; akor'mari were strange and had a reputation for being untrustworthy and cruel. Yet not a few of the humans looked at them and wondered which they'd rather have closer at hand today: the akor'mari, or the Mogul's Division.
The akor'mari seemed to wonder as well.
"So they lost the battle at the walls," said Neddryn, baring his teeth mockingly at one of the blocks of soldiers that passed them. The soldiers were too disciplined to even glance his way, though their commander, coming up behind them on a horse that towered over Neddryn, scowled and shook his lance warningly until Neddryn backed away.
"Don't antagonize 'em," hissed the other akor'mar, standing at Neddryn’s shoulder and watching the endless lines of soldiers himself.
"Why not? Since when do the human wars concern us?"
"You ever noticed who rules our home-away-from-home here?” the other replied sarcastically. “ ‘Sides, our big brother's got plans for them, and you know how he gets about those.”
"Not thinkin' of joinin' 'em, is he?" Neddryn let out a raucous laugh. "Akor'mari! On horses and in plate armor like these buffons? Now that would be a laugh!"
The other shrugged. "Maybe. Times're changin' fast, Neddy."
"Hmph," grunted Neddryn, turning back to watch the column as it continued up towards the old keep. “They ain’t just gonna leave us alone like the old guard did, are they?”
“ ‘specially not with you gettin’ up to yer tricks. No more nekru squawling on the rooftops at night, alright? I doubt they’d think twice about fillin’ ya full with arrows instead of just a rotten melon or two.”
Neddryn glanced back at his brother and cracked a wide grin. “Oh, don’t worry so much! I doubt they climb as well as we can.”
“Just be careful,” the other akor’mar grumbled.
After a few more minutes of watching, the pair turned away from the road and slunk off into the shadows. The long lines of Krygon soldiers continued their march at their backs, heedless.
"Strength in unity; unity in the Mogul! Rise now, and accept your burden, soldier."
The voice echoed through the old halls. Hale, now officially Commander Hale, came to her feet, snapping to stand at attention. The old man facing her seemed like he'd have to crack his bent-over spine in half to be able to do the same, but somehow he managed it. Hale tried not to shudder as his claw-like fingers dabbed the traditional red warpaint on her face, a holdover from the ancient ways of the Krygon people in the southern jungles. She turned to face the audience behind her once he was done, putting a snarl like a tiger’s across her face — as was also tradition — then beginning the thump of her fist on her blackiron breastplate.
The many Krygon soldiers in the captured keep's great hall returned the same drumming salute, with not quite the same rhythm as hers, and the thud of metal and flesh rebounded against the stone walls in a cacophony. Hale — Commander Hale now, she had to remind herself — felt her chest swell in pride as she looked at them. Many were wounded, some still with arms in slings or bloody cloths wrapping their heads instead of their uniform helmets, but they had been victorious. And now, on the completed conquest of the Freeport city-state and a new opening in the Division's chain of command, they were also hers.
As the noise of the salute subsided and the soldiers began to disperse, Commander Hale turned back to speak with the people standing behind her on the dais. They looked up at her from under a variety of hoods and ceremonial headdresses: the magi and priests of the Mogul’s Favored.
"I have plans for bringing this city to heel,” she told them. “Our first order of business should be to find replacements for some of the key governmental positions in the city. An army can’t run on no supplies, and a city like this one can’t supply essentials without leadership loyal to the Mogul.”
"The Freeport aristocracy won't like that," warned one of them. Commander Hale had to master herself so as not to stare at the deep scars on the man’s face, evidence of the worship of some dark god or another that the Mogul favored. Yes, favored only, for the Mogul considered himself above even the gods. Commander Hale's lips creased into a smirk. It was one of the reasons she liked the warlord.
"They don't have to like it, do they?" she said, subtly layering threat into the tone of her voice. It was enough to make many lower ranked soldiers shudder or promptly find some order to attend to, but the Mogul's Favored were used to that treatment from the Mogul himself, and so they weren't as fazed.
"If you will have my advice, you will first see to the cleansing of the city's temples," said another of the priests, her face scarred similarly to the first. Hale scowled as the others nodded and murmured their agreement. She could see right through the Favored’s posturing and knew that the priestess’ advice was more order than friendly counsel, and she ground her teeth in frustration.
