This series of stories, about the remote desert fortress and its unwilling new recruits, is unashamedly inspired by the Trails series as I mentioned above. I like, in those stories, the way in which comfortable worlds of the characters, the easy missions and simple folk, are used for rude awakenings.
This story is about that; a situation the characters are coming to believe they understand is undermined as they are faced with the reminder that the world outside their bubble is one where people with influence and without morals will encourage a path of cruel least resistance, and where their integrity will be tested.
Sunrise over Novis Eger was beautiful. The grey sky of a desert night would begin, by degrees, to burn orange and at the edge of that sun’s incursion take a strange lightness that shifted infinitesimally from blue to pink. If there was cloud, there would be a marbling of colours out from bright epicentre that cast the horizon in stark dark shapes. If the sky was clear, it would just become a mass of dusky orange-pink, the colour of spices and herbal tea. The eye would adjust, and what began as silhouettes would become in time things of fine detail, brown and grey on black. From the main gun-platform facing the border the compass of the horizon was a litany of memorised landmarks for any soldier of the fortress. Battery A, covering the town of Medina (a smear of sand-caked houses of pastel plaster and sharply sloping tiled roofs), the surrounding plains and a rail-bridge across a deep gorge just a little further away and visible only as a fold in the land. Battery B, covering acres of rocky scrub and somewhere in the expanse of pale ground a watering-point where it was believed there was a fuelling-station nestled in rock.
That fixed point of burning orange light was beautiful to anyone manning the cold, exposed platform overnight because it meant morning was here, and sleep could be found.
This morning it was not right. The sunrise was not the pristene arrival of a burning circle in the sky, it was the emergence of a smudge like a fingerprint on a camera-lens or pair of spectacles. Out in the rough lands of the Meravian border there was a sandstorm, the sky filled with whipped-up dust and dense clouds. It had been recorded by the observer at the walls, eyes far more experienced than the current guests noting down every detail of how it skirled about the sky to gauge where it would go and when it would arrive at Novis Eger. The meteorologists would mark its course with fine dotted curves on their map, forming a gradually-expanding fan of places that could be the eye of the storm.
The day passed in dry, hot anticipation of the storm. The air had an edge to it, like the world was inhaling before a fit of coughing, as dust began to dance off the ground and into each troublesome breath. The cadets from the Imperial Academy had only been in their new home a few awkward, uncomfortable weeks – merely long enough for the embarrassment of their arrival to be replaced by the displeasure at the living-conditions – and now they were to see what a storm was like. There had been a momentary hope that the weather worsening would see their duties lessened, a misunderstood interpretation of the low-voiced communiques with the nearby aerodrome describing conditions too bad for flying. Instead, it seemed, poor weather simply meant that there was more to do. Marie-Claude, drawn from her first day to the tough, practically-minded engineering corps, was helping check the sandtraps and seals on the fortress’ motor-pool. Marin had found the quartermaster’s office suited his methodical cynicism, a place where he could sit surrounded by counting-engines and ledgers and calmly work out how long it would take for the fortress to starve to death if the Meravians cut the railway line. But then again both of them had come from families who had to work for their station. Elizabeth and Cyan had come with precisely no proficiency in anything that would keep a border-post running, and so been instructed to find some.
Elizabeth was unsure if Jackson’s assignation of her to the artillery was some kind of insult she was too oblivious to understand, or simply part of his struggle to find something for cadets to do. It was an exacting responsibility, a job of cold numbers and long periods of observation under the constant scrutiny of others. During the storm’s approach this meant her role was calling in updates on the windspeed and cloud coverage to the meteorologists from a garret in the radio-tower. She would have to speak again in thirteen minutes. Reports had to be delivered every thirty, or every fifteen if any of the values she recorded exceeded a certain number.
She had to speak then as her eye was drawn to a dot on the blurry sky. Bringing field-glasses up she looked again at it and it turned into a four-seater aeroplane, flying Prenzeran colours.
“Watch commander, this is the storm observer. Are there any flights scheduled to or from Armir today?”
“Not with this weather incoming. Try to hail them, and put up a flare. Have them bring the plane down somewhere safe and we will handle the recovery.”