"Very well," she said. "I will see that no trace remains of the goddesses Lunaria or Mamea, or even of that northerner religion, Shen-Bahan, while I rule here in Freeport. You have my loyalty and oath; the Mogul's eyes are upon me."
"Good, but do not forget Carro," the first priest hissed. "The city is full of His worshippers, and their zeal for Carrock virtue pose the most threat to us and the Mogul's designs."
Commander Hale bit back a sigh and forced herself to nod in agreement instead. She severely doubted any terrified priests of a false god could threaten the Mogul, but appearances had to be kept up. "I won't forget Carro, twice-cursed His name. His tenets will become as outdated as their laws. Stop your worrying, Brother. The Division can handle it." How strong could Carro be anyway, she added privately, to let His most precious city fall to His sworn enemies?
The hall was nearly cleared behind her now. Commander Hale saluted the Favored and bid them courteous, but pointed, goodbyes. Her work would not rest just because of the traditional frippery associated with the Commander title, after all.
She called for her aide and then passed from the great hall to begin sussing out the rest of the old keep, earmarking certain rooms for barracks, offices, and armories. Already her soldiers were hard at work defacing any sign of the old Freeport culture and making the place wholly Krygon. The aide watched their progress uneasily, then came to attention when Commander Hale clucked to her.
"I have a mind to change more than just the decorations around here," Hale told her. "What do you think of recruiting from the farmers and local akor'mari for more conscripts?"
It was a risky move, politically and militaristically, and she wondered what the aide would make of it. Farmers would need training before they could become passable soldiers, and Hale would have her work cut out for her. Still, if she could draft a member of each family into the army, their kin would be that less interested in a rebellion, in case they spill the blood of their sons – or vice versa.
As for the akor'mari, no one really knew what the almost-human creatures were capable of. She knew her Krygon histories vaguely — it wasn't her homeland — that the Mogul's first conquests had been of the akor'mari holdings in the far south, decades ago, and that he held them in high esteem now as allies. Yet the akor'mari still rarely had anything to do with the Krygon empire beyond lip service, keeping to their burrows and the alleys of the Mogul’s proud cities, scheming amongst themselves. It was almost as if they were afraid of the Mogul...or disdainful.
Hale hated parasites of the Mogul's governance as much as she hated sycophants to his favor, and so she disliked the akor'mari, but she had to admit their secretive ways also intrigued her.
"If you think it wise," her aide said carefully in reply, returning Hale’s attention to the present. Hale turned to scowl at her. The aide was one such sycophant herself. Hale was certain the small woman, with almost Sheyn-pale skin, had been assigned to spy on her by one Mogul's Favored or another. Political plots and the bumping off of rivals was common both in the Division and out of it, but that didn't mean Hale had to like it.
She tilted her head. Or perhaps even put up with it, now. The Favored would soon be returning south to the city of His now that they had witnessed the capturing of Freeport. The conquered city-state was well on its way to becoming completely hers, without any politicians to get in her way— if she played her cards right.
"One of the first things I will have to do is find a new aide, I believe," Commander Hale said slyly, adopting a thoughtful tone. "There is much work to do in Freeport, and I will need someone suited to the task. See, if there's one thing I can't abide in a servant it's...mm. Well. Can you imagine what it is?" She grinned — upper teeth bared in a half-snarl — at the aide.
The aide paled, her skin going as white as a bleached bone. Such an odd trait of those with northern ancestry, but today, that quirk was useful, telling Hale all she needed to know of the woman’s fortitude.
"I-I assure you, m-miss, I am loyal only to you…"
“Is that so?” Hale asked her. Privately, she wondered. Had this woman had to scrape a living on the decks of a grimy fishing boat as Hale once had? Only given a chance after the Mogul had come in and forcefully reordered her clan to his liking? Only the brutal survived in the Division; Hale knew that, and had taken advantage of it then. When the Mogul had marched on her people for an attempted rebellion, she saw to it she stood on top of the pile of corpses, still smoldering in the first barrage of the Division’s mage’s fire, and demanded a place in his retinue despite the debris still falling around her.
The horned, armored figure had towered over her, still just a bare slip of a girl, her skin shining with sweat under the hot sun and the patches of ash that had turned its deep brown gleam to gray. Yet he had seemed impressed by her determination, had taken her up on her offer. She had been sure to feed him the scalps of many more successful Division raids to remind him of that ambition over the years. It had earned her the position she had now.
Yet there were some among the Krygons who believed the violence and uprooting of the conquered unnecessary, who would grovel before the boots of whoever promised a return to the old, stratified ways of their former kings or queens before the Empire had extended its hand. Too often, those were the people who became traitors, fleeing to the country of Tarith, Krygon's sworn enemy.
Hale wondered all this as she watched the aide stutter and bow. Perhaps this woman was more than just a needle in her side, courtesy of the Mogul's Favored’s bureaucrats, and was entertaining traitorous thoughts even now...
Or, perhaps, she was only an incompetent aide. Regardless, Hale knew she could do better.
"Dismissed," Hale told her aide succinctly. "And make it permanent," she added with just enough venom to put an urgency in the aide's step as she fled.
Hale could always delve further into the woman's background at leisure later, once she was out of Hale's hair. The Division wouldn't question an accusation of treason too heavily, no matter what the investigation turned up, and it would ascertain the aide’s swift removal. The Commander continued on her survey of the castle with a feeling of satisfaction. It was a much-needed cleaning of the nest, and she expected many more such scourings to follow.
As the aide's footsteps hurriedly pattered off behind her, Hale pushed her way into another room of the keep. This one was relatively small and contained a large window overlooking Freeport’s famous harbor, with the glass almost of fine enough quality she could see through it without any distortions. The work of a mage, or a heretical Carrock priest? Hale decided the distinction wouldn't matter; it was a very nice window. Those engravings of the false god on the walls needed to go, of course, but that would be easy enough for a work crew to take care of.
Hale came to stand before one of them. The mural of Carro stretched up to the ceiling, eyes turned outward like he was watching the goings-on in the harbor behind her. He was depicted as a male of Nulst descent, as she was — which struck her as odd, given Freeport was on the clear other side of the continent from the Isles of Nulst. Yet, as a true port town, Freeport attracted peoples and riches from all over: one of the reasons the Mogul so wanted it in his control.
Most of the carvings her Division soldiers had defaced so far were of the other common depiction of Carro, with the pale skin and chiseled nose she was used to associating with her Tarithian enemies, even though not all Tarithians were pale-skinned. In the painting before her, though, Carro had cornrows like a Krygon warrior and had a broad black Nulst jaw, although the cut of his suit of plate armor was hard to place. A more ancient style, or perhaps the artist was merely trying to be more encompassing to all cultures, as Freeport itself had been…?
Hale stopped herself as she noticed her hand reaching towards the blasphemous artwork, and swiftly snatched it back. She cared nothing for gods, and now that she was in a position of power, the rest of the Division would be quick to fall upon any evidence that she was less than completely perfect for the role. The artwork had to go. If not, she would be better off riding for the country of Tarith than sticking around in Krygon waiting for her own execution order.
Carefully putting that unpleasant thought away, she swung on her heel and almost ran into the man standing behind her, poised just inside the shadows as if he were one of them.
"Who in all the infinite Spheres are you?" Commander Hale barked fiercely, to cover her surprise.
The man saluted, fist to chest, but there was something odd about it. It took her a moment to realize he was using the wrong hand, and that he thumped his chest with the side of his fist instead of his knuckles. Not from the Division, was he?
"That's better," said Commander Hale grudgingly, "but still not good enough. What gives you the right to accost the Commander in her own office without so much as a hail or a knock?"
With arrogance matching that of the Favored, the man went right along with his business without addressing her question. "I am here to debrief you of the threat posed by the Shadow," he said, “for it is something I have watched long in this city, under the Mogul’s orders.” His voice was strong and even, rather than the hissing whisper Hale had come to expect from the Favored and their priests.
"Gods, more gods, is it?" she groaned. That might explain his arrogance. Perhaps the Favored didn’t think their advice was enough and had to send a solicitor up to her, too.
"Not exactly," he replied. "It would take much of the night to explain Their mysteries, after all."