The pilot seemed grateful for a voice at the end of the line, and gave his position for recovery. A truck was prepared, and a small delegation – led by Cyan, whose demands for action and adventure had seen him given a role in reconnaissance – set out. Elizabeth had been about to join her fellow cadet on this trip, assuming it to be some test they would need to attend to like the stopped train, when the sight of the weather-forecast brought her back to earth. This was not a neatly-organised away-trip of carefully-chosen problems to address any more. The instructors of the Academy were not waiting in the wings to make sure the bullets were blanks and every interaction could be graded on a scale. The examination here was can you, the ones who have never worked and are studying to never have to work, do what you order others to do? Elizabeth Viognier was to provide half-hourly reports on the weather front approaching Novis Eger. Cyan Alsard was to lead a team to recover the downed plane.
She nursed her aching wrist, which was beginning to grind from the constant writing of tables, and returned to her duties.
Some time between her second and third report since Cyan left, the truck returned. The aeroplane could not be recovered easily and so had been moved into a cave to be picked up later. Its passengers were to sit the storm out in the fortress then take a train to Armir.
Duly relieved after her alloted hours, Elizabeth hurried down to find food and turned one of the dusty stone corners of the thick-walled corridors to see someone intensely unwelcome talking to Jackson.
Noble families tended to know each other. Either someone would marry someone, or there would be some kind of alliance made in business, or through brotherhood of arms. Two families would align against a third. The victim would need to find an ally who either did not know or did not care about the reason for the disagreement.
The Viogniers had largely avoided being in this situation, for years – almost a whole generation – remaining detached from the unpleasantness of politicking. Viognier children had gone to the Imperial Academy, received uninteresting commissions and married uninteresting spouses that would nevertheless in some way expand the grasp of the Viogniers. Last year this had attracted the attention of the Clausels, a military family through-and-through.
Elizabeth hardly needed to hear the whole conversation to realise that the smiling face of Isla Clausel completing her sentence with “…I look forward to meeting the Academy cadets who need special education…” was going to lead to a very unpleasant reunion.
“We were so close to it being Auntie Isla, weren’t we?” Clausel did not even extend a hand for Elizabeth to shake. “No matter.”
“Your families are acquainted?” Jackson contined to survey the world in his tense fashion, eyes leering from beneath his cap.
“We are.” Elizabeth took the initiative here. “And while in the past we have had disagreements on a personal level I, as a soldier of the Empire, will follow the orders of General Clausel should it be necessary, without letting my prejudices cloud my judgement. As any good soldier should.”
Clausel lost her smile for a moment. “Dear child, I am sure that was much cleverer in your head than it sounded.”
“She is rather good at that sort of thing.” Jackson fished in his coat for tobacco. “Pass the message on, Viognier. I have been called away on business. That is why the general was visiting. She will be serving as interim commander of Novis Eger while I am gone.”
The message was passed on, and as the process of preparing for the storm continued, there was the blissful illusion that nothing would change. It lasted until the evening’s meal, when Clausel announced a new assignment for Marie-Claude and Elizabeth.
“On board my plane was another. A prisoner, leader of a Meravian bandit group. Their government have had no luck in capturing her, and would rather like her back to make it look like they did. This storm, however, gives us a perfect opportunity to play the political game. The Meravian delegation will arrive as soon as it clears, I am sure. Until then question the prisoner, gather as much information about the nature of the bandits in this region as you can. The rest I leave to your discretion, unless you wish for a specially-trained surgeon to be in attendance.”
The way in which Clausel spoke made this seem like just another controlled test, the “prisoner” an unfortunate classmate being taught the skills of resisting interrogation, an instructor hidden behind a one-way mirror to mark the candidate’s questioning technique. The implications of what she said, however, were reminders of another part of the protection of the Empire’s borders that Academy cadets tried not to think about.
Sunset over Novis Eger was usually beautiful, the gradual diminution of the sun over the Highlands a time to relax and enjoy the fading of the mountains into a darkening horizon. Tonight, the view outside – were anyone foolish enough to open the shutters over the windows – would have just been abject, choking darkness.