"As fitting for the Shadow, I suppose," growled Commander Hale. Did she detect mockery in his voice? "Or perhaps this is just your foolish idea of a proposition, little man?"
Though the Division was open to any woman who could prove herself, most of the ranks were held by males. Hale had learned long ago she could sometimes use this to her advantage. The honorable would lose their balance and the lecherous would show their hand when pushed by such a suggestion, and then Hale would have them right where she wanted.
However, to his credit, this man only kept a stiff silence instead of sinking to answering the insult. His calm gravity suddenly struck her as markedly different from the anxious wheedling of the other Krygon priests she had met, and Commander Hale became intrigued.
She was determined not to show it, still. "Oh, very well," she growled. "You may speak, but don't take long. I have a position of aide to fill, and that will also take all night, if I know the kind of applicants I normally get for the job."
"A new aide?" asked the man. "What happened to the old one?"
"Nothing. ...nothing yet." Her tone held a threat for the man, too.
"Choose wisely," he said softly, indifferent to it.
"Are you here to advise me in the choosing of aides now, too, little man?"
"No," said the man honestly, "only that there is a precedent, you might say. Or a prophecy. Indeed, that is part of my report. The 21st Division needs the position of Captain to be filled, to keep the powers of the Shadow at bay."
Great. More mystical nonsense. "So go take the most likely looking officer and promote him," said Commander Hale impatiently. "Other Divisions under the Mogul are not my problem, little man."
The man regarded her, and Commander Hale prickled under the sardonic gaze. Then he sighed.
"No, I see you're not the one," he said.
"...and I realize I forgot to introduce myself. Captain Cambar Shamlan, of the 21st Division." The name was a La'aln one, from the peoples of the eastern deserts, as was the brown hand he extended to shake her dark one.
Hale squinted at the man. "A captain, is it? I thought you said that was the position that needed filling. Or is this the Mogul's new idea of peak efficiency among the ranks? Instant self-promotions?"
"Though you will go far in your own way, I suppose," murmured Shamlan, as if completing a private thought.
That irritated Commander Hale, too. "Talk straight or not at all to your superior, Captain."
"That tone won't work on me," he said serenely.
Shamlan shook his head, as if to diffuse the argument. “Straight speech it is, then. I'm looking for the one who will take on my position after I am gone, Commander. Seri-Jon — or Sirillon to your Mogul's pantheon — told me I could find him or her here."
"Seri-Jon told you? So not only do the Favored want me to clean out the false gods of Old Freeport, now here you are telling me you had a conversation with one."
"Do not," said Shamlan sharply, "confuse my god with those of the weak Tarithians. Sirillon is a god known to the Mogul, and to his 21st. And He takes very poorly to being ridiculed, in either of His aspects!"
Commander Hale bit back a groan. Favored or not, all priests were the same. Though she had only vaguely heard of this one's god of Sirillon — or Seri-Jon or whatever he wanted to call it — she was seeing that diplomacy would serve her better than threat with this unusual man, as much as she still wanted to knock his head from his shoulders. "Very well, Captain. I will give you authorization to search among my soldiers for a suitable replacement for your position. 'Ware you, we are in active recruitment. There will be a lot of names to trawl through, some among the akor'mari of this city." Maybe that would discourage him; akor'mari weren’t known to be fond of the human pantheons.
"I'm certain I can find someone suitable, thank you," Shamlan replied pleasantly. "Commander," he then added, like an afterthought, again making his strange sideways salute.
"Captain," Commander Hale acknowledged with a growl. She was not used to a lower rank taking a dismissal before she gave it, and she didn't like it at all. She didn’t salute him back.
"I will be in contact with you over the next few years," Shamlan told her over his shoulder as he made for the door. "This is especially true if my candidate requires basic training."
"Only the Mogul's best," replied Commander Hale, still annoyed. "Captain. You are dismissed."
"Permission granted," said Shamlan coyly, and before she could reach for him to beat a bit of respect into him, the man was gone, so completely she couldn't even see his outline in the gloom.
For a man following the god of the sun and stars, he sure had a way with shadows, Hale thought. Or the Shadow? Commander Hale shook her head, and made a mental note to tell her aide to get a full report out of the man later.
Then she sighed. A full report, once she chose a new aide, of course.
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